For all the games I’ve played throughout my lifetime, Spec Ops: The Line has to be up there when it comes to being one of the weirdest that I’ve encountered. I don’t mean that it’s weird in the traditional sense, either – what I mean is that’s there’s so much going on, and so much the game tries to achieve and stir within you, that it’s honestly hard to know where to start talking about it.
Since that’s the case, let’s start with the basics; the gameplay and graphics, actual solid and concrete features that are easily observable. Unfortunately, as becomes rapidly apparent as you start playing, these are features the game is deeply lacking an abundance of in the quality department. This is very much a generic cover based shooter that you’ve probably played a thousand times before, and it’s not even a good example of that genre. It doesn’t feel engaging or enjoyable to play, and in fact pretty lacks anything that make it special in any way. Indeed, the only lasting memory of the gameplay I have is how the fiddly controls (especially regarding cover) are what killed me more than anything else.
This is a problem that is then only exasperated more by the dismal visuals on display. While I accept this came out five years ago, the actual graphics are merely tolerable when compared to other titles from the same time period. I’m also aware that considering the game’s tone, the dull looking nature of every landscape you encounter is clearly a deliberate design choice. The real problem is just that everything’s so… Forgettable. You’ll pass through area after area completely passively, retaining no information as to what they may have ever looked like. There’s simply nothing engaging to grasp on to; no dramatic vistas or battlefields, and no compelling gameplay to try and counter this defect. It’s the purest definition of bland.
Yet – and here’s where things start getting weird – it’s clear Spec Ops: The Line never really cared for these matters in the first place. What it really wants to focus on, and the whole purpose for it existing in the first place, is how it’s a brutal deconstruction of the military shooter genre as a whole. This is a title that rips apart so many ideas and beliefs common to all the other similar titles around it that it’s honestly difficult to keep up. The idea that America is always there to save the day, the glorification of the army and war in general, even the idea that you could put violence into the form of a video game and call it entertainment… All these topics and more are picked up, scrutinised, and then torn to shreds.
It’s startling to see, and effective for the most part, but it’s not perfect. There’s a deep problem ingrained in the message that’s trying to be conveyed here, and to demonstrate this, you only have to take a look at the pivotal moment that occurs around the halfway point. Its dark, presented to you without compromise, and will make you feel incredibly miserable for a good while afterwards. It’s also the stepping stone by which the second half of the game really ramps the story and its moral message into high gear, with practically everything setting you down a emotionally dark path – loading screens and all.
The problem is this, however – you’re forced to do it. There’s no alternative way out, much as you might like to find one; the only way forward is to commit the atrocities set out in front of you. Yet since you’re so railroaded into doing this, the game telling you you’re an awful person afterwards feels a big hypocritical; you were never given a say in the matter, after all. To commit to a terrible analogy, it’s like me making you a delicious sandwich, placing it in front of you, and then criticising you when you actually decide to eat it – considering the way everything has been presented before the outcome, the outcome itself simply doesn’t make sense.
The developers have argued in interviews that there is another option to take; simply turn it off. Yet that feels completely at odds to the way every other video game in existence works – you’ve paid money and invested your time into this product, so you’re naturally going to wish to proceed and not just give up halfway. Besides, if the developers are stating that the best course of action is to stop playing – why create anything after this point? Why develop it at all? The fact this experience takes the form of a video game is both its greatest asset and its greatest curse – it needs to force you to do things to proceed forwards, but by doing so it fundamentally weakens their impact.
There are other smaller moments throughout which provide some form of actual choice, and it’s actually these that fare a great deal better. One in particular saw an intense situation physically panic me, pushing me into making a terrible decision. It was only after the event that I realised there was a better solution I could have taken, the realisation of which made me feel terrible in a distinctly more organic way. This isn’t really a critique of the other emotional moments the game places in front of you – far from it – it’s just a shame that these moments of true choice aren’t a little more prevalent.
Spec Ops: The Line, therefore, is a lot to take in. As a piece of entertainment, something to actually have fun with, it’s a complete and utter failure. Whether it’s actually a good game is hard to answer as well, because I’m not sure how you define “good” in the context of something that’s as dark as this. As a think piece, however – something to look at, examine and discuss – it’s a sterling success. It’s made me question things long after I put the controller down, and you only have to glance at the internet to see how much discussion this has created. That’s why it’s so weird and so much in a class of its own – and something that is, despite its many faults, well worth your time.