What's "the point"
At its heart, Spec Ops:The Line is a cover-based shooter. A really crummy one. The mechanics of this game are easily of lower quality than those of even the first Gears of War, which was released five years prior and had laid a clear blueprint. It's incredibly easy to become unstuck to cover, at which point your guy stands straight up like a beacon for all incoming damage. Sometimes he just will not stick to cover after pressing the button to do so. Transitioning from one piece of cover to another is incredibly awkward and rarely even possible. The 'roadie run' is very spotty and will often not work, especially when trying to run forward from one piece of cover to another. Aiming around cover is quite poor, especially when you are on waist-high corners and the game can't decide whether you want to aim around the side of or over the top of it. Very often I'd hold down the trigger to pop out of cover and aim at an oncoming enemy only to find the hero decided to aim at a wall instead. Based on the type of cover and the direction you're trying to aim sometimes the game will just not allow you to aim or shoot at all. Let me repeat: there were more than a handful of times where an enemy was mincing right up next to me and the game would not let me shoot back. This almost always resulted in my death. Unforgivable.
You have control over a couple of teammates. You can order them to focus on specific targets, but they take so long to act on these commands that it's hardly worth it. If you can point your cursor and press the order button, you could have just pressed the shoot button and sped up the process. A back-of-the-box feature is the use of sand in combat. The idea is that you can shoot windows out and sand will pour in, killing all of the guys in its way. This is a neat idea, but happens very infrequently and only some windows will react this way while others exist for decoration only. Despite the game's veneer of real world grittiness, it partakes in a handful of awful video game cliches. Yes, you will fight men in head-to-toe body armor that take an entire belt of LMG fire and two grenades to take down. There are also berzerkers with mohawks who rush you down with knives. It's very stupid.
It doesn't help that the gameplay is bad AND extremely difficult. Enemies can take lots of damage, are fairly relentless, and you die very quickly. Obnoxiously, the checkpoints aren't great, either. They consistently send you back both significantly too far and before unskippable story beats and walk-and-talk moments. In all, I'd rate the cover-based shooting mechanics as being roughly at the same level as Alpha Protocol. Even as a big fan of Alpha Protocol, that is not a compliment.
Of course, depending on who you ask this could all be, "the point."
The gameplay is poor because that's, "the point."
The characters act like idiots and do idiotic things because that's, "the point."
The plot makes no sense because that's, "the point."
The only thing clear about, "the point," of this game is that, "the point," is so ephemeral it can conveniently excuse every single one of the game's shortcomings. At this stage I'm convinced that not even the people who made the game actually know what, "the point," is. It's a bunch of independently 'cool' ideas cobbled together so haphazardly the game might as well finish with a voice-over: "Next week on LOST..."
Spec Ops: The Line is based on the novella Heart of Darkness. Well, to be more accurate it rips off a bunch of ideas from Apocalypse Now, which was based on the novella Heart of Darkness. It's sort of like an adaptation game of telephone where Spec Ops adds a requisite, "purple monkey Bioshock dishwasher," to the end and then congratulates itself. Heart of Darkness was written to critique the brutality and exploitation of the ivory trade which sat at the center of 19th century British colonialism. Apocalypse Now re-contextualized the same basic plot to critique the confused politics that lead America into the Vietnam War and the psychoses that kept us there. Spec Ops borrows a few names from the book and creates a lower budget version of the movie's soundtrack, but after that it honestly has little in common with actual objectives of its source material/s. With its heavily fictionalized, almost sci-fi setting involving a magical sandstorm and its addition of ridiculous popcorn action fluff, the game is ill-equipped to tackle the bigger issues of military interventionism and foreign occupation. It touches on those ideas, but it's with the lightness of a feather. Spec Ops knows that war is bad but has nothing else to say about it. Instead it points the finger at Call of Duty and says, "But that game doesn't even know that much! It thinks war is good!" It's a true statement, but it pales when placed in comparison to the aforementioned book and movie-- a comparison Spec Ops openly invites, and so I find it absolutely fair to make.
Spec Ops co-opts Joseph Conrad and Francis Ford Coppola in order to make a snarky media studies critique that is immediately obvious to anyone older than 14. The critique is that Micheal Bay action schlock may be misrepresenting the realities of combat. It's not heady stuff, but that is the true focus of Spec Ops' ire and it is perhaps the only target it hits coherently. And when I say coherently, I don't necessarily mean artfully. The game can't seem to decide whether it's going to make this, "point," with horror, with irony, or with parody. Most of the game's, "point,"making is reliant on the protagonist acting like an idiot, the game forcing you to go along with it, and then calling you an idiot for participating. This is best exemplified with the famous 'White Phosphorus' scene. I had heard the vague details of this scene beforehand, but the execution left me dumbstruck. Without being forced into heavy detail, the protagonist of the game decides to use chemical weapons on a camp of enemy soldiers. He does this without being under duress, with none of the enemy aware of his squad's presence, with about five hundred other options that are both morally and tactically superior, and with his men calling him a fucking idiot the whole time he's doing it. I agreed with them, and I was insulted by the fact that I was meant to share culpability with this guy. Of course, spoiler alert, the game 'tricks' you into using the white phosphorus on a group of civilian refugees. I say tricked, but it couldn't be more obvious what's going on. I've since read that the intention of that scene was to make the player angry. Well, mission accomplished. But the information I haven't been able to find is what the scene is supposed to make you angry at.
But you are culpable. "The point," is that you kept on playing, even though you didn't have to!
I was very tempted to prove this, "point," many times while I was playing Spec Ops: The Line. But for some reason I marched onward. Perhaps I wanted to be a 'hero.'
There is one scenario in which I think Spec Ops: The Line could actually work, and that's as a bait-and-switch. If someone genuinely picked this up sight unseen and thought it would be a typical ra-ra action game they might be affected by the game's self-deconstruction. I don't know if that sort of person would enjoy or appreciate any of it, but it would at least generate a reaction. I also want to take some time out to assert that many of the environments are quite nice looking, although with the 'dead city of decadence' angle it somewhat feels like they've taken Bioshock's Rapture and replaced the water with sand. That's about the extent of praise I've got for this game, I'm sad to say.
I give this game 6/17 Citizen Kanes.