You know, it’s a miracle that Spec Ops: The Line was even released. Consider the share of factors it has working against it: It was in development for years, it has taken on the namesake of a forgettable PS1 series, and it was released in 2012, at the tail end of the popularity wave for both cover-based Third Person Shooters as well as Military Shooters. All they needed to do was put Nolan North in it and it would have been the most generic game ever….oh wait, they did that too.
Considering these odds, as well as the jaded marketplace it was coming into, it would have been an achievement for Yager Development to have shipped a playable action title, period. Well, apparently they’re the type of developer to rise to a challenge because what they ended up making can only be described as a disturbing, unforgettable gaming experience.
Spec Ops: The Line takes place in the same kind of ’20 minutes into the future’ universe that most modern military shooters reside. It tells the story of a Delta Force unit sent to investigate the aftermath of a massive sandstorm in Dubai, as well as the fate of the first wave of American soldiers sent to help. You play as Captain Martin Walker, the squad leader tasked with this mission and who has a history of his own with Colonel John Konrad; the leader of the formerly missing unit.
Everything about the first 45 minutes of Spec Ops: The Line screams ‘male power fantasy’. It features characters who are all alpha-male special forces types, a protagonist who is voiced by the most ubiquitous voice actor in video games (Nolan North in a stellar performance), and a brown visual style that has become all too common in this generation of gaming. Hell, I half-expected to hear America: Fuck Yeah! playing on one of the many speakers placed throughout the city at some point. Even early on in the game however, there are clues that this is not going to be a typical rescue/kill the baddies mission; delivered through audio files and environmental clues. The familiar tropes on display lull you into a false sense of understanding where it’s all going, and it’s at that moment when Spec Ops: The Line reveals itself as a subversive and jaw-dropping experience.
It’s not just the story that I’m talking about either. The level design is built around the contrast between the extreme opulence of Dubai’s architecture and the atrocities (both recent and distant) that have occurred in the wake of its destruction. In more than one battle, I found myself stopping and marveling at the beautifully unique areas on display. Along with the stark dissonance of environments, the soundtrack is equally curious and evocative. In the title screen Jimi Hendrix’s legendary rendition of The Star Spangled Banner blasts over the dead city. Music is presented courtesy of a pivotal character, an embedded reporter who acts as a DJ and spins records; trying to make sense of all that he has witnessed.
Is Spec Ops: The Line flawed? Sure it is. There is a multiplayer mode (not developed by the creators of the main game) which, while serviceable, is nothing special. Thankfully the single player campaign is well worth the price of admission. The main game itself has its share of quirks and issues as well, but I posit that those flaws feed into what makes it such a gripping experience. Scrambling around for cover, bumping into allies and getting disoriented, and imperfect aiming (none of which are particularly pervasive or awful by the way) contribute to the steady unease of the story and never let you feel like you are 100% in control of things. In a later chapter, I encountered a situation in which an enemy came rushing at me through a doorway, and then suddenly disappeared. I honestly have no idea whether it was intentional or just a glitch, but considering the context of events it actually enhanced the overall experience.
By this point, it should be clear that I’m going to give Spec Ops: The Line my highest recommendation and say that this is exactly the kind of game that needs to be made to drive video games forward as a truly artistic and relevant entertainment format. Did I enjoy playing this game? Mostly I did…well, not really — in fact, at parts I found it downright difficult to carry on because of what it was forcing me to do. In the end, I pushed through, made my choices based on what I felt was the right thing under the circumstances, and made it to the end. In all my years of playing video games, none have challenged me to confront my decisions and actions like this one has. It astounds me that this game not only got released, but got released on three major platforms with a large publisher behind it. Even though it wasn’t a huge commercial or critical success, the video game industry is a better place because titles like Spec Ops: The Line exist. It transcends our preconceived notions of what a game can accomplish by taking the most run-of-the-mill tropes in modern gaming and turning it into what might be the most important and audacious game of this decade.
[+Thoughtful, provocative story] [+Gameplay compliments story perfectly] [+Outstanding voice acting] [-Multiplayer unnecessary]