Looking back through the hundreds of shooters that shaped my gaming career, not one has produced a grimace, squirm, or uncomfortable flinch upon a character’s death. Truth be told, I find the idea of mourning piles of polygons almost laughable. And after two playthroughs of Spec Ops: The Line, those feelings remain unchanged, though the plot juggles the distinctions between what is right and what is necessary in compelling ways. The narrative intrigue delves deep into the psyche of its protagonists and the dark effects of onset PTSD, advancing boundaries where prior developers shied away. Yager Development wants you to experience the real horrors of war – controversial material too explicit for scandalous news outlets – but the subject matter is bound by the shackles of mediocre gameplay and visual drawbacks.
The stage is set. Half a year has passed since Colonel John Konrad defied orders to see Dubai’s citizenry to safety during a heightening sandstorm. The Damned 33rd, the local Army battalion, stood by their trapped commander, and now they too are at the mercy of the furious arid desert. With radio transmissions severed by the sand’s interference and helicopter evacs a no-go, the only access is on foot. Captain Martin Walker and fellow Delta Force Operators, Lugo and Adams, infiltrate the beleaguered city to rescue Walker’s seasoned mentor, but six months without contact from the outside world left the 33rd’s remnants with no options. A new government order arose to maintain the peace among the “insurgents,” the Damned’s term justifying their oppression of Dubai’s women and children.
Arguing over who ate the last MRE will get Delta nowhere.
With a self-imposed subtitle of “The Line,” Spec Ops pushes the moral envelope further than any modern military shooter – more so than controlling your character’s final moments after a nuclear detonation, or terrorizing the innocent civilians of a Russian airport. Walker’s mental seams unravel the deeper he marches into Dubai, leaving his squad to question their mission parameters. Is evacuating the civilians the best course of action? Does the Damned 33rd deserve a chance for redemption? What nightmares must Walker face to survive, and how will he convince himself that what he’s doing is right?
Ironically, I find the accomplished Nolan North's performance jarring – a consequence of my enjoyment with the Uncharted series. I cannot envision a man recognized for his portrayal of a spry, young treasure hunter filling the role of a by-the-books, hardened military operative, not that dropping of pointless F-bombs would convince me otherwise. The horrors Delta Force beholds, however, unsettle their trained dispositions. During these exchanges, they pitch their performances well. The men tear at each other’s throats, incapable of handling the atrocities they commit. Their patience grows thin, tempers flare, and their camaraderie wavers. Washing one’s hands of innocent blood is never as simple as developers would have players believe.
The price of maintaining peace.
Firefights play out like any competent third-person shooter: take cover, sight exposed enemies, and squeeze the trigger. I understand the 33rd seeking to protect its resources from outlanders, yet none of the protagonists hesitate when staring down the barrels of unfriendly rifles. I expected more ethical gray areas exhibited by Delta Force and their antagonists, but allies-turned-traitor open fire without a moment's notice, and herein lies my concern.
Spec Ops forces the context in which engagements take place. You kill rogue U.S. soldiers, soldiers that once served the country you and I most likely call home, yet the plot establishes these men as evil from the first trigger pull. If you do not shoot them, you cannot complete the mission. There is no alternative, no bargaining, and no third party presents these veterans as humane officers only following orders. How do players form attachments to adversaries just as faceless and nameless as the Russians, Germans, or other terrorist branches they usually assault in video games? I felt no remorse knowing Walker’s journey would continue at the cost of AWOL lives. If the team at Yager had walked the nonlethal route to combat, players could make the conscious effort to sacrifice former brothers in arms or venture a pacifist approach, but no such option exists.
Infantry unlucky enough to sustain a vital injury writhe on the ground, unable to stop the blood pooling beneath their body armor. What’s more, assailants only relinquish ammunition once they perish. Will you stare into a man’s face racked with pain to end the misery for an extra pistol magazine? Walker can execute wounded opponents, and these finishers change as the story unfolds. A quick throat stomp releases these men from their mortal shells initially, until the traumatic stress begins to show. Walker’s movements become more lethal, less caring, and I daresay sloppy. Watching the mentally worn Captain jam the barrel of his M4 into his target’s mouth, eyes wide, before pulling the trigger may draw the line for some players.
Bodies hanging from lamp posts scratch the surface of what's to come.
But Walker must earn those executions. What the pinpoint-accurate snipers, elites, and heavy troops lack in tactics, they make up for with weapon lethality. You will die, you will restart from a checkpoint, and you will die again. A lot. Soldiers flank Walker as he reloads, and yet they throw caution to the wind at the sight of a mounted machine gun, storming blindly towards his position with no thought of self-preservation. Cover is Delta Force’s saving grace despite some grave issues with the system. Walker slides into cover while running only if he’s sprinting fast enough. Otherwise he bounces off the barricade, standing in place unless you react. With heavy turrets constantly trained on Walker’s position, there is little room for error, and this flaw cost me several times.
There are less direct means of dealing with enemies as well. Shattering the odd window pane showers infantry with sand, and grenade detonations briefly shroud Walker in a cloud of dust. Omitting these rare instances, the sand is not what I'd call versatile, at least not to the degrees shown in early release trailers. The massive landslides remain staged, and the two sequences of braving the sandy desert winds end as soon as they begin.
To quote Michael Caine, "Some men just want to watch the world burn."
Meanwhile, multiplayer fills the check boxes of rank progression, weapon unlocks, and class customization as eight gamers compete in maps much too large for the low player count. For example, Crow's Nest spawns opponents atop Dubai's luxurious skyscrapers after an explosive remodeling. Multiple floors mean multiple plans of attack, while catwalks and zip lines adjoining the towering edifices make for quick navigation. Sadly, too much of my time included vaulting from balcony to balcony and cover to cover, hoping to encounter an opposing player no matter the outcome. With a round timer of 30 minutes, matches drag on 20 minutes too long. Some occasional optimism shines through when the raging sandstorms blanket each map, obscuring your movements through the torrential gusts as you corner your prey, though I cannot encourage players actually sink hours into The Line’s competitive aspect beyond getting their money’s worth.
The multiplayer looks comparably substandard to the single-player, too. Even worse, the campaign already contains the worst texture pop-in I've seen from the Unreal Engine 3 (and yes, I played Duke Nukem Forever). Every cutscene, character, and collectible demonstrates the penalties of too little time in development, and outsourcing the multiplayer to a different studio does the already tacked-on feature no favors. Without the narrative hooks to tie the online engagements together, the dull mercenary-versus-mercenary conflicts incorporate the same rehashed shootouts we played five years ago. With all the effort that went into building a handful of maps and familiar modes, the developers/publisher could have produced a truly outstanding single-player experience by investing their resources elsewhere.
Spec Ops: The Line delivers a promising narrative with choices rarely presented to gamers. As Delta journeys deeper into the bowels of Dubai, you will choose to obey orders or rebel against the chain of command. It takes a strong (or ignorant) man to deny the truth of his sins, a man Walker must become. Still, the shooting mechanics never dazzle, and the forced retaliation against rogue U.S. soldiers left me disconnected from Walker’s actions. But if all you want from the narrative is a dark, ambiguous tale shedding light on the casualties of war, The Line may be worth crossing.
Publisher: 2K Games
Developers: Yager Development (Single-player), Darkside Game Studios (Multiplayer)
Release Date: June 26, 2012
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign), 2-8 (Multiplayer)
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3, PC