A storm is coming...NEVER GET OUT OF THE BOAT!
It's not unusual for a game to hit you over the head with a lot of things. Clumsy is the common narrative in games, with a failure to grasp any notion of subtlety or subtext. Spec Ops: The Line attempts to break away from that mold, telling a harrowing story about loss, madness and insanity. But with every bold step away from convention, Spec Ops: The Line is also a constant reminder of why the convention became successful in the first place. And so, much like the games main protagonist, a constant struggle unfolds and plays out...with no clear winner, but many losers.
This Is The End, My Only Friend, The End
Spec Ops: The Line picks up after a number of terrible sandstorms all but bury Dubai under hundreds of feet of sand. Making matters worse, the storms culminated in a massive 'Storm Wall" that surrounded all of Dubai, making communications and travel in or out of the city next to impossible. That's where you come in. As Captain Martin Walker, you lead a small team of elite Delta Operatives on a rescue mission into the heart of Dubai, with the primary objective being to discover the whereabouts of The Damned 33rd, a US Army Battalion that got stranded in the storm while on their way home from Afghanistan. But before long, you and your team are caught in the middle of a deadly conflict that will test not just your combat skills, but your sanity.
Yager Development and 2K Games made no secret about Spec Ops' close association to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the novel from which Apocalypse Now was based. Heck, you're even in Dubai searching for the leader of the 33rd - who they named Colonel Konrad. There's no doubt that Yager does a good job recreating that story, and if it weren't' for them being forthcoming about the inspiration you'd call it a rip-off. But it does lead to a bigger question - is the game better because of the source material, or worse off for it? Spec Ops: The Line plays out in some pretty dramatic ways, and actually has a few different endings. Ultimately, however, things don't vary that much - every ending falls somewhere between hopelessly dour and utterly miserable. How you feel about the narrative will likely decide what the extent of your appreciation for the game is.
Even though things start off relatively calm, they quickly pick up and you're forced into some tough situations. Now, Walker says at one point during the game that he could "leave at anytime", so the horrors of war that he witness and, perhaps, even commits are, as such, on a voluntary basis. This is a major stumbling block for me because as a player, you can't leave. You don't get a choice. No matter what you do you have to take part in this atrocious journey, destroying Walkers soul and leaving it at the foot of madness along the way. The only alternative is not playing the game. And so, when you're faced with a game that makes a point of telling you how awful your actions are without giving you other options, the message feels artificial.
Finding Solace Behind 2-Foot High Walls
Regardless of the divisive story I think there's enough merit in it to be considered a great thing to have in gaming. The same thing can't be said for the combat, an aspect most would say is more important. The Line is a cover based third-person shooter, with only the most basic of squad commands. While there's nothing wrong with the gameplay there's also next to nothing remarkable enough to bother mentioning. You take cover, you shoot, and you do so with a pretty basic range of weapons. It's really unfortunate that it takes until the last couple of missions to get some unique weapons, like the AA-12 shotgun that can rip enemies apart in a second. It might be unfair to criticize a game for this , but it just felt like they took too long to open things up.
I did say 'next to nothing' for a reason - because there is one element that I loved and wished there was way more of. As you progress through the skyscrapers of Dubai you'll encounter situations where you can shoot out walls, windows and roofs, releasing a cascade of sand to take over the area. It's awesome to see, when you're pinned down by a turret and you can't get a good position, this giant wave of golden sand pour down on your assailants, burying them alive. Sometimes it's a roof that you take out, sending your enemy plummeting to his death. These moments always worked well, always looked great and felt satisfying. It's just too bad that they're the only moments of genuine surprise and entertainment.
The rest of the time, though, you're dealing with sub-par enemies and smart teammates. A lot of squad based games get torn down for having awful partners, Spec Ops: The Line has some very competent ones, almost too competent. See, The Line institutes a similar mechanic to Ubisoft's Mark & Execute system, where you highlight an enemy and your squad will focus their attacks on them. The difference is that the enemy will only be executed if they're caught unaware; otherwise the feature just lets you target specific enemies. But, because enemies rarely flank - unless they're the last man standing, however that makes sense - you can spend all of your time in cover, telling your teammates to pick off enemies. Of course, that isn't always fun, but it will get you through most situations without a scratch.
Together Forever, Or For A Couple Weeks
You can get around the annoying enemy AI by taking the game online for some competitive multiplayer, either solo or team based. The Line features a totally satisfactory online suite but much like the combat of the game, you won't find any real surprises here. You'll level up, earn perks and unlocks, all which you can use to customize your loadout. One nice touch is that the difference factions have different class options, but past that it's exactly what you'd expect. You do get bonuses for being a team leader, executing enemies and getting headshots.
I did appreciate them keeping with the theme and including mid-match sandstorms. The storms will slow you down, make it hard to see, and make it tough to track enemies until they're up close. Fans of the game will be perfectly happy with the Deathmatch modes and the few objective games on offer, but I did discover a decided lack of players outside of free for all and team deathmatch, particularly at night (PST). When I got in I particularly enjoyed Buried, a mode where your team tries to sabotage an enemy HQ while keeping them from doing the same to yours. It's a constant game of cat and mouse, risking your own base to attack and vice versa.
Your One Stop Rock Shop
Without spoiling it, there are moments within the story in Spec Ops: The Line that revolve around a radio and a DJ. It also happens to be a very convenient way to implement some awesome music. You can probably predict some of the songs, which seem to always be a part of military shooters, but the use here is excellent. Reinforcing it is some really strong voice acting by Nolan North, Christopher Ried, Omid Abtahi, Bruce Boxleitner and Jack Busey. If you can get past hearing Nathan Drake then you're in for some really great delivery. If you can't - then just remember to turn up the music.
Yager Development displays a deft touch with the visuals as well, at least the subtext of them. They don't just fire off a multitude of explosions and expect that to be enough. Instead, scenes will often be taken over with a very specific aesthetic choice - usually to reinforce some dark and depressing moment, past, present or future. But when they aren't backing up their message the game definitely comes up on the short side of pure technical prowess. Long stretches of game can look like the drab, typical brown-on-brown that we've come to loath in military shooters. You're reminded of this anytime you go online, where the game is at its worst running and looking.
Spec Ops: The Line is a game that I think a lot of people should play, but I don't think a lot of you will enjoy it. Know going in that this game is all about story, and that story holds a mirror up to the portion of society that has become desensitized to the glorification of violence in media. There's a lot of stuff to admire and if more games could take this risk on story than we'd all be better off for it. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean that we, as paying customers, don't want our games to control well and be exciting, or at the very least constantly stimulating. Outside of the story, Spec Ops: The Line is average in almost every way, not great but rarely better than good. If you know you aren't going to play online then I'd only cautiously recommend Spec Ops: The Line, because even though the story is totally worth seeing, it's really the only thing that is.
FINAL SCORE: 70%
Strong -- The upper echelon of average, this game has sufficient technical prowess and/or fun, but lacks the depth or polish for it to excel. Some will swear it’s the best, others will say the opposite. Most of us will be perfectly content with it.