If you’ve been ignoring Spec Ops: The Line because of its lamely generic title, leave your prejudices at the door and read on.
I played Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and rather enjoyed it. I thought it was a hugely entertaining blockbuster romp with a few gut-wrenching, daring narrative moves that showed the futility of war (the nuke) and even a neat line in dark satire (the aerial targeting sequence). With each sequel it became increasingly evident that much of my praise for the game’s narrative had been me projecting. The black and white, casual killing of the aerial targeting sequence wasn’t satirising the clinical bloodthirstiness of real world tech that had transformed the Iraq war into a perceived computer game by its invading combatants; it was just a bloodthirsty sequence that thought it was cool.
As the series continued to embrace linear, scripted movie sequences (and as its supposed competitors, such as Battlefield 3, copied it shamelessly and impotently) I rapidly lost interest in the entire war genre. I rather longed for the old days, when Medal of Honour: Allied Assault and the original PC Call of Duties were about the fighting and the soldiers rather than Hollywood blockbusterising. Nothing in any recent war game came anywhere near to the shocking, revelatory and humbling D-Day beach landing on MoH:AA or the courageous, subtly heroic bridge defence in the original Call of Duty.
I largely ignored Spec Ops: The Line simply because of its uninspired title and the general sense that it was yet another over-scripted, patriotic America-Defeats-The-World rollercoaster. Rock, Paper Shotgun came to the rescue, as usual, posting an intriguing review that essentially declared the game to be absolutely horrible – in the best way possible.
They were correct: this game is horrible. Truly unpleasant. It is also brilliant and essential gaming for anybody that’s looking for some brains with their bullets.
It’s important to define expectations at the outset. Spec Ops: The Line doe not bring anything new to the table in terms of game mechanics. It is a solid, third-person, cover-based shooter with (very) light squad tactics and a handful of key decisions that affect the plot. It’s nothing you haven’t played before. The best thing to say about the gameplay is that it doesn’t get in the way of everything else the game is doing.
This loading screen sums up the game’s tone and attitude:
Early in the game the loading screens feature the usual inane text tips and vague instruction: “press spacebar to sprint” or “hold down the grenade key to aim” – that kind of thing. I’m not sure exactly when this began to change, perhaps about a third of the way in, but the usual instructional tips gradually became less frequent, replaced with definitions of cognitive dissonance and uneasy, rationalist examinations of the nature of war. This is a game that lets its protagonist’s disintegrating mental health spill over into loading and menu screens.
What begins as business-as-usual, with your small squad of American soldiers making their gung-ho way into a war-torn and sandstorm-destroyed Dubai, gradually shifts into a vision of increasing madness, both in the scenario and the state of mind of the characters. The narrative plays with uncertainty all the way through: you’re often not entirely sure who you’re fighting, or why, or who is on whose side. It makes for a disarming and disturbing experience, something I’ve never really experienced in a war game before.
And that’s without even talking about the white phosphorous bit. All I will say is to avoid spoilers, screenshots and details from now until you have played and finished the game. It’ll take you places you won’t expect and will leave you with an entirely new perspective on both war and games.
I cannot wait to see what developers Yager do next. Let’s hope they’re afforded the same creative freedom to be daring and offensive and risky.