Spec Ops: The Line is a game at odds with itself.
At once attempting to glorify killing yet condemn war, its noblest intentions are undercut by the violence fetish that’s inextricably tied to its chosen genre. It certainly deserves credit for addressing the psychological price paid by combatants, and the horrors of war have never been front and centre in a shooting game the way they are here. But points are rarely gained for ambition alone, and what is ultimately experienced is a pretty yet typical third-person frag-fest that aims for the heart but smashes the face instead.
Taking cues from Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novella Heart of Darkness and its film adaptation Apocalypse Now, The Line tasks the player’s Captain Martin Walker with locating an AWOL Colonel who entered a stricken Dubai with an infantry division and – save for a faint distress call – hasn’t been heard from since. Once opulent yet gaudy, Dubai has been mostly buried by cataclysmic sandstorms. Only those too poor or too foolish remain behind to tread her shimmering dunes and cracked marble floors.
Walker is not alone in this mission. He brings with him two wafer-thin personalities whose main purposes appear to be commentary on the grim unfolding of events. It’s smart to have squadmates act as super-ego surrogates, but the trio spends so much time gleefully massacring that the post-event regret-filled reflections feel forced at best. It’s tough to buy into such appeals to emotion when every headshot triggers a brief slo-mo sequence, shoot-outs are backed by rock music, and executions of downed men involve Walker crushing windpipes under his jackboot or pummelling faces into a bloody soup with his fist.
The whole game is like a schizophrenic parent who encourages their child to draw on the walls for an hour, spends a minute scolding them for their actions, then gleefully hands them the key to the paint and sledgehammer cupboard. The Line wants it both ways, but lacks the nuance to actually draw genuine emotion from its players beyond a knee-jerk “Hey! Awesome!” Tellingly, the game says as much, irritatingly loudly, every time an enemy is slain.
The one exception comes with Walker’s decision to use a chemical weapon on his foes, which plays out with predictably disastrous results. Here, The Line finally shows rather than tells, allowing the player to arrive at a place of regret by themselves. It’s still a heavy-handed sequence, but is infinitely more effective at rousing some kind of feeling than watching squabbling squadmates scuffle after deciding that the completely awesome way they dispatched those hundred dudes back there was actually totally uncool, man.
Sadly, like moralising at the end of the most preposterous of action movies, all other grabs for emotional resonance appear tacked-on by committee. When loading screens later in the game inquire, “Can you even remember why you came here?” and “Feel like a hero yet?”, the effect is silly rather than thought-provoking.
Fortunately, taken as a standard shooter with no ambitions to subvert the thinking of the murderous gaming masses, The Line is just fine.
Despite the visual uniformity of the city’s granular captor, The Line’s surprising vistas are splendid to gaze upon, blackened corpses littered about luxury cars, and exotic mat dioramas notwithstanding. Even buried up to her neck, Dubai is a striking locale, and imaginative art design paired with crisp sound effects lends a sure sense of place.
Of course, The Line is as depressingly linear as its peers, and all the usual tropes are present and accounted for, from on-rails vehicle sections, to audio logs, to regenerating health, to slow-walk exposition sections, to being knocked unconscious and losing all weapons. But it does avoid the completely over-the-top indulgences of a Call of Duty title, even if the set pieces appear similar.
The cover system mostly works, and the gunplay is solid, but the lack of a dive roll makes avoiding grenades comically awkward.
Similarly, much marketing hyperbole was made of The Line’s dynamic sand mechanic, which was said to alter the landscape of battlefields in real time while storms whipped blinding clouds into the air. It was even touted as a usable weapon. In reality, on occasion a scripted event will allow some enemies to be buried by a sand avalanche, or direct Walker and company into a new set piece but that’s about it. A complete lack of meaningful environmental destruction is a further disappointment.
The main problem with The Line as a straight-up shooter is that it’s criminally easy. There is little recoil on any of the weapons, and even when in cover the target reticule can still be used to line up perfect shots, reducing the game to a glorified shooting gallery. Furthermore, the AI is abysmal, standing up from cover to reload and duly filling the void left by just-murdered comrades like cans sliding down inside a soda dispenser. It’d barely be easier if all enemy guns were manufactured with U-shaped barrels. Later, armoured foes appear who can take more bullets, and these might even raise pulses slightly were it not for their habit of walking up to – but, crucially, not around – cover the player is cowering behind.
Squad AI isn’t much better. Although they possess a sixth sense that allows them to detect upcoming danger from several blind corners away, they also blithely ignore the melee-only enemies rushing past them in favour of picking their noses or brushing creases from their fatigues. The squad also has a frustrating habit of charging ahead and getting killed in positions that make revival attempts a suicide mission. Their constant panicked cursing during every firefight is also a source of irritation, and their visual assessments of the battles wouldn’t be less accurate if they were made by the corpse of Helen Keller.
Yet in all other respects (including length) The Line at least equals its brethren. The story is better than most, and when allies are behaving, combat is rather joyful.
There is certainly room for a thoughtful shooter or fifty among the brain-dead gorillas that currently populate the genre, and what is on offer here in that regard is encouraging, even if it's not executed to the highest standards. The Line’s dramatic punches would have landed with a lot more force had the in-game macho quotient been dialled back a few notches and had all involved not made the choice to speak through clenched teeth, but it does represent a welcome step in the right direction.
Developers just need to note that a game hoping to make a serious point about how the self in the face of war darkens beyond recognition should not include the line, “I’m getting too old for this shit.”