Available on: Xbox 360, PS3 & PC
Version reviewed: Xbox 360
You know, it kinda sucks when great games get largely ignored by the masses. Even more so when the game, outwardly at least, appears to fit directly into the sort of generic cookie cutter design that a lot of the best sellers do, such as, the generally boring as all hell Call Of Duty series. Spec Ops: The Line appears at first glance to be a by the numbers cover based military shooter, the likes of which are everywhere these days. It even spends the first couple of hours convincing you that this is exactly what it is. And then stuff happens. Dark miserable and nasty stuff that sticks with you. The game starts to turn into one of the most memorable and intelligently crafted pieces of drama every produced in the realm of videogames. How does developer Yager manage this? I’ll probably tell you after the jump. That’s if I can do it without spoiling anything.
Spec Ops: The Line is, as mentioned, a cover based shooter. This is handled with a basic squad system that allows for suppression and simple targeting commands. Thankfully the A.I. Squad mates are of the not idiot variety that actually take care of themselves well and can even prove useful in battle. The game’s one gameplay gimmick is its use of sand. Sometimes you’ll be able to shoot a air vent to make sand drop onto your enemies, temporarily blinding them. Grenades exploding on sand will throw up a vision obscuring cloud. At it’s most dramatic shattering windows will cause sand dunes to flow into the building taking your foes with it. The reason for all this sand is the games setting, a sandstorm covered Dubai in the near future.
Before the game truly begins you are told of this huge sandstorm and the events that have lead to your character, Captain Martin Walker (Nolan North, of course), and his 2 Delta Squad buddies being sent in. A famous army General named John Konrad (you’ll see what they did there in a bit) had stayed behind in Dubai to help with the evacuation. All radio contact had been lost because of interference caused by the sand clouds. Two weeks before the game starts a message had managed to get out from Konrad that had declared the evacuation a failure. You and your squad have been sent in to carry out reconnaissance on the situation. Pay attention to the fact you were sent in for just a reconnaissance mission. This is important in understanding what makes Walker tick. It’s what makes Walker tick that becomes the central reasoning behind where the story goes.
Before watching the video here please do play the entire game. this video contains masses of spoilers but it also dissects and explains just how good this game’s narrative is.
Spec Ops is loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (You see what they did now right?), which has itself been adapted into multiple mediums over the years – most obviously with Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. The story does draw a fair few parallels that are hard to ignore. Both question what war makes of a man. Both question the morality of war and the sanity of those involved. They both involve a hero figure that has apparently gone insane and is now commanding his own team of rebellious soldiers behind enemy lines. Don’t expect Spec Ops to be a straight retread though. Admittedly it’s been a long time since I watched Apocalypse Now so I’m gonna avoid drawing too many more parallels before I go and accidentally mess one up. Suffice to say Spec Ops: The Line goes its own way and has enough dramatic moments, especially after one pivotal and horrific scene, to enable it stand out on it’s own.
But what about the games first half? This is something I’ve been debating with myself a fair bit prior to this review. On the one hand it’s near painfully generic. Walker reveres this General Konrad, he gives a generic speech about war and duty as the game starts, talks a lot of military lingo and interacts with his fellow squad members. You fight a few guys that appear to be insurgents. You begin to fight a few other US Military officers with Walker coming to the conclusion that they must be rebelling somehow. He justifies killing them as self defence. The trouble with these opening scenes is that everything is very by the numbers. You head from one location filled with waist high walls to another. The game plays smooth as you’d want it to. In fact it’s really quite polished. But this feels very, very familiar. And then THAT scene happens.
This following, very long, paragraph will contain story SPOILERS so skip if you wish to avoid them. I suggest you do because, honestly, this game is best experienced with as little knowledge of what is to come as possible.
