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Spec Ops: The Line (PC) artwork

Spec Ops: The Line (PC) review

"Emotionally raw at its best, but also a missed opportunity."

Yes. Spec Ops: The Line is absolutely worth playing, and I regret that it took me more than two years to experience it. There is something to be applauded in how Yager Development was daring enough to put a spin on the weary and increasingly uninspired subgenre of war shooters. It touches on topics like the glorification of combat and the cost of trying to be the hero in war. This is no breakneck-speed roller coaster ride, no sir. By the end, you’ll be battered and bruised – not just Captain Martin Walker’s physical body, but maybe your emotional state as well.

Events begin simple enough, with Walker leading his men, Adams and Lugo, into Dubai on a reconnaissance mission. They’ve been tasked to find out what happened to the city and its refugees after the place was hit by a series of rough sandstorms. Arriving in Dubai, the three-man squad quickly agree to ignore their orders and try to save as many people as they can, but find themselves deeper and deeper in the shitstorm of a warzone as several different factions – an American infantry battalion, the CIA, even the locals – are embroiled in violent combat, all with different and, more importantly, believable and human motivations behind their actions.

Walker wants to play the part of hero. You the player will, too. Whether it’s your determination to see how the story ends or the satisfaction you get from besting every challenge that is thrown your way – or maybe you genuinely want to do good by the civilians – it will be your decision to see The Line through to the end. And you will feel horrible in the process.

Or, that’s what The Line wants to achieve with its narrative. I can barely fault the cutscenes, the rough decisions you have to make (in which you’re often debating the lesser of two evils), and Walker’s interactions with his squad and the people he meets along the way. In these moments, I did have pangs of guilt and was affected to some degree by the way the events devastatingly unfold. But it could have been even better – the potential here is only partially realised. I wasn’t fully immersed in the world, and the situation Walker finds himself in could have felt more personal. What took me out of the experience fairly often was the fact that I found much of the action in the six-hour campaign too enjoyable.

On the surface, that sounds like a ridiculous complaint. The shooting is too fun? And honestly, given that The Line doesn’t try much in the way of innovation with its action, I’m surprised I enjoyed the firefights as much as I did. Mechanically, The Line is a very bog-standard cover-based shooter, but there’s something appealing about the way it encourages you to be cautious and take your shots only when you’re sure. You’ll be riddled with bullets if you stay out in the open for more than a few seconds, and ammo is scarce that, unless you like picking up fallen enemies’ weapons (I don’t), you really can’t afford to waste your clips by spraying and hoping for the best. I’m also a fan of taking guys out with a pistol in games like these, and getting head shots with your sidearm feels fantastic, a testament to the tight gunplay.

Then there’s the setting of Dubai, a backdrop which hasn’t been constantly mined and comes across as fresh and very novel. It’s more than just the desert hues and the distinct architecture, as small, sparingly-used twists such as sandstorms – which affect your and your enemy’s vision – and the ability to shoot windows to let sand pour in mix combat up a little from time to time. There’s a basic tactics component to firefights as well, where you can order your two squadmates to target a specific enemy or provide a heal for each other. It’s nothing deep or fancy, but is enough to drive home the point that you are their captain and the one in charge. You’re the one calling the shots, and they must follow your command, agree or not.

But the drawback of having an entertaining time with the gunplay is that it awkwardly juxtaposes with the storytelling. The thrills occasionally dilute the impact of Yager’s attempts to convey the horrors of war. Instead of being slightly tentative about mowing down the swarms of men in my way, I rarely paused to question their motivations and happily followed almost every objective laid before me without hesitation. One could argue that this is the entire point and that it’s a representation of Walker’s continued persistence that he believes what he’s doing is right. However, the issue I have is that while I felt bad in the game's quieter moments, I didn’t show much emotion during combat. Not even anger in the second half of the story, when revenge and payback are clearly on Walker’s mind, with the exception of one particularly effective late-game chapter.

A relatively early chapter sees Walker’s squad being attacked by fellow American soldiers over a case of mistaken identity, forcing you to fire back in self-defence. Dialogue from your men stresses that it’s a fucked-up situation, and they’re right. It is fucked up if you sit back and think about it outside of the game. But I never gave it a second thought, even when I cleared the entire area and the dust settled. Glimpsing at the bodies lying motionless on the ground, I simply trudged forwards to the next point of interest without looking back. Immersion in games is insanely difficult, and although The Line tries its best, it falls short more than I would have liked.

