So when I started Spec Ops: The Line my expectations couldn't have been lower. The game opens with Captain Martin Walker (you) in a helicopter operating a gun turret. The sand-covered scenery flashes by as you furiously unleash streams of lead into enemy helicopters, sending them spiraling to the earth in chaotic whirls of fiery death. My immediate thought was "oh, this is one of 'those' games." You know, the kind of game where you're some death-dealing god who's always in the right, because America is awesome, damnit!
The cliches pile on when we meet the two members of your unit: a wise-cracking white boy and a stern black man. "Oh, here we go!" I thought as I preemptively got out my mini American flag so I could wave it after every headshot. At first the story proceeded just as I'd expect, only Spec Ops seemed to take special delight in showing me images of horrific violence. It's not very subtle about it either. At one point you come across a dead body, and as the camera eagerly zooms in to show you every gruesome detail an achievement unlocks that's titled "The Horror." Given that, can you really blame me for dismissing the "horrors" on the screen as cheap shock value meant to get a rise out of me?
Then something unexpected happened. I'm not sure how much I can say here because I really don't want to spoil it for you guys. Let's just say I played a section that, in any other military shooter, would have ended with a "mission accomplished," an unlocked achievement, then on to the next wave of bad guys in need of some bullet acupuncture. Spec Ops, however, did a complete reversal of that. You are shown everything, and ... I mean ... everything. You can't skip it. The game even takes away your ability to run so you have no choice but to slowly take in the terrible sight before you.
If Spec Ops wanted to shock me, then it succeeded. I guess you can say my shriveled, jaded, desensitized gamer heart grew three sizes that day, but I felt actual guilt over what I just did. From that moment on you watch helplessly as Captain Walker begins a slow spiral into madness, and any camaraderie between his men is stomped under the crushing weight of the horrible things they've done and continue to do as they follow the orders of an increasingly unstable commanding officer. What began as a mission of mercy has, by this point, morphed into something dark and sickening. The game even asks you during the loading screen, "can you even remember why you're here?"
Even the game's title screen reflects this tonal shift. I took a break at one point, and when I started the game up again the title screen's American flag was in tatters, the city it overlooked was on fire, and vultures were pecking at the remains of a dead soldier. Did I mention that the story is a little dark?
You may have noticed that, so far, I haven't said much about the actual gameplay. That's because Spec Ops: The Line offers fairly typical third-person shooter fare. It's standard cover-based Gears of War shooter gameplay with some "tactical" squad commands thrown into the mix, though I can't seem to find sarcasm quotes massive enough for my use of the word "tactical." You give orders to your squad mates with a single button. You can order your white boy to snipe a distant target or have your black man throw a flashbang grenade at a group of enemies. The latter command, however, can only be used when the game feels like allowing it, displaying a prompt to let you know when the command is available.
The game also uses sand as a gameplay mechanic, with windows in some areas you can shoot out in order to bury your enemies. Aside from a few instances when I was directly told to do so, however, I never had a use for it. The few times I did end up using sand against my enemies was by accident, without even realizing that I'd done it. There are a few instances when you're forced to fight in a sandstorm, which makes for some epic-feeling firefights.
If you've ever played a third-person shooter before, you'll feel right at home with Spec Ops. Whatever risks the game takes with its dark storyline is counterbalanced with a staunch unwillingness to do anything truly new in terms of gameplay. Which is not to say that Spec Ops doesn't play well. What it lacks in gameplay originality it makes up for in ambiance. The sand-choked streets and buildings of Dubai offer some wonderful scenery and the music is appropriately blood-pumping, especially when a certain DJ is picking out the tunes. While the mechanics of the gun battles may be unadventurous, they are comfortable. All of this adds up to a genuinely fun shooter experience.
Whatever pleasure you get out of the furious gun battles, however, only serves to leave a bitter taste in your mouth when you're called to task for some of your more reprehensible actions. Another departure Spec Ops takes from its military shooter brethren is its choice of enemies. Since it's set in Dubai, you'd expect to be gunning down hordes of Jihad-happy Muslims, but instead you'll find yourself fighting U.S. soldiers as the primary enemies. The characters display shock, grief, and doubt at the thought of fighting those who are supposed to be their brothers in arms, and one loading screen message snidely asks "how many Americans did you kill today?"
At certain points you can listen in on the humanizing conversations between your enemies. I once eavesdropped on two U.S. soldiers sharing a heartfelt conversation, one of whom expressed nostalgia for his hometown and the need to find peace wherever you can get it. I actually started to like that guy ... and then I had no choice but to blow his brains out. I didn't want to. It had to be done.
"Do you feel like a hero yet?" the game's loading screen asks. My answer was no. No, I don't feel like a hero. Certain sections of the game made me feel uncomfortable, yet I say that not as condemnation, but as high praise. Spec Ops: The Line is a breath of fresh air which brings something unique to the military shooter genre. Here is a game not trying to be a popcorn action flick, but a poignant exploration of the human cost of war. Where other games glorify war almost to the point of deification, Spec Ops looks at its darker underbelly and shows the price in bodies one has to pay for those shiny achievement points.
Spec Ops also deserves praise for its narrative in general. It's rare that I find myself playing a shooter more for the plot than the actual shooting, and that Spec Ops managed to hook me with its story is perhaps the greatest commendation I can give to it. If more military shooters were this well-written, I'd be a fan of the genre.
I'd daresay that Spec Ops: The Line is one of the better arguments made in favor of video games being just as valid an artform as film. The game made me stop and think before I pulled the trigger, and made me question if I should even pull it at all. In this way, Spec Ops: The Line is one of the few games rated M for mature by the ESRB that I would actually consider to be a mature game, by which I mean intellectually and emotionally mature and not just a collection of blood, guts, breasts, and swearwords thrown around haphazardly in the childish guise of maturity.
The video game medium needs more titles like Spec Ops: The Line. While the game is not perfect, it's a heartening sign of the potential video games can achieve when they decide to grow up and use their interactive nature to explore the human condition.