Game: Spec Ops: The Line
Available On: Xbox 360 (Review), PS3, PC
Genre: 3rd Person Shooter
I’m not the biggest shooter fan but the recommendations for this game were just being screamed too loud to avoid. I was told it had a great narrative, pushing you as the player to push on even though you might not want to. I purchased this game solely off of the story praise, I knew nothing about the gameplay, so much so in fact that I thought it was a first person shooter. Nope, when I plopped it in my Xbox I was surprised to find that it was a third person shooter. Luckily, I like third person shooters a lot more; there’s something I enjoy about looking at the shoulders and back of head of my character over a floating gun. Maybe it immerses me more somehow, maybe it suits my play style, maybe I enjoy spinning the camera around and looking at my character’s face when he’s hiding behind cover?
Whatever my absurd reasoning, it seems like a good time to jump into this review, huh? Note: I am not going to include spoilers in this review, I am going to try and be as specific as possible about plot points while also being vague enough to not spoil anything. This is a story that should be experienced, not read on a website, it wouldn’t nearly have the same effect if you found all the twists and turns through text. You can feel safe from spoilers reading on beyond the cut.
You play Captain Walker, sent in on a reconnaissance mission in a post apocalyptic Dubai. Mind you, only Dubai has gone post apocalyptic due to a sandstorm that raged through and destroyed the city. All that’s left is the remaining survivors of Dubai and the soldiers of the Damned 33rd, once tasked with evacuating the city and now gone completely rogue. They were led by Lieutenant Colonel John Konrad and Walker is convinced that he is being held captive and if your squad, Delta Team, can find and rescue him everything will be alright in Dubai. As the general nature of dramatic narrative and conflict goes: things won’t play out as cleanly as this.
The story of this game is fucking awesome. It’s basically a statement on the state of shooters and violent video games in general. It does so without actually stopping itself and revealing its true intentions, rather the game decides to put all of its themes, metaphors and criticisms into the story itself all while packing a punch that could floor even the most hardened personality. It’s a game that really makes you think twice about what you’re doing with video games and what you’re making your character do in said video game.
You know those scenes in the Call of Duty franchise? That moment that is supposed to be so super intense, gritty and realistic that it’s supposed to throw you out of your couch and through the ceiling? You know the ones, in Modern Warfare it was the soldier dying in the nuke explosion, in Modern Warfare 2 it was the whole No Russian mission, and in Modern Warfare 3 it was the little girl getting blown up by the bomb. Those were all chilling right? In retrospect, definitely not, as Spec Ops: The Line takes every opportunity it can to remind you that war is hell and that this isn’t a good thing to be celebrating. Worst of all they make you responsible for it, allowing you to either take the blame for yourself or try and blame somebody else. It’s actually a surprisingly large theme of the game too.
There is a big scene that everyone talks about, it’s dubbed the White Phosphorus scene and it is absolutely terrible. When I reached that point in the game my heart sank and everything was turned on its head. It was at this point that I realized that this wouldn’t be your average war game, this game was going to be something more that pushed the limits on story telling in video games. It’s enhanced greatly by the fact that you’re controlling and playing it, something that makes the story that much more successful. I’ve seen this in movies, but it was a lot different in this game. In video games, especially war games, you’re so used to being the hero, and in this game you’re found wanting to be a hero– desperately doing whatever you can to ensure that your mission gets completed.
The atmosphere of the ravaged Dubai is great, with some awesome set pieces scattered about. A few parts I really liked was making your way across the buildings looking down over ruins of the city below. Another was a shanty town built within hollowed out buildings to protect the survivors from the storm. The game does a great job of using its set in some unique ways with every area feeling different and, somehow, remarkable. The sand is a big object of the world as well, not so much from the occasional environmental interaction device, but more from the idea that a sandstorm can start up at any instant, and you’d be damn sure that it does. The moments when you’re fighting through a sandstorm against enemy forces is so incredibly cool and terrifying at the same time.
Also, oddly enough, the later half of this game almost plays like a psychological horror game at times. It makes sense too, the weight of the situation is heavily being pushed against Walker’s mental state and he starts losing it. This happens a few times and it causes both you, as the player, and Walker himself to stop and go ‘what’. There are two moments in particular with a heavily armoured soldier that are both shocking and dripping with suitable atmosphere. It’s also great because it steps out of the game itself and invades your loading screens. It starts simple with changing the hints at the bottom to words of encouragement/insults from Walker’s own head, it soon gets more intense with loading screens being replaced with ghostly figures standing over you as you phase back to Walker, who shakes off his own death in confusion.
Off putting is a good way to put it…
This is probably the area that Spec Ops: The Line is weakest in. Normally I would violently condemn that, but when a game has an amazing story or amazing gameplay it makes up for a weaker other half. Gaming should logically balance both its story and gameplay at a wonderful middle ground, unfortunately that is not usually the case.
Spec Ops has a simple combat system, with emphasis on finding cover and tactic commands to your squad. The squad commands are quite limited, with the only one I can recall at the top of my head being ‘shoot that guy’. Oh! There’s also one that causes them to throw a flashbang out to blind enemies. None of these are really advanced ‘tactical commands’ but they are rather functions of convenience or opportunity, leading me to often forget about my right bumper completely.
The cover system is clean and functional and I can admit it is fun to make my way further up towards the enemy lines while weaving in and out of cover. At the same I can also admit that the whole things feel very bland and that all of the weapons feel the same. Basically it works as it should and I had no issues with the controls or the cover system, but it wasn’t anything to freak out over. It was merely a device used to further the story, meaning the story was the reason I kept playing, not as much the gameplay side of things.
There is a cool aspect of it that deserves mentioning: ammo. In these games you’re use to your character being a walking tank with loads and loads of ammunition. In this game ammo is scarce as all hell and you better make all of your shots count. After battles expect to find yourself looking through the bodies of fallen enemies to just find a little bit of ammo to let you keep going. You’ll be switching guns often just to find a full clip and it’s pretty much reason to party when you find a full ammunition box. This really helps work and further the hopeless atmosphere of the game.
There is a moral choice system in this game at times. It is handled masterfully in every occasion and doesn’t ruin any of the immersion with a pop up choice that says ‘press A to take the good choice and B to take the bad choice’. The choices happen in game, during combat or the story telling and you have all of the control. What matters even more that makes it effective is that this isn’t a moral choice system that effects a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ ending. In war there really is no such thing as a ‘good’ ending, soldiers are left broken by what happened out there and Spec Ops: The Line so mercilessly reminds you of that. This isn’t a moral choice system for results, this is a moral choice system for the gamer.
There is one moment in specific that seems like a good choice at the time. You’ll be angry, upset and you’ll want to take vengeance on a bunch of people that are standing right in front of you, completely unarmed. You can do it, the game will let you (and doesn’t make a big deal about it like the CoD franchise would, what with multiple warnings how this is ‘risky content’) and if you do decide to follow through with your revenge I’m quite certain you’d feel bad about it afterwards. That’s what makes this game so fulfilling, that it kicks you in the nuts for doing the things you normally wouldn’t feel bad about in video games. Before one could maliciously kill citizens in a Grand Theft Auto game but Spec Ops: The Line finally puts a hand on your shoulder and goes: “hey, maybe do you want to talk about this for a little bit?”
TLDR: An amazing story, worth recommending for that alone. The combat isn’t terrible, but it isn’t anything exciting either. This, of course, doesn’t hurt the game at all, Spec Ops: The Line gets one of my highest recommendations in recent memory and is easily one of my favorite games released in 2012.
Spec Ops: The Line: 8/10