As the latest title in the Spec Ops series, the only connection The Line shares with its predecessors is its title. In today’s gaming environment, where more and more franchise games are being produced that are almost identical to their prequels, it’s a daring and unexpected move for a developer to break the mold and do something unique.
This deviation from the norm is even more unexpected considering the genre of Spec Ops: The Line. With the current gaming market so hot for cookie-cutter, Call of Duty- or Battlefield-look-alikes, it’s surprising to find a modern military shooter that is more concerned with delivering a powerful plot than a platform for killing sprees where the story seems more like an afterthought. Case in point: the length of the campaign mode in the Call of Duty series has been consistently shrinking to make way for a more robust multiplayer experience. 2K Games took a contrarian stance with Spec Ops: The Line – a game in which the single player campaign is placed front and center (though it is still short; more on that later).
The way in which the campaign unfolds is unexpected as well. The vast majority of modern war games are highly linear, and the most complicated decisions you have to make are which bad guy to shoot first or which hallway to take to flank your enemy. Spec Ops: The Line puts less emphasis on tactical decisions and places much more weight on how players will handle moral dilemmas, many of which are even more challenging as they appear to be lose-lose situations. This setup lays the weight of difficult moral and emotional choices squarely in the hands of the players, which in turn has several interesting effects on the gaming experience.
On the shallowest level, the variety of choices adds a tremendous replay value to the game. Most shooters aren’t worth playing over unless you are hunting for achievements or trophies or playing endless multiplayer matches. With Spec Ops: The Line, you can replay the game multiple times before completely branching all of the possible plot twists.
The choices in the game also make it more interactive. Unlike so many recent games (in this genre and others), Spec Ops: The Line is not just a string of cutscenes, linked together by disjointed battles. Sure, there are cutscenes, but you aren’t forced onto a one-way, linear plot line. The decisions you make move the plot forward.
The real power in these decisions comes from their severity. Your decisions aren’t as trivial as whether to man a turret or ride shotgun. They involve your alliance to your country, to your men, to humanity. Though these choices you face may offer two (or more) equally negative results, the decisions are so serious that it is challenging not to feel as if you have actually made them in real life. I frequently felt tinges of guilt and remorse as I played Spec Ops: The Line.
Spec Ops: The Line is set in Dubai, one of the world’s most luxurious cities. Ironically, this luxury is surrounded by a formidable desert climate. The story of the game riffs on this juxtaposition of setting and imagines what would happen if this city—a global center of wealth and recreation—were decimated by monstrous sandstorms. Most of the population has attempted to escape, but a military squad, led by U.S. Army Colonel John Konrad, has stayed behind to assist those who needed help in the face of the disaster.
Without any word or signal of survival for six months following the fall of Dubai, the world thought that Konrad and his men had died. Then, out of the dust and ruin, a distress signal was discovered, and a search and rescue crew was sent to save Konrad and as many other survivors as possible. Playing as U.S. Army Captain Martin Walker, you are the leader of that crew.
(Minor spoilers) The single player campaign begins as you and your men are flying in a helicopter around the wasteland that used to be Dubai. Immediately greeted by hostile aircraft and (after a flashback) hostile ground troops, you quickly discover that things are more complicated than anyone expected. Konrad and his men aren’t the only ones in the city, and it’s not clear whose side anyone is on.
Just as it takes a while to get your mind around what’s happening in Dubai, there is a bit of a learning curve for the controls. Other than a few exceptions, the game is a third-person shooter, a perspective that I almost always enjoy less than first-person. Similar to the gameplay in Gears of War, most of your movements as Captain Walker involve seemingly endless repetitions of running, taking cover, vaulting over cover, and running again.
One unique aspect of the gameplay in Spec Ops: The Line is your ability to interact with the environment. Being set in Dubai, especially in a period of severe sandstorms, the sand can sometimes be used to your advantage. If a wall or piece of glass is holding back sand, you can often destroy the barrier to handle foes. The regular gameplay is also sometimes interrupted by sandstorms. Visibility is greatly reduced, and you won’t be able to make Captain Walker sprint during the sandstorm, but if you can navigate through the wind and sand, you can use the storms as a tactical advantage.
When the view is not obscured by sandstorms, gamers are treated to a beautiful rendition of a Middle Eastern city. You might expect to find the colors in the game to consist of only drab yellows and browns, but Dubai is an urban oasis in the midst of the desert, and Yager Development did an excellent job of bringing out the colors to show that.
One feature that’s particularly interesting is the gamer’s ability to tweak the color settings on the game. Much like an Instagram filter, when you are first adjusting the video settings after you first install the game, you can select which color mode you want, and it will modify the color levels as you are playing the game.
Despite that filtering trick and the beauty of the stills and cutscenes, the graphics during the actual gameplay lack a little bit of the clarity and crispness that you would expect from a potential blockbuster release. It might have been designed to be slightly difficult to see intentionally to further capture the difficulty of being a soldier, but I would personally rather have a sharp image.
Oh, Yeah… The Multiplayer
My obligation to mention the multiplayer portion of Spec Ops: The Line seems about as enthusiastic as 2K Games’ obligation to add this section to the game.
The beauty of the game is in the story, which is practically impossible to translate into a multiplayer experience. Rather than making free-for-all and team deathmatch modes (like all the other shooters on the market), it would have been more entertaining to be able to play through the story in a co-op mode. Instead, the work was handed over to Darkside (a completely different studio) who created an also-ran version of a shooter multiplayer mode.
The result is an incongruous goulash of a brilliantly unique story and a pitifully subpar multiplayer. This disappointing concoction is only made worse by common mistakes of online gaming design: laggy response times and long waits in pre-game lobbies.
Why You Should Get Spec Ops: The Line
Despite a lackluster multiplayer, the single player campaign of Spec Ops: The Line makes it one of the best games of the year and one of the best military shooters of all time.
Regarding my note earlier about the length of the campaign, here’s the skinny. Subtracting out all your deaths, the campaign lasts about four to five hours — about the same as current Call of Duty campaigns. Though the replay value is amplified by the various choices you make throughout the game, the real difference in Spec Ops: The Line is the quality of the campaign compared to other shooters.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m as much of a CoD fan as the next guy. But the complexity of the Spec Ops: The Line campaign makes Call of Duty look like a children’s story. The Line is emotionally and intellectually taxing, brutally graphic, and highly interactive.
If you are in the market for a game of mindless killing, this isn’t the right game for you. But if you want a unique perspective on the experience of a soldier in combat and a compelling, interactive narrative, I highly recommend Spec Ops: The Line.
Spec Ops: The Line is rated M (Mature) by the ESRB for Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language. This game can also be found on: PC and Xbox 360.