The surreal ruins of a contemporary Dubai is reason to at least give Spec Ops: The Line a shot. An oasis of modernity and cosmopolitan civilization completely ravaged by a violent turn of sandstorms and war - it’s a captivating piece of fiction. Repelling down Dubai's glass skyscrapers in glinting sunlight, inching your way up the blue-lit aquariums, grand auditoriums, and velvet mansions, hugging up against priceless furniture and marble pillars to shield yourself from incoming shrapnel... It’s an engrossing city to explore. Just the absolute scale of it! And maybe it speaks ill of the numbing battles, but as you stop-and-pop behind cars and slabs of concrete, you may find your eyes wandering away from targets and instead toward the gargantuan billboards in the distance. Admittedly, an ad for mascara is often more alluring than the game's combat.
The following editorial contains spoilers for Spec Ops: The Line that describe the nature of the game and its "twist." The author avoids any concrete descriptions of what players encounter late in the game. Nonetheless, consider yourself warned that spoilers may follow. For a radically opposed take on Spec Ops: The Line, read PSU's review.
Sandstorms continue to swirl around the center of this metropolis, rendering it a no-mans-land and an isolated fantasy environment for Yager Interactive to work its magic within. Unfortunately, Yager plays their initial sleight of hand awkwardly. A three-man American recon team is tasked with investigating a radio transmission penetrating the storm wall and hopes to find evidence of a surviving company of allied troops. As outlandish as it sounds, the premise itself does not tug the curtains on the phony wizard. Rather, the ensuing characterization of the squad leader, Captain Walker, gives Spec Ops the appearance of a child fumbling the routine of an unpracticed card trick.
At first, the voice of Nolan North smoothly conveys Walker’s down-to-earth air of command, ripe with professional finesse and stoic judgement. Today’s mission is simply to locate survivors and radio in the cavalry, he explains to his bored brothers-in-arms, and in just a few short minutes they find the SOS signal in question: a makeshift broadcast tower endlessly looping the same message. Walker’s got a hunch this might be a trap, and--sure enough--a small mob appears, hollering in a foreign tongue at the marines and pointing their AK-47s menacingly in your direction. Civilians? Insurgents? It’s uncertain, but they’re angry and this is quickly devolving into a matter of who loses their cool first. During the shouting match, you’re given control of the situation with an active crosshair. You open fire.
Similar moments of interactive ambiguity arise throughout the game and mean to form its backbone, but of them, this first showdown is perhaps the most intense. It is, after all, the last intelligent decision Walker makes and the only believable dilemma among many thrust upon the player. After dealing with the ambush, Walker does the unthinkable - he presses forward. It is the tallest of orders, both insane and unnecessary, and only leads his squad into more suicidal confrontations. Still, he presses forward, never thinking to radio back. And by the time Walker realizes it may be a good idea to report the existence of a massive, hidden civilian resistance, they are too deep behind the impenetrable storm barrier to call for extraction.
Having accomplished what it set out to do, the game now has you in its clutches, and from here, will continue to bend rules and characters where convenient.
Before you can ask, 'What's this all about?' Yager spills the beans in the opening hour. Wave after wave of insurgents with a clear death wish attempt to halt your advance, and as you take your pot shots and leap over counters, working your way through a blasted-out hotel lobby, you hear it: Jimi Hendrix, Deep Purple, a radio blaring tunes from the 60s and 70s, and a loony disc jockey’s voice welcoming you to the city as “tourists." Spec Ops has gone bananas, and with no subtle use of allusion does it admit it’s the "Apocalypse Now" kind of bananas. Dubai’s desert is the metaphorical jungle; the dunes are the rivers that send a man into the darkest depths of his psyche. Hell, Walker is even chasing a lost American commander named “Konrad,” a tribute to the original author of the aforementioned tale of madness.
That you’re going to see some heinous shit here in Dubai is guaranteed, but you’ll also be labeled an active participant. This is an interactive experience, built around your actions, that examines both Walker and the player. It sets you up as the enabler of unthinkable atrocities, and is meant to induce impactful introspection of your own motives for playing such a game. But the flaw of this psychology experiment is the already established disconnect between Walker's rationale and the player's intelligence. It pretentiously assumes that your role in this circus is voluntary, that you've been fooled, all while the game’s choice structure flip-flops between meaningless decisions and important ones that suddenly decide you don’t exist.
In contrast, the aforementioned opening standoff acknowledges your presence. You are the icebreaker of an inevitable firefight, the man who weighs the opinions of his two comrades when situations get messy. Many of the game’s scenarios would seem to follow these rules, but ultimately decide to throw them out the window. Instead, some pressure situations will outright end the game if you choose not to comply with the options given. The pivotal scene of the story is an atrocity you’re forced to commit, and while it’s clearly attempting to disguise itself as an accident, anyone not half-asleep should notice that, no, you shouldn't be pulling the trigger here. But the game needs you to pull that trigger, it needs you to make that mistake. If you recognize you’re being played the puppet, the game's entire theme loses all credibility.
In other words, you never have a choice in Spec Ops other than to follow the developers' linear destruction of Walker. That wouldn't be a problem if the developers didn't go to such pathetic lengths to break the fourth wall, attempting to pin all of Walker’s crimes on you. “This is all your fault,” say later loading screens between checkpoints. “That man has a wife and children!” cries a radio DJ as you rip into lifeless, carefully scripted enemies that long overstay their welcome. Hours of marines shouting the same variation of battle confirmations. Endless turret sequences, exploding barrels, and a melee execution so janky in its animation that it's not enjoyable or worth your time. Spec Ops is perfect mediocrity - so obvious that perhaps the drudgery of it all is intentional. What better way to make sure the player is half-asleep when the crucial plot twist arrives?
The under-cooked violence is meant to soften you up for the game’s gut-punching blows of shocking imagery - to paint you as a demon. But where many other games have examined a player's role, raised matters of ethics, and will ask you to question your state of mind, Spec Ops brazenly shortcuts this complex process. It instead builds an experience which earns none of the assumptions it makes about the player. It's an unfair exploitation of the character-player relationship that later has the gall to ask you to man up to your mistakes, to admit your own numbness. You monster, you!
And so there’s only one way to truly win at Spec Ops: to accept the ‘Game Over’ screen as your victory. It’s the only excuse that could justify game design this shoddy - the point is for you to dislike it. And although commendable in its ambitious and often haunting city, though admirable in addressing such contemporary issues, and though Spec Ops does manage to achieve the repulsiveness it seeks, it doesn't come for the right reasons. It’s not the gory depictions of your actions that are revolting; it’s the insulting abuse and fundamental misunderstanding of the interactive medium. Video games are capable of much more than just smoke and mirrors.