It's been a little over two years since Spec Ops: The Line came out. As I'm sure most of you remember, it was a hit with critics. The unexpected grim view of modern warfare was praised as "the most exciting thing to happen in video game narrative for fucking years" (Zero Punctuation, if you hadn't guessed). Extra Credits called it a satire of generic military shooters. If you just paid attention to the reviews, Spec Ops: The Line sounds amazing.
Wait, you mean it's not?
I never get games on time. I don't really feel like paying $60 for something I can just get for $5 later, and while that means I get some great deals on games, it means I never end up playing games when they come out. But though I bought Spec Ops: The Line about half a year after it came out (Amazon Christmas sale), I didn't end up playing it until I decided I was going to write this review. And that brings me to the first point of this review: it's boring.
The first time I played Spec Ops: The Line, I did so on normal difficulty. I quickly ran into the same problem I do in most cover shooters: get to a point that's too difficult to get past and then quit. That's because Spec Ops: The Line has the same gameplay of every other cover shooter, and that's boring. I've enjoyed games that are basically just story (Dear Esther, The Stanley Parable, The Walking Dead). It's just that Spec Ops: The Line coveys its story between boring generic shooter segments. In terms of generic shooter segments, Spec Ops: The Line isn't bad—I've played worse—but it's not a great way to convey the story.
Apocalypse Now + Three Kings
The story is the part I have the most problems with. First off, it's loosely based on Heart of Darkness; but I'm okay with that. Apocalypse Now was a great movie. I think that, in movie form, Spec Ops: The Line would be much better than it is in game form; the script wasn't designed around choices the player makes (except for a few exceptions). That's bad. The entire point of Spec Ops: The Line is to make me, the player, feel bad for what we're doing. But that doesn't work if we're not doing it. This problem is most apparent in one of the most controversial and important scenes in the game: the white phosphorus scene.
You all know what scene I'm talking about (if you don't, it's on YouTube). This is the point where the game turns from "rescue mission" to "massacre." After this, you are no longer the hero. This is such a critical scene in the game, and I'd expect that if they wanted me to feel bad about it, it'd actually be something I chose. If I chose to dump white phosphorus on a bunch of people because it's easy, then I'd totally feel bad about it. But the game won't let you do that (though I love the lampshade hanging when Walker says there's no choice). This is repeated throughout the game. Taking their water? No choice, you terrible person. Killing rogue American soldiers? No choice, you barbarian.
Apparently what I'm supposed to do right now is not play the game. That's not a real ending. Don't design a game that's not supposed to be played. I know there's a lot of debate over what is or is not a game, but in my definition, a game is something you play. If you design a game that is not meant to be played, you have not designed a game. I get the philosophical point behind this "ending," but it's not a real ending and it still doesn't make me feel bad about what I'm doing.
Speaking of feeling bad, the first time the game really does this to you is after you first enter the city of Dubai proper, and you zip-line across to another building. There are two American soldiers talking to each other. The writing for these two soldiers is incredibly ham-handed. The goal is, obviously, to make you feel bad for killing them. First, this shouldn't be "obvious." I noticed it my first time playing. I noticed it my second time playing. It sticks out like a sore thumb, and it's really annoying. Second, there is no way to avoid killing these guys. You can stealth past them for a bit, which works until one of your squad mates alert them or the guys downstairs do. Other than turning off the game, you have to kill them. Yeah, I'm not going to feel bad about that. This is repeated later in the game when the DJ is describing all the horrors you've committed. That guy was just following orders! That guy has two kids! Yes, but I have to kill them to progress in the game.
Not to mention that the game only wants you to feel bad about the rogue American soldiers or the refugees. The refugees who are also shooting at you? Fuck those guys.
it was alright okay
That's not to say Spec Ops: The Line is a bad game. Or that it has a bad story, or anything like that. The story would've been amazing in a movie (and if they're planning on one, I'll be the first to see it). The ending was so much more than I could've hoped for. I expected an ending like Apocalypse Now (no twist ending at all), but what I got almost made me reconsider writing this review at all (I'm just a sucker for twist endings and that was one of the best). The environment was nice. Sure, it's a desert, but I haven't seen Dubai used as a setting, nor seen sand used in that manner (plus, it's much less brown than expected). The PTSD hallucinations near the end helped it feel disjointed and broken, and really enhanced the ending.
If you haven't played it, go pick it up now (I hope I haven't spoiled too much for you). It's a good game with a great story. It's just not the amazing, revolutionary satire of military shooters that I'd been told. And I'm disappointed.