“The line” of Spec Ops: The Line is referring to the line of morality, that line in the sand—sometimes real, sometimes metaphorical—that forces you to question what you’re willing to do to get something done. It’s a literal divide between what you can do and what you will do to fulfill a goal, to uphold the rote relationship between means and ends.
It’s also a pretty good analogy for the quality of the game.
You play as Delta Force Captain Martin Walker several months after a semi-fictional version of Dubai falls victim to the worst sandstorm of recorded history and is reduced to a piles of sandy rubble, a desert skew on the similarly opulent world of BioShock‘s Rapture. Dubai’s wealthy elite managed to steal away in secret, leaving the general public clueless, lost, and, for the most part, hopeless. But Colonel John Konrad (ostensibly a play on the character Kurtz from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness), leader of The Damned 33rd has volunteered to evacuate the city.
The problem is that he never does. The problem is that Konrad disobeyed an order to abandon the evacuation mission, declared martial law, and lost his way while leading The Damned and 1,000 civilians out of the city. The entire battalion is disavowed and left to their fate in the swirling desert sands.
Walker and his three-man team are covertly sent for reconnaissance, and upon arrival, discover Walker’s idol Konrad embroiled in a local civil war and, consequently, moral ambiguity.
The story of Spec Ops is, without qualification, a winner. It is well on the side of the line of quality that makes you glad you played this game (albeit a bit sad, too, because this tale is a doozy). With an already nebulous set of goals for Walker and his crew, getting caught up in the middle of a completely unknown war where neither side is out to greet you with open arms blurs the dichotomy of right and wrong even further. Eventually, I began to doubt myself as much as Walker and his men doubted themselves.
There are crucial moments where you must make severe decisions. They will branch you story in any number of ways and will never make you feel good about what you’ve done. This game is about living in the gray, both sides offering equally compelling reasons to respond with merciless force or merciful aid. One such example (not a story-branching one, but still a decision you must make) involves you coming across a lone American man. He has a single weapon drawn on you compared to your three on him. You both yell a bit, but he eventually begins to lower his weapon, saying he’s CIA.
At this point, I shoot him, putting him and risk for retribution down for good. My cohorts respond with disbelief, saying “you shot him? Why did you shoot him!?” and the like, questioning my decision. I begin to question myself, as well, as a veritable piece of CIA identification is found on his corpse. In fact, the room below appears to be a full-on CIA command center. “This isn’t good.” I know. God dammit, I know.
If you leave him alive, though, he alerts nearby soldiers that close in and open fire on you. This inspires a greater sense of distrust in everyone else you meet afterwards. Either way you go, this seemingly small encounter taints your perception of the world from then on.
It’s unfortunate then that Spec Ops kind of ruins that tense ambiance for itself. There are distinct moments in the game that might as well be demarcated by a literal and physical line where you can’t fire. You can’t shoot, run, or do anything involving intense action. These are moments in the game where you know you are safe and no one will attack you. These are moments that completely ruin the building and accumulating tension that the immediately visible consequences of the violent action prior show you. All that time the game spends moving you up to the edge of your seat, perspiration forming under your fingertips, is all immediately thrown away by the fact that you know you’re safe in these areas.
Though that also falls on both sides of the line of what I enjoyed about this game. Shooting, for the most part, is not Spec Ops‘ strong suit. It is pretty much a press printing from the template of third-person cover-based shooters. It is what I would call “functional” and nothing more. The saving grace of the combat is the level design which, while extremely linear, actually makes you feel like you’re making consistent, constant progress despite being stowed away behind cover most of the time.
There are a few aspects that make the experience unique, such as the almost horror-survival level of ammo scarcity (a bit closer to Dead Space 2 than anything else) and relative frailty of yourself and your enemies. You can down your foes in just a few shots to their center mass, but the same goes for them. You need to rely on cover if you want to survive, which is going to be hard given that sometimes the enemy AI seemingly says “fuck it” and charges you head-on, forcing you to become simultaneously reactive and aggressive.
Checkpoints, however, could be better, given your proclivity towards death.
But the sand mechanics are pretty much a non-factor. There was only one time where I thought to myself “wall of sand behind glass + this bullet + extremely velocity = dead enemies.” Every other time, I would see the sand, think about it, and then just go about shooting dudes in the face. The inevitable miss would also inevitably cause the same chain reaction anyways but I would enjoy it and its seeming serendipitous situation a bit more. It does, however, look pretty fantastic.
And violent. Wow is this game violent. You don’t just get blood spurts when you pop a guy in the head; his head will explode. Legs and arms will also fly off in the most spectacular of fashion, but chances are, your target is still alive, just…lingering. However, if you want to scavenge him for ammo and weapons, you’ll have to put him down. It turns from a gunfight to straight up execution. Cold-blooded, merciless execution. These downed men are completely incapacitated. And you have your gun against their head.
It’s unfortunate that the game seems to fail to understand that living and playing the moral gray is its strongest feature. There are times where the game seems incredibly unbalanced, suddenly content with cranking the difficulty up to Dark Souls territory, and times when it just takes you out of the moment completely, throwing collectibles at you and poorly written (though well delivered) quips on machismo and war. There is a certain inertial quality to the story and level design of the game that is completely ruined with innumerable fight-die-checkpoint loops and incongruous moments of, for lack of a better (fake) word, gamey-ness.
For a game that’s been in development for about nine years and gone through at least one cancellation and two periods of ominous radio silence, it’s not surprising that so many elements of Spec Ops cross the line. What probably started out as a standard shooter got moved into a unique, environment-based action game and then brought around into a story-based experience. Much like Captain Walker, you’ll have to ask yourself if you’re willing to cross the line, the line that divides games that deliver a worthwhile narrative and ones that deliver a good gameplay experience. You’ll have to ask yourself if you’re willing to deal with this necessary evil to come out the other side with a one-of-a-kind story under your belt.
And, I guess, a few hundred dead men on your conscience.