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Spec Ops : The Line Review

Cart: Spec Ops The Line
Cab: Xbox 360 / PS3 / PC
Coin: Yager Development

When a respected journalist takes the time to write a 50,000 word thesis about a game, there’s only one of two realities: said game is a genuine watershed moment in the evolution of the medium, or said thesis is a sign of our desperate desire for such a moment.

Either way, given the apparent gravitas surrounding Spec Ops: The Line, its creators made a number of rather questionable design decisions along the way.

Firstly: if you truly wanted to make a contemporary and challenging statement about the shooting genre, why elect to resurrect a dead franchise with such a painfully generic name? It’s been a decade since the preceding title in the Spec Ops series and almost fourteen years since a worthy entry in the franchise. The Line takes no narrative elements from the previous games whatsoever and it’s highly probable that few gamers will even remember the franchise, which begs the question: why not make a fresh start? Indeed, when I first heard of this title, I assumed that it was nothing more than a ‘me too’ land-grab attempting to ride on the coattails of COD and Battlefield. Given how jaded I’ve become of even these most AAA of military shooters, I was close to completely wiping The Line off my radar. Had I not happened across a glowing review, that would almost certainly have been the case.

Secondly: for a game that clearly prides itself on telling a brave and thought-provoking story, why tack-on a by-the-numbers, soulless multiplayer component created by a separate developer? Cory Davis, lead designer at Yager: “It sheds a negative light on all of the meaningful things we did in the single-player experience. The multiplayer game’s tone is entirely different, the game mechanics were raped to make it happen, and it was a waste of money. It’s another game rammed onto the disk like a cancerous growth, threatening to destroy the best things about the experience that the team at Yager put their heart and souls into creating.”

Spec Ops The Line Screenshot 2

Thirdly: if you wanted to paint a fresh picture of the archetypal action hero, why on earth would you pick the most instantly recognisable voice in video games to bring your lead character to life? Whilst there’s no denying Nolan North’s talent and credentials, he brings perhaps more baggage and preconceived notions to a project than anyone else imaginable. Despite the impressive evolution of the character he portrays over the course of the game, I still had Uncharted ringing in my ears throughout like friendly fire.

It would appear then that whilst the publishers clearly had confidence and belief in the developer’s vision for this bold project that they didn’t have enough belief in our faith in it. They seemingly assumed that prefixing the game with a generic title from yesteryear, bolting on an obligatory multiplayer component and brainwashing us with Nathan Drake that we’d somehow be more closely drawn to it. I’d argue that if anything, their actions created the exact opposite climate and served only to disguise rather than elebrate the game’s raison d’être as the modern military shooter’s Antichrist.

Set in the sandstorm stricken city of Dubai, you take on the role of Captain Walker and his three-man squad as they search of Lieutenant Colonel John Konrad, a man that Walker served with in the past of for whom he has deep respect. Konrad and his ‘Damned’ 33rd Battalion disobeyed direct orders by going to Dubai to assist civilians in their plight instead of returning home after their last call of duty in Afghanistan. Disavowed and completely cut off from the outside world, nothing more has been heard of the 33rd until a radio message from Konrad, declaring complete failure of his mission, is intercepted and Walker is dispatched to investigate. After a brief on-rails section set near the end of the campaign, you jump back to the beginning of the plot and enter Dubai on-foot with your team: Adams and Lugo.

Right from the off, there is a disconcerting atmosphere in The Line. How did Konrad manage to misappropriate an entire Battalion under the noses of the U.S Military? How did a three-man squad make it into a supposedly inaccessible city on-foot without any additional equipment or support? How long can a dust-storm actually rage for and how has it conveniently maintained a barrier around just the city of Dubai? Granted, this is a work of fiction, but for a game that clearly tries to ground itself in as much gritty reality as possible, these pretexts feel rather surreal, perhaps intentionally so.

The dynamics between the characters in Walker’s squad are laid out expertly within the first few minutes. Solid voice acting and a well-written script paint the picture of a determined and experienced Captain and two loyal and highly capable men. Banter, friction and professionalism are mixed in equal measure and make for a believably imperfect dynamic between the three, a dynamic that is twisted and stretched to breaking point as the game evolves.

Spec Ops The Line Screenshot 3

As Walker and his men progress further into Dubai and uncover more of what happened to Konrad and the 33rd it becomes clear that this is a game that wants to challenge your preconceptions and make you think long and hard about the consequences of your actions. We’ve been trained over the years to pull the trigger instinctively and without question, arguably as those in the military are, and yet here we are forced to take actions that we will genuinely regret and aim down the sights at those that we know should not be our enemy. In The Line, you’re forced to cross it.

