Spec Ops: The Line is a line in the sand.
Battlefield and Call of Duty have culminated to create a genre built entirely upon breathtaking action and blind patriotism that ignores the more serious concerns of warfare; never once is a player asked to take their finger off of the trigger and think about the implications of a bullet beyond its ability to pierce flesh in a moment’s notice. Instead, video games of this ilk are all too happy to turn mortals into heroes and human beings into villains. It is at this precise crossroads that Spec Ops: The Line draws a line.
One’s enjoyment of Spec Ops is contingent on their willingness to embrace its dark narrative. What begins as a mere rescue mission quickly devolves into one man’s battle with sanity, and this is a transition that doesn’t occur without a fair share of victims; every minute that you invest in the game’s campaign is a moment that it insists on filling with as many dead bodies and moral dilemmas as an episode of Breaking Bad. The goal of these scenes is as clear as the title’s sandstorms are cloudy: to paint a more accurate picture of modern warfare that accounts for the sadistic nature of those on both sides of the fence; in short, Spec Ops: The Line tells a story without good guys.
Captain Martin Walker and his partners on Delta Recon Team enter Dubai as noble men on a mission. It doesn’t take long for the desert to takes its toll on them as almost instantly they come to blows with soldiers once believed to be on their side. No matter the escalating body count and deteriorating conditions, Walker presses forward in the name of rescuing Colonel John Konrad and any other survivors hanging onto life in the urban ruins that the once-great city has become. This is the first of many decisions that the captain makes leading to the erosion of his humanity.
The game’s plot might seem familiar to those with an inclination for the written word as it is made in homage to Joseph Conrad’s famous book, The Heart of Darkness, and, most of all, the movie it inspired, Apocalypse Now. To further drive the point home, Yager, the developer behind Spec Ops: The Line, has included at various points in the campaign music from the 1960’s meant to evoke a feeling similar to those felt while taking in the harrowing reality of Conrad’s masterful narrative. Though the inclusions of these various pieces could be regarded as trivial by some, they do, in cooperation with the more intense moments of the story, help to create something that feels familiar to fans of other mediums but fresh to those that tend to reside within the world of video games.
It’s clear that Spec Ops: The Line is ambitious in its storytelling, but whether or not it is actually good is a question well worth posing. Though it is at times very well written, there are an inordinate amount of times in which the game feels overwritten. Like a bad comedian nudging his audience for laughter after every punch line, it often feels the need to make strong points and then embellish them to the point of being preachy. This is especially unfortunate considering the resonance of the title’s visual hooks; walking through a proverbial sea of bodies is a powerful enough image that it doesn’t need to be bolstered by Adams or Lugo, Walker’s brothers in arms, pontificating on the dire nature of their scenario. Because of this, I found myself wishing for the dialog in the script to be dialed back to the point of negligence so that the game and its grim setting could speak for itself.
In spite of its flaws, Spec Ops: The Line does pack a commendable, narrative punch. Of the many games I’ve played that have taken place on a modern battlefield, it is easily the most interesting and best written. By no means does it crack the glass ceiling of storytelling in the interactive medium, but it does make a remarkable dent that I wouldn’t mind seeing furthered in the years to come.
At the end of the day, Spec Ops is still a video game, and, at some point, it must be played. While its story attempts to break the mold, its mechanics seem content to conform to the status quo of the industry; as a third-person shooter, it follows the most basic protocol of the genre: shoot, duck, and cover. Nothing more is made of these basic principles outside of the occasional sandstorm – a neat side effect of the setting that comes into play only three times throughout the campaign – though, in some cases, something less is made of them. Shooting works fine, but, when push comes to shove, the title’s cover system cannot be counted on for much more than getting the player into hairy situations with little hope of reprieve. Most of the problems can be attributed to a poor job of mapping the controls; more often than not, one button accounts for two or more tasks that are equally important. For instance, the sprint button is also used to take cover, a combination that complicates matters as the intensity of battle grows and players must move from wall to wall in a way that most effectively keeps them out of harm’s way. Though none of these issues break the experience, they do, along with many other factors, contribute to a sense that not much time was spent by Yager polishing the final product.
Perhaps the biggest perpetrator of the game’s lack of polish takes place in its visual department. For the most part, the title’s many settings look fantastic; the same can not be said for its character models. It may sound like a nitpick of a problem, but the facial models in Spec Ops: The Line are so bad, in fact, that Freddy Krueger might blend in as an ordinary citizen. In the year 2012, I shouldn’t play a video game and be affronted by talking heads that barely look as if they escaped the previous generation of hardware. Other assaults on the retina include particle effects that alternate between being block and being cartoonish and a draw distance so small that enemies in the distance are made to look like units in 3D0’s ill-fated Army Men series. It’s not a pretty picture, and that’s a shame when you consider the wonderful scope presented by the Dubai skyline.
Spec Ops: The Line is a line in the sand drawn at the very moment the player boots the game up. This isn’t a heroic ballad like Battlefield or Call of Duty; this is a tragedy told in six hours that will have players questioning both the morality of war and the games that depict it in such a glorified manner. Though its distance from the juggernauts of the industry is what sets it apart, Spec Ops would have done well to take more than a few cues from its peers; no matter the depth of the narrative, consumers will flock to the games with the most polished, intuitive interface and multiplayer, a feature that is all but ignored in the product, that allows them to enjoy their free time instead of suffer through it.
One can only imagine the impact Spec Ops: The Line would have were it to be as strong in its mechanics as it is in its storytelling.