In 1994, an independent video game development company named Zombie Studios was founded in Seattle, Washington. Around this time, one genre in particular was rapidly gaining popularity: the first-person shooter. However, the developers at Zombie Studios sought to go in a slightly different direction by introducing a tactical, third-person element to their games. Rather than blazing through as a one-person army, the protagonist would have squadmates to whom the player could issue commands. The game which resulted from this line of thinking was Spec Ops: Rangers Lead the Way. Debuting in 1998, the Spec Ops franchise later saw several releases on platforms such as the PC, Dreamcast, and PlayStation before coming to an abrupt end in the early 2000s before it could truly find its audience.
Many years later, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was released, paving the way for a new subgenre of first-person shooters: the modern military shooter. These games differed from their predecessors in that they usually depicted entirely fictional conflicts between real nations. Due to a combination of superb marketing and critical acclaim from the press, the modern military shooter achieved a level of success and inspired several imitators much like 2D platformers did throughout the eighties and nineties. Many of the concepts introduced in Spec Ops were tailor-made for the modern military shooter such as the idea of working in a unit as opposed to being a lone wolf protagonist, but few predicted that the franchise would ever see a new installment nearly a decade after Airborne Division was cancelled. In 2012, another independent gaming company based in Berlin, Germany known as Yager Development rose to the challenge by releasing Spec Ops: The Line. By this point in history, modern military shooters reached a saturation point, with competing franchises featuring largely interchangeable gameplay despite having entirely different teams working on them. Despite the odds, Yager Development managed to stand out from the crowd, and achieve critical acclaim from various publications for its expertly written scenario. In a highly competitive market, being able to make your work distinct from that of your competition is no mean feat. How did Spec Ops: The Line manage to accomplish this?
Playing the Game
Spec Ops: The Line is a third-person shooter. It is encouraged to fire from concealed areas because the protagonist can’t exactly absorb entire clips of ammo like in classic shooters. When he takes damage, drops of blood adorn the perimeter of the screen. To recover from this, one needs to find a safe place and wait. Once the drops of blood disappear from the screen, you can resume playing as normal. Like many other shooters at the time, you can only carry two firearms. Happening upon a new gun will give you the option to switch it with the one that is currently equipped. When standing over a wounded soldier, you press the appropriate button to execute them on the spot. The reason for doing this is because you can only collect weapons and fresh clips from dead enemies. It is inadvisable to fire your weapons unnecessarily because ammunition is rather scarce.
In addition to basic firearms, you can find three different types of explosive weapons to gain a tactical advantage over your enemies: fragmentation grenades, flashbangs, and sticky grenades. Frag grenades are the standard variety – it explodes after a few seconds, killing any nearby enemy. Flashbangs are not lethal, but they explode upon impact, stunning nearby enemies so that you take them out using other means. Lastly, as their name suggests, sticky grenades adhere to the enemies they land on, making it an effective method to get rid of heavily armored foes.
Throughout most of the game, the main character is accompanied by two squadmates. Depending on the situation, you can command them to snipe specific enemies or throw a flashbang when you’re completely pinned down. The only thing to keep in mind when doing this is that issuing these orders puts them in the line of fire. Should they sustain too much damage, they will be unable to move. When this happens, a bar appears on the screen with the squadmate’s name next to it. When the meter completely fills, the mission is a failure and you must restart from the last checkpoint. First aid must be applied to save their lives. You can opt to heal them yourself or, if one is uninjured, you can command him to do the job.
Spec Ops: The Line is set in a community on the Arabian Peninsula, and the arid climate of the region can be used to your advantage. For example, by throwing frag grenades into the ground, the explosion can kick up a cloud of sand, potentially blinding enemies or making it more difficult for them to spot you. On certain occasions, you can even shoot glass panes in underground buildings to bury enemies with sand. The setting is also periodically ravaged by sandstorms. When this happens, grenades become more effective and enemies will have a difficult time spotting you, but you cannot issue commands to your squadmates.
On the surface, this description would paint Spec Ops: The Line as a typical cover-based, third-person shooter that was ubiquitous in the early twenty-first century, following the success of Epic Games’ Gears of War franchise. This is because, from a gameplay standpoint, that’s exactly what it is. Other than occasionally using the environment to your advantage, it doesn’t provide any meaningful spins on the genre to really stand out from its contemporaries; anyone who has played Gears of War or Uncharted could take one look at the gameplay and have it completely figured out.
