Spec Ops: The Line (360/PS3/PC)

Developer: Yager

Publisher: 2K Games

Release date: June 26, 2012

Price: $59.99

✭✭✭✭✭✭✭

Score: 8/10

There's been some discussion this year about "dumb" games, including the notion that coating a "dumb" game in a smart story doesn't make the game itself any less dumb. From the first time I played Spec Ops: The Line, it was clear that this game has an extremely smart story, something that was underlined in my earlier conversation with the game's lead writer, Walt Williams. But what about the game itself?

Spec Ops: The Line is undoubtedly a third-person shooter, and a fairly standard one, at that. Despite a mostly stellar script, whatever thoughtfulness is expressed by its characters in between firefights and during cut scenes sort of goes out the window when they're literally making people's heads explode with boots and bullets.

But make no mistake: unlike in most games, Spec Ops' protagonist, Captain Walker, and his two squadmates are certainly affected by the carnage. They're not Uncharted's Nathan Drake. They don't walk away from these encounters unscathed, either physically or mentally. But it's the mere fact that by themselves, these three individuals are able to defeat swarms of armed and presumably equally-skilled enemies that makes the entire experience somewhat dissonant. It's one thing for Batman to take on crowds of thugs in Arkham City, but just once I'd like to play a shooter in which the main character doesn't feel like a superhero, regardless of whether he or she actually is one.

Perhaps purposely, perhaps not, the game itself once quite forthrightly explained the concept of "cognitive dissonance" on a loading screen like a super-relevant, sentient dictionary. It read, basically, "cognitive dissonance: the state of simultaneously holding two conflicting beliefs". The concept has plenty of bearing on the plot, for reasons I won't give away, but it also described my mental state while playing.

 

But I'm getting ahead of myself. How about some basic set-up? Spec Ops: The Line is set in the present-day, in a world in which a sandstorm of Biblical proportions has turned Dubai into a playground for the crazy and violent. Captain Walker and his two lackeys, Lugo and Adams (collectively Delta Squad), are sent to Dubai six months after the catastrophe to rescue one Colonel Konrad (a nod to Heart of Darkness author Joseph Conrad). Konrad and his missing battalion, the Damned 33rd, were reportedly stranded there during an earlier evacuation attempt, though Walker and co. aren't really expecting to find any survivors.

To their surprise, though, they do find survivors, and they're engaged in a large-scale guerilla war. The natives, armed by the CIA, and the 33rd, now clearly very much a rogue entity, are battling for control of civilian survivors and resources (most importantly water). And for some reason, everyone, including Konrad and a darkly humored radio DJ, is out to put Delta Squad's heads up on spikes. It's a little bit Lord of the Flies, and even more so, Apocalypse Now (and, of course, the aforementioned Heart of Darkness, on which Apocalypse was based).

Dubai itself takes center stage, and the effects it has on its inhabitants are matched only by the effects its inhabitants have had on it. What was clearly once a thoroughly modern metropolis has become a scene of martial law and mass graves, though its beauty still shines through as you crouch on the edge of teetering skyscrapers and peer down into a world of sand and sin. The set design is phenomenal, and all that sand even comes into play; fairly often, a menacing group of opponents can be buried under an avalanche of sand with a few well-placed bullets. The cracks that appear in the windows of half buried buildings aren't just for aesthetic purposes.

One of the game's most touted narrative features leading up to its release has been the tension and dissension that arises between Walker, Lugo and Adams, and how the chaos of the kicked anthill of Dubai causes them to lose faith in one another. There are points at which you're asked to make choices, though it's literally never clear which is good and which is bad. There's no prompt to press "A" for this or "B" for that. These crossroads consistently add to the friction among Walker and his underlings.

But even more prevalent is the question of who's really in control. Who's pulling the strings? Is it the Radio Man? Konrad? The CIA? What about Walker himself? Delta Squad is, over and over, forced to do things that no righteous person should or would ever do. The atrocities of war, and all that. But where Modern Warfare 2's controversial "No Russian" (Google it if you have to) seemed like a poorly conceived publicity stunt, many of the dark events in Spec Ops are almost too plausible.

