‘War does not determine who is right, only who is left’, a timeless war-is-hell quote from late Welsh philosopher Bertrand Russell. The problem with games, as a whole, is that they very rarely develop this idea beyond the quote itself, a pretentious non-sequitur when you get killed, offering about as much depth as a soggy Ryvita. Haze attempted to tackle the issue, but was such a mess when it came to everything in between, any underlying message was lost under a wave of mediocrity.
I guess the reason is simply down to gameplay, how do you make a game about shooting people for fun something more than that? It’s a very bold move to make the player feel guilty for their enjoyment, but that’s precisely what Yager have done with Spec Ops: The Line.
Don’t let the name deceive you, this is no ordinary, middle-of-the-road shooter, loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the foundations for Apocalypse Now, Spec Ops: The Line takes you to a sand-ravaged contemporary Dubai. Cut off from the rest of the world, you and two other members of Delta Squad are tasked with reconnaissance and discovering the fate of the lost 33rd Batallion who stayed behind to help evacuate the city.
A contemporary take on Heart of Darkness was always going to be difficult, beyond the confines of Vietnam, finding a place of such bizarre isolation and muddled morality, but Dubai hits this nail square on the head. Even prior being cut off from the rest of civilised society, this extreme opulence amidst a barren wasteland, set against the volatile backdrop of the Middle East. Spec Ops takes this further, refugee camps and firefights, inter-spliced with eerie porcelain giraffes and garish interiors. It would’ve been easy to take the desert theme and simply make this into another droll, sepia-tinted monstrosity, but Yager have made this into one of the more vibrant, brightly coloured outings you’re likely to see this year, bearing fare greater resemblance to Journey than your Battlefields or Call of Duties. At times, there’s glimmers of Bioshock’s Rapture, a great city now fallen, consumed by the elements containing mere shells of its former inhabitants. The more you play, the closer you come to the conclusion that this game simply couldn’t have been set anywhere else, Dubai is simply sublime
You begin in media res, an on-rails helicopter segment thrashing through the shattered skies of Dubai before being hurled into oblivion by the biggest friend and foe in the game, the sand. If anything, Spec Ops: The Line is a shining example of spectacular set pieces not always needing to take the Michael Bay school of blowing everything up, indeed I can only recall one instance in which this happens, again sand is king. One segment in particular involves an ambush, a sandstorm, subsequent destruction of the environment and a sinkhole, sending your head spinning in the most enjoyable way imaginable.
Adding to the twisted nature of the game, whilst serving a rare slather of guitar-based soundtrack, featuring some excellent licensed music, is the omniscient DJ who initially appears to be running proceedings, a former Rolling Stone reporter gone AWOL. He’s brought to life well, unlike most who befall the prefix of ‘DJ’ in games, and like every character in Spec Ops: The Line, written excellently into the world, even at times forcing a little smile in the player during times of contrasting distress. This also applies to our other protagonists, Lugo and Adams, whose interplay accurately and excellently charts the descent of the city, from the light-hearted down to the completely disheartening.
One of the main criticisms befalling Spec Ops: The Line appears to be its combat, but in all honestly it never seems to do much wrong. Shooting feels like shooting, combined with the various sandy elements, creates for an enjoyable experience, an experience you may later come to regret. There may be a turret section too many, but it breaks up the countless moments of being outmanned, outgunned and pinned down, as well as providing further fun. One criticism may be that it’s perhaps too hard on normal, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing to feel rightfully outgunned. Your squad members seem to hold their own for the most part, occasionally even going ahead and making you feel inadequate, but squad commands can throw up a couple of issues, rather than targeting individuals from a distance, your compadres have an irritating habit of running face first into a shower of bullets, needing your care and attention right in the centre of a fire-fight.
Spec Ops really shines in both its narrative, but also underlying themes. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable game that seems to not only comment on the horrors of war itself, there are no winners only killers, but commenting on the insatiable bloodlust of the player. You enjoy the destruction and killing in parallel with Martin Walker, the phosphorus section highlighting this expertly and whilst I won’t go into any detail, it will leave you absolutely staggered, throwing you straight back into a firefight in a way that completely disorients the player, a master-stroke by Yager. The ‘moral choice’ sections are equally well done, really showing the evolution of the system in one of the best ways yet, as very options are immediately apparent to you, the easiest routes are undoubtably the most questionable.
Yager have created a game that pulls no punches; a fantastically warped reality of war in an equally marvellous contemporary setting. Spec Ops: The Line never condescends, and leaves you questioning your own actions even after the game is over. The multiplayer seems a little out of place, given the context of the game and whilst solid and functional, seems to represent less replay value than the single player. You have been warned, you’ll need a lie down once it’s over but you’ll thoroughly enjoy the ride and eagerly anticipate Yager’s next entry into the world of games.
Spec Ops: The Line is out Xbox , Playstation 3 and PC. Buy it now.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360
Dubai is realised with exquisite precision, weaving an intelligent, uncompromising story that will leave you speechless.
Some slight AI issues, not hugely inspiring multiplayer.