No matter how many times developers attempt to blend it into their games, morality is rarely handled in an interesting manner in our medium. Most titles create scenarios where you’re either a cold, hard killer or the world’s true savior. It’s black or white, and while there are some unique cases that create branching paths into ethically gray areas, these experiences are few and far between.
Spec Ops: The Line, on the other hand, masks one of the most effective, well-written and gut-wrenching narratives in modern video games behind the humble guise of a third-person shooter. Life-altering decisions come as quickly as the enemy’s bullets; forcing the person nervously gripping the controller to make uncomfortable choice after uncomfortable choice. There’s never a “right” answer, and while all along there’s a hope that what’s being done is morally sound, nothing ever comes without a steep price. The idealistic, fist-pumping mentality that most modern-day shooters proudly carry is left deep under the sand in The Line, replaced instead by a dark, heavy campaign that forces players to push their principles to uncomfortable extremes. It’s a tale that’s almost too well-executed to miss, yet too mechanically similar to be labeled as a classic. At its core The Line is still a cover-based, set-piece heavy shooter, and while the gunplay at times complements the tone, it still holds it back from being the sweeping experience that it should be.
The mission that Captain Martin Walker, played by Nolan North, and the rest of Delta Force are tasked with seems routine to begin with. After receiving Colonial John Konrad’s radio signal from the troubled city of Dubai, Walker, Adams, and Lugo are sent to retrieve both Konrad and all other survivors of the recent, devastating sandstorm. As you’d expect, the city and its desperate residents aren’t exactly welcoming. The locals and a rogue group of soldiers are seemingly at war, and while it’s Walker’s mission to save as many lives as possible, the line between misguided civilian and threat becomes blurrier as time progresses.
The innocent quips and witty dialogue that the game opens with fades as the harsh realities of Dubai set in, leaving only tension and foul language to be had among the three squad mates. The sand, bullets and relentless heat of the desert take a physical toll on their outside appearances, too, as blood and bruises almost make certain characters unrecognizable by the time the story concludes. The events taking place in the desert feel dynamic, but unlike most games where appearances and in-game conversation stays constant, the mood and health of delta squad weakens as Dubai continues to bite back.
Quick, spur-of-the-moment decisions lead to violent, emotional moments. The true decision making begins after putting a few hours into the game, and there are specific moments that bring you far beyond the line of comfort. The combat itself brandishes a brutality far beyond the average third-person shooter. Sure, heads and bodies can be blown to bits, but the finishing moves delivered to soldiers writhing on the ground puts a vicious cherry on this cruel sundae. Each shot fired holds an uncharacteristic amount of weight, and since it only takes a few rounds to put Walker down, The Line makes you think about each move you make. All of these moves and decisions culminate in an ending that’s truly something anyone interested in the progression of video games as a whole should take note of. The long road through Dubai changes not only Walker himself, but the player committing each questionable act, and the conclusion forces you to face reality in a mostly unexplored manner.
Yet, it wasn’t until I took a break from the emotionally driven campaign to explore the multiplayer that I remembered I was still playing a shooter. Sliding from cover to cover, taking quick headshots, and delivering “justice” in the form of the butt of a gun all feels meaningful when it’s attached to an engaging plot, but the absolutely standard online experience puts the actual gameplay into perspective. Everything works just fine and while some of the cover mechanics don’t feel as polished as they should, the character progression and variety of modes that include the classic deathmatch and objective-based games allows for hours of play. It doesn’t exactly stimulate the eyes and the few clever uses of sand seen in the campaign only come into play in the form of random sandstorms online, so there’s nothing here that separates it from any other cover-based multiplayer game. It’s competent, but in a way, only detracts from a supremely compelling campaign.
Some lag issues and an overall muddy appearance aside, the multiplayer is a fun enough distraction for maybe a week or so. The campaign itself won’t last you more than five or six hours, so if you need something to help justify your purchase, I suppose you’ve found it. But mindlessly shooting other soldiers for glory and experience fundamentally clashes with the message being pushed in the single-player game, and honestly, a cooperative addition that attempted to keep a few of the story hooks established would have been a more interesting match. That’s not what’s in Spec Ops: The Line, though, and while it’s easy to ignore the competitive aspects, they’re still a piece of the final package that needs to be judged.
Even with a rudimentary online component, Spec Ops: The Line is a step forward. It’s not the next big thing in its particular genre, but the story it delivers and the manner by which the characters progress through the excruciating decisions make it a unique, compelling ride. Moments of the campaign weren’t fun, but for a reason. The harsh realities of a war without a hero come fast and hard, and Yager Development deserves credit for not allowing too much fun soil the tone. It’s a gem hidden behind weak multiplayer and a style of gameplay done better by many of its contemporaries, but it’s worth digging through the ordinary to experience what lies within the walls of Dubai.
Spec Ops: The Line was developed by Yager Development and published by 2K Games An Xbox 360 copy was provided by the publisher for the purposes of review.