About a third of the way into the game Walker and his squad have just had a tough situation occur where they had to decide if they should save a CIA agent that could help them locate Konrad or rescue some civilians held prisoner by the rebelling US soldiers. Your squad mates present you with a choice to make here so regardless of which you choose someone will suffer and your team will lose a little trust in you. What comes next though is harsh. You’re presented with a massive military encampment where the rebel troops are amassed. You appear to be presented with a choice. Either fight your way through the entire 33rd brigade that you’ve been fighting with their tanks and pin point accurate snipers, or use a mortar cannon armed with phosphorous shells and mutilate and burn them all to death. Your goal is clear, you have to get through this encampment to stop the 33rd from killing any more innocents. You can try shooting them down but it will not work. Eventually you will have to use the phosphorous. When you do you are presented with a black and white infra red screen much like a similar sequence in Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. As you drop the phosphorous you can see Walker’s face reflected in the screen. He gives his command to fire coldly and without emotion. This remote form of warfare that is easily one of the most horrific to be used boils down to just being a simple case of aiming and pressing a button. And then you get to the small bridge at the end. There’s two APC’s on there and about 40 white indistinct blobs on the screen nearby them. Why would there be that many people in one place? You can’t back out and you fire your last shot. This scene is the turning point for the game. This scene is horrific and makes you as a gamer likely not feel too good about yourself. When you see all those people amassed together you’ll likely know who they are. When you get down there yourself, walking past many still alive and burning soldiers whispering “why?”, then you’ll see the true horror. Walker is confronted with this up front and he makes a decision… to blame the 33rd and to set about wiping them all out. What follows are scenes involving trials, hallucinations and a man gradually becoming more drawn into the idea of killing anyone that stands in his way all whist trying to be the hero. An exchange of dialogue in the game goes “There’s always a choice!”, “No, there really isn’t.”. This is the game telling you that soldiers have to do tough things sometimes, that it will damage them and at the same time it tells you that you are following their story. There’s many moments where you do have a choice, you did right before this scene, but you didn’t here, because you have to do what Walker thinks is right. As a gamer the illusion of choice is presented to you all the time when really the only choice is if you keep on playing. Remember what their mission was when they came to Dubai?
Long paragraph is long. The rest of the game’s story is one of the most satisfying and memorable experiences I’ve had with games this year. Keep in mind that this year I played the excellent Catherine and the last game I reviewed was The Walking Dead which is my game of the year. Spec Ops: The Line comes very close to pipping The Walking Dead to the post for me but it has a few issues. That opening sequence is a danger to enjoyment of the game. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just familiar to an incredible degree. But is it familiar for a reason? Well yes it is. You learn a little about Walker’s psychological state before getting to Dubai towards the end of the game. When you do you’ll realise why the game’s first few sections were the way they were. Mechanically it’s sound, although I would have liked the ability to move around the corner of whatever I was using as cover at the time. Graphically it’s not spectacular but its gets the job done. There’s a multiplayer mode but it’s an abortion of a mode that’s not worth even entertaining the idea of playing.
The game is dripping with great presentation though. The title screen features an upside-down United States flag on the side of a building overlooking the sand dune covered Dubai. Gradually elements of that image change when you return to the menu. When the game is first started the titles vanish and the camera swoops straight into the games opening helicopter gun battle. One small but nice touch is the title credits placing your Gamertag under the credit of Special Guest. Occasionally you’ll enter a gun battle set to the soundtrack of artists such as Deep Purple, Jimi Hendrix, Alice In Chains, mirroring the sort of music that can get associated with Vietnam war films. There’s even some well placed Mogwai and Bjork in there. Spec Ops feels like a lot of thought and care went into ensuring it was a memorable and polished experience and developers Yager have succeeded at this goal.
Overall, if you can accept that the opening stages are generic for a reason you’ll come to find yourself playing one of the most well crafted pieces of storytelling in gaming. It’s intelligent, powerful and dramatic to a level that can rival any other mediums such as TV and film. The game provides multiple endings, one of which can be attained by literally deciding not to play any more, each of which allow you to make your own choices to determine how Walker’s story really ends. But really, he ended it all for you when he gave you no choice and you chose to carry on. That moment may be what ultimately makes you decide his fate. Spec Ops: The Line is a game that deserves to be played. Hopefully it’s burgeoning cult status will continue to grow and next time Yager are asked to make a multiplayer mode for their story driven single player experience the publishers will listen when they say “no”.