Spec Ops: The Line Review by Aaron Bourne

Posted: March 19, 2013 in Reviews
Tags: , , , , , , ,

If you were introduced to this game as I was; by television or internet advertisements, you’ll be forgiven for thinking that the new Spec Ops is another brown cover-based shooter featuring buzz-cut wielding all-American hero no.32519.  The series’ previous incarnations on the PS1 will do nothing to allay this false image, either.   Indeed, the only thing I saw in previews to set this game apart from any other was the setting- a sand-blasted, almost post-apocalyptic Dubai.  It’s almost like the developers themselves wanted you to think you were getting into another Modern Battlefields game from the get-go…

So what makes Spec Ops: The Line stand out from the crowd?
Firstly, a word on the setting itself.  The first impressions of Spec Ops: The Line are mostly positive.  Aside from being a very vanilla-looking shooter, the environments and style are fairly unique from the beginning.  You and your banter-happy team start off at an abandoned evacuation area littered with half-buried vehicles and possessions, totally devoid of life.  Juxtaposed with the clear blue skies, burning gold of the surrounding desert and Dubai’s gleaming skyline, it’s dissonant and creepy.  This game does visual contrast incredibly well, even if the graphics themselves are nothing to write home about.

Visually, the ‘pretty desert’ style is comparable to Journey; another title praised for it’s unusual approach to what is essentially trudging through ruins for the entire game.  Spec Ops really gets this right when you first enter the buildings of Dubai for the first time.  Their sandblasted exteriors will have taken some punishment, but still hint at the sheer opulence within.  And you are not disappointed;  even with the sand and debris piling up in places, seeing a hotel lobby furnished in blue marble, replete with a grand piano and model city makes for one of the more interesting set-pieces I’ve ever played.
Spec Ops: The Line’s music continues with this theme of dissonance, with licensed tracks that could easily belong in a Vietnam-era war movie, showing Black Ops how it’s done.  The voice-acting is another strong point, with ‘Radioman’ being one of the more memorable antagonists in gaming and fan favourite, Nolan North voicing protagonist Captain Walker.  Your squad mates do a great job of portraying a range of temperaments with everything from playful military-themed banter to tense, stressful ‘under fire’ routines and coldly professional tactical assessments.  And without spoiling anything, the enemy’s back and forth can be downright distressing as they start tacking casualties and becoming more desperate to stop you.  What Spec Ops: The Line lacks in graphical punch, it makes up for with its soundtrack & voice work.
The actual mechanics of Spec Ops are probably its lowest point, however.  It’s workable and definitely not broken, but put alongside Uncharted (which, thanks to the main character’s voice actor and the overall style of the game, it will get compared to, alot) it doesn’t shine.  Still, the guns themselves work great with each having very definite strengths and weaknesses and some actual licensed titles for once, which is a nice change.  Some welcome flavour is present in the sand mechanics, where you can shoot out windows to bury enemies in the stuff, or set off grenades on the floor to kick up choking, obscuring clouds of debris.  I do feel that this mechanic wasn’t used enough, but as might become clear later, I wonder if it isn’t another ‘red herring’ to disguise the game’s true purpose.  More on that later.

More pervasive is the presence of sand-storms, both as single player scripted events and in multiplayer to add an element of battlefield mutability.  These reduce your visibility to a scant few meters and mean your character can only stumble between bits of cover.  Firefights are suddenly tense, claustrophobic affairs where often an enemy’s muzzle flash is the only clue to their presence.
By now you might be getting the idea that there’s more to Spec Ops: The Line than another bland cover-shooter/ ‘America saves the day’ military sim.  And you’d be right.  To say much more would be to spoil the experience, so for now, suffice it to say that I highly recommend going out and purchasing a copy of this game.  If you still need convincing, I aim to ramble a little more about the deeper meaning of the gaming experience in the next paragraph, but whilst I’ll be avoiding story points, I really do recommend at least playing most of the game before continuing.
So go do that, I’ll wait.

Okay, all clear?  Good.
In any review or discussion of Spec Ops: The Line, you’ll hear the game favourably compared to J.Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and it’s more modern adaptation, Apocalypse Now.  Whilst Spec Ops stands out as its own experience, the comparison is wholly justified and anyone who is a fan of war-themed psychological films such as Jacob’s Ladder or Jarhead/Hurt Locker will definitely find something to like here.  Without giving anything away, you can liken Walker and his comrade’s journey through Dubai as a decent into madness, horror and certainly a form of PTSD where you’re never quite sure what’s real or what’s right.  Often, the game feels like an attack on supposedly ‘gritty’ modern war simulators, Call of Duty in particular.  You are often given moral choices, sometimes with more than your standard binary ‘good/bad’ outcome and oftentimes with no right answer to be found.

More than that though is the hugely controversial way the game attacks you, as the player.  Essentially it asks why you came into a delicate political situation, started shooting at things and hoped to walk out as the big damn hero.  It questions our expectations as gamers that we can solve every problem just by shooting the right people and challenges the convention that while wargames aim for a gritty realism in their approach, are all essentially level-based ‘go here, shoot that guy, grab achievements’ that have not really progressed far from their Wolfenstein 3D roots.  I’ll leave whether that’s a bad thing or not up to you, but it’s actually refreshing to have this notion debased for once.
In conclusion, buy this game.  Seriously, although it’s arguments can be occasionally heavy-handed and although non-American gamers might not have the same reaction to having to fight the enemies that you fight, this is one of those games.  One of the titles that can stand proudly next to Bioshock, MGS2 and Shadow of the Colossus as a deconstructor of gaming.  A title that makes you think hard about the way we, as gamers, perceive the mechanics of the world.
There are dozens of online essays about the meaning behind Spec Ops: The Line’s experiences and I won’t add to them here, but they are well worth looking up when you’ve finished the game.  So let me close up by saying that the single-player experience I had on Spec Ops: The Line was worth every penny I spent on it, five times over.  Never so much have I been shaken up by a loading screen.  Not since Silent Hill 2 has the presence of a single enemy disturbed me so much as some of the ‘Heavies’ you encounter.  Not since deliberating which strung-up body to shoot against the perfect blue sky have I ever just stopped and asked myself ‘Just what the HELL am I doing here?!’.

‘Freedom is what you do with what has been done to you’

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