It’s strange how we’ve reached a point where entertainment doesn’t necessarily equal fun. Spec Ops: The Line is a lot of things: engaging, interesting, gripping. But “fun” isn’t one of them. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game that made me as distressed as Spec Ops. It’s very strange for a game to make you feel bad even when it doesn’t give you a real choice in what you’re doing it. It makes you do things & then blames you for it. This game has been pretty hyped up by reviewers, but is the hype real?
I apologize in advance if some of this review is more vague than usual. It’s hard to talk about this game without giving the story away. I’m thinking of doing a spoiler-heavy analysis later this week.
In The Line you take command of Captain Walker, the leader of a three-man Delta Force team sent on a recon mission into Dubai. The city was hit by a massive sandstorm, cutting off communications and stranding the 33rd Infantry unit. After a message from the commanding officer, Lt. Colonel Konrad, that an attempted evacuation has failed, Walker & his men are sent in to find out the situation & status of any survivors. After facing some hostile survivors (or “insurgents”) things quickly spiral out of control when the squad is attacked by US soldiers & forced to defend themselves. Between the 33rd, soldiers who rebelled against the 33rd’s martial law & the CIA, the squad isn’t sure who to trust. Things become even more dire as the men begin to crack under the pressure of what they’ve seen & done. More troubling are Walker’s hallucinations, which cause his own men to doubt his orders.
At its core, The Line is a 3rd-person shooter that using most modern shooter conventions. You can take cover behind walls, only carry two guns, and use grenades. As Walker, you can also give simple commands to your men. Tapping the command button will make them toss a stun grenade while holding it down allows you to target one specific enemy for them to take out. If it’s a close target Adams will use a grenade, if it’s long-range Lugo will snipe it. Sand also plays a big part. A lot of the combat takes place inside buildings, & you can shoot out windows to either make enemies fall to their deaths or bury them in sand.
Narrative: The story in The Line is what has received the most praise from gamers, & I believe it’s well-deserved. I knew the game’s reputation going in & I fully expected that it wouldn’t impact me that much. I figured that because I’m not the typical person who plays modern FPS’s that it wouldn’t get to me. Boy, was I wrong. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game that made me feel physically ill before. And it’s not a gore thing. It comes from seeing the results of your actions. It’s amazing how the game forces you to do things & then makes you feel guilty about it. The most shocking moments in the game are the ones you have zero control over, yet it still makes you feel bad about what you just did. There are choices in the game, however, & each one brought me stress because none of them are ever good options. It’s always between two equally bad options & which one you think is best is a matter of perspective. As for the story proper, I did find it a bit confusing. Even up until the end I was never completely sure of what was going on or who to trust. But I think that’s the point. There are not real “good guys” in this game. No heroes. I also thought the story was paced very well. It portrays the characters’ decent into madness really well on all fronts. As Walker, he starts to have more PTSD hallucinations as the game goes on. The dynamics between the characters change as they crack under the pressure. In the beginning it’s obvious they’ve worked together before & are a pretty close squad. They crack jokes & make snarky comments towards each other. But by the end they clearly want to rip each others’ throats out yet they have to cling to each other because that all they really have left. And that ending… talk about a punch to the gut. My exact reaction during the big reveal at the end was, “Oh. Oh wow. Oh my God.” Even thinking about it to write this makes my stomach cringe. So overall, The Line weaves a dark, twisted yet oddly compelling tale. Score: 5
