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An unforgettably dark and surprisingly memorable shooter

 

When Spec Ops: The Line, a resurrection of a long dead and mediocre shooter series was announced and shown to be a cover based military shooter starring stock characters like the stoic hero and wise cracking sniper, there wasn’t much in the way of high expectations. The game doesn’t even give a good first impression or demo particularly well, playing like a standard generic cover based shooter against standard foreign enemies in a standard desert setting, but first impressions can be misleading and soon enough Spec Ops: The Line quickly turns into a compelling narrative on the nature of war, good intentions gone wrong, and a powerful morality play that uses the opulent Dubai setting perfectly to set it apart.

 

Players are put in the shoes (or rather, the mind) of Captain Martin Walker, leader of a three man Delta Force team sent in to investigate a distress call from a Colonel John Konrad (the story is based off of Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness). Walker doesn’t seem very memorable at first, neither do his two allies, but as time goes on they do show more of themselves and end up being memorable, with humanizing dialogue and a realistic character arc. As you enter the city you quickly realize things have gone wrong, with US soldiers butchered and refugees fighting the very men who were meant to protect them, forcing you to fight back and push on to find Konrad and the 33rd. This does a good job of setting up the enemies as more than simple bad guys, but as people who simply want to survive and who you are forced to kill through a misunderstanding. It’s brutal, but war often is, and it’s better than the standard fare subhuman enemies we see in other shooters.

 

Suffice it to say, the story is easily the strongest aspect of the game, and leagues above the narrative of other shooters. It pulls the rug out from under the player, and it genuinely stirred up my emotions and made me feel conflicted, while raising my expectations for storytelling in games. Some of the set pieces seem like standard fare but have a twist to them that changes everything you would expect in a shooter, from small contextual actions like using sand to take out enemies (in place of red barrels), to large ones that might seem standard fare until the game pulls another twist and blindsides you, and I’ll have to avoid going in to detail on what to expect since it’s best to go into the game as blind as you can. One nice feature is the subtle physical and mental degradation of the protagonists as they are forced to fight, instead of being invincible super soldiers without a scratch from beginning to end, by the time the tale is nearing the end they’re angry with each other, tired, depressed, beaten up and scarred in ways that your average pretty boy protagonist could brush off by the next game. The toll of war is high here, and it really shows.

 

The game is a linear story, and for the most part it works perfectly with the narrative, feeling like this is the only way the game could really be, but it does toy with decision making. Instead of the black and white decisions of other games and shooters, you are often forced into making a decision with an ambiguous outcome, or one that is simply the lesser of two horrible evils, but the presentation of morality makes it difficult to really feel like anything you’ve done is really the “right” decision, and even when it was done I was left questioning my choices. None of the decisions really affect you later on, but they do a good job of setting up what kind of character you are and bringing the horror of war to the front by forcing player participation, and I was genuinely disturbed and physically sickened at some of the events I participated in, which is in the game’s favor as a deconstruction of shooter narratives and mechanics, and one that will last for me longer than any other story in a shooter I’ve played so far, especially with the focus on multiple interpretations and amount of talking points it offers players who can have different views or experiences on different parts of the game.

 

The writing isn’t perfect though, it is certainly the best story I can think of in the tired military shooter genre, but it does have a few issues. The linearity of it all means that some subtlety was lost, so certain moments that might pack a punch feel a little more drawn out by character reactions, while Walker will often point out things that would be better for the player to point out themselves, like starving crows eating a body in an expensive bar. The contrasts work well and the setting is very beautiful, but moments like these can take the player out of the experience when it would be better to let them discover the small touches for themselves. It also seems a bit disingenuous to make the player push on through and continue their murder spree even as the main characters fall apart and question their sanity or place in this. The game makes you push forward while killing droves of enemies, but it ends up not being fun or feeling like a right fit for a game making you feel bad for your actions and kills. It does at the least give it a survival horror feel, but it seems improper to provide a well-paced firefight with different guns and ways to murder people in fun ways, even if it is something the game is trying to purposefully achieve it makes the whole experience more of a downer then they might have wanted.

 

As mentioned the setting is one of the things that sets this game apart from other shooters. While at first it seems like any other desert shooter, you are quickly forced to fight an enemy you didn’t want to fight within the beautiful ruins of the city. Tents and candles will sit next to expensive diamond chandeliers in restaurants, while audio tapes will point out the use of hotels for refugees and silver for use in making bullets. It’s all very poignant and reminiscent of Bioshock in the presentation of a failed utopia you must fight through. The game even crafts levels and set pieces in some intriguing areas, such as fights across high up skyscrapers or in the middle of sandstorms, and it is a very different feel from other games when fighting across these huge and opulent surroundings. Even the soundtrack adds this surreal sense to the proceedings, with the radio often playing thematically appropriate licensed tracks meant to taunt you.

 

The gameplay of course is where it matters, and what the game uses best to immerse the player into these moments. So how does the gunplay and combat stack up to other shooters? Well, it isn’t mind-blowing, it’s far from terrible, but it’s about as generic as it gets with the basics of cover shooting, blind fire, grenade throwing and turret usage all on par with other games. AI will do the standard dance of taking cover and firing pot shots at you, while the occasional turret or sniper enemy will break things up. The game actually does provide a good stable of weapons and enemy types to shake things up (with one particularly infuriating armored type that feels vastly out of place here), but nothing in the game is particularly innovative or even highly polished. The shooting controls are fussy, with Walker often breaking into a run, whacking a wall instead of jumping it or standing up in front of gunfire. The aiming also feel a bit off, slightly looser then I’d expect without much power behind the weapons you are firing and the perplexing decision to allow Walker only two weapons when he very visibly has room on both his pistol holster and back.

 

At the very least the gameplay is serviceable, difficulty feels right and the checkpoints are forgiving without any feeling of unfairness for the most part. The game doesn’t really open itself up to different options or clever use of your AI pals, and they do have a tendency to stand out in the open. It isn’t entirely linear and does allow you the option of stealth or all out action at several points, even letting you split up between teammates, but it’s never a decision you make and it’s a shame the game didn’t embrace that kind of tactical freedom more since it could have set apart the gameplay. It feels like a tease to have these minor abilities and contextual actions you can do, and limiting them so much when the levels feel like they should always offer these kinds of options.

 

Multiplayer is something that makes or breaks many modern shooters, and he while it doesn’t at all fit in with the narrative or the message the game is trying to send, it isn’t terrible either. The game’s combat doesn’t lend itself well to a pure combat experience, but the multiplayer streamlines certain actions (such as picking up ammo and dropping off ledges) that would have helped the single player out, while the map design, rankings and loadout options tick off all the multiplayer boxes to give you some fun for a while. Still, it’s not a primary destination and you could easily ignore it if you wanted to and still leave completely satisfied.

 

Spec Ops: The Line does play like a standard shooter, but it uses standard shooter conventions to craft something much better than most standard shooters. The story and affecting moments make it worthy of being played by anyone with even a passing interest in shooters or narrative, and the actual gameplay works, even if it isn’t amazing. If you’re tired of shooter games running the same rut and feeling interchangeable, then give Spec Ops a try. It might not have gotten the polish or recognition it really needed, and it won’t make you feel like something you’re not, but it is a unique and emotionally affecting experience that should not be lost amidst the storm of other generic shooters. 

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