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Developer: Yager Development (single player), Darkside Game Studios (multiplayer)
Publisher: 2K Games
Platform: Windows, 360, PS3
Release Date: June 26, 2012 (NA), June 29, 2012 (EU)
ESRB: Mature
Format: Optical disc, digital download

Spec Ops: The Line is a reboot of the languished Spec Ops game series, but it doesn’t take anything from that beyond name recognition. It is a cover-based third person shooter making use of the Gears of War version of the Unreal Engine. Flawed and, as of now, derivative as that may be, there are reasons for this which I’ll get to later.

The game’s story follows Captain Martin Walker and the other two men of his Delta Force team as they attempt to extract Colonel John Konrad from a post-catastrophe Dubai that is slowly being consumed by the desert. Along the way they encounter, native insurgents, native civilians, CIA operatives, and members of the fictional 33rd Battalion of the US Army.

Seems pretty routine for a modern day war video game, right? If the above makes you interested in picking up the game (it can be found pretty cheaply now, or just rented for a weekend) go ahead. If that doesn’t seem like your cup of tea (believe me, it’s not mine) get it anyway. This game deserves to be played. To quote Yahtzee, “It’s one for the history books, or at very least it’ll make you want to pick up a history book and hit yourself with it”.

Spoilers Ahead

”You brought this on yourself.”

It’s hard to play this game. Not to say that the game is exceedingly hard, it isn’t, but rather that the game is not fun. It’s not meant to be fun. By the end you will be emotionally tired and left feeling like a horrible person. It may not have seemed like it, but that last sentence was praise. It took a lot of courage to make this game especially for the US market, and it does not take half measures in hammering its message home.

The game starts off like a generic modern shooter, with dramatic set pieces and mindless explodey goodness. But a little ways in, things start to feel off. Your mission seems motivated by factors that aren’t readily apparent. Other characters react in unexpected ways to your heroics. The wrong people start shooting at you. Slowly you come to realize that you are playing an adaptation of Heart of Darkness.

The game has two, almost three, major themes it plays upon. Firstly, as situations get worse, with no release or way out, Walker develops more and more prevalent symptoms of PTSD. The character model and his actions become more harried and brutal. The teammates fight with Walker and amongst themselves, while he does his best to wrangle them at the same time as fighting back against the ghosts of what he has done and the understanding of the mounting task before him…Then the hallucinations start.

Secondly, this is a game about games. The generic game play, layered with the story, is a deconstruction and critique of modern shooters. The fast paced, and in some cases predictable, nature of the combat is meant to disconnect the player with their actions. Shoot the enemy. There’s an enemy. It’s moving. Shoot it! SHOOT IT! Well, done. Let’s move on. The story pushes forward, but then gives pause and forces the player to see. What have you done

”He turned us into fucking killers!”

I’ve alternated using “Walker”, “you”, and “the player”. That is because the game at different times will present Walker as just a character on the screen, at other times it will speak directly to you through Walker as he is a role you have assumed, and then again it will have the player make decisions having them take full responsibility for what has happened. It’s a fluid state of are you watching Walker, are you Walker, are you playing the game, or is the game playing you?

There are a few points in the game where choices are made. As opposed to most games, like Mass Effect, Fable, or Bioshock where these choices are a binary of “good” versus “evil”, Spec Ops doesn’t put button options or prefabricated dialogue up on screen. The game simply presents the player with a situation and demands they act, but not all of the options are obvious.

”We need to keep moving.”

As I’ve said, this is not a game that is played for the game mechanics. The primary drive is the story and the question of; if Walker can come out of this situation whole, how? And what is the validity of hero fantasies especially when the hero isn’t behaving heroically?

Walker is driven forward to find Konrad. The player is driven forward to complete an arguably frivolous and self-indulgent goal, then confronted with an uncomfortable span of introspection.

Oh, and there’s a multiplayer section that the publisher forced upon the game. You can ignore that.

Oh, wait, you can’t. That’s commentary on the industry right there.

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