Excellent storytelling compels familiar gameplay
Spec Ops: The Line is unabashed in its Heart of Darkness influences. Joseph Conrad’s classic journey upriver through the Congo, and later Vietnam and Cambodia in Apocalypse Now, replaced with the golden sand dunes of a desolate Dubai. The once oil rich metropolis reduced to hell on earth as a series of historic and apocalyptic sandstorms ravage the Middle Eastern paradise and its towering landmarks. This is not a venue normally befitting of a modern military shooter, but then Spec Ops: The Line isn’t one for following the norm. Unless you count the gameplay that is.
Anyone who has ever played a modern third person shooter will be familiar withSpec Ops’ cover-based, stop-and-pop framework. You’ll hunker down, pop off a couple of headshots, throw some grenades, and mow down a few heavily armoured goons and knife wielding maniacs in between all of the regular soldiers. Its gunplay is tight, accurate and extremely satisfying as enemies go down with relative ease; the bevy of weaponry feels extremely powerful, both when firing and getting shot yourself. This is a fairly challenging game with a few shots able to take you down within seconds if you venture into the open. You’ll rely heavily on cover to stay alive, although the cover mechanics aren’t as precise as you might like considering your dependency on them. It never gets frustrating, but it lacks the fluidity of a Gears of War.
So far, so rote then. However, Spec Ops does take advantage of its setting in some interesting ways, allowing you to shoot out windows or glass ceilings to pour masses of sand down upon your enemies. The effect is impressive, but these moments are predetermined and mechanical, taking away from its unpredictability within combat as it always feels so blatantly signposted - like a group of enemies standing beside a red barrel (which also happens here). You can also assign your squad mates commands at the most basic level, targeting enemies for them to focus fire on. This comes in handy when dealing with snipers or heavily armoured foes, but it doesn’t add anything significant to the combat.
Spec Ops is content the way it is. It doesn’t try to innovate or introduce anything new, happy to rest on its solid shooting mechanics and the intensity of its gun fights. But no matter how satisfying its gameplay is, there’s always something quite unnerving about playing it. It may play like every other third-person shooter but its narrative and storytelling strives for something much more.
It starts off pedestrian enough, hinting at nothing more than another bland military shooter. Dubai has been consumed by the Arabian Desert and “The Damned” 33rd Battalion of the U.S Army who were sent in to evacuate the city hasn’t been heard from in months. The evacuation was a failure and Dubai has been dubbed a No-Man’s-Land, cut off from the rest of the world as sandstorms continue to desecrate this once glistening city. That is at least until a distress message from the battalion’s commander, Colonel John Konrad (get it?) is picked up, forcing the military’s hand.
You take on the role of Captain Martin Walker of the US Army, a delta squad commander sent in with his two-man team to recon the area and investigate the source of the message before signalling for extraction. But things don’t go as smoothly as you might like and before long you’re taking fire from a generic band of Middle Eastern insurgents pulled straight from any number of modern military shooters. It’s typical action fare, but things soon start to deviate into other directions once you discover pockets of soldiers from the 33rd. This is no longer a city-wide evacuation but a state of martial law, and they don’t want you here.
Suddenly you’re under fire from U.S troops and the only thing you can do is shoot back. It feels uneasy gunning down your supposed compatriots, even if they opened fire first. There are questions without answers - you don’t know what has happened or what the 33rd have been doing, and now you’re gunning them down because it’s the only way to survive. This is no cookie cutter group of faceless insurgents we’ve gunned down a thousand times in other military shooters, but uniformed U.S soldiers, and that’s unnerving. It doesn’t take long to hear from Konrad, and it soon becomes clear his mental state may be tinkering on the edge of madness. And so you head upriver, so to speak, through the derelict streets and ludicrously designed skyscrapers of the once rich and powerful city.
Dubai becomes a character in and of itself. The golden statues, eloquence and bombast of its penthouse suites sit in stark contrast to the desperate graffiti lining the sides of buildings; the sand swirling in the wind as a reminder of the destruction amidst glowing candles (a sign of life). This doesn’t feel like a warzone but a world lived in and dismantled by an explosive force of nature. It’s apocalyptic and harrowing despite seldom moments of beauty. Expensive yachts line the streets with buried cars and demolished highways. Carcasses have rotted over time while gargantuan canyons of sand shape the landscape, offering the illusion of solid ground where there is none. Spec Ops’ visuals may lag behind some of its contemporaries, but its lighting, art design and use of vivid colour separates it from the norm with panache. This isn’t a muddy brown and grey shooter and Dubai isn’t a generic warzone, and that makes the horrors of war all the more impactful.
