The military shooter, from the first or third person perspective, is a genre that we can all play in our sleep now. This generation has provided enough to last us through the next decade, giving players the chance to embody nearly every notable military organization from the National Guard to the Taliban to the founder of Seal Team 6 himself (note: that’s not an endorsement of Rogue Warrior). Each of these games has given us a slightly different glimpse at the sacrifice and valorous dedication that every soldier brings to his or her occupation. It’s a genre that’s largely about honoring the service of our military forces, and the skill with which they perform their duty- no matter how intense or unpalatable that might be. Even at their most subversive, such as the inimitable Call of Duty 4, these games show players what it’s like to bask in the dangerous glory that cleanses the world of its evil.
Spec Ops: The Line is not one of those games. It is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and that wolf is the player.
The player is Captain Martin Walker, voiced by gaming’s go-to folk-hero Nolan North, a Delta Force operator leading two subordinates on a recon mission into the suffocating city of Dubai. For the previous six months, the city was consumed by relentless sandstorms that cut it off from foreign aid and forced its occupants to find any way they could to leave. A Colonel named John Konrad, leader of a division named the Damned 33rd, was sent to evacuate everyone he could, but soon fell off the map. Walker’s mission is to make contact with Konrad, and give the all-clear for another cavalry to come in and help the city evacuate.
This basic set-up unfolds over an 8 hour campaign. Through that time, the gameplay never shifts from cover-based 3rd person shooting. If you’ve played Gears of War, Binary Domain, or Army of Two, then you know exactly what to expect. Spec Ops adopts an even narrower focus than those titles, though. The campaign doesn’t allow for co-op, and there are few tactical options outside of highlighting enemies for your squadmates to target.
The gunplay is respectable, employing a soft time dilation effect after each headshot that facilitates easy target acquisition as reward for accuracy. Aside from that, it’s a solid gameplay design that is diminished only by its controls. Spec Ops uses two different buttons for entering cover and vaulting over it, which is problematic if only because it disrupts the muscle memory acquired from every other cover-based shooter of the last half decade. The lower difficulty settings are ideal until those control hurdles are overcome, as entering cover often gets confused with melee attacks, and checkpoints are somewhat less than forgiving. These issues also will also affect how much enjoyment one derives from the game’s dutifully included multiplayer mode, the nicest aspect of which is its lack of an online pass.
While the rote 3rd person mechanics don’t distinguish themselves from other games in any significant way, the setting of Dubai does its best to pick up the slack. Progression is linear, but the level design is clever and open-ended enough that the player rarely has just one option for approaching a firefight. The game also uses sand as a device to bury enemy soldiers in a number of cool ways, but these are usually pointed out and less dynamic than they could be. A few, frankly stunning, set-piece moments involving sandstorms round out the action, but the gameplay really isn’t what drives the action- it’s the story.
Spec Ops has been in development for a long time, and it shows. Character models and animation look a bit behind the times, particularly the aliasing, and the hair textures are wince-worthy. Fortunately however, though the engine work is long in the tooth, the art direction keeps it strong. Dubai is awash in blinding light, and there’s a constant clash between the opulent colors of the city and the natural wasteland that’s slowly consuming it. Every level is packed with detail about the lives of the people who used to live there, and the grander municipal beauty that’s succumbing to the environment. Nature buries everything, and that theme comes to ring true for both the setting and the characters who occupy it.
Spec Ops can’t be approached from its gameplay concept. On that front, it’s done, it’s bland, it’s unremarkable, but the value of this title is derived entirely from what it does with such a well worn genre. This may very well be the best war game yet made, because it takes its story seriously and leaves only what it must to the imagination. Walker’s mission soon grows more complicated than initially perceived, and it leads to a series of hellish revelations and choices for the player that are as stark in their presentation as they are in their judgment. It has the same level of disdain for focus-grouped teleological plots as George R.R. Martin. Put simply, and without spoilers, by the end of this game the player will have seen some stuff, man, and some things.
But it’s not just the uncompromising plot that impresses, it’s the way in which it leverages its medium against the player to the story’s benefit. Spec Ops finds little ways to put the player on the same trajectory as Walker, mocking them for their decisions and blurring the line (forgive the phrase) between player and character responsibility. In so doing, it presents a take on military life that makes the player feel truly culpable for the character’s actions. As simple as the game is, it’s almost impossible to put down, because it so effortlessly propels the player down the same demented evolution as its protagonist. In one of the game’s many standout moments, the player does something that leaves them staring into Walker’s reflection, just before the moment is transformed into something truly horrifying. Even the presence of Nolan North, beloved actor to us all, is used as another way to shock and disturb players’ understanding of traditional game tropes.
It’s a campaign that merits multiple playthroughs, and a story as strong and daring as those of Bioshock, Shadow of the Colossus and Dead Space 2. Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that it achieves this in spite of mechanics that are noticeably dated and bereft of innovation. For that reason, the game is best taken as a whole, and not as something that can be played simply on the strength of its mechanical composition.
You could be forgiven for thinking that Spec Ops was released two or three years ago, but one thing that can’t be misconstrued is that if it had, we’d all still be talking about it today.