Spec Ops: The Line Review
Players are intended to experience the horrors of war through meticulously rendered gore. Given the state of modern game design, however, the red mist produced by headshots is as likely to satisfy as it is to revolt. The gurgling pleas of downed enemies are more disquieting, though if our heroes are affected, it’s not apparent from the profane bravado of their combat dialogue — expect many variations on “kill f*cking confirmed!
To make good on Spec Ops’ lofty aims, the gameplay needed to be both more creative and more subtle. Instead, this is a game in which, when you find your first flashbang grenade, one of your sidekicks says something to the effect of “we can use these to stun people.” When you throw one at an enemy, he staggers around screaming “I can’t see!”
Other groan-inducing decisions abound; the fact that every objective is located 100 yards from spot where the previous mission concludes makes Dubai feel less like a real place and more like a video game fantasy. To be fair, the fantastic opulence of the city often works in the game’s favor. In between firefights, players traverse some stunning, decayed architecture, and the rich, royal purples and greens make a nice contrast to the omnipresent, coral-colored sand. Spec Ops can often be surprisingly beautiful, bathed in orange sunsets and shimmering heat.
The game also includes a number of grim tableaux that confront Walker and his squad with the terror and carnage endemic to the post-sandstorm city. Yager stages these corpse-piles for maximum effect, and even jaded players will sympathize with the disgust and dismay expressed by the Delta Force operators. But Yager also overplays its hand. Thanks to Spec Ops’ preposterous story, it becomes easy to see these scenes for what they are: stimuli designed to goad the characters into the appropriate level of mental anguish.
In its hubris, megalithic scale, and utter disrepair, the Dubai of Spec Ops resembles Bioshock’s Rapture. This connection is reinforced whenever the player is asked to blow up a pane of glass and inundate enemies with sand, a clever bit of environment-based gameplay that should be more frequent.
Like Bioshock, Spec Ops is a game that wants to wrestle with big ideas. Players are asked to make moral choices, and to question their motives or behavior. In a game as linear as Spec Ops, however, this feels disingenuous. Players can hardly “opt out” of any situation; instead, they’re forced to make decisions they might not agree with in order to advance the plot. Nevertheless, the developers deserve credit for not signposting the outcomes too aggressively, and for asking players to think on their feet, rather than slowing the action to a halt to provide time to decide.
As the squad moves deeper into Dubair and twist piles upon twist, it becomes easier to follow the plot by reading expository loading screen tips than by listening to the dialogue — not exactly a hallmark of good storytelling. Still, it is in the game’s final act that Yager begins to make good on its ambitious intentions, convincingly portraying Walker’s deteriorating psyche. Physical exhaustion combines with post-traumatic stress to produce hallucinations, flashbacks, and other bizarre behavior. This effects succeeds in large part thanks to the efforts of North, whose gradual slide from no-nonsense to unhinged is masterfully acted.
Unfortunately, accessing this payoff depends on enduring the tedium of the game’s initial hours. The uber-conventional gameplay also works at cross-purposes to the sophisticated narrative. It’s simply hard to sell a psychologically believable character who is also an accomplished mass murderer. By the time the game is over, Walker’s personal body count is in the high triple-digits. Even if his tendency to “exterminate all the brutes!” is largely in keeping with his shell-shocked character arc, the rote, mechanistic violence of the standard third-person shooter undermines the intended effect.