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
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
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
This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360.