There’s nothing wrong with violence in video games. It is, after all, pretend. You’re not killing someone; you’re firing if/then statements out of texture-wrapped polygons into skeletal meshes until the in-game physics kick in. There’s no reason to feel bad or reflect; it’s all a puppet show. Or, at least that’s what we’ve been telling ourselves since we squashed our first goomba, and, with very few exceptions, game designers have been more than happy to reinforce this idea.
Spec Ops: The Line, though, wants you to think about what you’ve done. It wants you to feel... something. Anything. It wants to make you realize that being jaded by video game violence means you’re a terrible, terrible monster.
Check out our video review for a closer look at Spec Ops: The Line
It wraps this message in a story of duty. Nolan North-voiced protagonist Captain Martin Walker arrives in a sandstorm-ravaged Dubai to rescue U.S. Army Colonel John Konrad, a war hero sent in with a battalion of soldiers to aid in the evacuation of the sand-swallowed city. But Dubai is far from dead – Walker’s three-man Delta squad is in over its head within minutes of arriving in the surprisingly war-torn country, with Konrad’s troops fighting the local population and CIA operatives running around and stirring up the pot for some reason. Things are bad, and they continue to get worse.
While a lesser game might turn this premise into an excuse for dudebro antics and fist-bump-tastic ass-grabbing, Spec Ops allows it to be what it is: horrible. Walker isn’t a hero, and there are no villains in Dubai; just a bunch of caged animals. There’s no right and no wrong, just duty, and that’s what drives Walker forward. It’s what he focuses on – it's his shield. It's what he hides behind when he's forced to make tough decisions with no clear-cut solutions and, usually, both choices lead to scrutiny from his squadmates.
These aren’t your typical video game morality choices, either. Morality in games usually means there’s a fork in the road, carefully presented to make the players feel as though they’ve some sort of power over the narrative – some semblance of control. Instead, Spec Ops’s choices serve to shape what shade of monster Walker will turn out to be in the eyes of the people forcing him to make the choices to begin with.
It's here that Spec Ops diverges from its Heart of Darkness inspiration. Where Joseph Conrad's novel (and the film Apocalypse Now) uses the narrator as a vessel to tell another man's story, Spec Ops is completely about its protagonist. As we played, committing horrendous war crimes, we identified with Walker more than we have empathized with the heroes of almost any other game. He wasn’t alone in the horrors – we were accomplices to his atrocities. We’d force him to make a rough choice, one that made us both feel genuinely upset, and then we’d wait for Walker’s validation. “I had no choice,” he’d reply, “Once we find Konrad it’ll all make sense.”
His desperate rationalizations might seem like a weak salve, but at least it gave him (and us) something to soothe the pain. After all, he doesn’t want to believe he’s becoming the villain – he wanted to be the hero, and we were right there with him. Spec Ops’s story isn’t perfect, but it's the rare shooter that actually attempted to make us feel something other than adrenaline, and we’ll be damned if we don’t respect it for that.
It is, however, still a typical cover shooter under the hood, augmented with a smattering of neat ideas and a few technical missteps. Spec Ops: The Line is obviously a game that was left in the oven for a few years too long, which might explain why the 2009-era Unreal Engine 3 visuals are baked in, along with the kind of texture pops that have all but been eradicated from modern gaming.
The controls are loose, too, and Yager’s attempts at tweaking the standard cover shooter don’t really work out. You’re able to tap one button to stick to cover, and another to leap over it, theoretically removing the need to smash into an obstacle before jumping over it.
Problem is, this only works about 80 percent of the time, with Walker bashing obstacles with the butt of his gun instead of leaping over them for the other 20 percent. He’ll also sometimes flat-out refuse to take cover on an object unless he’s at the absolute perfect angle, leaving him exposed long enough to take a trip back to the last checkpoint (which is often further than we’d have liked, due to poorly placed checkpoints).
These qualms are made up for with clever level design and surprisingly varied locations. Walker’s trip through a sand-covered Dubai has him traversing what is essentially a post-apocalyptic city, ravaged by the desert and enveloped by nature. Outdoor vistas are incredible in scope, and indoor locations are beautiful still-lifes of destruction.
There are some missed opportunities here, though, mainly surrounding the actual sand itself. While early reports stated that they would provide dynamic, interesting interactions, the sand is actually more akin to an explosive barrel than anything else. Walls or doors can sometimes be shot, causing trillions of grains of sand to pour in, but it’s never any more interesting than an explosive barrel would have been. Sandstorms are more interesting, but they're scripted, and not all that unique.
Check out the darker side of this military shooter
Issues with the game’s controls extend into the multiplayer, hamstringing any attempts to create a long-lasting competitive experience. It’s fully fleshed out – more so than we had expected – with multiple interesting game modes, customizable characters, and bountiful unlocks. But the perks don’t outweigh the fact that, as a shooter, Spec Ops isn’t really suited for competitive play. Sandstorms brewing up during matches are all good and well, but don’t make up for the loose controls. Unlocking new physical customizations is undoubtedly neat, but it doesn’t forgive the poor cover system. It’s not bad, by any means, but it feels absolutely unnecessary, and it's hardly worth getting excited bout.
You’re not going to walk away from Spec Ops with a smile. You’re not going to trade stories of valor with your friends. You’re going to feel bad about what you’ve done and have long, reflective conversations about the narrative. You’re going to talk about the choices you made, and instead of wondering what other outcomes there were, you’re going to ask why they did it. You're going to think about the people you've killed – not just in this game, but in other games in the past. Did you have a choice? Did you even check? Spec Ops: The Line has its issues, but they’re overshadowed by a brave, compelling narrative that treats the medium with respect, and calls you a son of a bitch for playing it.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360.