Like its influences, wartime atrocities are prevalent in Spec Ops. Dubai is in ruins, there’s infighting within the 33rd, other interested parties are helping the insurgents and now you’re here and civilians are in the crosshairs. The vernacularism of these casualties could be considered a ploy for shock value, but the effect they have on the characters and their descent into lunacy justifies the grisly details. You feel distraught, not just out of disgust for your enemies, but also yourself. Walker is a soldier trying to do the right thing but there is no black or white morality here, it’s shrouded in grey with no hope of a positive outcome. You’re the cause of a lot of deaths and that weighs heavily on Walker’s shoulders. There are choices to be made, wedging you between a rock and a hard place, forced to chose between two evils. Coming to a decision is often difficult, but the fallout is disappointingly minimal. Your squad will question your actions, and Walker will himself, but there are little ramifications for your decisions apart from what happens in that very moment. The path the narrative takes is preordained, so your choices are inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.
Despite this, the narrative is wholly engaging courtesy of some superb storytelling. There are plentiful cutscenes to dish out the meat of the story beats, but it’s the little details within the gameplay that elevate Spec Ops’ narrative and tone to something bordering on the transcendent. At the beginning of the game your squad’s battle chatter is full of your typical military jargon. They’ll call out targets, state them as neutralized and move on. There are shared jokes and a sense of the “dudebro” attitude so many other military shooters adopt, but as the situation worsens the cool, calm and collected demure is gradually faded out, replaced with cuss filled outbursts of anger and frustration. Muted gasps of “Motherfucker!” linger in the air as you dispose of yet another American soldier. Even reloading provides a source of manic hysteria as a panicked Walker jams another clip into his weapon so he can continue the massacre. It’s a subtle effect but its impact on characterisation and the anxiety and pressure of the situation is superlative.
And it continues into the gameplay. If an enemy is downed but still alive you can perform an execution that only gets more brutal over time. A swift punch is more than enough in the early stages, but as matters worsen a barrel in the mouth and a violent finish become the norm. Even loading screens and their tool-tips eventually delude into mocking, questioning your role and actions in all of this, teetering on breaking the fourth wall. When it asks “Do you feel like a hero yet?” you can unequivocally answer “No”. It toils with the concept of the stereotypical hero, how they’re unaffected by the horrors they face and succeed to save the day with aplomb and little consequence for their actions.
Even the appearance of voice actor extraordinaire Norlan North contributes to this. At first he’s vintage Nathan Drake, familiarity setting in as we know what to expect as he slips into Walker’s shoes. But this just makes it all the more jarring and disturbing once the tone shifts into anarchy and delirium, and the friendly voice we associate with a true, heroic protagonist is shifted on its head to something much more frightening. Spec Ops’ depiction of a descent into madness is fantastic. Everything goes to hell and that’s reflected in all its moving pieces. It’s inescapable.
So why the need for a multiplayer component? It comes packed with the requisite loadout options, perks, player progression and team deathmatch and objective-based game types you would expect, but it’s all fairly standard stuff. The shooting remains satisfying but maps are bland and uninspired and they look flat-out terrible. Colours are washed out and drab, the texture detail is extremely low and it has the worst Unreal Engine texture pop-in since the original Mass Effect; a far cry from the single-player portion of the game. The occasional sandstorm offers something different but this is a dreary affair that feels cobbled together and offers very little to the overall package. Bolting on multiplayer often seems like a requirement these days, but its appearance here is unnecessary.
Some of the same issues can be levelled at Spec Ops’ gameplay as a whole and that’s disappointing. Its combat is competent enough but it’s uninventive and opts to play things safe, offering a familiar framework that would do little to entice those disillusioned with the genre. The ubiquitous risk taking prevalent in its narrative and storytelling is unfortunately absent from its gameplay so it fails to take full advantage of its strong foundations and build on its promise. As it is, the story must be commended for tackling the horrors of war and the effect it has on the human mind, and the techniques it deploys to accomplish this. It tries things no other modern military shooter has even come close to, boldly stating that shooters don’t always have to be wrapped in mundane and convoluted storytelling, and that’s quite the accomplishment considering the oversaturation of the genre.