(This review originally appeared on This Is My Joystick)
Morality is something games really struggle with at the moment. They seem to really focus down on being binary: good or bad, positive or negative. Jaeger’s Spec Ops: The Line throws this idea out the window as it presents you with choices no man should have to pick from. All this takes place inside of a story that makes me want to put this game up on a pedestal as a truly adult game.
On first appearance, the story in Spec Ops appears to be heavily formulaic. You play as Captain Walker, the leader of a Delta Squad sent into a sandstorm-locked Dubai to find out what has happened to a US Army unit led by a Colonel Konrad. However, the longer they stay there, the more they realise they have kicked over a hornet’s nest and they must struggle to finish their mission.
If the Colonel’s name has set alarm bells ringing, it’s for good reason. The game owes a lot to Apocalypse Now and the novel The Heart of Darkness in terms of both the plot direction and the game’s tone. There is also a lot of Vietnam references, from some of the characters’ clothes (think lax soldiers wearing non-uniform clothing), up to the music blaring out around the desert thanks to the Radioman.
Your two squad mates are some of the best characters I’ve played with for a while. Like everything else in this game, Lugo and Adams start off being your stereotypical classic “time to bro down” frat boys you would expect from a modern military game. Lugo is the fast-talking joker, while Adams sounds like he is about to say he is getting too old for this stuff. However, as things pile up and deeds are done, they start to change into much more cynical characters.
The writing is fantastic. Everything from the overarching plot beats to the individual squad mates dialog gels together perfectly. In fact, even the loading screen tips are great. One simply asks “How many Americans have you killed today?”. It forms a horrifying picture of what happens when everything just breaks down and man is put to the test.
The writers must have had some serious balls to make some of the decisions they made about what to include. Throughout the game, you will pass areas filled with some terrible images of humanity in action. I went into this game fully knowing that it was going to throw the usual piles of corpses at you, but this game takes it to the point where I actually felt physically ill at what was going on.
Playing your way into hell
This is compounded by the multiple moral decisions you have to make as you progress through the ruins of Dubai. Unlike other games which boast about their decisions, the decisions in Spec Ops are not black and white. Each of them are gut wrenching to perform; in particular, a late game decision I made purely without thinking and then had to pause the game just to calm down afterwards. They make perfectly clear that no matter what you do in the game, no one is coming out clean; every character in the game is just drifting down the river to oblivion.
Of course, this is a game not a movie and you must play though something. Spec Ops is a standard military third-person shooter. You take cover a lot, as in some sections drifting out from behind a wall will lead to almost instant death. You can carry two guns at a time but luckily all of them feel nice and powerful, with the upper end (such as the AA12 or the static machine guns) literally ripping people to shreds in a spray of pink mist and cries from their companions.
This works both ways though; the late game appearance of a heavy trooper in a bomb-proof suit carrying an AA12 will often lead to a horrible messy end for Walker. Most weapons also have a secondary function such as a silencer or burst fire, which does make the SCAR-H one of the best weapons due to its grenade launcher.
There is a nice variation in terms of bad guys, primarily down to the weapon choice but also in terms of behaviour, such as with the heavies or the elites. Some of the best scenes take place featuring the close combat specialists. Guys in vests, often with mohawks, come screaming towards you with knife out and if they aren’t taken down quickly it’s an instant death for you.
Luckily, you can go on the mêlée offensive on the other bad guys, including some executions which grab you some precious, precious ammo. These escalate in brutality as the game goes on; another way for the developers to show the situation deteriorating.
The squad command system is a mixed bag. It’s all mapped to a single button (RB for the Xbox 360) and it’s up to the game to determine what happens. At long range, it’s Lugo with a sniper rifle; close quarters, Lugo and Adams pull out grenades and get up close and personal. There are a few other circumstances where pressing attack causes the squad to go silent in order to take out patrolling guards. Using the attack button focuses up your squad but does leave them a little vulnerable to being flanked by the bad guys. I really wish it allowed you to order your squad to an exact location, such as in Rainbow Six Vegas. Nonetheless, it does do the job required.
