In the video game medium, shooters tend to be the equivalent of summer blockbusters. Their plots rarely make you think, the characters are serviceable and sometimes good but never come close to BioWare level of fleshed out, their usually tends to be more emphasis on multiplayer then single player, they revel in how many explosions they can make and how high they can make their body counts and they almost always end up as best sellers. However, Spec Ops: The Line promised something different. Part of a franchise that went defunct back in the early 2000s, Spec Ops: The Line was announced back in 2009 and was developed under the new game development company, Yager Development. And when I played the demo a while back, I decided that I needed to play the full game. And seeing as how everyone else is either distracted with Dawnguard, Lego Batman 2, or the Mass Effect 3 Extended Cut, I decided to give this game some attention, considering no one else is. So does Spec Ops: The Line prove that shooters can have great stories as well as intense gameplay, or is it just cheap cash in on the genera with a lot of false advertising? Read on to find out.
The game takes place in U.A.E. city of Dubai six months after a series of massive sand storms hit the city and effectively cut it off from the rest of the world. Before the city went dark however a colonel by the name of John Konrad volunteered his regiment, the 33rd, to help evacuate the city. Unfortunately things didn’t go as planned and the regiment effectively deserted the army after Konrad refused an order to abandon the city. The last anyone had heard from the 33rd, Konrad was about to attempt to lead a caravan of people out of the city. Two weeks before the game starts a message comes out of the city, telling of the failure of the caravan and the deaths of many. The army decides to covertly send a Delta Force team to investigate. What they find, much to their surprise is civil war in the city between the 33rd, led by Konrad, and armed civilians, armed and led by various CIA agents and the recon team is forced to fight for their lives and find out just what the hell happened within the city and get the survivors out.
And I have to say that when they promoted this game for its Heart of Darkness type story, they were not falsely advertising. This is probably the only shooter out there that I can honestly say has a really intelligent plot, full of twist that I didn’t see coming, digging into intense themes with heavy visuals to compliment it, taking a lot of inspiration from Apocalypse Now! without directly ripping off it. While the plots of games like Modern Warfare, Black Ops, Halo, and Gears aren’t horrible by any means, they aren’t exactly what I would call thought provoking. This is a game that really digs into themes that no other developer that I know of has ever addressed and contains really dark plot elements to compliment it, and to be honest I’m honestly surprised that the game hasn’t gained more controversy over it. And believe me, when I say these elements and themes are dark they are DARK, often digging into what is acceptable for the military to do and what is not. Whereas other games would probably draw a distinct line on this and tell the gamer what is right and wrong matter Spec Ops does not, often putting you into “us or them” type situations and/or revenge dilemmas and leaves the gamer to choose what he or she thinks is ultimately right or wrong without being preachy about it. A prime example of this is the question over who the real villains are. You have the military, which are apparently a bunch of tyrants, the CIA led civilians who are constantly being intentionally led to horrible deaths by their leaders and then there is your group who constantly seem to make situations worse for both sides as the game goes on.
There are, however, two major issues I have with the plot and I can’t help but turn my head at these things in confusion. The first thing is that I’m not really sure about the whole “city being destroyed by sand storms” thing. Now I openly admit that I don’t know how sand storms work but I just find it a little hard to believe that sand storms can constantly hit a city like that for months on end, effectively cutting it off from the rest of the world and making it all but uninhabitable. The other, and the bigger one for me, is the ending. I don’t want to spoil too much for you but it’s one of those weird, narrative shattering endings and, quite frankly, I didn’t think the ending needed it and it just raised so many questions and confuse the hell out me.
But all around the storyline of this game was fantastic. The situations, the themes, the atmosphere, and the way everything was built up was just incredible. To put it simply, more videogames need to follow this game’s example in how to tell a story. If for no other reason than this, the game is worth checking out for its story because it is incredible.
Like the plot, the characters are fantastic and complement the plot perfectly. For starters you have the three main characters, Captain Walker, Lieutenant Adams, and Sergeant Lugo who are all incredibly compelling characters and have their own arcs. Adams and Lugo both have their own sense of right and wrong and as the game goes on serve as kinds of moral compasses for Walker but the game is smart enough never to make either one of them right or wrong in any given situation, adding to the moral ambiguity that made the plot so good. As the game goes on we see how the situation in Dubai affects them both physically and mentally we legitimately care for what happens to them and even question whether or not we actually want them to succeed given the way they’ve developed and how they’ve affected the city.
