Spec Ops: The Line for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC
Spec Ops: The Line looks like exactly the kind of game I usually pass over. I mean, the box art contains a scowling white dude holding a gun in a desert; surely that tells you all you need to know? There’s something truly sick at the core of the modern military shooter, a genre perfectly happy to scapegoat entire races into cannon fodder and treat the modern military actions of the West as boldly heroic with no consideration for wider ramifications. Spec Ops: The Line looks, on the surface, like part of the problem. This is not the case. Spec Ops: The Line is in fact an incredibly compelling critique of the modern military shooter genre, one which undermines everything from the narrative to the central gameplay mechanics of the Call of Duty/Medal of Honor archetype to create an experience which is, in every facet of its construction, subversive.
The plot of Spec Ops: The Line is heavily influenced by Apocalypse Now, as well as that film’s literary basis, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Spec Ops: The Line picks up six months after devastating sand storms had ravaged Dubai. The wealthy elite of Dubai fled, leaving the less affluent behind to die, with the international community showing little interest in helping. Whilst returning for Afghanistan, the decorated American Commander John Konrad (subtle right?) volunteers himself and his entire 33rd battalion to assist in the relief efforts. When ordered to abandon the civilians of Dubai, the entire 33rd deserted and were disavowed by the US. Soon after, all radio broadcasts were cut off, so six months later a small squad of three Delta Force operatives, led by Captain Martin Walker, are sent into Dubai to find out what happened. Walker and his squad make their way into Dubai, finding it in a state of martial law under the control of the 33rd, with brutal justice being handed out upon the Arab residents of the city at the hands of their new American overlords.
The sand covered Dubai is an interesting setting, superficially similar to the generic Middle Eastern settings that we’ve come to expect from the ‘Modern Warfare’ genre, yet, as with most elements of this game, is in fact a satire of these locations. The Dubai of Spec Ops: The Line doesn’t really hold together as a coherent location at all, with a ridiculous amount of time spent descending from the buildings, with very little spent ascending, heightening the sense of disconnected unreality to the whole thing. Dubai really doesn’t seem like a real place, becoming instead a series of linear shooting galleries, and given the context of the rest of the game this seems like this was entirely the point. Dubai therefore becomes a symbol for the increasingly fractured mind of Captain Walker, whilst also satirising the propensity of the ‘Modern Warfare’ genre for reducing real locations to simple shooting galleries.
Spec Ops: The Line is a game which highlights the fundamental difference between narrative and story. There are many games out there with more entertaining stories to be told, but the story and the gameplay are often kept somewhat separated, and it’s a rare game which allows the fundamental mechanics of the experience to shape (and be shaped) by the narrative. Probably the most famous example of this was BioShock’s incredible ‘would you kindly’ moment, but there are plenty of other games which engage with this concept to a greater or lesser degree. If this game is watched by another, or was told in another medium, it simply would not have the same impact. This is the reason the planned BioShock film was such a bad idea; some games have narratives which only work in the medium of games, and Spec Ops: The Line is one of them. The growing disconnection between the player and Captain Walker becomes increasingly pronounced throughout, as Walker steadily transforms from the capable and competent soldier in the opening hours into a terrifying monster of a man, a monster that we nonetheless have had control of for almost the entire experience. We feel that we’ve lost control of Captain Walker; this issue of ‘control’, and the relationship between player and protagonist is a fascinating one, explored to great effect in BioShock, but even better here. So, is the story of Spec Ops: The Line remarkable? Not particularly. Nonetheless, Spec Ops: The Line potentially has one of the most compelling narratives that I’ve ever played.
During the course of Spec Ops: The Line the player will fight through 15 linear chapters of gunplay , with the odd set piece moment disrupting the flow, but not nearly as many as in other modern shooters. There’s some reward for taking your time through ‘intel packages’ spread throughout the levels, which shed more light on the story, but by and large you’ll be moving relentlessly in one direction the entire time. So, what is the actual gameplay of Spec Ops: The Line like? Well, it’s a third person shooter, and…that’s pretty much it. The combat isn’t bad, but it never feels as tight or controlled as rivals such as Gears of War. The gunplay feels oddly loose and lethargic, with a less generous auto aim than is standard in modern console shooters.
Spec Ops: The Line has many mixed reviews for one simple reason; it really isn’t that fun. Here’s the key thing though; that’s ok. There is no other medium within which fun is considered to be the only means of engagement. Can you imagine a film reviewer criticising Schindler’s List because it isn’t ‘fun?’ The primary engagement method of Spec Ops: The Line isn’t fun, but something closer to disgust, or fear. The mediocre gameplay of Spec Ops: The Line reinforces it’s narrative, and it’s biting satire of the Call of Duty/Medal of Honor archetype. Some feel that this is simply making excuses, claiming that it is likely that Spec Ops: The Line was originally intended to be a ‘taken at face value’ modern shooter, but that the mediocre gameplay required the insertion of the incredible narrative to differentiate it from other games with which it couldn’t compete. I actually think that this is probably true, but I don’t believe this takes anything away from what Yager achieved here; this wouldn’t be the first time that something great was created by accident.
Although Spec Ops: The Line isn’t necessarily visually stunning, there are some really great elements to the game’s visual design which thoroughly impressed me. The physical transformation of the Delta Squad is shocking, with Captain Walker in particular becoming a gradually more frightening figure throughout. There are moments, as the player snaps into cover, that I swear that I can see the so called ‘thousand yard stare’ in Walker’s eyes. I found these moments immensely disturbing, and very powerful. Now, he’s sometimes used as a bit of a punchline by videogame fans due to his ubiquity, but Nolan North’s performance as Captain Walker shows that he deserves his success. He delivers a truly fantastic performance as Walker throughout the game as he journeys from competent and calm professional to a barking, expletive laden animal. Captain Walker is possibly one the most fascinating video game protagonists that I’ve ever encountered , and North deserves a lot of credit for making this the case.
Spec Ops: The Line won’t be for everyone. A lot of people do only want a game that’s fun, and that’s completely understandable; I won’t begrudge people that. If you want a fun game, then Spec Ops: The Line really isn’t the right place to look. Despite that, Spec Ops: The Line is one of the most remarkable gaming experiences which I’ve enjoyed in years, and one which I imagine will linger in my mind for a long time.