I had issues with Spec Ops: The Line, so many in fact that it would be perfect for me to tear down in my signature hyperbolic, pessimistic, bordering on the narcissistic, writing style. That’s why I’m adding a disclaimer here: no matter what follows from this point on, no matter how much I write about what the game does wrong, I had a pretty damn good time playing it, and think that the demo available on the PSN and XBL store is definitely worth a download.
Got that? Let’s begin.
Spec Ops: The Line gets off to an incredibly shaky start that proved to me that it’s really hard to make a modern shooter that isn’t inherently racist. An American military battalion, led by Colonel John Conrad, is stuck in Dubai after trying to evacuate its citizens during a particularly horrific sandstorm. For the life of me I can’t figure out why you would evacuate people
Let’s get one thing straight: If Sydney went through a natural disaster and an ‘assisting’ foreign military force arrived and referred to me as an insurgent (due to the fact I was wearing thongs), I would be thoroughly pissed off.
With the ‘insurgents’ out of the way, Captain Racist and his team head into the city, shooting ‘insurgents’ all the while. SO:TL plays like a bad Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. While you can mark up enemies for your team-mates to either snipe or lay down suppressive fire, not doing so doesn’t seem to have any particular consequences. Getting into cover is never consistent, and while it’s not terrible, it doesn’t feel anywhere near as smooth or as intuitive as GR:FS or Gears of War. In the tradition of many third-person shooters, like the recently released (and soon to be reviewed) Max Payne, Uncharted, and so on, SO:TL doesn’t have the imagination to add any difficulties in progressing besides simply shooting all the guys that get in your way.
However, all this is forgivable once you reach the city. Laid completely to waste, the city is crawling with American operatives whose motives are as unclear as they are chaotic. Between them trying to kill you and you trying to figure out what’s going on, there’s an overwhelming sense of urgency and confusion that’s impossible to shake. While one of the strongest selling points of the game is supposed to be ‘sand’ (seriously, sand), I found its inclusion of ‘shoot the glass to have sand bury the enemies’ underwhelming, especially when compared to the strong narrative structure and choice system in play. Spec Ops may only have one conclusion, but there are little deviations to the main story that can reveal and illuminate completely different viewpoints and outcomes, while still inevitably returning comfortably to the stories core. At one point, I couldn’t decide whether to take out an officer that was torturing someone for information, or let him live so that I could question him later. Completely unable to make a decision, I took no action, and the game just steam-rolled on. This is the only good use of decision in gameplay I’ve seen to date; no screwing around with ‘wrong’ or ‘right’, and no ‘refusing to continue’ immersion bursting. The game goes on because it is happening.
I don’t want to spoil what happens in the game for anyone, but what I can say is this: you will make some choices that will make you sick, and you will come to fear humanity at its core. The themes of the game transcends both the shallowness of the characters you play as and the subpar combat, and make you think of war, in both games and reality, in a whole new light.