Spec Ops: The Line

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Discover what happened to your fellow soldiers in a ruined city.

PC Release: June 25, 2012

By Ian Coppock

There’s no shortage of video games that turn war into fun… but there are only a few titles that criticize warfare and romanticized notions of it. Most of these latter games take the form of autobiographical walking simulators. Others are games with elements of psychological horror, like NevermindSpec Ops: The Line is also against romanticizing warfare, but few would guess that from its cover art of bros with rifles. That’s the beauty of Spec Ops: The Line: it’s an anti-war game disguised as a war game.

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Before old-school shooter fans ask, the answer is no. Spec Ops: The Line has nothing to do with the Spec Ops games released in the 90’s and early 2000’s. The game was developed by Yager as a reboot of the Spec Ops franchise, and was the first Spec Ops game released in over a decade. The game does emphasize controlling a small number of soldiers who are up against an overwhelming enemy force, but that and the name Spec Ops are about all that this game has in common with older titles in the series. Apologies to the 90’s shooter junkies out there.

Spec Ops: The Line starts six months after a freak sandstorm consumes the city of Dubai, killing thousands of people and burying one of the Middle East’s most opulent cities in under miles of sand. The U.S. military sends an aid convoy to the city shortly after the sandstorm, but the entire regiment mysteriously disappears. Now, six months later, someone is sending a signal from inside the sand-drowned city, and it’s up to Delta Force Capt. Martin Walker to find out who.

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That is… wow.

Voiced by the immortal Nolan North, Walker serves as the game’s playable protagonist and is accompanied into the ruins of Dubai by two squadmates: a wiscracking sniper and a big-hearted demolitions expert. The team’s objective is simple: follow the radio signal into Dubai and see if anyone is still alive. Freak sandstorms have a funny way of killing lots of people, but someone had to survive to set up that signal.

The team enters Dubai and finds the American soldiers from that aforementioned aid convoy, but they immediately shoot Walker and his comrades on sight. With no way out of Dubai, the trio shifts tactics from search-and-rescue to run-and-hide as they’re relentlessly hunted across the ruins by their countrymen. To make matters even more confusing, Walker notices that the surviving Emiratis have been whipped into a resistance force… by CIA operatives. What in Sam hell is going on in this city? Walker’s not sure, but he knows that John Konrad, the Americans’ commander and his former mentor, must know.

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Stop shooting, I eat apple pie and watch football just like you guys!

With no other option, Walker makes finding Konrad a priority. That objective is the driving force in Spec Ops: The Line as the team works its way through Dubai and kills hostile American soldiers. American troops being the bad guys is a jarring subversion of tropes common in other shooters, especially Call of Duty. On the surface, Spec Ops: The Line‘s setting suggests that jihadis are the primary enemy, but Walker and his team encounter an insidious new brand of antagonism in what are supposed to be allies.

Spec Ops: The Line also explores how a situation like this might fracture a military team’s unity in real life. Walker’s teammates are vocal about their opposition to killing fellow soldiers from the get-go, and argue more and more about the mission as they get further into Dubai. Most military shooters portray their protagonists as being rock-set in their convictions, but in Spec Ops: The Line, those convictions begin to falter.

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Whose idea was it to hide in here, anyway?

Spec Ops: The Line is criminally underrated as a war story and as a feat of storytelling in video gaming. The game’s narrative takes a premise common to military games and twists it into a psychologically exhausting trip to hell. By Yager’s own admission, Spec Ops: The Line draws heavy inspiration from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a novella about a Belgian pioneer exploring a progressively darker, harsher Congo. Likewise, Walker’s journey into Dubai is a horrifying odyssey into the depravity of the human mind.

Exactly how depraved is for new players to find out for themselves, but suffice it to say that Spec Ops: The Line gets graphic in portraying the horrors of war. The game avoids shows of military strength and unity in favor of warfare’s most brutal excesses. Walker and his comrades see some horrible stuff on their visit to Dubai… the type of stuff left out of the notions of romanticized warfare that Spec Ops wants to turn upside down. Just as a heads-up, the game includes a few torture scenes that are not fit for wobbly stomachs.

