Publisher: 2K Games
Genre: Third-Person Shooter, Action
Rating: M for Mature
In a sea of me-too, cookie cutter shooters, especially those based on current and past wars, Spec Ops: The Line is a unique glimpse at the life of a soldier fighting a very physical war and grappling with the repercussions. Yager Development has crafted a realistic, depressing, fourth wall breaking look at the price of war for both the soldiers and the civilians that are caught in the crossfire. The game received critical acclaim and was lauded by shooter fans as well for its thought-provoking, unconventional look at the costs of the wars that people wage.
The story begins with a team of Delta Squad operatives, Captain Martin Walker, and his two loyal comrades, Staff Sergeant John Lugo and Lieutenant Alphonse Adams, in the middle of a helicopter fight in the war-torn country of Dubai, the last beacon of hope for democracy and wealth in the Middle East. Their helicopter crashes in the desert after a battle with insurgents and Captain Walker flashes back to the events that occurred prior which is where much of the game takes place. Players will experience Delta Squad’s journey from completing a routine recon operation to attempting to mount a full-scale evacuation of Dubai and the “Damned 33rd” Infantry Battalion of the US Army. All the while, players can observe how the team handles the horrors they face on the operation. Along the way, Walker’s Team, and by extension the player controlling the action, will be confronted with various questions about why they’re fighting the war they’re fighting.
SO:TL manages to take players on an adrenaline-fueled guilt trip through the use of forced, morally gray scenarios such as having to choose between killling two hanging criminals for a crazed madman, shooting your way through a hostile crowd of citizens, or finding a more non-violent solution. Often these choices will end the same way, but unlike most games where the outcome is the same regardless of choice, SO:TL excels at playing up previous plot points, as well as alluding to future revelations, through these sequences. The experience lends a sense of mystery to the overall purpose for Delta Squad’s presence in Dubai and calls into question the decision making of Captain Walker as he leads his team closer and closer to their inevitable fate.
It is not often that stories in video games break the fourth wall and allude to their self-awareness of their existence as simple, mindless pieces of entertainment. It is even more rare that the story taunts players with this notion. At one point, the primary antagonist mocks Walker over the radio and makes a comment along the line of, “What do you think this is? A video game?” This is the game satirizing typical storytelling tropes where writers try to inspire a discussion about the repercussions of war but have failed at doing so. It also is effective in making me feel like I am in the same state of mind as Walker, questioning everything that I thought I knew about the events that have transpired and my purpose for being in Dubai.
SO:TL in dealing with war and its effects, contains a lot of disturbing and questionable themes and concepts that can be quite dark. The combat in the game is standard third-person, cover-based shooting, but is very violent and features lots of blood, dismemberment, enemies catching on fire, charred remains, and other horrors of war. There was no direct spiritual content that I encountered in my playthrough. However, with the game taking place in Dubai, a prominently Muslim country, most of the religious themes relate to Islam. Additionally, the game will certainly make Christians really think about their opinions and the politics of war and how religion could have played a role in either the downfall or redemption of Delta Squad. There is also an abundance of colorful language, most typically what you would find in a war zone. Derogatory terms for the enemies players encounter and more than a fair share of F-Bombs will definitely make parents want to strongly consider the content in the game before deciding whether or not to let their child play the game.
While you do have the ability to issue commands to your squad to heal teammates or attack distant or flanking enemies, the enemy A.I. is often hit or miss in combat sequences. This results in rampant difficulty spikes in certain sections of the game, especially as players start to approach the end. When fighting alongside your squad, enemies will basically stick to one spot of cover and continue firing in the same general direction.
When facing enemies alone or when turrets are thrown into the mix, enemies get a little bit more ****y and will either charge you all at once or effectively use cover to flank. While I understand that having Walker face down about 10 enemy soldiers with nothing but a revolver adds a sense of challenge and urgency to the combat, it certainly makes for some frustrating moments in a game that is otherwise ridiculously easy. Battles typically last no longer than a few minutes and players can score extra points towards achievements for good sharpshooter skills, varied use of weapons during combat, and proper squad management and tactics.
When utilized effectively, even the most difficult combat scenarios are cakewalk when you order Lugo to snipe enemy snipers while Walker and Adams take out enemies that are flanking or charging your position. There are a few moments where you are fighting from the gunner seat of an attack chopper or riding on the side of a semi-truck filled with the last remaining water supply of the people of Dubai. These moments offer a brief, yet welcome change to the monotony of moving from point A to point B and killing everything that moves. Ammo is scarce, at least on normal difficulty and higher, and you run out of it quickly. Since there is no option to have your squad mates swap guns with you or provide the team with a resupply of ammunition, players are forced to exit cover and pick up the weapons of fallen enemies or find an ammo/grenade box to replenish their reserves.
There is one unique mechanic of combat that is rarely seen in shooters and it is the use of the environment to great effect. At certain points throughout the game, players will have the option to shoot out windows or ceiling tiles to either drop enemies to their death or to release vast amounts of sand that has piled up outside to wash away enemy soldiers. Some levels even feature sandstorms that make it difficult for both players and enemies to see and fight each other. Players can use this to their advantage to flank and overpower enemy soldiers.
Collectibles consist of audio logs that offer insight into the backstory of the characters and the city of Dubai. These are contained in packages of intel that are scattered throughout the levels and add to the overall completion score for each level.
The music in the game is standard for any form of media that has a story to tell about war. You have standard anti-war classic rock songs that play during battle which often attempt to portray the message that maybe you’re fighting the kind of war where there may not be any winners. On the opposite end of the spectrum, somber melodies play during dramatic, heart-pounding scenes of action or heartbreak and lend a sense of emotion to the world and the horrors that unfold around the player.
The voice-over work is excellent and each actor does a phenomenal job of making their character feel like an actual person—one that you will either relate to or despise.
The visuals are top-notch for a game that was initially released on Xbox 360 and PS3 and offers a surprising bit of color in certain indoor locations. This keeps the game from feeling like a slog through one sand dune ambush after another. The sandstorm effects and sand environmental kills are impressive and the sand flows realistically as it buries enemies or pours in on players from above.
Spec Ops: The Line is a dark and depressing tale of what soldiers face when they volunteer to fight for their country. It explores the effects of PTSD on the mind of a soldier who is so driven by his own moral convictions and for the need to do what is right and be the hero, that he does not always see the immediate repercussions of his actions. This is not to say that the game paints the protagonists as evil or aggressors; the game subtly alludes to their fragile mental state throughout the story, creating a one-of-a-kind storytelling experience. This method of storytelling is effective and aims to make players believe they are in the shoes of Delta Squad and are responsible for the atrocities witnessed in the game. Despite its shortcomings, SO:TL is a game that should be played by anyone who enjoys shooters, especially those based on a real-life war. Though the game makes you question every decision you make and every shot fired, you may not like Delta Squad or yourself very much by the time you complete your journey. If war truly is hell, then Spec Ops: The Line gives us the grand tour.
The Bottom Line