While I do question the voice casting decision for Konrad, the writing for the character was top notch and adds yet another dark element to an already dark and demented game. While he is similar to Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now! in physical appearance and the things he addresses, he is different enough to where he is his own character and not a direct rip off. The same thing can be said for the about The Radioman; a voice who constantly gives the 33rd news about what the protagonists are doing much to their inconvenience. While he is obviously inspired by the photojournalist from Apocalypse Now!, (listen to his voice and tell me he doesn’t sound like Dennis Hopper), their again is enough differences in their dialog and role to ensure that he is his own character.
While they don’t offer nearly as much to the game as other characters, the various CIA agents leading the civilians against Konrad add even more uncertainty to the game. While they are the closest thing you have to allies in this city, their actual motives remain a mystery and when revealed you find yourself disgusted by the fact that you worked with them.
One thing that I found really interesting was how the tone of their voices changed throughout the course of the game. Now I’m not just talking about the way they do in cut scenes but the way they do in gameplay combat situations. When the game starts, they talk in tones that are similar to the way the characters always talk in games like Mass Effect or Gears of War. By the time the game reaches its final act the tone of their voices completely shifts. Walker’s voice becomes hoarse and there is a lot more rage to it and he is clearly more passionate about killing his enemies and has an almost obsessed hatred of them. The tone of your two teammates also shifts, going from taking your combat orders without question to grudgingly doing what you say, with clear resentment and distain in their voices. It’s something that’s really interesting to see and I honestly don’t think there is another game out there that actually does this and I hope to see more games that do this.
Graphics wise, the game is slightly above average and its visuals match the game’s tone perfectly. You actually see physical damage, dirt, dried blood and sand on the characters over the character over the course of the game, (you would be surprised at the number of games that don’t do this. Looking at you, Gears 3!). Oh and the music in this game is frikkin awesome. It’s really weird, but music from the Vietnam War era always compliments these kinds of stories perfectly and almost makes the game feel like a throwback to the 1970s anti-war films like The Deer Hunter or Apocalypse Now!
But despite all the good things that I have to say about the plot and characters, where this game really dropped the ball was in the gameplay aspect and it really drags the game down. Combat mechanics are that of a basic 3rd Person Shooter and don’t really bring in anything new to the table short of burying your enemies under tons of sand, (which can be satisfying). However, the actual combat often comes off as stiff and clunky and the control layout doesn’t really help with action buttons placed in areas that often seem to contradict those of other third person shooters. The enemy AI is a little on the slow side often slow to react to your presence and often run out into open areas without cover and can make some battles a massacre.
The multiplayer fails on nearly every front, with very generic leveling systems and multiplayer types that we’ve seen a dozen times before and fails utterly to bring anything new to the table. While the maps in this game are big, this ends up becoming an annoyance given the fact that there only 8 people are allowed per match and you’ll find yourself spending way too much time looking for people to kill rather than actually fighting. Add to this is the fact that the gameplay mechanics seem even stiffer and clunkyer in multiplayer and you get something that just fails to impress in anyway.
So, did Spec Ops: The Line deliver on all of its promises? Well, in the story and character department, yes. It does for videogames what Apocalypse Now! did for films and what The Heart of Darkness did for books in the plot, themes and character department and that’s where the strength of this game lies; in the sheer darkness of all the things it shows. Unfortunately the gameplay really drags the experience down and in this regard, it feels like it was developed back in 2008 or something, (four years can be a lifetime for games), with mechanics that were innovative back then but are more than a little old now. I really wanted to like this game a lot more and give it a high rating and recommendation. At worst it’s a solid rental for a campaign playthrough and at best it’s worth the 50 bucks that it costs on STEAM but I would wait for the price to drop a little more before making any decisions on buying it. Ultimately, the story is worth playing through but the lack of innovation in gameplay just drags the whole thing down and that’s my final word on this game.