This isn’t to say the gameplay of Spec Ops: The Line is completely forgettable, but unfortunately, I would have to say it manages to be memorable for all the wrong reasons. As is the bane of many subpar games, the controls are decidedly less than satisfactory. Although there’s nothing terribly wrong with aiming or shooting, you need to press a button in order to take cover next to a wall or partition. There were many instances when I was hammering the correct button only for the protagonist to not carry out the desired action. I concede it’s entirely possible I wasn’t close enough to the walls, but I distinctly remember a few times when the prompt appeared onscreen only for nothing to happen when I pushed the button. It’s an especially big problem in this game because the main character is extremely fragile, and there were countless times when he got killed due to what would be considered a minor misstep in other shooters. It may not have been so bad except that the load times in console versions are unreasonably long – especially for such a linear experience.
Adding to this problem is the placement of the checkpoints themselves. There are several times where they are placed before a cutscene begins. Many of these cutscenes cannot be skipped, meaning that with the way Spec Ops: The Line is designed, you have to sit through a tedious load screen which is subsequently prolonged with a portion which involves no interaction on your part just to get another chance. It may seem like a minor issue, but it gets grating the longer you play, and I’m legitimately surprised that a big-budget studio could make such a basic error. After all, the reason most developers place checkpoints after the conclusion of a cutscene is because they know that players are going to want to jump right back into the action after dying.
Lastly, I found looking after the squadmates to be incredibly tedious. In the interest of fairness, they can actually save you in a pinch, and I wouldn’t call the entire game an escort mission, but there were quite a few times when they both got injured at the same time, meaning I couldn’t get them to heal each other. Because of their irritating propensity to get hurt in the middle of the battlefield, this meant exposing the protagonist to heavy gunfire. |This problem becomes even worse in the last chapters when you only have one squadmate; if he gets injured and there are several enemies present, you might as well restart to save time.|
Spec Ops: The Line, despite having been released in 2012, has significantly less polish than Resident Evil 4, a horror-themed third-person shooter from 2005. It isn’t merely a case of Resident Evil 4 being ahead of its time either; Metal Gear Solid 4 and Uncharted 2, released in 2008 and 2009 respectively, also feature smoother controls and more sensible design choices than those of Yager Development. Consequently, I would have to say Spec Ops: The Line plays more like an advanced beta than a finished product. The mistakes the programmers made would have been difficult to overlook when the genre first started to gain popularity, much less when it was several years into its golden age. Anyone completely unfamiliar with this game would openly wonder what the point is in playing it.
Analyzing the Story
WARNING: The remainder of this review will contain unmarked spoilers. Do not proceed if you are at all interested in playing this game.
Six months ago, a series of brutal sandstorms – the worst in recorded history – ravaged the city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Politicians and the wealthy elite attempted to downplay the situation, but were eventually forced to evacuate themselves from the city. This action left countless Emiratis and foreign migrant workers behind with no means of escape. The 33rd Infantry Battalion of the United States Army was returning from an expedition in Afghanistan when the storms struck. Despite suffering from PTSD, Colonel John Konrad, the unit’s commander, volunteered the 33rd to help relief efforts. When the Army ordered him to abandon the city, he and his unit deserted. Shortly after he made this decision, the storms intensified, disrupting surveillance, air travel, and all but the strongest of radio broadcasts.
In an attempt to maintain order amid winds exceeding 120 kilometers per hour, riots, and rapidly dwindling resources, the 33rd declared martial law. Many of the soldiers within the unit were appalled, with some even staging a coup d’état against Konrad. The effort ended in failure, and they were ultimately exiled. The CIA then sent a black ops team to investigate. They in turn convinced the locals to attack the 33rd, the insurgency resulting in a ceasefire. The last communication picked up from Dubai was word that the 33rd would attempt to lead a caravan out of the city. It never arrived, and shortly thereafter, the United Arab Emirates declared Dubai a no man’s land, barring anyone from entering. As a response to this situation, Konrad’s battalion was publicly disavowed for treason.
Two weeks ago, a faint, looping radio signal finally penetrated the storm wall: “This is Colonel John Konrad, United States Army. Attempted evacuation of Dubai ended in complete failure. Death toll… too many.” The United States Military decided to covertly send an elite three-man Delta Force to carry out reconnaissance. The team, consisting of Captain Martin Walker, First Lieutenant Alphanso Adams, and Staff Sergeant John Lugo, have been ordered to confirm the presence of any survivors. Once finished, they are to immediately radio for extraction.
It may sound as though Spec Ops: The Line has a plot of a typical modern military shooter: it’s up to a small, yet highly skilled group of soldiers to defy the odds and restore order to a foreign region. Walker is a pretty typical example of a protagonist from the genre: a good person who is rough around the edges, yet always wants to do the right thing when push comes to shove. His teammates also embody familiar architypes with Lugo being the wisecracker and Adams serving as the more down-to-earth member who keeps him in check.