Funnily enough, the later chapters have the opposite problem in that the shooting becomes predictable and tiring. The game struggles to mix up the action set pieces enough – sniping segment aside – and enemy encounters on the ground begin to feel the same but more drawn out, with more men thrown at you. Then there are the on-rail sequences. I hate on-rail sequences. The pace at which the campaign descends to mediocrity in the final third is quite surprising, and it climaxes in a tedious and unappreciated difficulty spike right at the end. I get that being “fun” is hardly one of The Line’s primary concerns, but I’m sure it wasn’t going for “dull”, either. Or “frustrating”, given the clunky cover and vault mechanics. They aren’t initially a problem, but when you get to the endgame and enemies surround you from multiple sides, it’s less than ideal when Walker takes cover on the wrong side you intended.

That said, The Line is a one-of-a-kind experience. I can’t recall another game that touches on the human side of conflict and war so prominently, and the arc that Walker goes through is tragic and quietly shocking. Call of Duty developer Infinity Ward tried a few things with its Modern Warfare franchise, but it was done with too much flash, style, and spectacle to really take anything seriously. The Line not only offers a more grounded approach but is consistent in narrative tone across the entire game and works considerably better as a result. It has substance to its scenes, and at its very best is emotionally raw.

It’s just let down by the lack of synergy between action and story, though to be honest, I’m not sure what the developer could have done to blur the line between the two components. You can tell they’ve given it some thought – decisions aren’t made with a button press, instead presented naturally while you’re still in full control of Walker – but while they’re nice touches, it’s not quite enough. The Line is a missed opportunity. But at the same time, it’s a fine missed opportunity.

Rating: 8/10

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Community review by Ben (July 23, 2014)

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Suskie posted July 23, 2014:

Great review, Ben, and a fine example of why I love reading about this game -- because everyone has a different reaction to it. I played on the highest available difficulty, which, for me, really exposed how clunky the game's mechanics were, and that wound up giving me roughly the experience that it sounds like you wished you'd had. The combat was just a grind for me and by the end of the game I was just exhausted.

Funnily enough, I actually liked that one rail sequence near the end, because it was essentially just a power fantasy after I'd been struggling with the cover system all day. Of course, when I replayed the game and got to that segment again, the exhilaration was lost and I thought to myself, "Christ, I look like a maniac."

Anyway, thanks for writing this. Really enjoyed reading it.
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Ben posted July 23, 2014:

Thanks, Suskie. Really appreciate the comment. You make an interesting point about the difficulty - I did wonder afterwards what my experience would have been like had I played on the toughest level instead of the default. Someone had actually recommended to me playing on the easiest difficulty, so I could breeze through to the more interesting parts, but I'm glad I ignored that advice.

I've finally read your spoiler-filled discussion on your blog (it's here, in case anyone else wants to read it). I really liked that particular scene, and it was definitely one of the rare times where I felt something while shooting my weapon. SPOILERS! DON'T READ UNLESS YOU HAVE PLAYED SPEC OPS: THE LINE. I was very on edge, and fired before anyone charged at me. At first, I shot at the person closest to me to see how everyone would react. They started to run away. But instead of leaving it at that, I thought, "screw it", and chose to fire into the fleeing crowd. I think I mostly did it because it was my belief that the action was more consistent with how Walker would have reacted. But at the same time, it admittedly felt a little good getting some damn payback for what happened.

The Line is quite special (despite a couple of issues I had with it), and I can see your argument for why it should be considered as one of the greatest games in recent years. I agree with the sentiment that it does things in its narrative that a television show or film would fail to do, and in that regard, it's impressive in its own way.
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EmP posted August 02, 2014:

FOLLOW ON SPOILERS: It's funny to me that all the people I speak to about The Line quote that gathering as the stand out bit of the game when the whole gas bit near the start was obviously supposed to be the huge WTF moment. I completely agree: I hit boiling rage in the space of seconds and went to great, great lengths to mow as many of them down as I could, even with the voice in the back of my head screaming about low ammo count. I did not care; they had to die. Maybe because it was the first real choice you had to make. Gassing happened anyway; you walking away and letting the gathering live, or killing them more or less in cold blood was entirely on you.

Like Suskie, I also played it through on the Hard setting and although I thoroughly wish I hadn’t at certain stages of the game (battle around the crashed plan after the gathering being the worst), it did perfectly deglamourize the gunplay.

Another fine Spec Ops review!

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