Originally a popular tourist spot many people would dream of visiting, Dubai has become a worse place to live over the years. Overt problems such as debt, genocide, violence, and criminal injustice have become worse over the past several years. Some Dubai islands have had struggles of sinking into the ocean. An emirate within the United Arab Emirates, Dubai is in deplorable standing.
Why was it necessary to mention this off the bat? It’s because the recently released Spec Ops: The Linemakes an attempt to envisage the situations currently plaguing Dubai. It also takes inspiration from the Joseph Conrad novella Heart of Darkness. The game was originally meant to be released way back in 2009 and so this release was a long time coming. Does it do justice to it’s source material while also informing of the tragedy in Dubai or is it an unpolished, incompetent shooter whose delay was all for naught?
You play as Captain Walker, accompanies by his squad of Lugo and Adams on a rescue mission to dubai to rescue Colonel John Konrad, no doubt a reference to the author of the work this game was inspired by. The biggest strength of Spec Ops: The Line is its story. Heavily story driven games, especially shooters are becoming more bourgeois lately. Keep in mind that heavily story driven doesn’t necessarily insinuate a good story in a game, so a slight amount of apprehension should be taken towards games of this ilk even if story is what you desire.
Many games are story driven in the sense that the story drives the action or there are copious amounts of dialogue, but that the story driving the action could be nonsensical and the dialogue could be poorly written. There are also cases of games with a minimalistic approach that can still be considered to have great stories. Ico and Shadow of The Colossus in particular take some of the most minimal and simplest of approaches to their storytelling yet manage to compel the player and create emotion.
Spec Ops: The Line falls somewhere in the middle of these two styles of storytelling. It has a good amount of cutscenes in proportion to the length of the game, but seeing as it is constantly advertised for its mature, story driven approach, it is baffling that the cut scenes aren’t any longer or that there aren’t any more. I didn’t expect Metal Gear Solid levels of cut scenes, but I expected more. Part of the story and emotion is conveyed through cutscenes and in game dialogue. The other part of the story is delivered through visuals.
The sight of the war torn, sand storm stricken, city of Dubai paints a picture 0f the place’s tragic history. The player knows that this area is not ideal for living, yet quite what has happened is not made clear. it is left up to the player’s interpretation because the game’s Dubai is not the same Dubai as in the real world. The developers did not intend to recreate it.
The game took a fictional approach at recreating the city to appropriately set the tone for the plot and eccentuate the problems it is facing through symbolism and the location’s imagery. The basic plot starts off simply enough just needing to find a single person, however in typical fashion, the plot thickens and more stuff happens to complicate the situation. What starts off a by the numbers story quickly becomes more engaging thanks to the writing, voice acting, and imagery.
Each actor feels appropriate for the character they’re portraying. No important character to my recollection was under-acted or over-acted. The characters needlessly yell out profanities, but then that’s what lends these characters, well, character. It’s very common for military veterans to curse. It is even more common for people in general to be profane. It doesn’t get to the point where the profanities feel as if they’re being used just to be used.
The writers appropriately place these words into conversations. One fascinating aspect of the story is all the danger the main squad of characters is put through. At the beginning, you and your squad come off as stereotypical and normally dressed U.S. soldiers. As the plot progresses, though, the characters become bruised and battered immensely.
By the end, Captain Walker’s uniform is torn up. Half his face is burned aggressively. His entire body is covered in bruises scratches, and blood stains. His movements also occasionally differ. The other magical occurrence is the character growth. Spec Ops: The Line has several moral choices strewn about that are intertwined in the narrative well enough. The implementation of morality seen here is better than most games. Not only is there no meter telling you which choice is the right choice and which one is the bad one, but in reality, the choices are grey.
None of the choices have answers that are clearly black and white. It’s this moral grey area that contributes to the narrative’s emotional depth while also allowing for up to four endings, so replays are encouraged even if it is short, clocking in at 4 hours and 8 minutes on a first play through on normal. The bulk Spec Ops‘ character defining moments come from these moral choices with some other growth coming in at regular cutscenes.
I thought I would hate the characters after the opening few minutes, but I grew to empathize with their troubles. I felt genuinely upset or shocked when a character yelled or had some monologue about the difference between wrong and right. Spec Ops: The Line doesn’t shy away from the nitty gritty aspects of war either. It shows the horrors of war for what it is without glorifying it.
The constant sight of innocent dead bodies bring to mind genocide. The sandstorms likely symbolize the entrapment of Dubai. Nothing is able to escape the borders of the sandstorm because evil will always consume it and will not be able to redeem its reputation so easily. Several moments left me unsettled. I won’t spoil it, but needless to say, be prepared to be stricken with empathy for both the citizens and the soldiers in the situation. Spec Ops: The Line does a good job at representing an outsider’s perspective of what the U.S. soldiers are really like. The citizens of Dubai make you feel like you’re the true villain and the place would be better off without you.
