Review: Spec Ops: The Line

With today’s technology, storytelling has developed exponentially in the media of video games. But for as much as storytelling in games has evolved since their inception, it still is not on the same level of quality as other media. This of course is to be expected, after all literature has had hundreds of years to develop as an art form and filmmaking is now over a century old, by relative comparison, video games are still in their infancy. Thankfully artists have continued to take risks with the medium delivering some excellent, if flawed narrative experiences in video games as the continually seek to evolve their art.

Titles like Assassin’s Creed II, L.A. Noire, Mass Effect 2, Red Dead Redemption, and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, amongst others, have all helped to push the medium forward showing that video games are in fact a delivery device for strong narrative experiences. Developer Yager Development clearly believed this fact and have delivered Spec Ops: The Line, a narrative driven, third person shooter that draws healthy doses of inspiration from Joseph Conrad’s classic novella, Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola’s seminal film, Apocalypse Now (also inspired by Conrad’s novella).

The Line takes place in an alternate reality that has seen the city of Duabi completely decimated by mega sandstorms. Starting months after a failed evacuation of the city by Colonel John Konrad and his 33rd Battalion, the game puts players in the role of Captain Martin Walker, the leader of a small covert Delta Force team. Walker and his team are tasked with the mission of investigating Dubai for survivors and signs of Konrad and the 33rd.

Upon arriving in Dubai the team quickly finds out that the city is not abandoned as once thought, bands of local “insurgents” are waging war against the remnants of the 33rd in what appears to be a fight for control of the city. As Walker and his team attempt to make contact with Colonel Konrad, they find evidence detailing horrific atrocities that were seemingly carried out against the local populace by the “Damned” 33rd. As the story continues to unravel, Walker and his team are faced with acting upon no-win situations and performing atrocities of their own in order to survive. Each of these situations bears heavily on the Delta Force members, changing them at their core.

Spec Ops: The Line is a horrific tale, featuring some amazingly intense and gut-wrenching scenes but it is a game and as such needs to stand just as strongly, if not more so, on its active component of gameplay. Much like Epic’s Gears of War franchise, The Line’s gameplay is third person, cover based shooting. Combat nearly always takes place in easily identifiable arenas where players will mostly bounce from cover to cover attempting to dispatch the waves of enemies being thrown at them while avoiding concentrated enemy fire. It is a tried and true method that would be perfectly acceptable if the controls were accurate and the movement was fluid but The Line sports floaty aiming and jerky movement accompanied by a high level of difficulty and a handful of encounters that leave a lot to be desired.

Spec Ops: The Line features a relatively brutal damage model that applies to enemy AI as well as players themselves. On the default difficulty, Walker and his squadmates can be quickly dispatched by a couple of shots making staying in cover and moving from cover-to-cover even more important. Likewise though most enemies, can be dispatched quickly with a couple of shots, or more expediently with a gruesome head shot. at least until later in the game when armored heavies are introduced.

The damage model ups the level of difficulty considerably and works in tandem with the narrative intensity. Spec Ops: The Line is not necessarily a hard game, just an unforgiving one and that could very well be a turn off for more casual players as combat scenarios may leave them frustrated. However, even veteran shooter fans will be frustrated by some of The Line’s encounter designs which, in the worst of them leave players too exposed to properly assess and attack the situation leaving them dead. This ultimately makes encounters feel more trial and error than they should be and all of this serves to take players out of the immersive narrative.

Further taking players out of the experience are a handful of design choices and missteps that serve only to make Spec Ops: The Line more of a game than it obviously wants to be. One of the selling points for The Line is the fact that the environment can be used as a weapon in certain situations. There are few things in the game more satisfying than taking out enemies that are standing too close to windows with tons of sand behind them, but the game at times insists on telling you that the object is breakable. It makes sense from a gameplay explanation standpoint but it conversely serves to remind players that it is a game.

The most grating of these design choices though is the collectibles scattered throughout the world. While the collectibles serve to flesh out the narrative more, encouraging gamers to search for them takes them away from the core delivery of the story. This is even more damning in the very last level where you are finally going to come face to face with the catalyst for everything in the game but the game gives you free reign to search the area for a pair of collectibles first.

Other little issues, some of which could have been fixed with a little polish, also serve to distract from The Line’s attempt to immerse players in the story. Stuff like Walker and his team using zip lines with their hands, animation glitches, texture pop in, and even excessively repeated dialogue in combat scenarios accentuate The Line’s gameness.

It is a shame that much of the game accentuates the game and not the story because The Line features some excellent gameplay points that transcend its fundamental issues and show glimmers of greatness. One scenario in particular really stood out where the game disorients the player in the encounter and ties it into Walker’s current mental state for what might be the most tense gameplay moment in the entire game. Still these encounters are too few to raise the gameplay above its own mediocrity.

Spec Ops: The Line puts itself in a weird place. It proves that shooters can have a strong, directed narrative dealing with mature subject matter and as an active participant in Walker’s choices the game poses the questions to players, why are we doing this and should we be doing this? But arguably Walker’s biggest “choice” in the game though is thrust on players with no input from them. They are forced by the game to do something they may not want to do with no way of pushing forward without doing what the game requires. That is where The Line fails at what it has attempted because as a game it is at its best just mediocre.

Pros

  • Excellent narrative dealing with the horrors of war.
  • Voice acting is top notch, specifically Nolan North as Captain Walker.
  • Delivery of subject matter, for the most part, successfully poses questions of morality to the player.

Cons

  • Largest moral “choice” in a game about choice is forced on players without letting them choose.
  • Gameplay is floaty, movement is jerky, and many combat encounters leave a lot to be desired.
  • Design choices take players out of the experience.
  • Multiplayer brings nothing substantial to the table.

3 / 5

Note: This review was done using the Playstation 3 version of the game. It is also available on the Xbox 360 and PC.

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Author: Chris Scott View all posts by
Chris is the Reviews Editor here at Vagary as well as the co-host of The Perfectly Sane Show and the Movie Dudes podcast.He is long time gamer and film fan that also happens to be full of opinions and a desire to share them with others, even if you don't want to hear them.