Moreover, Spec Ops: The Line features a plot that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Call of Duty game; Walker was ordered to carry out a simple recon mission, but extenuating circumstances causes him along with his two squadmates to take up arms. The catalyst for this is a failed attempt at a peaceful intervention when the three happen upon a platoon of loyalist 33rd members rounding up refugees. The soldiers mistake them for CIA operatives, prompting a violent shootout. Lugo and Adams are understandably perturbed about killing off fellow Americans and urge Walker to pull themselves out. However, Walker has a great amount of respect for Colonel Konrad after he saved his life in Kabul. This motivates him to remain in Dubai in hopes of evacuating any survivors and finding Konrad so he can plead his case.
Already, there’s an interesting subversion in the subgenre’s formula: the antagonists are of the same nationality as the leads. It becomes even more apparent that the game isn’t what it seems later when Delta Force arrives at a fortification guarded by a full company of 33rd soldiers. Walker calculates that a head-on attack would result in certain death, but luckily for them, there is a mortar nearby stocked with white phosphorous munitions. Lugo’s protests are drowned out by his comrades, and the mortar strike completely obliterates the company. Shortly before succumbing to his mortal injuries, a soldier says that they were helping. To his horror, Walker notices the charred corpses of 47 civilians – both children and adults among them. The company was attempting to transport civilians out of the warzone and they were all caught in the blast radius.
This is when Spec Ops: The Line begins to show its true colors, as the story’s real goal was to brutally deconstruct the modern military shooter. To put this in context, the early 2010s saw a fierce rivalry between two publishers after the enormous success of Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare 2. Activision commissioned annual sequels to Call of Duty while Electronic Arts championed new entries in the Battlefield franchise. Both series had countless spinoffs and were guaranteed to dominate sales charts with each installment. The pervasiveness of these games gave rise to a cacophonic faction within the community: one whose members use the experiences as a way to validate their highly jingoistic outlook. It wasn’t a case of unstable fans reading too much into their favorite games either; the Modern Warfare trilogy went from condemning such a mentality as dangerous to embracing it with nary a trace of irony to be found. Things only got worse from there, culminating in the widely reviled Call of Duty: Ghosts in 2013.
Owing to a combination of promoting an unhealthy mindset and selling millions of units with each installment, it was a subgenre which deserved to be scrutinized – a mission Yager Development decided to undertake. To this end, the writers took inspiration from Joseph Conrad’s classic novel, Heart of Darkness, and Francis Ford Coppola’s epic film, Apocalypse Now. Captain Walker goes far beyond the scope of his mission in a misguided attempt to be a hero, and his actions make things substantially worse for everyone. The transformation he undergoes is haunting. At the beginning of the game, he’s calm, collected, and professional – even in combat. By the end of the game, he has devolved into a raving lunatic with a loose grip on reality; his face is barely recognizable from all of the injuries he sustained, he curses nearly every time a bullet hits him, he angrily barks out orders to his squadmates, and his animations when executing enemies become extremely violent, almost to the point of reveling in the carnage.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the plot is the driving conflict for the game’s second half. Shortly after the mortar strike, Walker finds a radio that provides a direct link to Konrad. In his soliloquies, the colonel comes across as a little more than a stereotypical video game antagonist with a megalomaniacal streak – a far cry from the honorable man he once was. The truth is revealed at the end of the game when Walker enters the tower Konrad and the remnants of the 33rd are occupying. The colonel had killed himself some time before Walker was sent on his mission. Walker couldn’t accept the enormity of his horrific actions following the white phosphorus incident, so he placed all of the blame on Konrad, feeding his delusions by making him the villain of his power fantasy. It’s a genuinely excellent twist that reinforces the narrative’s central message, and the acting performances are top notch for that scene.
So the conclusion that can be drawn from my assessment is that Spec Ops: The Line may not be blazing any trails with its gameplay, but the narrative is intelligently written and more than makes up for its shortcomings. It’s not terribly unusual; after all, I’ve played games such as Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors and Planescape: Torment, which weren’t exactly what I would call fun in the traditional sense, yet their creative stories completely drew me in, making for unforgettable experiences. After playing Spec Ops: The Line for myself, I can say that it is absolutely not in the same league as those aforementioned titles.
I have no doubt some people reading this are a bit confused by my last assertion, so I shall explain myself. Although there are many legitimately good things one could say about the plot, it’s not as effective as my initial summary made it out to be. To make my case, we need to go back to the white phosphorus scene, for I believe it to be both the game’s turning point and evidence of its greatest weakness. I do admit that the aftermath of the mortar strike is one of the most horrific scenes in video game history, but at the same time, it feels cheap. Specifically, the authors tried too hard – not to be shocking, but to pin the blame on the player. The narrative holds nothing back in its attempts to make the player feel like dirt for the actions Walker commits throughout the game. During the opening credits, it even lists the player’s username as a “special guest,” further cementing their supposed culpability. Later on in the game, load screens display fewer hints and in their stead are passive-aggressive messages asking if you feel like a hero yet or how many Americans you’ve slaughtered. Walker is less a character in his own right and more of a stand-in for the player.
