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Spec Ops: The Line

Spec Ops: The Line creates a terrifying story while being paired with some iffy design choices. The result is a mixed bag, but one thing is clear: for those of us who are looking for a narrative with depth, this is a must play game.

You take control of Commander Martin Walker, guiding him and fellow Delta Force operatives Lugo and Adams through the ruins of Dubai in search of Walker’s hero General Konrad, the man who was attempting to evacuate civilians from the disaster zone. The search takes place after General Konrad has sent out a distress beacon, signaling that his evacuation effort has failed. It sounds like a simple reconnaissance mission: establish contact with Konrad and any other survivors, and radio for extraction. But as we know, nothing ever goes according to plan. In this game, you will be forced to make decisions where there is no clear outcome, or even a clear indication of whether you are making the right choice. Morality is, after all, a thin line: one you will cross without looking back. That moral distinction we all try to hold between just kill and murder, it can quickly dissolve into a thing of fiction. Spec Ops: The Line wants you to know that.

Metamorphosis is a key theme for Spec Ops: The Line’s strong narrative and you will be constantly reminded that change always has a cost. Dubai’s transformation from opulent playground for the wealthy to hellish warzone mirrors the sort of transformation you can expect Walker to undergo. Walker begins as a clean-cut military operative with defined mission parameters, but as the narrative progresses, that image and Walker’s mission (or rather his personal motivations) develop into something troubling. Throughout my time with Spec Ops: The Line, I found myself haunted by what I was making Walker do.

So often in military shooters, enemy soldiers are obstacles that need to be removed as we proceed, absent minded, from point A to point B.  With Spec Ops: The Line that motif is very much alive, but here the enemy combatants refuse to die quietly. They cry, they whimper, and they slowly writhe around on the ground until they finally bleed out. These moments, even if they appear trivial compared to some of the overarching narrative’s larger, more disturbing moments, have an unsettling effect. It’s clear that Yager Development wanted to add a human element to the game by using realism at its most startling. Quite frankly, they pull it off with frightening results. Killing starts out as self-defence, but it changes into something more disturbing as the narrative progresses. You aren’t barrelling through nameless faces, but rather you are killing American Soldiers, the very people who not long ago were friendlies trying to evacuate civilians. Throughout the game, Lugo and Adams question what you are doing and whether it is the right thing to do, and sooner or later you will do the same.

While narrative is a strong point for Spec Ops: The line, if there is one area where the game struggles, it is gameplay. For the sake of simple comparison (gameplay v. narrative), think of it as the reverse Battlefield 3 (leaving aside the fact one takes place from the first person perspective and the other is third person). We all know the core gameplay for Battlefield 3 is superb, but the narrative for the campaign is lacking; it is the exact opposite for Spec Ops: The Line. Core gameplay is not that bad, but it becomes repetitive as the game goes on. You move from set piece to set piece, killing all the enemies in one area before moving to the next to do the same. You hide behind cover, poke your head out, pick off a few enemies, and repeat.

There is a temptation for games with a cover mechanic that Spec Ops: The Line falls into, and that is to force players into a peek-a-boo mentality. It is as if it became a crutch for Yager Development, and it reeks of lazy game design. While I don’t have a problem with games implementing a cover system, it becomes problematic when we are forced to rely on it in repetitive situations. Even when the game tries to do something different and throw us a curve ball, it ends up being more of the same. Take sandstorms for instance: at times you will be caught out in a sandstorm, which reduces visibility for both the player and AI. It seems like a perfect opportunity to allow a change of tactics, maybe to allow us to activate a run and gun mentality or even attempt to sneak up on enemies, but even with the change in environmental conditions you will still use cover just as much as before.

Part of the reason Spec Ops: The Line’s gameplay becomes repetitive has to do with its level design. It forces you down one path and you move from area to area, which constrains play style. There are opportunities for stealth, but these are limited because there is only one path the player can take. What should be an interesting setting turns into something much less exciting because as you play, there are no opportunities to take different routes to your main destination. Instead you are forced to move from cover to cover, poking your head out to pick off stray enemies.

Another quibble I have with the gameplay revolves around the use of squad mates. Being that Walker is the commander of the games operation, you have the ability to command Lugo and Adams, but it is limited. All you can really do is point to an enemy for them to attack, tell them to move to an area, or revive one another. While I realize this is the extent to which one would command squad mates, because you only get one button to control them, it becomes a constrained process. Instead of you controlling Lugo or Adams individually, the game distinguishes which team member is best suited to a command. I can’t help but think that if I (the player) were to assign orders for Adam and Lugo, based on the game situation and on their unique talents (Lugo is a sniper, and is excellent for long range precision shots; Adams uses LMG, and would be perfect to provide suppressing fire), that it would bring variety to the now redundant gameplay. There are also a few times toward the end of the game that the squad mates’ AI is puzzling. Rather than hiding behind cover as they always have been, they suddenly stand out in the open and are cut down, forcing me to stick my neck out to revive them. It’s irritating, but then again no game can get enemy or friendly AI quite right.

With that being said, the game’s brilliant narrative, voice acting, and striking character development all outshine the weaker gameplay elements. The experience is still fun on top of being both intellectually and morally stimulating, and is worth the approximately eight to ten hour investment to finish the game’s campaign. What you come across, the things you, as Walker, will do, entices you to play to completion in order to see how the narrative will be resolved. In the end, Spec Ops: The Line is not a perfect game, but it delivers a satisfying experience for gamers craving something with a strong narrative.

Flynn reviews Spec Ops: The Line.

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