Like Jekyll and Hyde, Spec Ops' ordinary appearance is just a coat for a much more fascinating and sinister quiddity.
Well, recent videogame releases show that it's good for an explosive, larger-than-life thrill ride campaign that shies away from the true face of war: horror and dehumanization.
Luckily not every military shooter uses war as a carte blanche for high-octane violence and gun porn, although the yearly outings of Call of Duty and its contemporaries left no elbow room for a game handling the subject matter more realistically to work its way into the spotlight. Don't get me wrong, Spec Ops: the Line is big on collapsing buildings and helicopter crashes too, but with topics like genocide and post-traumatic stress disorder, it's definitely not your average military shooter even though the gameplay might lead you to think otherwise.
The story takes place about six months after a cataclysmic set of sandstorms engulfed Dubai, leaving the decadent emirate ravaged, dead and dangerous. Three-man outfit Delta Squad, led by captain Martin Walker, is sent to the pearl of Arabia to find out what happened to the 33rd, a battalion of the US Army under the command of decorated colonel John Konrad, that was supposed to evacuate Dubai. It quickly becomes apparent that insurgents have staged a coup against the 33rd, killing the soldiers sent in to help them, and the soldiers giddily fighting back.
The narrative is definitely something Spec Ops: the Line can proudly pound its chest for. Making water the hot commodity instead of WMDs and casting Americans - more relatable because you can understand what they yell on the battlefield - as the enemies instead of Russians or Koreans are simple but effective spins on the familiar formula. Collectible mementos flesh out the backstory, spur of the moment choices force you to decide between life and death more often than you'd expect and the devolution of the brothership with your squad mates, starting as a bro-fisting triad but ending arguments with blames and punches by the end of the game, show a sense of ruinous camaraderie that's not just rare in games, but downright absent.
This is part of Spec Ops' trick: it lulls you into a false sense of familiarity before pulling the rug from under you. A trio of wisecracking soldiers in a post-apocalyptic setting isn't exactly novel, and even the gameplay fits the Gears of War-template warts and all; sprinting and taking cover is mapped to the same button which causes frustration when you're trying to run away from a grenade, health regeneration allows you to cower behind cover when the goings get too rough, you can only carry two weapons at any one time and you have two squad mates who can revive each other but not you.
You do get some control over your wingmen: you can target distant enemies for your sniper or designate an area for a stun grenade with the click of a button. Even then your squad's performance is unreliable. Sometimes they clear a room before you even enter, sometimes they take a full minute to kill one man. The AI isn't any more predictable for the opposition: I've had enemies standing absolutely still in the middle of the battlefield and I've had enemies run to my grenade instead of away.
That could at least partially explain why the gunplay itself isn't terribly engaging. A slow-motion cut when you shoot someone in the head or blow someone to meaty chunks, and the option to execute enemies that are down but not out, do little to spice up the excitement. As you near the end, the enemies get more armor too, making headshots and grenades less effective, and the combat less enjoyable
On the flipside is a good sense of tension: there's an ammo scarcity that rules out the spray-and-pray-mentality, and even on the normal difficulty you can only take about three shots before you bite the dust.
And there is certainly plenty of dust to bite in post-apocalyptic Dubai. Fighting through high-rises draped in sand and dried bays that bed all sorts of shipwrecks is an excitingly unique experience, and the treacherous nature of this environment is a card Yager pulls often: hard-scripted sandstorms blow by occasionally to obscure your vision and communication, and since you tread across a half-buried city you never know just how sturdy the ground beneath you really is.
Sand is also used as a gameplay feature: sometimes enemies will stand near a window holding out the sand and shooting out the glass will bury the enemy. It's a good idea on paper but it's rarely useful as you'll barely distinguish these windows from walls, and its inclusion ends up feeling like a mere replacement for exploding barrels. A volumetric sand-engine coupled with random storms would've intensified the threat of being buried alive, bettering the notion of having to survive both man and nature.
Although I guess you could say that the real battle is against man's nature with you taking center stage, evidenced by your username popping up in the intro credits as the "special guest". Walker is under your control, doing your bidding and complying to your choices, and there comes a point when you realize that blindly carrying out commands and shooting everyone on your path never actually helped the situation. On the contrary, you're only making matters worse. By simply following your gamer instincts, you're sending Walker on a downward spiral to becoming a monster.
This is true in every meaning of the word: by the end Walker has gotten bruised, chafed and burned to the point where he barely resembles a man, he's gotten so brutal in his prowess that his enemies fear him and his own men doubt him, heck, even his soundbank changes over time, bringing more frightening ferocity to the commands he barks on the battlefield. The frailty of his mind comes into play with some interesting hallucinations but there's one line in particular that flips everything upside down. Pay attention when you reach the flash forward of the helicopter battle in the opening of the game chronologically in the story.
Other presentational tricks help to underscore the descent into darkness: as the climax draws near, loading screens swap common tips for fourth-wall-breaking prods such as "it's all your fault" and the main menu starts off with an electric guitar playing The Star-Spangled Banner over an American flag blowing in the wind but by the end of the game, the song has deteriorated into a mess of feedback and distortion while the flag hangs cut up and lifeless.
The single player will keep you occupied for maybe five hours, six if you decide to search for every collectible memento but you won't need to go out of your way to find them. I think this might even be the first time I found every collectible on a first playthrough. The choices don't shape the story in any way, their only outcome is whether or not the next room will be filled with enemies. Despite all that, the ending will entice you to replay the game just to see if you can pick up on the subtleties you didn't notice during your first run.
You can find more content in the co-op and multiplayer modes but since they strip the game's best qualities (not to mention dampen the graphical fidelity) they really don't leave much to enjoy. It's all very ho-hum anyway; you've seen these classes and perks before in shooters that are more robust and involving. It's a classic case of a single player game being forced to include a multiplayer component, and it ends up being detrimental to the entire package.
But it's still an awe-inspiring package at that. The Unreal-engine is tailor-made for this kind of game: there's some gorgeous lighting, sharp textures, nice-looking particle effects and fluid animations, though texture pop-in rears its ugly head a few times. It's the scenery that steals the show though: the scorching sun and towering golden dunes stand in stark contrast with the corpse-filled tunnels and squares smoldering with white phosphorus. Making the game as linear as it is allowed the developers to mold a richly-detailed world where something spectacular lies around every corner.
Sound too has been given a great deal of care, with Nolan North's voice-over as captain Walker being the cornerstone. He obviously understood the character arc and backed it with a phenomenal performance. The remainder of the voice acting is stellar as well, with the Radioman and Agent Riggs being another two standouts. Plenty of rock music, both original and licensed, keeps the adrenaline flowing during the battle scenes, with some trebled southern electric guitar plucks typifying the sultriness of the desert outside of combat. Fitting but not very memorable.
There's a couple of other irks besides the texture pop-in and questionable AI: the size of the crosshairs is jarring within the filmic presentation, I've experienced an audio glitch where the intro logos as well as the opening cutscene didn't have any sound and the text in the main menu becomes illegible when the background changes to night.
Spec Ops: the Line is certainly not flawless but its story makes it worth going through. It's a story with ugly characters where people you expect to play a vital role die almost as soon as you meet them. It's a story with an ugly ending that's a proper culmination of your subjection to Murphy's Law. Above all, it's a story with an ugly truth about war and perhaps about us gamers in general. If you feel like you've been missing some ruminative depth in your shooters, then Spec Ops: the Line might just scratch that itch.