The lights are on
Most people who play a modern military shooter like Call of Duty or Battlefield aren't looking for anything complicated. They just want to be entertained for a few hours. Popping enemies from cover and watching huge set-piece explosions is simple and entertaining. We don't expect shooters to offer anything of substance. Spec Ops: The Line defies those expectations beautifully.
The game could pass as another generic cardboard-cutout modern military shooter at first glance. You play as Captain Martin Walker, the leader of a small team of Delta Force operators investigating Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. A series of vicious sandstorms crippled the city six months previously. John Konrad, a lieutenant colonel in the US Army, volunteered his infantry battalion to assist with the evacuation of Dubai. When the storms worsened, Konrad and his troops remained in the city to help refugees against orders from the Army's high command.
Months later, Dubai remains cut off from the rest of the world by a wall of storms. The government finally sends in Walker and his team to ascertain if Konrad or any civilians survived. The mission is simple: go in, check everyone's status, get out.
The trip quickly spirals out of control and draws Delta Force into a swirling maw of insanity. Dubai has become hell on earth after half a year of trying to survive sandstorms. Passing by shattered high rises and shaken skyscrapers becomes a journey into madness as Walker's team unearths unimaginable monstrosities. Looting, chaos, and death are all that's left beneath the scenic skyline of Dubai.
The former crown jewel of the UAE has fallen into anarchy. Despite being surrounded by the remnants of civilization, you are very much in the wilderness. The normal rules of polite society have long given way to savagery.
The city's descent into madness runs parallel to the player's journey to find Konrad. Over the course of the game, your actions become less and less heroic, sinking deeply into the realm of atrocities. Things start simply. Shooting masked terrorists who speak in foreign tongues is easy enough. It's nothing more than what we've done in other franchises.
However, as the campaign continues, a series of misunderstandings place Delta opposite other American soldiers in a life-or-death contest. It becomes harder to pull the trigger when the guy shooting at you is a member of the United States military.
The game pushes the knife deeper with twists on common FPS scenarios. We've killed sentries before countless times, but can you kill the guard who reminisces about his childhood in Wyoming? Can you pull the trigger on a sympathetic side character like that?
The first time is hard. I didn't want to kill a soldier just doing his job. But when it came down to his death or mine, I made sure it was him. The worst part about the whole experience was feeling the impact of killing Americans lessen. Killing the next sentry was easy. That's horrifying.
This is the most striking part of Spec Ops: The Line. It will not entertain you. It will not pretend your murderous actions are justified. It will not make you feel heroic or special. Every single minute of this game is dedicated to making the player feel like a monster. The plot and gameplay are custom-tailored to engender discomfort at all times. I had no fun whatsoever at any point in the campaign.
Spec Ops is an ingenious deconstruction of the modern military shooter. It artfully arranges typical shooter gameplay in such a way that shows the genre's inherent self-deceptions. It reminds you that each time you pull the trigger on a bad guy, you're ending somebody's life. Your enemies aren't terrorists or psychopaths or aliens. There are no excuses. By stripping away the usual trappings of FPS games, Spec Ops presents a powerful reminder of the senseless savagery behind killing.
In one sense, this is a remarkable achievement. Few studios would be willing to make a game so intentionally joyless for the sake of a deeper message. It takes guts to put artistry into a shooter.
However, Spec Ops' remarkable message is its most serious problem. Intentional or not, the game is not fun. Every level is a staid shooting gallery of identical bad guys with mediocre AI. You run in, slide in behind cover, and fire until there is no one left to kill. That's it. The mechanics you use at the start are the same ones you use at the end. The game introduces nothing new aside from a few other weapons. And for the record, the weapons don't differ significantly.
Things wouldn't be so tedious if the basic game mechanics weren't so bland. Spec Ops plays like any other post-Gears of War shooter. You hide behind cover and wait for the bad guys to pop their heads above their pieces of cover so you can shoot them. Health is at a premium, so leaving cover is severely punished. This turns every firefight into a game of Whack-a-Mole where you shoot, wait for your health to recharge, and shoot again. Calling the combat boring is like calling in-game Dubai "slightly damaged."
You could argue that the developers intended the game to be monotonous as a statement about other FPS games. If so, I applaud them. That was a bold decision. That said, purposefully bad gameplay is still bad gameplay. Storytelling is no excuse for lacking quality.
Even the storytelling with its vaunted anti-FPS message breaks down when you start testing its limits. There's one scene where Delta is presented with extreme measures to solve a situation. I tried find to a more reasonable solution but was blocked by the game spawning infinite soldiers. The only allowed path is the extreme one. The "journey into savagery" carries less impact when the game forces every step. Walker and his team may have had a choice, but the player doesn't.
In the end, I have mixed feelings about Spec Ops: The Line. It does something truly unique and presents the best argument against modern shooters I've ever seen. It's a rare game that sacrifices everything for a deeper message. We need more games with something to say, especially in the FPS genre.
The issue is that I'll never play this again. It grinds you down too much. Konrad's remarks ("You're here to pretend that you're something you're not- a hero.") are too on the nose and feel wearying.
In the end, I set down the controller and refused to continue. Spec Ops was best when it was over.
Nice review. I really enjoyed this game, and while the gameplay is fairly standard 3rd person shooter fare, I didn't find it bad. There were enough turret sequences and environmental hazards/opportunities to keep it interesting, for me at least.