War has been glorified in videogame form since the days of Wolfenstein, perhaps though no game has brought it more mainstream than Call of Duty 2 did during the beginning of this console’s life cycle. While we were stuck in an endless cycle of World War 2 games it didn’t take long until developers tackled more modern wars. Still despite the horror that truly exists on the battlefield, very few games have attempted the emotional toll it takes upon a soldier, instead choosing to make players into a one man army capable of saving the world most of the time. Spec Ops: The Line is doing things a bit different, while set during a fictional war in a sand-ravaged Dubai, the game forces players to grip with a soldier’s emotions much like a survival horror game toys with a player’s fear of the unexpected.
The player takes the role of Delta Operator commander Walker, along with his squad of Adams and Lugo, they head into Dubai to find John Konrad and the 33rd Battalion who were sent in to evacuate the city before the storm hit. What Walker and crew find when they arrive isn’t what they expect as the city is in complete turmoil with rebels, civilians and the 33rd Battalion all at wit’s end with each other. Spec Ops: The Line is actually a retelling of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” a story about a military conflict in the Congo, something made famous by Apocolypse Now. The game is filled with references to the movie.
There’s no distinguished bad guy, or enemy force, rather there’s only the mission and anyone that is in the way needs to answer for that. It’s because of this you question your actions within the game. There’s no clear cut decision between right and wrong, only the moral gray area and a choice that ultimately affects both Walker and his squad in different ways. It’s this fragile balance that makes Spec Ops: The Line so compelling.
There’s another fragile balance at play in the game, and that’s the player versus the sand filled environment of Dubai. As you enter half buried buildings and engage in firefights, there’s always the risk of shooting out some window or wall and unleashing a wall of sand upon an enemy or yourself. Sadly this mechanic is completely underutilized, and having it appear more often may have made the combat appear more treacherous.
General gameplay in Spec Ops is fairly straightforward, at its core the game is a cover based shooter. Cover for the most part is destructible so you’ll need to keep moving and you can use the d-pad to direct your squad mates around and set up cover fire and flanking maneuvers. Along with moving from cover to cover, when combat gets up close and personal you can perform brutal execution moves on a stunned or knocked down enemy. Honestly the gameplay is more or less straightforward for a 3rd person military shooter, it truly is the story that drives this game.
By the time things wrap up you’ll have gotten a good look at the horrors of war, committed your own horrors of war, and uncovered exactly what has happened in Dubai to the 33rd Battalion. This game in a way reminds me of the Terrence Malick film, The Thin Red Line, it didn’t glorify the battles, but instead focused on the soldiers turmoil.
After the campaign you can jump into competitive multiplayer - and I’ll be perfectly honest - I didn’t touch it after one match. It wasn’t bad, but I just had no interest in it whatsoever.
Recently released is the co-op challenge pack, a free download available for your system of choice. In it are four maps where you’ll work with one other partner either over the internet or via LAN. Luckily there are matchmaking options here making it easier to get a game going, though it’s incredibly bizarre that they don’t let you pick which map you want to play using this option. There’s also four difficulty levels to choose from adding some replayability, and anything above the 2nd tier is going to severely challenge your patience.
I got a handful of rounds in on all the maps at a few of the difficulty levels. For the most part the objectives are straightforward - kill a target, escape an area alive, or disable some device. Players definitely need to work together to provide covering fire and if one player goes down the other can revive them. Both players go down, it’s game over. There's even certain missions that bring on the sandstorm weather effects, adding another element to the challenge in both visibility and movement degradation.
The missions take around 10 to 15 minutes to complete and for the most part are pretty tense and fun. Sadly there’s very little incentive to keep playing them - no achievements or bonuses to speak of.
The co-op mode is a nice addition, even if it’s 2 months post release as free dlc, but it’s not the reason to play the game. It would have been really interesting to see the developers push the envelope and bring the story into co-op, forcing players to make difficult decisions that would directly affect their co-op partners. It definitely seems like something that could have elevated the game even further.
Spec Ops: The Line is a game you should play not for its co-op mode, but because it does something different. It forces a player to make tough decisions that aren’t always black and white or good and evil, and the outcome isn’t always what you expect. You are placed in situations where you’ll be wholly unsure of who the enemy is and what to do to proceed, and its in this uncomfortableness that the game rises above the rest of the military shooters out there.
The Co-Optimus review of Spec Ops: The Line is based on the 360 version of the game which was provided by the publisher.