Game review: Spec Ops: The Line

Yager Development and 2K Games have delivered a visceral experience to gamers with Spec Ops: The Line.

The game is packaged as a generic military shooter, if you saw it on a shelf you’d think it was a clone of other more popular franchises like Call of Duty or Medal of Honor. So subversive and sly is this delivery method of bold storytelling via a conventional genre, it’s as if Tyler Durden himself sneakily broke into every store and replaced every disc with his version of what a military shooter should be.

You play as Captain Martin Walker dispatched with a Lieutenant and Staff Sergeant to the remains of Dubai to discover what has happened to Lieutenant Colonel John Konrad. Konrad was previously sent with a battalion to help evacuate the population of the city amidst the worst sandstorms ever recorded. These violent storms overcame the city and ravaged it completely, rendering it a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

By the time you arrive, it’s a sight to behold. The aesthetic and level design of Spec Ops is superb. Broken skyscrapers dot the landscape like fossils, buried among dunes are beached yachts, and most strikingly of all, remnants of the world that once was.

“We camp here tonight. Get up at the crack of dawn. Heh, crack.”

Roaming through dilapidated ruins of a garish city like Dubai is a surreal experience that only the video game medium can deliver, with materialism draped around every corner, from ads for fashion designers to rows of ignored jewellery in store shelves, the only things of worth in Dubai for the survivors are bullets and water.

The survivors are what propel the story into dark waters, as you will be spending the entire game fending off waves of fellow American soldiers who have their own motives, their own issues for the violence enacted during the six or so gaming hours you spend in Dubai.

The story of Spec Ops is brutal, and this is coming from a somewhat jaded player who’s seen too many horrors reported in news, and also too used to playing the same goddamn story over and over again, saving the world blah blah blah. Spec Ops takes its cue from Apocalypse Now with the main character hunting a rogue soldier who has succumbed to madness, yet the closer we get to finding Konrad the more unhinged we become by the hard choices we are forced to make navigating the dusty sand-swept roads of the city-state.

"Come out to the coast, we'll get together, have a few laughs..."

“Come out to the coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs…”

Unlike other games masquerading as multiple-choice-givers, this one has some real meaty choices offered to the player, ones that genuinely affect you as you will be making the decision based on your own moral compass or beliefs. Though they don’t branch off into wildly different story paths, each choice does help create a slightly different narrative to look back on once you’ve finished. There are two major choices offered at the end that do make a big difference however, and again it’s up to your own personality to dictate how you believe the story should be resolved.

And what a story it is. A particular sequence involved phosphorus attack which was not only shocking in its graphic detail but of how the game makers do not hold back their punches in immersing you, the hapless player, into the grotesqueries of war. This is most definitely not a black and white story, you will get your hands horribly dirty, and personally I felt mild horror while playing, which considering the tradition of video games, is a remarkable feat. Doubly so considering this isn’t some arty independent game, but a mainstream military shooter. Medal of Honor, for all its dedication to realism, wishes it had half the courage of Spec Ops.

Spec Ops looked to South London for inspiration on level design.

Spec Ops looked to South London for inspiration on level design.

For all my praise so far, it’s time to head back down to Earth: it is a corridor shooter, and you are limited in where you can run around. To counteract that there are a few ingenious instances of taking advantage of the sandy environment to destroy your enemy. There was a particularly awesome moment upon shooting a big glass window and watching sand pour in to envelop them.

The action is intense with swarms of soldiers washing over you, but unlike other games, you’re not plagued by infinite spawns, and your team-mates are more than able to hold their own, even when they’re down and need medical aid they can hold onto dear life for a substantial amount of time.

You’re able to command the squad with only two options, one of which only under prompted moments, which is to stun the enemy, giving you the opportunity to finish them off. The regular attack command option is to press R2 (on PS3) and highlight an enemy, directing your squad to concentrate their fire on the target.

I’m of the opinion if you’re going to do something, do it right, and I think Spec Ops does it right. Rather than complicate matters, they chose to keep things simple. I’d rather this, than it be over-complicated and shit. I’m already having nightmare flashbacks to Half-Life 2 and my witless companions constantly disobeying my orders. Spec Ops’ attack command feature is also disabled in sandstorm conditions, so there is a tiny tactical aspect to it as well.

"I just farted. They can't know. They can never know."

“I just farted. They can’t know. They can never know.”

As mentioned, the visuals to this game are excellent, but what I really found impressive was your avatar. The main character’s appearance becomes more ragged with each chapter, outdoing Uncharted’s depiction of Nathan Drake in terms of attention to detail in order to support the narrative. You can only carry two weapons, and each one is pictured on your person, and not vanishing into thin air. It’s the little things that count.

The game carries big ideas, the most prevalent must surely be allegorical to the USA’s fraught involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the impact they’ve had on soldiers. Putting aside the obvious reality that horrors are seen during the course of any war, but in those particular examples, how do you move on with your life when no clear victory is even decided? Why did we go? What did we accomplish?

Surprisingly, the game even has time to throw in a few meta self-referential jokes which stuck out like a sore thumb, and yet amused me. As if the writers, Walt Williams and Richard Pearsey, were on such a roll they decided to have their cake and eat it.

This game, this story, will stay in my mind for a long while, and that is perhaps the greatest compliment I can give it.

A must-play military shooter for anyone remotely a fan of the genre, an examination of PTSD; of accountability; of collateral damage, the dark journey all soldiers undertake when they pick up a rifle.

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