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Spec Ops: The Line review

Great

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.


Everything is teetering on the edge of everything

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.”


We didn't have a choice

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. 


Hiding behind a crumbling sand castle

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.


The horror... the horror

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.

More Info

Release date: Jun 26 2012 - Xbox 360, PC, PS3 (US)
Available Platforms: Xbox 360, PC, PS3
Genre: Action
Published by: 2K Games
Developed by: Yager
ESRB Rating:
Mature: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language

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32 comments

  • PowZee - August 17, 2012 8:04 a.m.

    Oh well . . . "One man's poision is another man's . . ." I played through Spec Ops: The Line campaign 3 times and am currently on my 4th playthrough, on the XB360, and have to say it's one of the best SP military FPS campaigns (story, graphics, and playability) to come along in years. The controls are a vbit loose but you get the hang of them pretty fast. Multiplayer is even fun for awhile but not remarkable. If you like challenging FPS action story shooters you'll find heart pumping and pounding moments galore in this game!
  • addisondm - August 2, 2012 5:22 p.m.

    this is by far the worst review i have read in my entire life. I am 26 years old, my first game played was hangman. This game on the pc was absolute garbage. Trash. To call it anything else is stupid. I created an account to log in to this website for the express purpose of saying how stupid this review is.
  • slighter9 - June 27, 2012 11:11 p.m.

    Dudebro = surefire dialog guaranteed not obtain alcohol or women
  • robotdickens - June 26, 2012 3:56 p.m.

    What happened to the little recap score review at the end? Teal Deers everywhere.
  • GR HollanderCooper - June 26, 2012 4:58 p.m.

    It's on the top right!
  • IceBlueKirby - June 26, 2012 3:28 p.m.

    I can overlook subpar gameplay for a compelling narrative, so I'll certainly have to check this one out.
  • Tjwoods18 - June 26, 2012 2:45 p.m.

    You guys do not know a nice game when you see one. It is akin to the heart of darkness which even then is hard to understand by simply glancing at it. Like every work of fiction you have to depict its story which a majority of you all fail to do. Who cares if the controls are sloppy, it is the story that carries a game to success.
  • gilgamesh310 - June 26, 2012 3:29 p.m.

    That's nonsense. Gameplay comes first. It doesn't matter how good a story is. If the gameplay is shit the game is shit, or at leeast mediocre. They gave it a good bit of praise anyway so I don't know what you are complaining about.
  • RonnyLive19881 - June 26, 2012 6 p.m.

    I take it you hated Deadly Premonition... I hold that game as the best game not made by Nintendo Lmao
  • gilgamesh310 - June 26, 2012 6:35 p.m.

    I haven't played it, though I do make one exception to the rule - Killer 7. I don't care for many nintendo games.
  • Tjwoods18 - June 26, 2012 6:37 p.m.

    Deadly premonition had a good story but, yes, the gameplay was crap.
  • meg127 - June 26, 2012 2:18 p.m.

    Sounds cool. But how are we supposed to add this game to our list of games we want? I don't see the option. :O
  • gilgamesh310 - June 26, 2012 1:39 p.m.

    So GR changed their scoring system to a 1 to 5 scale. That's good. As for the game itself, it's good to hear that about the narrative. It's no surprise that the gameplay isn't that great though. I had similar thoughts abou the game when I played the game, so I think I'l trust them here.
  • avedon-arcade - June 26, 2012 1:19 p.m.

    Maybe I just didn't get enough time with the game to get a feel for it. But right off the bat playing it, like which was mentioned, it felt very floaty and nothing about it seemed awesome. Perhaps the story is enough to carry it further but from the bit that I played, I quickly lost interest.
  • Child Of Death - June 26, 2012 12:48 p.m.

    I played the demo and yeah the controls are a little messed up but not enough to ruin the game for me. I thought the gameplay was pretty fun actually. Im looking forward to getting this.
  • BishopofHippo93 - June 26, 2012 10:30 a.m.

    Can we take the rating system back to out of 10 instead of 5? Or are we doing half stars, too?
  • Jcrayon45 - June 26, 2012 10:58 a.m.

    Its Still Out Of 10. They Do Half Stars.
  • Edias - June 26, 2012 12:51 p.m.

    If you want to look at it like that, the old system was out of twenty. Anyway; I like the changes that I've seen thus far. They have made the website a lot more accessible.
  • bebl09 - June 26, 2012 5:37 p.m.

    No, the old system wasn't out of 20. They didn't give out half points, it was only 1, 2, 3, etc, so it was only a 10 point scale. The new system is also a 10 point scale, as it's a score out of 5 but they give half points.
  • gazzc - June 26, 2012 10:25 a.m.

    Played the demo of this on Steam and was not overly impressed, the graphics were looking dated, it had a low FoV (which may possibly be adjustable somehow) and the first bit of combat starts out as a generic on rails shoot a minigun from the side of a helicopter before progressing to the usual hide behind a wall and shoot men. However the speech did seem pretty realistic so maybe the story will make up for the down sides.

Showing 1-20 of 32 comments

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