Lines Drawn in the Sand
I stated in my Vanquish review that I missed the years in the late 2000’s where cover based shooters were the hot new thing. Even today, it’s not a genre I gravitate into, along with the trend of modern day military shooters like the CoD games since Modern Warfare. They tend to be too slow and dry for me. So why is it then that when I purchased a Xbox 360, one of the first games I bought for the system was Spec Ops: The Line, a modern military cover based shooter? Extremely positive word of mouth is one thing, but the real reason I had to play it was because the game is lauded as one of the most interesting uses of narrative in video games.
Set in Dubai during cataclysmic sandstorms, you play as Captain Walker, a US Delta Force operator and his two man crew of Lugo and Adams. They have come to the ruined city in response to a radio transmission from Colonel Konrad, a man Walker fought under in the past. Their mission is simple: locate survivors from the sandstorms and radio for evac. This gets immediately complicated as Walker’s team finds themselves under attack by two sides of battling for control of the city. Refugees attack the team thinking they are part of Konrad’s 33rd battalion, and the 33rd themselves mistake Walker’s team as CIA agents who have been supplying the refugees with arms to fight the 33rd.
The setting of Dubai half buried in desert sand is one of my favorite things about the game. It effortlessly juxtaposes the opulent wealth of the glass shard skyscrapers and the clutter, squalor poverty of the holes where the refugees are hiding. The levels will take you throughout the sand filled streets, dark and buried-in ground floors, high up in gaudy condos, and zip-lining across rooftops. While the setting is great, art direction if often lacking, especially in terms of character design. There were times I laughed during a shoot out because I would see multiple of the same character model rushing through a doorway. This lack of strong character design tended to confuse the story for me too. Most of the major players in the plot, the characters with speaking lines and move the story forward, are the boilerplate white dude military type and I had the hardest time remembering who was who.
It’s a good thing that the setting was interesting because I found the gameplay to be only fine at best. The actual shooting mechanics are engaging in a fight, but everything around it—getting in and out of cover, sprinting across battlefields, waiting for enemies to pop out of cover to be shot like cans on wall—felt slow and tedious. This is no doubt influenced by my lack of enjoyment from cover based shooters in general and I will say that I didn’t find Spec Ops to be any more clunky than other games in the genre I’ve played. The game does have a few unique mechanics to it. Walker’s teammates, Lugo and Adams, can help snipe or grenade enemies at the player’s command. Sand can be used throughout the game by blowing out windows to bury enemies, grenades causing clouds of dust that the player can use for cover, and even occasional sand storms will blind both player and enemies, sending both in a mad dash for safety indoors. Sadly, these mechanics are never explored to their fullest potential and it is almost always faster to just kill enemies you have your sights on instead of fiddling with calling out to a NPC to shoot them. They very well be much more crucial tools on the harder difficulties, but on normal like I played, they seem no more back of the box selling points. But I didn’t expect the gameplay to blow me away when I purchased Spec Ops. What I was there to see was the story.
I beg anyone who hasn’t played Spec Ops: The Line to stop reading this review now. Go play the game if you have the means to or watch an unnarrated playthrough on YouTube. This is a game that needs to experienced without expectations and an open heart. I will not be spoiling everything in the story, but must discuss the turning point from a box standard military shooter to a repeated kick in the gut.
The game works as a deconstruction of other military shooters like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor that were on the rage during that time. It starts with the unflappable heroes, dripping with unwavering duty and machismo, as they saunter into Dubai, cocksure and cracking jokes. When they find themselves being attacked by refugees and the 33rd, Walker decides the best thing to do would be to locate Konrad. In the pursuit, they must pass through a heavily guarded section of the city and Walker decides to clear out the opposing forces using white phosphorus. This is where the shoe drops. Walker and his crew soon find that the 33rd had set up a camp for refugees there too and they had just wiped out 47 civilian lives.
From there the chaos continues to spiral. Konrad commands Walker to choose between killing a water thief and soldier who murdered civilians, the team helps a CIA agent named Higgs raid and steal the water the 33rd was guarding only to crash the trunks and destroy it, and Walker opens fire on a group of civilians after they hang Lugo. The game actively forces the player to commit more atrocious acts of violence because this is a war and, like Walker says, there’s not always a choice, But Spec Ops does not celebrate these actions. Quickly the veneer of glory in the line of duty and ends justifying the means mentality is ripped away and there is only death caused by the characters, and the player.
Walker himself becomes noticeably more angry and violent after using the white phosphorus scene. His simple shouts of “Got one!” when you shoot an enemy during gameplay turns to “Got the motherfucker!” and “Fuck you!” as he ends countless lives. I will not spoil the ending because I had not had it spoiled for me before playing but it is a great capstone to everything the story and themes have been working towards. It completely recontextualized the 2nd half of the story and Walker’s complete psyche.
One of the most interesting aspects of the narrative is that it simply doesn’t make a lot of sense. I was having a little difficulty following it for a bit because it didn’t seem logically tied together, the events of a scene didn’t always understandably lead to decisions Walker makes on what to do next. But I think that’s the point. The whole story is built on assumptions and bad faith on Walker’s part. What made me realize this was the death of CIA agent Gould. It is discovered that he was planning on storming an area of Dubai named The Gate and Walker decides that’s where his team must head to next. When asked what’s important about The Gate, Walker just says “Gould thought it was important enough to die for, so it must be important.” This leads directly to the use of the white phosphorus to clean out the soldiers guarding The Gate. When agent Higgs ropes the Delta Force team into helping him steal water from the 33rd, Walker just goes along with it. He clearly does not trust Higgs, but he agrees to be a part of the plan with much second thought.
There are no good guys in Spec Ops: The Line, but I’m not sure I would say there are any bad guys either. There are just people doing what they think they have to do no matter the cost. Walker has to find meaning to the madness happening in the city, Konrad was trying to protect the refugees even if it meant by force, Higgs felt the need to cover up Konrad’s crime out of fear of the world discovering them. There is no good or evil; there are only people fighting to stay alive, people insisting they are in the right, the messy gray morals of war and people fighting to the death.
Art is not always pleasant. It’s not always comfortable. Look at the pain and grief portrayed in Picasso’s Guernica or the stomach turning scenes of assault in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Some art is designed to shine a light on the darkest parts of the human heart and challenge the viewer themselves with questions they may not want to answer. Spec Ops: The Line is one such piece of art. Throughout the game, it constantly asks: What are you doing? Is this right? Do you feel like a hero yet? But they just hang there. It does not offer any answers because it is not up to the game to decide. The only one who can answer those questions are yourself.