Now I understand why some people HATE Shutter Island
Spec Ops: The Line is a game that I've been waffling over whether to buy for what feels like a year now. Every few months, usually because of someone in the press or a forum bringing it up, I get really curious about why the story is so talked about. But I've tried the demo and wasn't ever too intrigued with the actual game so it was really cool to find the game available for free this month on Playstation Plus. Let me just say that I'm really glad I wasn't asked for any money in exchange for this experience.
That's not to say there aren't things I can get behind about this game. The setting is a truly interesting one, with some killer set design on top of an already intriguing concept (sandstorm plows over Dubai, crippling it). And Spec Ops uses this unique backdrop to try it's best at pushing the boundaries of what one expects from a "set in reality" military shooter. You'll see and hear plenty of interesting contextual graffiti, a soundtrack meant to invoke the spirit of Vietnam and a variety of set pieces clearly meant to invoke the spirit of Apocalypse Now.
Unfortunately, the experience of watching a video game wear its love for that film on its sleeve isn't nearly as interesting as it could have been. First of all, it's one thing to nod at an inspiration and another to just rip whatever you want from it. Weird tribal elements in the Middle East because they were in the movie, opening scene in the main character's bedroom because that was how the movie did it, crazy hippie journalist that's a slightly antagonistic force on the side of the general in charge because the movie had a defining role for Dennis Hopper and Joseph Conrad wrote the book at the heart of it all.
Unless you're in just the right mood Apocalypse Now isn't generally considered a romp, so it's strange that all that dressing is draped over a game that'd rather be the official Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol game. Convenient rappelling stations are all over Dubai's buildings along with ziplines, I suppose because it wouldn't make sense to make a 3rd person action game getting by solely on references if they didn't try bringing to mind Uncharted 2's iconic Nepalese rooftops? Other gamey stuff abounds, from heavy units inexplicably referred to as actual "heavies" by the characters to overhead ASM mini-games to a turret and grenade-turret sequences to, yes, even the story being worthless.
For all the craziness this game gets at, the game never feels like it's earned any of it. Beating it in just two days over a pair of...let's say two and a half hour game sessions, I spent both sessions constantly clueless about what was going on on screen. By the time some ghost kid appeared on the top floor of the final level to let me know I'd been wasting my time the entire way I had two thoughts (three, if you count feeling like I was trapped in an alternate reality of Mass Effect).
My first thought: duh! The guns sound great and work fine, but combat is chaotic, clustered and boring in such confounding ways it's amazing. Much like Uncharted, enemies continue pouring over walls and around corners until three or more waves have been defeated, which narrows the combat down to hiding behind cover and shooting at heads that pop out from cover until they stop coming. If it was boring in a much more polished game than this is, you can bet it's fucking awful in Spec Ops. The enemies aren't bullet sponges and that's glorious, but the fights just feel so senseless.
This is because what Conrad tells you at the end of the game, should you make the decisions I did, is a thought I had not 30 minutes into the game: why doesn't Walker just shout out whatever the local safe word is to some guys in the 33rd (say, the two dudes hanging out on the balcony early...or anybody!) and see if they respond. The answer is in the totally over-the-top way they've gone about this whole game: it's the most cynical video game I've played in a long time. The final hour of the game has Radioman essentially chiding you for playing the game as it's asking you to play.
This does spark an interesting debate about what video game stories can be about. But if it's clear that the "protagonist" is actually the antagonist to most players from the very beginning of the game (unless you were able to avoid any review-time talk about this game from reviews to gossip, maybe not then?) then it's hard to buy the way the game wraps on a big revelation that didn't need another five hours to come to. Especially when it's handled rather sloppily, in a very deus ex machina kind of way. As long as it's free on PS+ I'd recommend trying it out, I guess, because it's short and does just a few cool things. But the game is nearly a disaster otherwise.