2K Games’ Spec Ops: The Line, though often frustrating to play, is a deeply compelling attempt to turn a shooter into something troubling and complicated. The Line doesn’t reward you for fake video game bravery the way most military shooters do. Instead, this is a game that punishes you. Toward the end, the game actively taunts you during loading screens, and makes it clear that the soldier you control, Captain Martin Walker, has caused more problems than he’s solved. While not the great anti-imperialist shooter Left Gamer Reviewhopes to one day play, The Line is something special. While the Call of Dutyfranchise seeks to turn every war into a clean conflict between “good” and “evil,” The Line never gives you the comfort of believing that all the killing is justified.
Every review you’ll see mentions Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, probably because The Line uses these references in such a blunt way. Captain Walker has been dispatched to sandstorm-ravaged Dubai to hunt for signs of one Colonel Konrad, formerly of the US Army’s 33rd Battalion, who has disregarded orders to leave and kept his entire battalion in Dubai to help refugees. Do you get it? Colonel Konrad? Like Joseph Conrad? But also Colonel Kurtz? Do you get it?
Heart of Darkness has had its story mined again and again, so anyone paying the slightest bit of attention can probably summarize the novel even without reading it. It seems that in any lazy story, a group of isolated Westerners are either going to visit the Heart of Darkness or become the Lord of the Flies or perhaps some combination of the two. The Line is more sophisticated than I initially suspected, though. I had assumed that we’d discover that Konrad had turned into a real Colonel Kurtz, then we’d defeat him and rescue the last of Dubai’s refugees, and that that would end the game.
Instead, it becomes clear as the game goes along that your character, Captain Walker, is slipping into the same madness and brutality that swallowed Konrad. There is something marvelous about watching Walker disintegrate as you press on. His appearance becomes more and more ragged and bloodied, and the voice acting is fantastic–Walker gets angrier, more profane, and less coherent as the story advances. The rest of his squad stops trusting him, and you can’t help but wish that perhaps you were playing as one of those other guys, and not as this dangerous madman.
I don’t want to debate the literary merits of Heart of Darkness for the purposes of this review. The novel contains a sort of lazy, Western-centric anti-imperialism that suggests that the problem with having an empire is that those pesky dark-skinned folks in the colonies just aren’t good enough to be colonized. But I do appreciate the way that The Line plays off the book. There is no suggestion that the people of Dubai made Konrad crazy in the way that Kurtz is depicted as going mad because he strayed too far from the embrace of Western civilization.
Instead, as Walker follows Konrad’s descent, the driving force is the violence that each perpetrates. After a particularly haunting sequence showing, in brutal detail, that Walker has caused dozens of refugee deaths, we see Walker become even harder and more determined to take down Konrad at any cost. Walker denies any responsibility, despite his squad’s disgust at his choices. And the more Walker obsesses over stopping Konrad, the less clear it is that Walker holds any sort of moral high ground. The parallels between The Lineand Heart of Darkness are overt, but the deviations from that source material are what make the game work.
BioShock is the shooter most similar to The Line. Like BioShock, The Line has a consistently compelling visual aesthetic. BioShock recreates a version of early 20th century opulence decaying underwater, and The Line is all about 21st century opulence buried in sand, but the environments of the latter game evoke the former; it also borrows some sillier flourishes from BioShock as well. Both games feature little recordings that you can pick up and listen to–kind of a contrivance in BioShock, but absurd in The Line. What, people are just recording voice memos and abandoning digital recorders throughout the map? Really? And The Linefeatures multiple instances of crazed villains taunting over loudspeakers, another BioShock staple. (This element ultimately redeems itself brilliantly in The Line, though.)
Like BioShock, The Line has a fantastic mid-game twist that both further illustrates Walker’s troubled psyche and causes some confusion about just what precisely is happening. I wish that this twist were closer to the end, though. It hits at just about the point that I started to feel like I’d had enough.
The Line‘s mechanics are mediocre. It’s a third-person cover shooter ala Gears of War, which I personally find less satisfying than first-person shooters. Maybe it’s my own incompetence, but I often struggled moving in and out of cover. You use the same button to slip into cover that you use to sprint, meaning that I often found myself slipping into cover when I want to be running away. This can be extremely frustrating when, say, trying to avoid a grenade. I am killed nearly every time a grenade is thrown anywhere. Realistic, I suppose, but we only want so much realism in our video games.
Furthermore, the game is simply too unforgiving. Checkpoints are spaced out quite a bit, causing a lot of tiresome replays. If you die at the same checkpoint three times in a row, the game asks if you want to drop down to a lower difficulty level. I wouldn’t have a problem with this if they didn’t name the lower difficult level in a way designed to make you feel like an asshole: it’s literally called “Walk in the Park” mode. At that point they might as well call it “Baby Mode for Babies” and be done with it.
After the aforementioned twist, I softened my position on mode-switching and, following a couple of hours invested on a single, five minute sequence, dropped down to doofus mode. What made me all the more annoyed by the sequence is that there seemed to me to be an obvious spot for a checkpoint. You dispatch a good-sized number of enemies, and then there’s a break for a moment before a sandstorm kicks up. Merely adding a checkpoint at the moment the sandstorm starts would have done an awful lot for my enjoyment of this game.
It may seem strange to say, but the game is simply too long. There are two plot elements firing at once: Walker’s pursuit of Konrad, and Walker’s own troubles. Once Walker’s descent became clear, I started to lose interested in the fighting sequences that only furthered the Konrad story, without affecting Walker. Plus, the fighting starts to feel like a lot of the same thing in different places. There are some fun sections that depart from the regular fighting style: I particularly enjoyed a short level in which you try to protect a water truck by hanging onto the side and firing grenades at Konrad’s forces. But I think losing a few sections, particularly toward the end, would make the story feel more propulsive. By the last few sections, I’d almost totally lost interest in the actual gameplay and just wanted to get through to the end of the story.
I passed on The Line‘s multiplayer component. Perhaps that makes this review incomplete, but I almost feel like my choice to skip multiplayer is a bit of a testament to the effectiveness of the campaign. The story makes you question your own participation in war video games and leaves you wearied by Captain Walker and his hot, sandy hell-scape. In any case, the multiplayer content has been consistently panned by other critics, so I think it’s fair to suggest that The Line‘s multiplayer is a bit of an afterthought, rather than the main selling point.
Even though I’ve complained about gameplay mechanics, I hesitate to say that the game would be “better” if it were more fun. I recommend this game to anyone who plays shooters, and since I’m always more reluctant to spoil good games than bad ones, I won’t go into many specifics about the end. But at a certain point, the game starts to implicate you, the player, in Walker’s troubles. The game asks whether or not we should be entertaining ourselves in this way; if it were too fun to fight your way through, I don’t think it would be as resonant.
At one challenging section that took me a lot of tries to complete, I felt that Walker seemed particularly tired and frustrated. Again and again he’d start the section and grunt a complaint while reloading his weapon, just as I’d finished reloading the game. I almost just quit the game there, not because I didn’t want to continue, but because it seemed a bit cruel to keep making this guy do the same thing again and again. Was he talking about his gun, or complaining about me? The Line suggests that the real villain might not be Konrad or Walker after all, or any of the other people committing atrocities in the digital desert. The real bad guy might be the one sitting on your couch.