Mechanics: I don’t play enough modern shooters to say how this one compares, but I’d say it’s an average shooter. You shoot stuff & it dies. I did get frustrated with having to hit A to take cover. It seemed like sometimes Walker would take cover immediately when running towards a wall & sometimes he wouldn’t. I got shot a lot because Walker just wouldn’t listen to my commands. Although I didn’t like only being able to carry two guns at a time & that the amount of ammo you could have for them was very limited, I guess that’s realistic. The game gives you enough guns that it’s not really an issue & they all feel varied enough. The AI for your squadmates is competent, although there were a few times they got killed because they were just standing in the open. But you can revive them, which is nice. Sometimes they also wouldn’t target the person I’d instructed them to so I ended up having to do it myself. One aspect of the mechanics that I will praise is how it handles making decisions. The game has several instances where you get to make a choice about how to proceed. And where other games would tell you to press a button to make said choice, The Line is much more… organic. You physically make the decision. For instance, near the end you face an angry mob & the game just tells you to get out. The story strongly pushes you to “get out” by shooting the mob (& believe me, after the scene just before it was very tempting) but you can also shoot in the air to make them run. The game doesn’t tell you this, but you can decide to do it anyway. There are other instances like that, & it’s a nice change. The game actually makes you think about what you want to do rather than just spoon-feeding you directions all the time. I’ve read a lot of people say the mechanics are a deliberate deconstruction of shooters & are intended to give the entire game a “not quite right” feel. I don’t know about that. Like I said, I don’t play enough shooters to make that judgement. So overall, I’d say it’s average. It works but it’s not spectacular. Score: 3
Aesthetics: The game looks nice, but there’s a lot of subtle things that really add to the atmosphere of the game. For the most part the landscapes are barren. It’s a desert town swallowed by sand, after all. But you’ll start to notice signs that have been spray painted in disturbing ways. Like the faces with the eyes black out. Those really freaked me out. I actually noticed the face before I noticed the dead bodies on the ground, which were making Walker & co. freak out. I think the game does a good job of showing how things are getting worse in subtle ways. The characters slowly start to show more physical damage. By the end, half of Walker’s face is burned. Another small thing you might not notice is how the voices change as the game progresses. The voice acting is always good, but the way characters talk changes. During fights, Walker starts to sound much more aggressive & callous. To give an example, in the beginning he might say, “I’m reloading, cover me,” in the last few levels he starts saying, “F-ing reloading.” His voice also gets a lot more hoarse. The music is kind of sporadic. Sometimes there’s none, but other times it’s what I guess is classic rock. I didn’t recognize any of them. I think there’s only music where Radio Man is involved, which I guess is more realistic than just having music coming from nowhere. The game also breaks the 4th Wall a lot. One trick you’ll notice if you pay attention is the messages on the loading screens. In the beginning they’re your normal game tips, but they start to become more sinister, reflecting what’s going on in the game & obviously speaking directly to the player. Here’s a few examples:
I couldn’t find my favorite one. After picking the ending that doesn’t give you the prologue, I replayed the last level to make the other choice. The loading screen for the prologue said, “A better man wouldn’t be here,” which I took to mean the “proper” thing was to take the other option. The game does a lot of little things like this that add up to a very unsettling experience Score: 5
Replay Value: High. I think this is the sort of game you need to play at least twice. Not only are there different decisions to make, but it’s interesting going back to the beginning when you know how it ends & start looking for all of the signs. The game has four endings, one of which will prevent you from seeing the Prologue. You can also choose a chapter to play to go through your favorite sections again. The game also has a multiplayer mode, but I didn’t try it. And based on what I’ve read from both gamers & the developers themselves, it was a tacked-on mode because apparently you can’t make a shooter without multiplayer these days. Score: 4
Overall Score: 4
Final Words: Had it not been for some frustrating or unresponsive controls I would’ve given Spec Ops: The Line a perfect score. I personally really enjoyed this game for as bad as it made me feel, but I could see how it’s not for everyone. I think you have to go into it with a certain mindset. You can’t go in thinking it’ll be a Call of Duty clone. In fact, it’s probably the antithesis of those sorts of games. But if you’re willing to give yourself over it & enjoy the story for what it is, I think you’ll “enjoy” it (enjoy in the sense that you can “enjoy” something that makes you feel really bad about yourself). At the very least I think everyone should rent it so they can decide for themselves if the hype is worth it. To quote other gamers, it’s the best game I never had fun with.
Title: Spec Ops: The Line
Console: 360, PS3 & PC
Developers: Yager Development & Darkside Game Studios
Publisher: 2K Games
Release Date: June 26, 2012