None of these ideas are bad in of themselves, but there’s one fatal flaw which makes the narrative unsalvageable: there is no effective way to prevent Walker from committing these atrocities. Sure, you have to input the button combinations that will result in these horrific scenarios, but at no point does the game ever offer an alternative to them. Trying to take on the company of soldiers without using the mortar will result in an unwinnable battle, as enemy snipers will respawn indefinitely until you relent or die. My rule when it comes to judging the player morally is that you cannot do so if you only give them one way to proceed. As a counterexample, the biggest reason why Planescape: Torment is downright brutal should you play as an evil character is the knowledge that the game never forces you to do awful things to the world’s inhabitants. Admonishment has much more impact when you have no one to blame but yourself. I’m amazed how many developers fail to grasp this basic concept as late as 2012 when Black Isle Studios, the team behind Planescape: Torment understood it perfectly in 1999. The narrative of Spec Ops: The Line even seems to go as far as insinuating that these events would not have come to pass if the player didn’t have the temerity to want to see things through to the end.
This is a problem which seems endemic to the realm of video games because I have a difficult time imagining creators in any other medium pulling that off and getting away with it. There’s a reason you don’t see many directors stating that theatergoers’ inability to vacate the premises caused countless deaths within their own work. This is because most of them realize there’s a fine line between challenging your audience and outright belittling them. Certain musicians provide an exception to this rule, but even then, there’s usually a tongue-in-cheek quality to their scathing lyrics (or if nothing else, at least there are catchy riffs to go along with them).
Most damningly is that the people who shape these scenarios never seem to address the obvious implications of their rhetoric. I can see why, and it’s not for a sympathetic reason. If the player is so awful for the crime of wishing to complete a game where the only choices will result in death, destruction and despair, then by the narrative’s own logic, the developers are the biggest monsters of all for never giving the audience a method to avert that fate other than an inane suggestion to turn the game off, wouldn’t it? It sure is convenient how they suddenly become silent on this matter after demonstrating their belief that subtlety must be avoided at all costs. Maybe I had it wrong; Konrad is actually a representation of gaming fans while Walker is an avatar for development teams. It would explain the latter’s propensity to never take accountability for his actions.
Drawing a Conclusion
When it’s time to wrap up my reviews, I almost always know where I stand when it comes to the subject of recommending the work. In the case of Spec Ops: The Line, my stance goes far beyond a simple dissuasion because I’m left openly wondering who could possibly enjoy it. I’m aware that fans of this game exist, but whether or not someone will love the game appears to be on a purely case-by-case basis. Third-person shooter fans would likely pass it up for one of the countless, superior alternatives. Even those seeking a good story-heavy experience would have a difficult time overlooking the unpolished gameplay – assuming the condescending tone of the narrative doesn’t get to them first. Personally, I think the greatest indication of how much Spec Ops: The Line fails is that the people who desperately needed to hear the message it preached probably quit in frustration and returned the disc to their local retailer long before the signature scene. If that’s true, they were absolutely in the right for doing so. Ironically, the only people who appreciated what the narrative had to say were those already opposed to the modern military shooter in the first place.
There’s another, less-obvious problem with recommending Spec Ops: The Line. It’s a deconstruction of a subgenre that had an immense, yet short-lived popularity. One could say it’s meant to be a critical look at shooters in general, but it’s clear the mold used to craft this game was based on the modern-military template. This means that the motifs present are very dated, making it difficult for anyone without the proper context to appreciate this game’s nuances. The reason Planescape: Torment and other games of its ilk are successful is because they deconstruct timeless genres – the conventions of which are easily grasped even by those who wouldn’t call themselves experts.
Spec Ops: The Line also showcases one of the most embarrassing habits developers had in the early 2010s. For some inexplicable reason, it was not uncommon for game developers to treat their audience, whose money sustains their employment, with hardly any respect – sometimes bordering on contempt. Do they have a genuine problem with egotism? Is it a mistake that can be attributed to poor communication skills? It’s easy for outsiders to believe that the gaming community is full of weird, antisocial people, and these shameful tendencies exhibited by the artists themselves do little to assuage this perception. After all, when the professionals aren’t acting responsibly, would that really encourage their fans to pick up the slack?
At the end of the day, Spec Ops: The Line goes out of its way to make the player feel as bad as possible for playing it. Feeling shame for wanting to play a game is just as ludicrous as the idea of feeling shame for wanting to read a book, watch a movie, or listen to music. As such, I find it fitting to say this: I apologize for nothing. I have no regrets, and in the event that you pick this game up for yourself, neither should you.
Final Score: 3/10