Review: Spec Ops: The Line
Too often video games glorify war and the virtual heroes it contains. Spec Ops: The Line attempts to show the other casualties of modern war, although at times it appears to be fighting with itself.
Seemingly an amalgam of Joseph Conrad's classic short novel Heart of Darkness and the movie Apocalypse Now, Spec Ops: The Line sees Captain Martin Walker and two special forces colleagues dropped into Dubai to locate Colonel John Konrad who, together with his squad, has gone AWOL. The last message from them was a weak distress call that pinpointed their last location.
Spec Ops: The Line's combat is traditional shooter fare – clear a path through enemies to reach the next location, hold off enemies until a friendly opens a door, man a helicopter-mounted gun turret – but it's the story and the moral choices that the player is forced into making that makes this game stand out.
These decisions could trigger different events down the line: Does Walker shoot the civilian who has been stealing or the US soldier who has massacred the thief's family?
Spec Ops presents moral dilemmas not often seen in the cookie-cutter shooter genre where thought is light and gun play heavy.
What impressed me most about Spec Ops: The Line, though, wasn't the gun play or the admirable voice acting – especially from Nolan North, who is more well known for voicing Uncharted series hero Nathan Drake – but the story.
Central to the action are the internal conflicts that Walker must deal with as he delves deeper into a situation that isn't what it seems.
Spec Ops: The Line is a game that while sticking to a lot of shooter conventions is one where the lead character faces his own mental demons and must face up to the decisions he has made. This was most evident – at least in my playthrough – when Walker decides to use chemical weapons against his enemies.
It is a decision that comes back to haunt him for the remainder of the game.
It was also refreshing to play a game where the ending – there are four possible final scenarios – didn't have the hero defeat a "boss", then ride off into the sunset smiling, praised for saving the world. Instead, the endings were stark and thought-provoking.
The setting, too, is refreshing in a genre that so often plonks players into underground caves or war-ravaged cities, pockmarked with craters and bristling with barbed wire.
Walker and his pals take on members of the gone-rogue Damned 33rd unit in locations ranging from violent sandstorms that make seeing enemies almost impossible to palatial hotels with chandeliers, ornate doors, giant windows and elegant sculptures of African animals.
Gone are the more usual dark tones and muted colours of many shooters, too, instead replaced by the golden hue of sand, which can be used to engulf enemies at pre-determined locations (although that mechanic wasn't used as much as I was expecting). You'll see marbled floors and the deep blues of swimming pools and wall-to-ceiling fish tanks.
As enjoyable as Spec Ops: The Line was, though, for a game that focuses on the horrors of modern war and the brutality facing civilians caught in the crossfire, at times it seemed conflicted with itself, almost revelling in the violence that players could dish out.
Walker can – if he chooses to – brutally execute injured foes in a variety of ways, and while being able to "execute" foes is nothing new in today's crop of video games, it felt out of place in a game that was supposedly about the horrors and brutalities of modern war – and a soldier's internal conflict over what he was doing.
I thought an "Achievement Unlocked" pop up when Walker came across a corpse hanging from a street light was unnecessary and at times the enemy artificial intelligence swung from competent to a little dimwitted.
Yes, Spec Ops: The Line has some problems, but it remains one of the most powerful war games I've played in long time, mainly because of its thought-provoking story and the fact that it was prepared to show a stark, brutal face of war that we don't often see in video games.
Spec Ops: The Line
Reviewed on: Xbox 360