Like an eighth-year undergrad, the shooter often seems ensnared in the coils of stagnancy. Sustained by advancements in visual fidelity and the development of thrill ride-like pacing, the genre’s foremost failing mirrors that of the persistent pupil: a woeful lack of ambition. For far too long, first and third-person shooters have offered visceral, but regretfully empty experiences which have habitually ignored the pathos of gunning down hundreds of adversaries. While exhibiting a few rough edges which belie the game’s extended development cycle, the recent Xbox 360 and PlayStation release of Spec Ops: The Line is one of the first titles to peer into the psyche of a battle-hardened soldier. Although the title may not always deliver on its admirable aspirations, the game does offer a poignant reprieve from the sophomoric shooting galleries which dominate sales charts.
Pulling inspiration from both Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness as well as Coppola’s Vietnam-era contextualization- Apocalypse Now, Spec Ops plunges its protagonist down an increasingly hopeless abyss. While most titles inherently allow us to identify with their main characters, The Line is confident enough to test those traditions. When we first observe Captain Martin Walker and his two Delta Force compatriots, Lugo and Adams, the trio are little more than archetypal video game tropes. But as valiance gives way to violence, connecting with Walker becomes increasingly difficult as players are confronted with the consequences of their actions. Both predestined savagery and the sporadic binary decision confront gamers, making Spec Ops’ introspective expedition as haunting as it is compulsory.
Contrasted against the standard of ‘happy violence’, where players instinctively slay identical enemies by the bushel, The Line intermittently humanizes its opposition. Whether it’s the discomfort of knowing the player is killing his fellow Americans or sending the sporadic downed combatant writhing around the floor- pushing players toward superfluous slaughter in order to recover ammo, the title’s proclivity for unsettling imagery is to be commended. Regretfully, Spec Ops gameplay periodically seems at odds with these goals.
Juxtaposed against the game’s poignant storyline are mechanics which are both derivative and occasionally unresponsive. Most conspicuous is The Line’s artificial intelligence, which sullies its narrative heft with companions which habitually shoot directly into walls, or enemies which only spring to life once players are in the immediate vicinity. Fulfilling game tropes, antagonists pour out of off-screen spawn points and unsuspectingly stand by tell-tale streams of falling sand, waiting for players to initiate a deluge of soil which incapacitates them. With ‘melee’ and ‘vault’ abilities mapped to the same button, occasionally Walker will swing at a non-existent foe instead of moving from a splintering piece of cover. Without the ability to quickly disengage from a wall, dying from an enemy grenade is a common occurrence. Both the frequency of death and the game’s protracted reload times serve to disengage players from the title’s narrative.
While Spec Ops run and gun gunplay is imitative, echoing the mechanics of Gears of War with its roadie runs and blind firing, a number of elements help elevate the title. Thankfully, the game’s selection of firearms all feel sufficiently lethal, with players able to defeat most opponents with a few blasts to the body or a single headshot. The ability to order a teammate to snipe, heal, or flashbang offers a shred of strategy. Smartly, issuing commands to your soldiers is optional, prohibiting directive which seem too game-like.
Any moral murkiness is completely abandoned in The Line’s multiplayer mode. Although burying enemies in mounds of sands carries over from the campaign, the game’s requisite deathmatch, team deathmatch , and objective-based variants feel like a compulsory component to remain competitive. Suffice to say, no one will be purchasing Spec Ops for its competitive play. Sure, there’s the de facto ranking system which drip feeds perks at a regular intervals, but when compared to the message of the main game, the inclusion of multiplayer matches seems contradictory. If Spec Ops wants us to feel the gravity of bloodshed, fostering a generic frag fest might just be detrimental.
Beyond the infrequent framerate drop during hectic firefights, The Line’s visuals are undoubtedly confident. While the tell-tale gleam of the Unreal engine is unmistakable, the effort which went into constructing the game’s cataclysmic context is to be admired. A tension between ornate opulence and nature’s wrath permeates the title’s Dubai-based setting. From firefights where players take cover among fleets of abandoned luxury cars to breaching treacherous sandstorms,the game capitalizes on it’s distinct setting. Several understated nuances elevated Spec Ops above contemporaries, such as the visual deterioration of its protagonists, who articulate their putrefying psyches with an indelible layer of blood and grime.
Spec Ops: The Line’s gameplay doesn’t break any new ground; contentedly offering a competent cover-based shooter which doesn’t offer the polish of its peers. Instead, the game’s contribution to the genre is a pensive plotline, which pushes players to deliberate on their actions, with a sense of unsettling despair that lingers long after credits roll.