Spec Ops: The Line review
Shooter made by hippies


The big thing with Spec Ops: The Line is its message. Not the gameplay or the story; just the message. A message in blood, if you will... I've stated this in previous reviews that I've viewed games as something to dick about in for a couple of hours and then you go and do something else with your life, but I can acknowledge when games go above and beyond that. Games like Journey and Nier that has you feeling for the characters; games like Okami that feels more like an interactive sumi-e painting celebrating Japanese mythology than a mere video game – they do more than just give you simple objectives and all that shit. Then you get Spec Ops: The Line, which is more about preaching its message about how shooters glorify violence than actually playing the game.

Yes. Violence is bad, Yager. Murder is wrong. Fur is murder. *bleep* me running.

The game starts with Martin Walker and a couple of other soldiers heading out to Dubai to find and secure whatever survivors they can find after a huge sandstorm that occurred six months before the game began. Okay, seems like a good enough concept. But when they do find some survivors, they think you're going to send them to some concentration camp or something, so they have to shoot them. You learn more about what happened to Dubai over the six month period between the sandstorm and the beginning of the game. There's tension between sectors of the city and you, the filthy Americans, aren't doing much if anything to help. At that point, you're roped into situations that... what's the best way to put this – theoretically, you're meant to do what it takes to survive in a hostile environment and a military mission gone awry; in practice, you're meant to gun everyone down, ready for the developers to talk down to you with shit like “do you feel like a hero yet”.

So basically, you put us into situations where we have to gun down enemy soldiers, and then make us question whether or not we feel like heroes for killing virtual people in order to deliver a message? I get it Yager – there are too many violent video games and instead of going Jack Thompson or Joe Biden on them, you make a game that's supposed to make you feel bad for killing video game characters. The thing is, the story is actually pretty good... when it delivers the message in a way that flows with the narrative with the deaths of certain people and the development of Walker's character as the game progresses. It has your squad going from a bunch of laughing joking dudes to angrier people who swear every other word in frustration over their situation, and eventually, shit goes down. Their spirits are deflated to like nothing due to the ravages of war. Executions go from professional to downright psychotic. Walker falls victim to some visual and aural hallucinations.

You know what that is? That's great storytelling! It hooks the player in and gives them more incentive to keep playing! Shovelling disturbing imagery in our faces and having captain condescending talk down to the player is bad storytelling because it goes out of its way to make you feel bad without letting the narrative do its thing. Some of this looks like a *bleep*ing PETA ad, saying that you should feel bad for eating steak. Look, I like shooting games for their fast and frenetic gameplay, not to feel like some sort of hero. I'm not going to join the military because I like Call Of Duty – I'd get laughed at. I sure as hell am not going to pick up a gun and shoot up a university after a round of any given shooting game. Just stick with narrative context and leave the sensationalist bullshit to environmentalists, animal rights groups and journalists. The story and especially the progression of the characters are more what I'd love to see from gaming stories... not the exact scenarios, but remembering that people *bleep*ing develop over time!

The presentation is a mixed bag of sorts. On the aural front, it works pretty well. Instead of dramatic orchestrated music, it instead has licensed rock songs to set off a powerful, bombastic atmosphere for the beginning of the game, giving way to some acoustic tracks to set a more sombre mood in the latter portions of the game. In the same way that the characters develop, the music develops in a way that goes from big and maybe slightly cocky, to sad and subtly dramatic. The voice acting does a similar thing, especially when you have Nolan North (known for voicing Desmond Miles, Nathan Drake and Vashyron) voicing our main character. The way that they all go from light hearted jokers pointing out that it's like they're in a video game into angry, surly people just wanting to kill everyone and be done with their job before they slip even more into insanity. It works pretty well.

What doesn't quite work as well are the graphics. On the whole, it's vibrant with a decent range of colors, especially during the hallucinations, but then you have textures that take a few seconds to load... and they're not even all that detailed. The sand... well, I don't expect Uncharted 3 quality graphics from a first time studio, but I do expect Same with the characters – they're far from detailed on a technical scale and their animations are pretty jerky, but stylistically, I mean, the physical deterioration of our soldiers as the game progressed is certainly a nice touch. The cutscene graphics are less sharp than the in-game graphics, which is rather baffling and makes you wish that they'd use the in game engine for the cutscenes.

