Spec Ops: The Line ReviewJoe Shaffer
An immense sandstorm rocked the gorgeous Middle Eastern city of Dubai. The event was so catastrophic that members of a battalion, the "Damned 33rd," on their home from Afghanistan decided to aid in relief efforts. Unfortunately, to no avail... In the wake of their failure, an upsetting radio signal found its way out of United Arab Emirates, issued by one John Konrad of the Damned 33rd. As a response to this broadcast, the US sent a covert Delta Force on a reconnaissance mission to Dubai, hoping to find Konrad and unravel the mystery behind what befell the Damned 33rd...
That's where you come in, assuming the role of Capt. Martin Walker. Typically, this is the point where I'd begin talking up the protagonist, making him out to be a decorated hero commissioned with the task of liberating Dubai from the clutches of a familiar evil. However, that is not the case. Instead, we slowly find that Walker is just another poor bastard who's been given an assignment that may break him in the end. The tale that Spec Ops: The Line weaves is not one of Walker ascension to war hero status, but rather of his downward spiral into insanity.
Merely the act of stepping into a ruined Dubai could drive any human being mad. Seeing a once bustling metropolis felled by the mother of all storms is a heart-rending experience in itself. Whole buildings stand empty, some inundated with sand. Vehicles sit abandoned, many of them populated by the decaying dead. The grandeur that the city once commanded remains only as a faint echo, relegated to a series of grim set pieces that build the game's dreary atmosphere.
It's not chiefly the myriad hollow structures that eat away at your psyche in The Line, though, but the firefights you're forced into. Your standard enemies here are not terrorists, fascists, mutations, zombies, or aliens; they're everyday citizens equipped with guns, men who've been through the ringer and who've watched their livelihoods crumble around them. Worse, members of the Damned 33rd are also at odds with Walker, placing you in a painful position wherein you must off your own countrymen. Ending their lives in order to save your own is not such an emotionally simple task, either. When your adversaries consist of power-mad despots and their snarling cronies, it's easy to plug a bullet into them and walk away without regret. Here, though, your foes are humans who just want to survive.
Time and again, The Line tests you. Throughout its campaign, circumstances crop up that thrust Walker into judgment calls without the benefit of an ideal option. In one scene, Walker has to choose between killing a thief or executing a soldier who killed the thief's family while pursuing him. Your only other choice is for Walker to fall victim to a sniper shot. Walker could do that and take the easy way out, but the man is determined to walk the path of true heroism and bring down whatever evils are behind the chaos that wrecked Dubai.
I'm not usually one to big up a game's narrative. I'm typically more in favor of a game's mechanics over the story it tells. However, The Line presents one of the few storylines that I actually enjoyed enough to push above its mechanics. It's not a story of typical heroism, but a complicated quest that will haunt you. Seriously, after finishing this game I needed a shower and a stiff drink.
Understand, though, that I'm not shooting down The Line's mechanics. Mechanically speaking, the game operates as it should, only standing out in a few small areas. For starters, enemy AI is quite intelligent. I bumped into a good number of scenes where my foes would sneak past my notice and gun me down before I could respond. They also don't fall for the same tactics repeatedly. Eventually, they tend to run from your grenades right as you toss them, and have a tendency in some cases to stay well covered to the point of irritation. Speaking of cover, that aspect is also handled very well, as you can seamlessly skip from one barricade to another with the push a button. Because of that, I didn't have very many occasions in which Martin broke cover inexplicably or became confused when I needed him to move.
The best battles are ones that combine the game's excellent cover system, strong AI, and marvelous set pieces harmoniously. These are occasions where you'll trade shots with a few gunners, hop from one barricade to another amidst a complex network of covers, and watch your rear as much as possible. At times, segments can become so frantic that you might lose your cool and just charge at every opponent you can spot, pistol-whipping everyone to death until either none stand or you fall. Sometimes you can destroy a key piece of the environment to turn the tables on your nemeses. For instance, shooting out a window during one scene can cause a wave of sand to rush in and bury your targets, saving you the grief of waiting for your enemies to break cover. Of course, it also helps that you can delegate orders to the other squad members and have them take out key foes for you. Also, unlike some squad-based games, your computer-controlled teammates are not complete idiots in The Line.
Unfortunately, there's really nothing new or noteworthy about Spec Ops: The Line mechanically. It effectively covers all of the right bases, but isn't any more exciting than your standard Battlefield title. Regardless of the lack of innovation, it's still an experience worth jumping into, partly because it hits all of the right notes for its genre, and partly because of its somber, poignant narrative. Although it might sound depressing, it's a nice change of pace from the cliche derring-do that highlights most contemporary shooters.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.