I love the smell of White Phosphorous in the morning...
When you see the average war-based shooters, particularly those which are online enabled, have you ever wondered about the consequences? In books and film, we’ve seen plenty of anti-war messages that don’t sidestep around the issue of the aftermath. Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is certainly one of the more disturbing of its ilk, but we rarely ever see the harsh realities depicted in the triple-A blockbuster films, let alone videogames. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare has moments that intentionally shock, but these are merely restricted to one scene. Spec Ops: The Line may start out as just another generic gung-ho third person shooter, but events quickly head towards a more traumatic and distressing direction. Is it worth it all in the end?
Delta Operators Walker, Adams and Lugo are sent to Dubai on a recon mission following a horrific sandstorm to learn the fate of the “Damned 33rd”. Deciding that their priority has shifted into becoming a rescue mission of the citizens of Dubai, Delta learns that the unit they came to save has gone rogue. Walker is convinced that Colonel Konrad knows what is going on and is determined to find him. If you have either read Heart of Darkness or seen Apocalypse Now, you can see where all of this is going and rather surprisingly the game shows a dramatic change of course that turns this adaptation into its own twisted take on the story.
While Walker and his compatriots may start out as the unlikable generalisation of American army personnel, the harsh realities of war and suffering take their toll into transforming them into human beings with real emotions. At the risk of going any further, let’s just say there are real surprises that nobody could have foreseen and as you are asked to perform more extreme procedures, Spec Ops: The Line isn’t afraid to make you question those decisions. It is almost as if the game itself is the battle-hardened commanding officer and the player is the new recruit. Some really decent performances by Nolan North and the other cast really bring this tragedy to vivid detail.
Shooting things is still the aim of the game and throughout the 15 chapters this is largely what you will be doing. Each of the standard array of weapons and grenades on offer act in a familiar way, with turrets across each chapter for good measure. Set pieces keep the flow from going stale, while clever use of sand adds a new layer onto the tactical options on offer. Not only can you shoot out areas of trapped sand to dump onto oncoming forces, you can also create a smokescreen to blind foes that aren’t killed by your frag grenades. Getting into cover is a fiddly process however, as more often than not you will accidentally leap out of cover for no reason. Mapping the simple action of leaping over the top to the melee action is also an oddity as you need to precisely approach the wall in order to not be repeatedly trying to break it down with the butt of your rifle.
A relentless AI that frequently tries to flank you is easily countered with the AI controlled partners you bring along with you. By tagging enemies up, both Lugo and Adams will try everything to make sure that foe is either pinned down or dispatched. You will need to assist them on certain occasions, but you do have the option to order one to save the other. They’re a huge asset to your arsenal and the game’s difficulty ramps up when you’re on your own against a horde of the marauding 33rd. Choices scattered throughout the game aren’t as black and white as they may seem, so you will frequently be torn mentally.
Unfortunately for Spec Ops: The Line, the single player campaign is the main attraction as multiplayer is completely disconnected and soulless as a result. Here it really is just a gung-ho average third person shooting experience. You do progress and gain perks as a result of your gameplay, but aside from the interaction with the sand, this multiplayer package is done by the book with a lack of originality from all the other shooters out there. What’s really disappointing is that it is so disconnected from the narrative that it throws away the good work the single player campaign achieved by being a kill-fest with no consequences. Multiplayer therefore feels more out-of-place than a hipster at a commercial music festival.
Exploring the desolate remains of Dubai is thankfully not as barren as it might seem. Dubai is famous for being the playground of the rich, so each set piece in the many skyscrapers is a perilous fight for survival. When things take a spiralling tumble for the worse though, it becomes clear that the antagonists like to paint a vivid picture of brutality that sets the tone for this romp in the desert. Music sets the tone quite nicely, but isn’t the main attraction.
Imagery, combined with the narrative structure and internal conflict of both the characters and one’s own psyche makes Spec Ops: The Line a unique if harrowing experience. It asks many questions about the harsh realities of war. Most of the time, it isn’t as simple as the good guys versus the bad guys. If you put any warmongering civilian who believes that war is the answer to every conflict in front of this, chances are that they will be shedding tears of remorse thanks to the powerful imagery. The mechanics are sound, but without the imagery surrounding the narrative this would have been just another generic cover shooter. As it happens, the multiplayer is a largely forgettable affair, but the single player campaign is so remarkable that even Francis Ford Copola and Joseph Conrad might have applauded its valour.