Most people aren’t good at talking about war, let alone portraying it in a fictional manner while keeping its feet in reality. Back in 2011, gamers experienced Homefront which used brutality in a strange way, making it more of a spectacle and less of a shocking factor. Then, in 2012, Spec Ops: The Line took a different approach to brutality, times of war, and the horrors experienced on and off the battlefield. Spec Ops: The Line has always been a game I meant to go back and play but it constantly got pushed behind new releases, interesting indie games and, especially this year, a whole lot of Rocket League. When the time came to use this Backlog feature as a way to make myself finally play the game I was all too happy to do so, and I’m glad I did.
Spec Ops: The Line starts off the way any cover-based, military shooter does: a conflict in a foreign country. It turns out that Dubai has been cut off from the world for six months due to severe sandstorms. You fall into the role of Walker and it’s up to you and your two man squad to find out what is going on. Pretty early on you’re introduced to the somewhat insane John Konrad and the locals he is fighting against. Whether you believe Konrad to be in the right or whether you think he needs to be stopped, your mission is to get to the bottom of this mess. In the first two thirds of the game I felt like a whole lot of violence and choosing was happening for nothing. Thankfully, I saw the game through to its end and those choices were handled in a great way that made the whole game worth playing, despite it’s lackadaisical and boring shooting.
I don’t want to harp on the gameplay too much, it’s just not worth it for this game. Gameplay is not the main reason gamers should pick up and play Spec Ops: The Line. It wasn’t the reason then and it’s not now. Much like another Backlog of mine, Advent Rising, the gameplay is severely secondary to the rest of the story and ambiance. While many people highlight the fact that the game’s story is reminiscent of a certain novel, and it is, it’s the way the game handles the pivotal moments that make it worth experiencing, even if you know how it ends.
While I was fully prepared for average gameplay wrapped in a tremendous shell of a story, I was surprised at the little things I fell in love with. For instance, dialogue in-game is handled so uniquely that I’m surprised it doesn’t happen in more games today. At the beginning of the game your squad feels like any other cut and paste military squad of goons. They crack jokes, call out things like reloads and targets, and overall sound like any military squad you can think of from any standard shooter. But after a while these men have seen some stuff, they’re mentally and physically drained and that comes across in how they speak. In fact, towards the end of the game the characters are just cursing at one another and are so short with each other that it’s uncomfortable to listen to them interact. There is definitely a repetition of dialogue that occurs, lessening the powerful effect of this design choice, but it still comes across as interesting and different.
The other great thing about Spec Ops: The Line is how it handles horrible moments. I never felt like the game was mocking the moment or treating it like some strange, military death-porn. There are a lot of powerful moments in the game and they’re executed so well that it makes you wonder how the rest of the game is so bland. It actually feels like they gameplay and story were married at some weird juncture without ever having interacted before that. Going from generic cover-based shooting to these moments of true emotion is almost as jarring as the game’s ending.
Now, I’m not here to spoil any of Spec Ops: The Line, in fact, I think you should go play it right now. That being said, the story is the main reason to play that game. It’s interesting to go back and look at these games that received mixed reviews at their time of release. While critics were mixed on the game overall, they all toted the game’s story and with good reason. It’s not some life changing narrative that will make you rethink how you look at games, but it’s told in a way that is so unique and worthwhile that the entirety of the game is saved by that one facet. There are a lot of interesting ideas in Spec Ops: The Line, ideas that I sincerely hope get carried into future games as the industry as a whole can learn a lot from this one, mediocre game.