By Jason Cipriano
Spec Ops: The Line isn’t your ordinary third person shooter. The Line was created by the team at Yager Development, and is the ninth game in the Spec Ops series, a series that dates back to 1998. The Line takes place in a dust storm ravaged Dubai, where a U.S. Army Colonel has gone missing after a rescue mission. The Line puts you in the boots of a three-man Delta Force team who soon learn that their rescue mission is not what they expected. The Line will test your sense of morality as you decide whether or not to execute U.S. soldiers who think you are their enemy. The Line will force players to endure a barrage of psychological events that will make you question whether or not you are. Spec Ops: The Line leaves an impression on you.
In the game’s opening mission (after a short helicopter firefight sequence), Captain Martin Walker leads his small team through one of the world’s harshest climates. They are headed to a supposedly abandoned city looking for a distress signal from Colonel John Konrad, an officer who disappeared two weeks earlier. The team soon finds out that they are not alone. Refugees packing heavy artillery ambush the group, and put up such of a fight that only another sandstorm can save Walker and his companions. So begins the game’s decent into madness; from here on out, they’ll need to do whatever it takes to unravel the mystery of what happened in the world’s most exclusive city.
As the story unfolds, it turns out that Col. Konrad and the 33rd Division have apparently gone rogue and have had their way with the city since they entered it. On top of that, the C.I.A. are in Dubai as well, operating as an invisible hand, and looking to put an end to Konrad’s operation as well (for better and worse). This storyline sets the stage for an intense scenario that gamers may not be too familiar with: fighting against the U.S. military.
Staring down a line of troops wearing the U.S. flag on their arm is a bit of a debacle to begin with, but having to shoot them should strike an eerie cord, whether players are affiliated with the military or not. Taking it one step further and having the option to execute them takes the game to a whole different level of morality. As if to make players think even harder about their actions, ammunition is tight throughout the game, and the only way to take an enemy’s weapon is if they are dead, not just wounded. This means that you’re more than likely to run into a scenario where you need to decide between executing a soldier and running out of ammo. It’s an intense risk/reward system that will have players making hard choices.
As the game continues down this dangerous path, the characters start to wonder if what they’re doing is the right thing, a sentiment that should be somewhat shared with the player. Taking down U.S. forces isn’t what Americans have come to expect from their games, and The Line flips those expectations upside down, creating an powerful cognitive dissonance as you take down your first (and second, and third) wave of soldiers.
The demo ended with Delta team blanketing a market area with white phosphorus mortars to clear it of soldiers so they could pass through to the gate on the other side. Once completed, Walker makes his way through a mass murder scene where he finds out that the troops his team just attacked, most of which are either writhing in pain or dead, were there to help. The news leaves Walker visibly shaken, and his team, along with the player, doesn’t know whom to trust any more.
It’s these kinds of deep gameplay interactions that really set Spec Ops apart from its competitors. Speaking with Yeger’s Lead Designer, Cory Davis, after the demo, he explained that the studio intentionally made a game where their character evolved. The Captain Martin Walker that begins the game is not the same Captain Martin Walker that ends the game: physically, emotionally, and psychologically. It’s a tactic that is often seen in film, but surprisingly doesn’t make its way to games too often.
The game explores morality on a darker, more realistic level than something like Bioshock. The “enemies” that are shooting at you in The Line are supposed to be American heroes that could be your son or daughter, neighbor or friend. Both inside and outside of battle, there are key moments throughout the game that force the player to make moral decisions, some of which can affect the outcome of the game. With multiple endings, Davis described the game as a “journey into self,” and wants to have players examine the experience in the context of being a modern global citizen.
One of the other things that help to separate Spec Ops from other games is the intense setting which plays just as big of a role as Delta Team throughout the game. With death and destruction all around, Dubai still manages to serve as a type of living city, with battle grounds that can be transformed by releasing in the power of sand. The storms that destroyed the city also left giant deposits that can be manipulated to blanket sections of the game, and cover enemies beneath it.
Davis made it clear that the game’s story couldn’t be told in a different location because players needed to feel cut off. The development team even went so far as to look at the Dust Bowl, and recent sand storm incidents in Germany and China for reference on how a storm could cripple a city. To help complete the immersion in the setting, Spec Ops’ military advisor helped provide some insight into what traipsing around the desert in those conditions is like: his advice was to stick a blow dryer in your mouth and turn it on.
Spec Ops: The Line has some firm competition out there, but after spending a solid chunk of time with the game it seems like it can keep up. With a story that is adult and complex, but most importantly compelling, The Line should resonate with gamers that are looking to experience a more psychologically engaging game, while still being able to shoot things, even if they are U.S. Soldiers.