But at the end of the day, I wouldn't have such grievances with the game, especially with the story, if the gameplay wasn't so drab. It's just a third person shooter with cover mechanics and enemies that shoot at you. You have all sorts of assault rifles, shotguns and the occasional explosive weapons to play with, add ons like suppressors, grenade launchers and scopes, and the environments do occasionally change from corridors to circular indoor areas and even the desert itself to try and keep things interesting. However, that's about it. It would appear to be squad based, but the most you can do is order them to attack, to give somebody medical attention or to pull back, sometimes telling them to blow something up. The AI for your squadmates ranges between functional and “front row seat in the short bus” - they'll either fight back or just stand there and pick their noses while you pick off “enemy” soldiers. Said “enemy” soldiers have good enough AI to shoot you and... shoot you some more. They'll chuck some grenades sometimes, but yeah, they can be smart enough cookies to fight back.

For the most part though, it's nothing new, it's not executed any better than in other third person shooters, and I noticed that it's not quite as polished as it could've been. Having said that, there are some attempts to make the gameplay feel fresh. For one thing, it's a bit more difficult than one would expect. Walker can't take too much damage unless you're playing on one of the easier difficulty levels, so you have to play a bit smarter than you would in other shooting games. Checkpoints are separated by a fair bit of time, so dying will send you back a fair bit. A bit of encouragement to not play sloppily never hurt anyone. Another thing is that the sand plays a big role in shootouts. When sandstorms get thick, you can't see much if anything ahead of you and the commands you give to your squadmates are drowned out, so if they suddenly drop off and do nothing, well, it's their loss unless you get into a rather unpleasant situation. The last thing that this game does is put you in some situations where you have to choose whether to spare or kill someone based on circumstances either given to you upfront or whatever you've been given prior to the event, all of which can lead into one of four different endings.

But none of these features really do anything to draw attention away from the fact that this game is *bleep*ing dull. Between constantly needing to bob in and out of cover to gun down some soldiers, to getting into some turret sections to take down waves of soldiers, it reeks of “been there done that”. I get why they did it this way, but you can make it fun too. In fact, it could actually make the message stronger than if you make it a dull game to play through. It's also fairly unpolished. I've already mentioned that the squad AI inconsistencies, but there's more to it than that. The shooting feels a bit wonky as the sensitivity is either too much or too little, you often don't take cover even if you're pressing the button to get into cover and instead find yourself either sliding into it when you shouldn't or just standing there, and I've actually noticed that Walker can and will stop for like no reason whatsoever. The “elite soldiers” towards the end of the game have been trained to take like a million bullets in the face and feels more imaginary difficulty than an actual challenge, which is just lame. It further drags down the gameplay more than simply mediocre gameplay ever could, regardless of whether the gameplay was decidedly or unintentionally mediocre.

The sad part is that the message Spec Ops: The Line wants to deliver will either completely fly over peoples' heads or simply be misinterpreted. The idea is that violence is wrong and that you're not supposed to feel like a badass for killing all of those digital people virtually single handedly. It's something that gamers need to have shaved into their heads, I understand that, but not through shock treatment and unpolished mediocre gameplay. Nah, try doing that through good gameplay that makes them legitimately question why they are having fun with this, coupled with a story that basically turns our main characters from cocky soldiers full of one liners into angry soldiers that have been mentally scarred by the ravages of war. This game certainly has the story aspect down to a tee, but everything else is average at best and do very little to inspire anything more than complete indifference, especially if the message is lost on you.

It's no secret that I believe that gaming is just a hobby; something you do to kill a couple of hours before you go out for a night on the town or head to a museum and look at some real art. Spec Ops: The Line is one of those rare games that, like Okami and Journey, allows the player to look into the game itself as more than just a simple piece of entertainment, but unlike those two games, it's just too flawed on a fundamental level to consider it a great or even a good game. There are some dramatic parts that can really get you invested into the story, but then you're shoved back into gameplay and it's really boring and then the message is lost on you because it's like you're getting mixed signals. I admire this game for what it tried to do, I really do, but it didn't quite hit the mark. Perhaps you'll find more to gain out of this game and I do encourage people to rent this game and try it out for themselves, but at the same time, don't be surprised if you're not digging it as much as other people seem to.

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