If you were to listen to the critics of modern action shooters one of the most regular, and valid, criticisms of the genre is that these games have no moral compass. When you think of how some games become little more than glorified shooting galleries you might be inclined to agree. For example check our review of Max Payne 3 last month and you’ll see where we are coming from. Spec Ops: The Line takes this criticism to heart and makes sure you account for the impact you are having on those around you.
The game makes no bones about the fact that every time you pull the trigger and fire a weapon there are consequences. Often the result is useful as it helps you stay alive, but sometimes innocents die too and The Line puts this contingency in focus with more heart-rending passion than most Hollywood war movies. As such the game presents a story that is as adult as it is exhilarating.
The game is set in Dubai. However the city isn’t depicted as the jewel in the desert that we know it to be now. Instead the whole region has been trashed by a catastrophic sand storm and buildings are mere lifeless husks, often filled with rubble and bereft of electricity. Sand, smashed cars and bits of fallen skyscrapers are everywhere in the game. The blending of what were once opulent luxurious apartments and hotels with the debris and devastation of a war zone makes for an interesting place to play.
After a flashy helicopter battle intro level you kick off the action proper by going back six months to when you were dropped into the outskirts of the city.
It is quiet and desolate, but not for long. You are looking for the US 33rd regiment. This unit, fresh from Afghanistan, was rerouted to Dubai just before the sandstorm hit so that the soldiers could help the civilian population survive or escape the impending sand storm disaster. Sadly since arriving nothing has been heard from the 33rd, so your specialist team has been dropped nearby to look into what has happened.
Friend or foe
Now this premise might be fairly shaky, but the rest of the script is superb. You quickly discover the lines are very much blurred when thinking of black and white concepts like “friend” or “foe”. The Line is full of plot back flips, double crosses and amazing moments when you realize that your take on what has been happening couldn’t be further from the truth. It is these moments that ensure that the game is worth finishing.
The gameplay is decent too, even if it is also generic. There are occasional moments when the level designs are so cool they help the game to rise above the average. Blasting out massive glass walls, so that sand floods into a huge lobby engulfing your enemies, never gets dull. The rappel and zip line level transitions are also at times really slick as the sheer size and scope of Dubai is breathtaking.
The Line also features plenty of shooter staples. The game lets you play with tons of guns, many with secondary fire modes. Plus there are turrets, grenades and other toys at your disposal. The sniper rifle you briefly get to use is particularly satisfying. The fact that you are commanding a squad and can select targets and call down grenade attacks to suppress enemies is also rewarding. Again none of this is that new, but the game manages these elements with aplomb.
However, there are some small chinks in the armor. Firstly the cover system is flawed at times. You’ll sometimes be trying to fire form cover and yet can’t seem to properly get your gun clear of a barricade so you can sight targets. At other times you’ll be scrambling for cover but will end up not dropping out of sight even though you are hitting the correct button. When this happens you end up doing a remarkable Swiss cheese impression, as you get riddled with bullet holes depressingly quickly.
The “vault” command is also fraught with danger. Often you’ll quickly pop up out of cover, vault an obstacle and drop down to a safe location in front of the obstacle you were wanting to leap over. At other times you’ll stand up and punch the obstacle and stupidly loiter there while you get shot. This is because the vault and melee buttons are the same and the game doesn’t always go for the right command. As a result you tend to avoid vaulting and only do it when you are sure you can do so safely.
These are thankfully minor foibles though, The Line is otherwise a solid shooter and the rest of the play elements hang together nicely.
However the game would just be another generic shooter, albeit one set in a novel location, were it not for the fact that the developers made some brave decisions when it came to the scripting.
The Line doesn't hold back from depicting all of the ugliness of war. You will have what are nothing short of atrocities to contend with (fairly regularly, I might add) and your trio of special forces soldiers won’t always adopt the gung ho attitude that is par for the course in rival war games.
They’ll frequently disagree and recoil at what they are witnessing and they won’t always be happy to shoot first and ask questions later. Instead the game hurls at you a number of interesting moral dilemmas. Do you shoot hostile troops, preventing a civilian execution, well knowing you will stir up a hornets’ nest of opposition by doing so? Or, do you watch innocent bodies drop and feel your stomach shudder with guilt? These are the horrible choices you have to make.
Pick a particular course of action and you might find your fight is easier, but you are going to inadvertently harm innocent civilians. You can choose to try and save lives instead, sparing civilians unnecessary bloodshed.
However, and this is where the game shines, even the more morally righteous choices usually result in tragedy, quarreling with your cohorts and loss of innocent life. So no matter which choice you make the game continues to shock, hammering home the message that war is hell. Your complicit participation is at times brutally rubbed in your face and this makes for a narrative that you will want to see through to the end.
Spec Ops: The Line has been compared with that great, yet perplexing work of cinema that is Apocalypse Now and the comparison is a good one. Indeed, just like that film you’ll be forced to wrestle with a sense of moral contradiction. Far from reveling in the on-screen violence, The Line is a video game that makes you feel an (often uncomfortable) sense of moral paradox: a rare thing indeed.
When it comes to such a strong and morally grounded story, few Hollywood movies have the punch that this game delivers. You might not always enjoy fighting your way through Dubai, but one thing is for sure, you will remember it for a long time to come.