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For the cause?

Even though Spec Ops: The Line‘s dialogue writing is nothing amazing, the game’s character development is quite powerful. The trio begin their journey confident in their intentions and those of their home country, but doubts start to trickle in before long. Walker himself can’t quite believe that Konrad would condone some of the things he sees in the city, and has a progressively harder time maintaining order over his team. To top it all off, players will be faced with a few gut-wrenching choices to which there are no easy moral answers. Nolan North does a good job characterizing the doubtful soldier; his and the rest of the cast’s voice acting help these dilemmas hit even harder.

In some ways, Spec Ops: The Line could almost be classified as a psychological horror game, and not just because of its liberal use of gore. That pit of unease that the game starts players off on stays in their stomachs for the game’s entire 6-8 hour duration. The game is also commendable for portraying the onset of post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that most video game characters shrug off with ease but is a very, very real problem for men and women returning home from war. Spec Ops: The Line‘s attention to the dehumanizing effect war can have on people makes it stand out in its genre.

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No other game studies war as loss like Spec Ops does.

So wait; if Spec Ops: The Line is such a pioneering tour de force about the nature of war, why isn’t it a better-known game? Well, unfortunately, though Spec Ops: The Line has a great war story, its gameplay is much more generic. Spec Ops: The Line doesn’t go for gameplay the same way it goes for story, resulting in some of the most pedestrian third-person shooting of the genre. The game neatly borrows health regeneration, cover-based shooting, and NPC squad commands from games like Gears of War and Mass Effect.

Spec Ops: The Line‘s gunplay is similarly conventional, giving players all the usual military hardware and challenging them only to keep shooting until the bad guy is dead. The game throws a paltry selection of foes at the player, ranging only between crazy dudes with knives, ye olde infantrymen, and eight-foot-tall thugs wearing kevlar. None of these elements are bad, but some might say they’re boring. Spec Ops‘ one gameplay novelty is the ability to bury enemies in sand, and as luck would have it, enemies in this game spend a lot of time standing near sand-filled skyscrapers.

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Seriously, how many games have had this exact screenshot taken?

Spec Ops: The Line‘s artwork and graphical sophistication could also have stood more work. Make no mistake, the vistas of Dubai are absolutely stunning… but the game’s character models and in-game objects are decidedly more smudgy. Character animations are stiff and more akin to those of robots than human beings. To put it most concisely, Spec Ops: The Line looks more like a game that came out in 2007 than it does a 2012 title, at least in terms of visual fidelity. For all its blurry textures and polygonal objects, though, the game does do well with lighting setups and sound design.

Perhaps Spec Ops: The Line‘s visual team poured most of their effort into the game’s stunning weather effects. Sandstorms can whip up at any time and they roar through Dubai with impressive force. Sandstorms aren’t just for looks, though; players caught out in the open have to navigate carefully and take cover often to avoid being an easy target for foes. The sandstorms do a great job of reinforcing Spec Ops: The Line‘s postapocalyptic atmosphere, and that sense of unpredictability that comes with trying to shoot one’s way through hostile weather.

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The next man who jokes about sand in his shorts will do so with a lead bullet in his back.

Spec Ops: The Line is full of sand, but the game runs well on modern rigs and low-to-mid-range gaming laptops. The options menu, as always, could stand to be bigger, but it does give players ample control over any potential performance issues. Spec Ops: The Line shouldn’t punch PCs the way its story might punch players, especially now that the game is a half-decade old. The game has a completely dead multiplayer mode, which is useless information for prospective buyers but a great way to make this paragraph longer.

Even though Spec Ops: The Line‘s gameplay doesn’t stand out, its storytelling and acute attention to the realities of war make it one of the best shooters of the decade. It strays away from the “us vs. them” trope endemic to virtually every other shooter out there in favor of portraying the psychological effects warfare can have on soldiers. It’s a darkly beautiful journey that cuts through the romanticized veneer of combat to expose the horrors lurking just beneath the surface. That’s why everyone should play it.

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You can buy Spec Ops: The Line here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

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