Developer: Yager Development || Publisher: 2K Games
Director: Cory Davis, Francois Coulon || Platform: Microsoft Windows, Linux, OS X, Playstation 3, Xbox 360
Interactive entertainment has always been about technological advancement. The history of videogames is wrapped in the analysis of hardware limitations and the software ingenuity that eventually supersedes them. Videogames, whether they be based in mainstream consoles, hardcore personal computing machines, or tiny mobile devices, always seem to be looking forward, to the future, to the next stage of digital evolution and the next hardware barrier to fall.
Unlike film, few videogames, let alone big-budget mainstream titles, ever pause to look back into the medium’s past or consider the implications of the medium’s rules and limitations. Much press and commercial success has followed recent titles that found means to wrap story, characters, and thematic depth with gameplay mechanics, rather than ignoring them altogether (e.g. Mass Effect [2007, 2010, 2012], Heavy Rain , The Last of Us ) — but in the end, interactive media is rarely self-reflexive or introspective.
Enter Yager Development’s Spec Ops: The Line (SO), the latest continuation in the long-running series that was eventually halted after its sales lagged in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with the franchise changing hands from developer to developer. Creative teams struggled to figure out what to do with the property in light of the plethora of similarly themed, successful shooters like Call of Duty (2003-2015) and Battlefield (2002-2015). What project Yager eventually settled upon may be one of the ballsiest and out-of-left-field undertakings in the medium’s history. With The Line, Yager didn’t so much craft a piece of digital entertainment so much as they posed an interactive question to the many players who buy military-themed shooters year in and year out. They questioned the game’s genre, its conventions, its cliches, and even its existence.
SO is essentially a third-person shooter version of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) (or Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now , whichever you prefer). The main antagonist of the game is named Colonel John Konrad, a clear reference to both Joseph Conrad and Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz. Additionally, the entire setting and premise of the film (a beautifully haunting, hellish post-disaster Dubai) screams the thematic undertones and brutally dark tone of both tales. SO not only questions the nature of warfare and its impact on human morality, but it also comments on the videogame medium’s (specifically the military-shooter genre’s) crude representation of those concepts.
Many sources believe that SO is not and never was intended to be “fun,” escapist entertainment, but rather a blunt criticism of how videogames and videogamers interpret and misrepresent their subject matter. This game takes the controversial airport terrorist attack of Modern Warfare 2 (2009) and uses that civilian massacre as its entire narrative backdrop. SO follows a story where you kill every single person you were meant to rescue, where your morally decrepit choices and decisions obliterate the traditional moral dichotomy of videogame storylines, and where every single person, place, or thing in the game asks if you feel like a hero yet.
Don’t get me wrong, The Line is engrossing and captivating in ways that few games ever are, and its structure allows narrative choices to play out in real-time and in organic ways. It was a game I couldn’t stop playing. However, I never once felt that I was truly “having fun” while making my way through the sandy ruins of Dubai, that I enjoyed shooting unarmed civilians who hanged a former squadmate, that I felt comfortable while engaging combat with American soldiers, that I was invigorated after launching white phosphorus upon an enemy platoon.
SO hardly pushes the boundaries of graphical artistry, nor are its gameplay mechanics innovative or unique in any way. But then again, that’s the point. The Line melds a fantastic, haunting story of war with superb level design and painfully traditional shooting controls in order to speak to the larger problem with videogame-shooters: They don’t feel real or relatable in any way. Sure, there are some exceptions here and there, but for the most part first-person and third-person shooters are about as representative of military combat and ideology as The Fast and the Furious (2001-2015) is of street-racing. Generally speaking, this isn’t a good thing, and it rarely leads to objectively interesting videogames.
Moreover, the failing point of most military shooters is that they desensitize us to combat the way bloodless PG-13 action films lie to us about real-world violence. In both cases they deceive, and never come within a million miles of saying anything intriguing about their inspirations or subject matter.
I won’t lie to you and say that I enjoyed playing Spec Ops: The Line, nor do I plan on replaying it in the near future, if ever. But that being said, I can’t recommend it to serious videogamers enough, or for that matter, people who find “violent” videogames distasteful or morally repugnant. It’s a hard property to rate, I’ll admit, but it’s arguably the easiest videogame for which I can write a review — if that makes any sense. Despite sporting purposefully generic gameplay and serviceable graphics at best, it’s the rare interactive piece that comments on its medium and successfully critiques the limitations and conventions of its genre. Like Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables (2010), The Line does not wish to reinvent its genre’s tropes and cliches, but embrace them; the key difference between these analogues is of course that The Expendables has nothing but love for its artistic ancestors, while The Line has little but cynicism for them.
Standout Features: Spec Ops depicts a fabulous, gut-wrenching story and a creepy setting to die for. Its great level design is second to its overall narrative structure, where the player finds themselves unable to decipher whether they’re playing in reality, a dream sequence, or a warped interpretation of the former. The game’s characters are well written, well acted, and arc believably. Through them, players are able to influence and manipulate the story in interesting and unforeseen ways. The ending lives up to the story’s thematic weight.
Noticeable Weaknesses: In the end, SO is not a fun experience nor is its gameplay anything but repetitive once displaced from its narrative. The look of the game is dated and you won’t want to play it a second time.
? If you pay your 60 bucks because you want to shoot something, and at the end of that game you feel bad for shooting something because I’ve taken you through a narrative journey to that point where you’re kind of regretting having gone through it, not because of you but because of the actions that you’ve taken part in, I think that’s something to make people rejoice about the emotional impact of games.
We didn’t set out to make a Call of Duty killer. We’re not trying to top anybody. They do what they do very well, and sometimes people want that experience. But people want this experience too.