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Spec Ops: The Line (Xbox 360) artwork

Spec Ops: The Line (Xbox 360) review

"And as the mission continuously goes awry and takes an increasing toll on Walker's physical and mental stamina, what was once black-and-white starts to look suspiciously grey. You've personally been walking over hundreds of corpses all day, and making hundreds more. What's one more dead body?"

See, this is why I'm not a film critic. I genuinely believe that every serious gamer should play Spec Ops: The Line, yet it's mostly for plot-related developments that players are better left to discover on their own. So if I want to express my enthusiasm for this game without spoiling anything, all I can say is, "Wow, that thing sure happened!" To make matters more complicated, as a third-person cover-based shooter, The Line is nothing special, which makes it weird that I'm recommending it as strongly as I am, and mighty difficult for you, I imagine, to take my word for it. But I'll get into that later.

The Line is one of the many works of fiction inspired by Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. That alone might be too much information, since the game shares plenty of immediate similarities with the novel's most famous adaptation, Apocalypse Now. (The soundtrack is even full of Vietnam-era rock songs, so I can't imagine that the many parallels are a coincidence.) In short, The Line studies a hardened soldier's decaying mental status in the face of nonstop warfare – the terrible things he sees, the terrible things he's forced to do, and the horrific actions carried out by people who have already traveled the road he's walking. It's heavy stuff, and plenty of films and memoirs have documented the horrors of war already, but I don't think anyone's ever done it quite like this.

Spec Ops: The Line asset

The setting is Dubai, months after the once-overcompensating city was ravaged and partially buried by an enormous sandstorm. We initially sent in a battalion to aid the survivors, but then evacuation failed, the United Arab Emirates declared the city a no man's land, and communication with our forces halted. Captain Martin Walker is then sent in with a small recon team to examine the situation, and it's not pretty. Developer Yager draws up a fascinating warzone in which every side of the conflict believes it's doing what's right, and no one can truly be sympathized with. The battalion wants to maintain order but must resort to lethal extremes to do so, the locals have rebelled against people who are trying to help them, and the CIA wants to bury a mess that could quite easily trigger hostility between the United States and the UAE. Even Walker, who wants to save people, only seems to be making things worse the longer he stays in the city.

In a well-foreshadowed but nevertheless shocking turn of events, Walker and company do something that, unbeknownst to them at the time, has heinous consequences. Yager doesn't pull any punches in showing us the grim details, and you have to wonder, for a moment, whether there's any sense in framing a war-is-hell narrative around a shooter, one in which we're forced to gun down hundreds of people before the credits roll. To me, Yager wins points by never glorifying nor sensationalizing the game's violence. They simply allow these events to happen. Walker's impenetrable reaction to the aftermath of the incident demonstrates that he is a perfect marriage of player and protagonist, at once a fully-realized character – with a voice, a backstory, etc. – as well as a slate on which the player can project his or her own emotions. Like Walker, we've already committed countless acts of brutality. Many of them were senseless in the grand scheme of things but needed to be done, for one reason or another. I mentioned that the gunplay itself isn't even all that great, and maybe it's not supposed to be. Maybe Yager's intention was not to entertain, but to engage in other, more unexpected ways.

Whatever they did worked, because while none of The Line's individual ingredients are new, I felt more uncomfortably connected to the protagonist's gradual descent into madness than with any other similar work of fiction, and it's all due to the interactivity of the medium. The Line has a number of moral choices, and Yager actually handles them the way every developer should: by simply allowing the player to act on the spot. There are no jarring asides in which Walker contemplates his options, no awkward text boxes that prompt you to press one button for the heroic choice or another for the evil choice, no moral slider that tracks your saintliness. It's just you, in full control of your character, forced to do something while various characters try to persuade you one way or another.

Perhaps more striking than the implementation of these choices are the choices themselves. Early in the game, you're forced to either stick rigidly to your mission objective or risk yourself to save a few people who may otherwise be killed. It's a tricky choice because it's anything but black-and-white. Saving lives is nice, but your entire operation is a rescue mission, and success would make it easy to overlook a few necessary deaths. Every war has losses, after all. But later, when faced with your second big moral dilemma, the "bad" choice is considerably less justified. The third, even less. And so on.