I do need to mention the AI. Most of the time it works very well, with the baddies using squad tactics and flanking you, while your squad is pretty good at moving effectively despite the crazy stuff you do. However, there are a few occasions where your buddies do get in the way or manage to get themselves both downed at precisely the wrong place.
Finally, the difficulty. I played it through on the hardest difficulty out of the box (a harder one labelled FUBAR is unlocked after completing the campaign), and found it challenging, with there being a nice difficulty spike right in the final few levels. The checkpoint system is a little too far apart for many encounters, often forcing you to re-watch cutscenes over and over again. The achievements are also pretty easy; they are all single-player focused and can be quickly completed. In fact, the entire game is quite short, but the story more than makes up for it.
Dubai – jewel of the desert
Unfortunately, the graphics in Spec Ops don’t quite match up to what the rest of the game provides. Texture pop-in is rampant (as it is in most Unreal Engine 3 games), I had a couple of graphics glitches while playing and a lot of the assets such as textures and models seemed unusually low quality. I’m also not a fan of the fact that the game features gibbing. It would be ok if it was realistic, but when it’s just heads disappearing after headshots and bodies turning into red objects when hit by explosives, it seems at odds with the rest of the game’s tone.
However, the game does a great job in its environmental details. Large portions of the game take place on the tops of Dubai’s many skyscrapers, and the views are breath-taking. When the sandstorms come rolling in while fighting on the top of some of the most striking buildings in the world, it looks like hell is descending around you.
I do need to write a warning though. There is a very effective scene later on that relies on the use of strobing (as in blacking out the screen then re-lighting it very fast), to get the full effect. I’m not usually affected by this but even I found it painful after a while.
Charlie still don’t surf
The team at Jaeger have made some pretty good choices when it comes to the audio side of things. Although the voice acting from Nolan North does make Walker sound like Nathan Drake after a really bad day to begin with, he helps to embody the character as the game goes on and is a really good fit.
The other voice actors in the game also help to make the story as good as it is. I don’t think I’d find Konrad nearly as terrifying if it wasn’t Bruce Boxleitner’s voice spouting down the microphone. Your team’s voices are fantastic and their dialog feels like something just out of Generation Kill. Finally for the voice work, the Radio Man is excellent. I won’t say much more, but he’s truly a great character, thanks primarily to his voice.
As I mentioned before, there is a very strong Vietnam vibe and this comes through in the background music. A large number of the classics such as “Hush” by Deep Purple are in the game and all of them are used at key moments to really put an edge on the action. The rest of music is also Vietnam tinged, with a real ‘70’s sound to the electric guitars and basses that make up the most of the incidental. I really hope they release a soundtrack CD, because it’s pretty good.
The sound effects also do a good job in helping the gameplay. They are not the best I’ve ever heard but they do a pretty good job. Guns sound hefty enough, although much of the ambient sounds are pretty repetitive. I am happy to say there is a good variety in the shouts the enemies use, but you will hear a few lines repeated.
It’s pretty lonely in here…
The multiplayer in Spec Ops sounds tempting but unfortunately it isn’t very good. My main problem with it is that it makes the game look even worse in an attempt to defeat some horrific lag, which doesn’t even work. The few games I go into were almost unplayable.
It’s a shame though; there are a ton more weapons in the multiplayer and a deep levelling system that’s on par with other shooters out now. Customisation is fun, but good luck finding enough people to play this. Luckily for achievement fans, none of the achievements require multiplayer.
Would you cross the line?
Spec Ops: The Line is a truly excellent game. The graphics are patchy, it’s quite short and the multiplayer shouldn’t exist, but the story, music and the general feel makes it a classic-to-be. Games have started to reach a point where the stories they tell don’t have to be focused on glorifying the player and making them a paragon of virtue.
Much like its inspiration Apocalypse Now, Spec Ops is not an experience you take part in to feel happy or relax. You play it to experience a message told in a unique way by making full use of its 18+ age rating, among other things. It begs the question, how far across the line in the sand would you go?