 

As Walker's sanity erodes like a handful of sand caught in a breeze, his squad trusts him less and less. Likewise, you as the player will start to lose faith in him as well. He's no hero. And toward the end, as Delta's anger toward the city and its inhabitants boils over, the seemingly endless waves of aggressors start to seem less cognitively dissonant, and more like an intentional plot device; who's really defending against who? Who are the aggressors here? They're questions I asked myself more as the game progressed, and the characters themselves even questioned their own actions. If I'm going to give the writing any credit, I'd call it an intentional attempt to marry an intelligent story to a game in which three dudes kill hundreds, if not thousands, of trained soldiers and armed civilians in the space of not-very-long. 

Admittedly, Spec Ops: The Line manages to avoid many of the pitfalls of other action games. Enemies don't taunt you as you're sending their teammates to the grave. They scream out tactical information to their allies, and, eventually, even start to express fear. "They're everywhere!" is a hackneyed phrase in gaming, but it's usually coming from the good guys, not the bad guys. Then again, the line between the two in Spec Ops is about as clear as your vision in a sandstorm.

But it's a damn shame that Spec Ops is coming out now, little more than a month after the release of another, extremely similar third-person shooter: Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. I can't help but compare the two, though each looks worse in the other's shadow.

Future Soldier has probably ruined me for third-person shooters for a while, at least as far as mechanics are concerned. Playing Spec Ops, I pined with alarming frequency for some of the more convenient advances that Future Soldier made. Things like an intuitive, fluid cover system, or the ability to mark multiple targets and have your allies take them all out at once. Spec Ops stumbles over these aspects of gameplay with sometimes clumsy mechanics that feel dated by at least a couple years. Often I fumbled when trying to snap into or hurdle over cover, and Lugo and Adams seemed to take my marking targets for them as more of a suggestion than an order. This is particularly frustrating during the occasional stealth segment. Even the simple ability to go prone on the ground, strangely lacking from Spec Ops, was sorely missed in both single and multiplayer.

Future Soldier, on the other hand (which I also reviewed), had the most atrocious story I've seen in a triple-A shooter in some time. But its shallow narrative was eclipsed by some joyfully futuristic gameplay. Likewise, I believe Spec Ops' stellar narrative more than makes up for its mechanical mediocrities, even if most gameplay sequences are simply an interlude between story bits.

 

Spec Ops is even slightly meta at points. A snarky radio DJ asks Walker whether he's played too many video games, and when the story catches up to the flash-forward opening sequence, Walker remarks that he's done this before, to the confusion of his squadmates. And as Walker's sanity became ever more questionable, the events of at least one scene even changed from one death to the next. Walker is phyiscally mutilated by the end—a minor detail, except that most game protagonists don't even sweat. And without giving away any spoilers, the final scenes are no bombastic boss battle or balls-out action set piece. They're conversations between people, of all things.

Oh, and the colors. Never before have I seen such exquisite use of color in a video game. From the luminous blues and oranges of the skyline to the deep, hellish red of later sequences, Spec Ops possesses a visual flair rarely seen in this genre of washed-out and undersaturated lookalikes. The soundtrack is equally competent, with the Radio Man spinning classic rock tunes with a Full Metal Jacket sense of timing. At other times, ambient tracks always fit the mood and enhance the experience.

Where Spec Ops likely won't hold up is in its multiplayer, which I admittedly only got to play for an hour or so. It's got all the tropes of a modern competitive shooter: multiple classes, custom load-outs, weapon and perk unlocks, challenges, and so on. And despite my complaints, if the gunplay is solid enough to carry the entire campaign (and it is), it can surely hold up in multiplayer. There's even a two-player co-op mode that's coming soon in the form of free DLC. It's just that Ghost Recon: Future Soldier does it so much better.

But for gamers looking for a thoughtful yet action-packed single player experience, Spec Ops is undoubtedly the 2012 summer blockbuster of gaming. Despite early similarities to Apocalypse Now et al., the narrative follows its own, unpredictable path. Much like Dubai under all that sand, Delta Squad and especially Walker are forced to their breaking points by the weight of all their deeds, both intentional and unintentional. It's dark and gritty, and none of the whopping six endings I experienced could be described as happy. But as Colonel John Konrad puts it, there's a line that men like him and Walker have to cross. No one said it would be pretty.