Looking back, it's a bit unnerving how easy it was for me to make such malicious decisions. I know, I know – it's just a game, and none of this stuff is actually happening. But if war movies can make us cringe over fictional characters committing atrocities, it's an interesting experiment to make a war game in which we're able to commit similar atrocities ourselves. Interactive storytelling has the unique ability to connect us to a protagonist's struggles. We experience Walker's turmoil. We fight every battle. We suffer through the often exhausting grind. And as the mission continuously goes awry and takes an increasing toll on Walker's physical and mental stamina, what was once black-and-white starts to look suspiciously grey. When you're tempted to do something wicked – for revenge, or convenience, or some other reason – it's awfully difficult not to. You've personally been walking over hundreds of corpses all day, and making hundreds more. What's one more dead body?

These are heavy questions, but, as I've been pointing out, they leave us with a game that's not exactly "fun," at least in the traditional sense. Again, the gunplay itself is actually kind of a chore at times. It benefits from some inventively intense scenarios and a handful of spectacular set pieces – The Line is, at times, an absolutely gorgeous game – but is ultimately hamstrung by clunky, unresponsive mechanics, which often make it difficult to navigate cover properly. As it turns out, there may be a reason for that. Lead designer Cory Davis recently cited the multiplayer as a major cause of the game's issues. 2K Games evidently insisted that an online component be shoehorned into what was obviously meant to be a single-player experience, which divided resources and evidently had a negative effect on the campaign itself. Ironically, the multiplayer is a ghost town, and the game still hasn't been selling well. It's an unfortunate case of the business side of the entertainment industry winning out over the artistic side, to what appears to be no one's gain.

I wonder, though: Would The Line truly have benefitted from being more "entertaining"? The game's clever and absolutely insane conclusion underlines that this is a story about war, what its desperation turns people into, and the lengths to which they'll go to justify the terrible things they feel they've been forced to do. And having personally shared responsibility for each and every one of Walker's kills – sometimes by choice – I was just as dazed, weary, and overwhelmed as he was. My stance has almost always been that narrative should function in service to gameplay, not the other way around. The Line is the rare game that makes me eat my words. It tells a thought-provoking and at times gut-wrenching tale in a way that no other medium could. It may not be perfect, but it represents a massive step forward for the gaming industry as a whole, and I can't recommend it enough for that reason.


Suskie's avatar
Freelance review by Mike Suskie (September 04, 2012)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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If you enjoyed this Spec Ops: The Line review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!

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bbbmoney posted September 05, 2012:

Huh, the way they advertised this game made me dismiss it immediately. But now, well damn, awesome article.

And now I feel bad that I'm looking to buy this game used.
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Suskie posted September 05, 2012:

I'm sure 2K was trying to market the game to the generic shooter crowd, even though Spec Ops: The Line acts largely as a criticism of that genre. The game is already generating a lot of talk among serious gamers (enough that I can really see it becoming a cult classic a few years down the line), but too much of the potential core audience is ignoring it, either because it wasn't marketed properly, or because of the somewhat lukewarm critical reception due, evidently, to a multiplayer component that Yager didn't even want to throw in. So it seems that 2K's attempts to reach a larger audience have ironically made the game less successful. A shame, but a poetic shame nonetheless.

Anyway, thanks a lot for reading. This really is one of the year's must-play games, in my mind.
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EmP posted September 06, 2012:

Fine stuff, Suskie. You've probably just sold me a game.
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Suskie posted September 07, 2012:

I hope so! It strikes me as the sort of game that everyone will have a wildly differently interpretation of. A lot of critics just saw it as a mediocre shooter that just happened to have an above-average story. Obviously, I saw a lot more than that.

I'll say this: The Line has, bar none, the most brutal moment I've ever experienced in a game. I didn't mention it or allude to it in my review. Interestingly, the sequence will play out completely differently for many people.

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