We’re f***ing soldiers, aren’t we?
Despite the number of hours I’ve burned through playing the genre in the last decade, it’s easy to admit that military shooters aren’t exactly the most complex games on the planet. Slap in some aggro dudes, give ’em some guns, and point them at a problem, right? But when it comes to delivering “OMGs” and “BFGs,” it’s equally simple to say that your average adrenaline junkie would be hard-pressed to find a better outlet. Utterly adept at key components like blowing s*** to bits, fostering a clear and unshakeable faith in a well-placed headshot, and conditioning us to have zero issues with a good ol’-fashioned government-sponsored genocide, the market on merc’ing is steady as she goes, and few games dare to differentiate for fear of missing out on the millions who live and die by the next big release.
And then along came Spec Ops: The Line—a gritty third-person shooter billed by 2K Games as a thinking man’s war game with a strong emphasis on the moral conflicts faced by the folks in the field. It was a message that, to be completely honest, sounded an awful lot like your rank-and-file “nice guy” complaining to the chick he’ll never see naked about how the asshole always seems to get the girl. Apparently, there was something wrong with wrecking shop and busting chops, and here comes The Line with some lofty goal of making us cry or whatever. It was an interesting idea in theory, but would they even come close to pulling it off? Do we even need to go there?
I just wasn’t buying it.
My initial impressions didn’t do much for the game, either. The core aiming mechanic in The Line is serviceable enough, but it’s just a hair off when compared to other third-person shooters, feeling more like you’re aiming a camera on the end of a flimsy pole than pointing a gun. The cover mechanics also manage to “get the job done,” but advancing vertically to new cover points is fraught with unnecessary peril in the form of several minor polish issues: being forced to swap repeatedly between horizontal cover points before catching the hint, breaking from a run for no reason, and the inability to walk around corners in cover.
But, like the shooting mechanic, you’ll get the hang of it soon enough and execute more than enough bad guys to exhaust your rage on developer Yager’s lack of tuning prowess. And then there’s the whole “moral consequence” bit 2K and friends spoke so much about during the game’s development, which largely fails to present true choice in situations where it totally could have.
This trifecta of interactive irks offered up enough forehead-slapping annoyance to make Larry, Moe, and Curly jealous, but hey, it’s my job to soldier on, which meant I also got a hefty dose of what Spec Ops does right. Visually, you’d expect things to be rather bland in light of the desert setting, but Yager managed to eke out every ounce of interesting from the blue, orange and brown that dominate the color palette, and their rendition of Dubai-in-chaos is rather inspired in most instances. The added boost of sand in gameplay is a bit sparse, but the payoffs here are always huge, making this one of the more interesting landscapes I’ve ever had the pleasure of trashing.
Another area where sand plays a big part is multiplayer, where the game’s modes are frequently enhanced by the struggle against the elements. MP also features a nice upgrade system and some thoughtful level design that emphasizes cover and teamwork in a solid package. Yager also simplifies some of the story-driven elements of the core mechanics, making elements like gathering ammo and jumping off ledges more natural, which—despite my annoyance that they failed to do this in single-player as well—is a nice touch that helps keep the firefights at a fever pitch. It’s not as robust or flashy as some of the genre’s big dogs, but it is intriguing and well made, and that’s better than that phoned-in feeling you get from most other off-Battlefield productions.
In the end, though, most of these details are just window dressing. The main event in Spec Ops: The Line is the plot, which actually hits the highs and lows that other games have promised—and in ways that you just have to play to fully appreciate. It starts on the presentation front, where the voice acting is solid from start to finish, with several memorable characters and a thoughtful shift in dialogue as the game progresses; additionally, the musical score adds to the overall vibe with a few well-placed tracks.
Beyond this, I don’t want to spoil too much about the story itself, but man, did they dial it. Here lies a tale of heroism, vengeance, and lost souls that manages to somehow serve as a chilling indictment of the genre itself, and though the game teases you with choices that don’t always change the outcome, The Line is provocative, powerful, and entirely unafraid to sock you square in the jaw, hitting some heavy notes with the sort of style and maturity I’d expect in a major motion picture but would never have guessed I’d find here. And the ending… Man, I’m a touch embarrassed to admit it, but I actually stood up and gave the team a round of applause as the credits rolled.
And why was I so impressed? Like the conflict that so thoroughly wrecks Capt. Martin Walker and his men, you have to live it to fully appreciate it, but Yager and 2K should be commended for having the guts to put The Line out there. Is this a perfect example of how to take down the genre’s tyrants? No way. But now that I’ve ventured into the heart of this dark, death-laden shooter, I’ve seen things… Did things that made me realize that even though Spec Ops: The Line isn’t the best looking or the most refined entry in this tired-ass genre, it’s a far cry from some pandering, antiestablishment soapbox that’s pissing in Call of Duty’s Corn Flakes for the sake of doing something different. It’s a genuine, moving experience that has something to say and actually succeeds at saying it, and in that sense, it’s won a major battle for the worn-out, war-weary masses—whether they know it yet or not.
SUMMARY: I didn’t expect to like Spec Ops: The Line, but despite my initial misgivings and fighting some quirks on the control front, 2K and Yager surpassed my hopes on so many levels. The Line rivals thatgamecompany’s Journey in terms of overall impact, serving as a brave step forward for developers who want to help us get more from games than just gunplay. If you’re tired of the same old firefight, you really ought to play it.
- THE GOOD: Quite possibly my favorite ending in video game history.
- THE BAD: An unnecessary amount of polish issues on the control front.
- THE UGLY: The way I’ll look at games in the military-shooter genre after finishing The Line.
Spec Ops: The Line is available on PS3, Xbox 360, and PC. Primary version reviewed was on PS3.