The characters get f’d up over the course of the game. This isn’t the worst of it.
Witnessing innocents being killed thanks to either yours or the enemies’ actions is surprisingly heart wrenching and this makes Spec Ops feel more special than other third person military shooters. It is filled with heart and humanity. These moments make you accrue an appreciation for human life and despise wars and genocidal maniacs. The story will keep you playing regardless of whether you become bored or not.
Thankfully, the gameplay while not completely tight, is serviceable enough to serve the game. The character himself feels loose and a tiny bit unresponsive. The controls could have used a bit of work, as could the cover system. The cover and vault mechanics are tied to two different buttons like Uncharted and unlike Gears of War. It works about 98% of the time, but on occasion my character refused to take cover behind a knee high object. In two cases throughout my first play through, I pressed B(or circle on PS3) to vault over cover, though I ended up doing a melee instead.
It is not a distraction because as I said it rarely happened. Transitioning between cover points is a rarity. Even though there are many points with cover objects across from each other, the actual option to transition or as this game calls it, “swap”, to another cover point presents itself too rarely. Sprinting requires pressing the A(or X) button and letting go. It’s a preferable mechanic to holding down the sprint button, however, stopping means pushing the left stick back. At this point, the character has obviously gained momentum so he needs a little bit of time to regain his footing and come to a complete stop. The problem is the animation is awkward, looking as if the character is sliding along ice and doesn’t change depending on the surface, making the sliding animation all the more awkward.
The gameplay element Spec Ops: The Line absolutely nails is the shooting. Every weapon feels satisfying to shoot. I even enjoyed using all the handguns, which I rarely do in shooters. The feedback you receive from pumping bullets into enemies’ bodies makes you want to kill more. The slow motion effect after getting head shots overwhelms me with excitement. It rarely ever feels repetitive thanks to the great shooting mechanics and location variety. Yes, the entire game takes place in Dubai, but you would be surprised how many environments the city encapsulates. The quotidian run down streets, sandy outdoors, aquariums, malls, radio stations, etc…
The game doesn’t just hand out unlimited amounts of ammo for your weapons as in other shooters. You must be careful with your shots
Using grenades will show an arc indicating where they will land much the same as inGears of War and Uncharted. Further variety is added to the combat aside from the environments. At fixed points in the story, a sand storm will engulf the surrounding area, making it very difficult to see in front of you. These instances add tension and excitement because the reticule stops glowing when over an enemy and the bullet distance also seems to decrease. They add spice to any normal firefight.
I looked forward to experiencing every environment. Though being linear, Spec Ops: The Line has hidden intel in every chapter. The intel are recorded radio messages from other soldiers or civilians. Considering the cultural relevance behind Spec Ops: The Line‘s story, the intel here is worth a listen disparately from other games with intel. They are usually un remarkable.
As mentioned earlier, Spec Ops is an extremely short game, clocking in at 4 hours 8 minutes on a first normal play through. Once all is said and done, you will want to replay the game because you want to relive the experience and because of the several moral choices leading to four endings. There is also a multiplayer component. It’s not going to rank up to the current best such as Battlefield, Uncharted, or Gears of War.
The multiplayer takes inspiration from its contemporaries, namely Call of Duty with its perks system and customization. The six core multiplayer game modes are Chaos(Deathmatch), Mutiny(Team Deathmatch), Buried, Combat, Objectives, and Tour of Duty. Buried is the basic “destroy all enemy points” objective mode. Combat cycles between a no spawn Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch variant. Objectives cycles between buried and two other objective based modes not in the core matchmaking list. Tour of Duty alternates between Objective and combat modes. The sandstorms are also incorporated into the multiplayer which is a nice touch.
None of the maps stand out though one in particular is completely unbalanced because everyone heads to the roof. The multiplayer is entertaining enough to keep a person interested. I’m sure I’ll return to it over the years on occasion. Hopefully it’ll be easier to find people then because as of now, the player population is sort of sparse.
Spec Ops: The Line is one of the most culturally relevant video games to come along in quite some time. Its depiction of dubai, the horrors of genocide, and the horrors of war are easy to appreciate and it refrains from glorifying violence. It is a study of the human condition and succeeds very well from a moral perspective. It is a short game, but throw in four different endings and decent, if uninspired multiplayer, and the game is worth a full $60 purchase. It could have stood to either improve the multiplayer or remove it entirely and spend time on polishing the controls and finding a way to lengthen the single player as long as it doesn’t come at the cost of hurting the narrative flow. Spec Ops: The Line is an experience worth going through.
(Version reviewed: Xbox 360)