This could well be one of the most subversive shooters yet made. That doesn’t say very much: vaulting the bar set by other entrants to the genre is hardly an Olympic feat. Nonetheless, Spec Ops: The Line deploys the crude ordnance of thirdperson carnage to persecute more formidable targets: war, soldiering, American interventionism, and the depiction of those things within videogames. The Line even makes good on Haze’s promise of morally complicated entertainment – a game that understands its own ugliness and base urges, undermining the thirdperson shooter even as it adheres to its formula.
That its satire of the expectations set by Gears Of War initially looks much like po-faced imitation is possibly its plan, although this may not help it at the sales counter. Indeed, it doesn’t much help you when playing it, since your appetite for the emerging plot isn’t stimulated by the standard stop-and-pop fare, which lacks a distinctive flavour of its own.
The game even begins with that most tawdry of tradition, a turret section. And the protagonist has a similar feeling of inevitability about him: Captain Martin Walker of Delta Force is a bestubbled hunk with a jawline you could use to hammer steel, from which comes the familiar tones of ubiquitous actor Nolan North. Like any such military shooter hero, he is determined, decent and almost entirely dull, flanked by the wisecracking comms expert and a no-nonsense heavy gunner. Almost immediately they find themselves tangling with anonymous scarf-wearing insurgents, who shout angry things in Farsi.
The game then sets about these expectations with something sharp, and soon your trio of all-American asskickers look like raw burger meat. Then, shortly after that, not-so-raw burger meat. They do extremely bad things, only some of them unintentionally. They become wild and distraught, their combat patter adopting an unsettling tenor. At first, ‘targets’ are ‘acquired’ and ‘neutralised’, but by the game’s closing hours Walker can barely choke out a maniacal “Fuck you!” as he riddles someone with bullets.
Even the tips displayed on the loading screens begin to take on a darker hue. Suggestions for using cover segue into hectoring: “Do you feel like a hero yet?” asks one screen. Then it ventures into the metaphysical: “You cannot understand, nor do you want to.”
Bar a few moments of forth-wall-breaking self-inspection, this transition is an explicit echo, if not quite a retelling, of Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness. There the protagonist ventures into the Congo, a place of terrible conflict, to rescue a missing ivory trader and ultimately finds both his good intentions and himself barbarised. Apocalypse Now updated this story, relocating it to Cambodia and presenting the search for the AWOL Colonel Kurtz. The Line’s setting is more fantastic, more lurid: a future Dubai annihilated by raging sandstorms that have driven the desert into, through and over the city’s once-glittering skyline.
High-rise hotels, decadent glass monoliths with helipads and pools, aquariums of rare corals, and casinos have been engulfed by dunes that rise to their very tops. The city’s evacuation effort has gone awry, and the commander of that operation, Colonel John Konrad, has fallen silent, issuing one last eerie radio broadcast as the storms close in.
You are here for reconnaissance, but your remit quickly broadens to rescue as you encounter inexplicable devastation: piles of soldiers from the lost 33rd Infantry, executed in rows; the desiccated remains of civilians hanging beneath road signs; bodies scorched by white phosphorus. These are not the signs of an evacuation. No one wants you here: not the opposing force (what is it they oppose?), not your commanders back home, not the people you’re trying to help, and not your two colleagues, whose reaction to your command slides from apprehension to acrimony with alarming speed.
Periodically, your squaddies will pull you in different directions. Sergeant Lugo, the sniper, insists you must save a dodgy CIA fixer from execution, while Lieutenant Adams begs you to intervene on behalf of some civilians – neither resolution offers a moral safety line. Later, such choices become less clearly signposted: your reaction in the face of a lynch mob of civilians caters for multiple outcomes, some bloodier than others.
This is the only instance in recent shooters where a civilian presence is shown to be complex. By making them both human and potentially hostile, it attempts to demonstrate just how easily such a situation can compromise high-minded military intentions. This is a visible phenomenon of military intervention and yet its representation within military-themed games has thus far been vanishingly small.
The drawing of Dubai is also to be commended, although certainly not for its realism. Here, the city is presented as a neon-shaded fever dream of ruinous excess. Instead of the malarial hallucination of Heart Of Darkness, or the acid trip of Apocalypse Now, Walker’s world is bent out of shape by post-traumatic stress. His grip on reality isn’t helped by the jarring collision of gruesome decay and moneyed debauchery as one of the world’s most extravagant skylines crumbles into the sand in a shower of gold and glass. Soundtracking Dubai’s end of days is a whacked-out radioman – an analogue of Dennis Hopper’s character in Apocalypse Now. Thanks to the well-distributed PA system, he is able to shriek his own accompaniment to Dies Irae during a hectic gun battle, or pummel our brave troops to the sounds of Kula Shaker.
Beyond these rich, delirious trappings, however, combat itself proves to be merely competent in an overcrowded genre. The acerbic cynicism of the plot is swamped by action beats we’ve played countless times before. Enemies flank and rush you, and the apparatus of these battles is rarely innovative. You move into one arena of small walls, fight a couple of waves, then move to the next. Such mundanity is only partly disguised by the game’s cruelty – stand out of cover and you’ll be cut down near instantly on the normal difficulty setting. And with 45-second-long load times (in our debug build of the game at least), the incentive for risky experimentation within these fights is next to nil.
Even with the most conservative tactics, you’ll see that screen all too often when the game drops a ‘gotcha’ moment. Monster closets spew enemies into your unprotected flank, or deposit a scripted clutch of grenades at your feet – deaths nigh on inescapable unless you are forewarned and your gun’s reloaded.
Firefights lack a gimmick to extend your tactical range beyond tentatively popping heads. You can command your squadmates to focus fire on enemies to great effect, but they don’t always follow through. Since you’re unable to instruct them where to take cover, they often create problems for themselves that you don’t have the vocabulary to resolve.
Early previews of the game suggested a greater ambition regarding the environment, enabling you to collapse structures and swamp opponents in sand drifts. That now only happens in occasional, predetermined instances, turning the environmental peril into a superficial alternative to the explosive barrel.
Disappointingly plain as its major form of interaction proves to be, as your tattered hero stumbles towards the terrible corruption that lies at this alternate Dubai’s heart, the game successfully excavates subjects darker and more immediately relevant than most military shooters dare broach. By its final minutes, Walker himself has grown from chisel-jawed videogame lunk to something approaching a character, even if he’s not one you necessarily like. He becomes a traumatised, maniacal, murderous wreck, and in this transformation is a wry criticism: this is what any shooter protagonist should look like after the amount of death and destruction they routinely face.
It would also be an overstatement to call it profound: in any other medium such themes would hardly be revelatory, and although The Line is a thoughtful and well-intentioned game, the level of its writing is carefully engineered to be accessible to those expecting a brainless bullet exchange. Even so, it is brazen in its critique, and a rarity besides. It may not be subtle, but it engages with problems that the bellicose ilk of Modern Warfare and Medal Of Honor have yet to acknowledge.
The first shot has been fired in the battle for a smarter, morally cognisant shooter. The numbers aren’t in its favour and its foes are both relentless and well-armed but, if the genre has taught us anything, that’s never a reason to surrender.
Read the full review, including a Post Script interview with Yager senior designer Shawn Frison on The Line's dark military themes, in issue 243 of Edge, out July 4. You can discuss the game and review in the comments section below, in the Edge forum, or on our Facebook and Google+ pages.