Parallels between great works of fiction in other mediums are immediately apparent. Elements of Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Bladerunner, Jacob’s Ladder and The Heart of Darkness all spring to mind regularly as you take an uncomfortable and uncompromising journey into the dark corners of man and of what war will do to him. Post-traumatic-stress-disorder, cognitive disassociation, paranoia, schizophrenia, trust, loyalty, conviction, honour, integrity, vengeance and truth are all explored in equal measure and in a variety of ways from the direct gameplay to the cut-scenes, audio tapes and even loading-screens that prompt you with statements such as “if you were a better person, you wouldn’t be here” and “how many Americans did you kill today?”

There’s no denying that in comparison to its peers, this is a game that asks deep questions of you and in that respect it’s an unquestionable success, but it’s not without its faults.

There is very little in the way of control that you actually have over the path that you take, narratively and literally, and as such you feel very much that your hand is forced on this dark and deeply introspective journey. Exploring the way in which the horrors of war will change a man, regardless of his strength, character or good intention, is arguably the point of the experience but the feeling of frustration when not being able to ‘do the right thing’ is inescapable. Perhaps the point of The Line is that in the middle of hell, there is no right choice.

It’s the basic gameplay mechanics though that are the game’s weakest links. Remove the high-brow narrative and what you’re left with is a generic, third-person, cover-based shooter. Yes, it’s fairly solid and enjoyable and it has some superbly crafted moments, particularly the final assault, but it’s undeniably clunky to control at times and avoiding the frequent grenade spam is, without the ability to roll or quickly roadie-run from cover, a real pain in the ass. The lack of meaningful squad commands other that ‘kill that one’ feels like a real missed opportunity too and the button layout is counter-intuitive for the vast majority of your first play through.

So is The Line a real watershed moment in gaming? Perhaps, but I honestly believe that it’s far too early to say. If we feel its influence in years to come then, yes: unquestionably so. If, however, it proves to be a creative dead-end and a darling of the critics alone then, no: we’re clearly not ready for its message yet.

Games are a relatively young creative medium, perhaps the youngest, and like all mediums it will take time to grow, look inwards, ask questions of itself and evolve before it reaches maturity. We’ve seen this journey taken successfully in film, literature, theatre, dance, architecture and art and we’re beginning to see it in games but a medium can only evolve at the pace at which its audience is willing to let it. Granted, the odd maverick such as The Line can push the envelope from time to time but if people aren’t willing to go with it, it’s likely to plough nothing more than its own furrow.

Spec Ops The Line Screenshot 1

Wise man say: be careful what you wish for. The clamour for maturity in games leads ultimately and somewhat ironically to inescapable stagnation. The old phrase “there’s nothing new in music” exists for good reason and could be readily applied to other creative mediums. Once said medium has explored all the options, flipped the coin on both sides, deconstructed and reconstructed itself, there’s very little more meaningful territory to be explored and we settle instead for the slow kaleidoscope of existing genres and styles being mixed and matched. The same will eventually happen to games and in many respects it already has with fresh genres being few and far between.

As a parent, I know that my job is to gradually make myself redundant so that my children may one day make their own way in life. But whilst I appreciate what the end goal is, I’d be a fool to not love every minute of the journey. Similarly, whilst it’s clear that games are almost fully capable of standing on their own two creative feet, we’d be unwise to wish for them to grow up too quickly and miss the final drops of mistakes, immaturity and charm. Gaming, perhaps more so than any other medium, struggles to reminisce. We can go and watch a play that’s been running for over two decades relatively unchanged; we can listen to music recorded in the previous century; we can appreciate centuries old art and we can absorb ourselves in the films of previous generation quite easily and respectfully. But gaming, retro gaming, requires just that little bit more of a purists’ effort to experience and seems to be much less fashionable as a result.

Gaming is therefore much more of a one-way street in comparison to any other creative medium and it’s for that reason alone that a landmark title such as Spec Ops: The Line fills me with both hope and regret in equal measure.

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Husband. Parent. Gamer. Go figure.

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2 Comments

  1. Great review 🙂

  2. Cheers, Simon – it was difficult to know where to start with such a meaningful title that’s had so much already said about it. It was almost a Hindsight piece given its age, then almost an Opinion piece given its weight and breadth but in the end it felt as though a Review just as the dust was settling was the best choice. Great game. Uncomfortable and emotionally challenging but great.

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