In video-game culture for a long time there was a divide of enthusiasts; those who claimed games were art and those who didn’t. The ones who believed so compared the acceptance of video-games as an art form to the general rise of movies as art a century ago and the question that was always asked was “When will we see the Citizen Kane of games?”. Some developers over the years have made off-beat attempts at tailoring their product to that notion, but Yager Development have posed another question; “Isn’t Apocalypse Now more applicable to our industry than Citizen Kane?”
Spec Ops: The Line is a game inspired by the 1899 novella Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, which was the basis for the film Apocalypse Now and examines the dissolution of good intentions by unforgivable actions. In this latest adaptation, the city of Dubai has been overcome by a series of freak sandstorms that have caused total devastation causing even the most ardent of charitable forces to evacuate the city. Upon hearing this, veteran Colonel John Konrad has picked up his battalion of soldiers from Afghanistan and gone AWOL in order to provide aid to the stranded of Dubai. After six months of radio silence, Konrad admits defeat over the airwaves and American forces send a three-man team into the politically designated ‘No Mans Land’ of Dubai in order to rescue Konrad and whatever remains of his ‘Damned’ 33rd Battalion. The game opens with players taking the role of Captain Walker leading Delta squad into the ruins of the city.
Walker and his team prepare to delve into the heart of Dubai…Naturally, as Spec Ops is a shooter, things don’t go according to plan as a power play has erupted inside the city. Konrad has taken control of the surviving population, imposing cruel martial laws to keep peace, splinter groups have formed amongst the 33rd of those loyal to Konrad and those unwilling to stand by his actions, as well as ‘insurgents, civiliians who have risen against Konrad’s atrocities with a little thanks to the CIA who feel Konrad’s actions would lead to a war between the United Arab Emirates and the United States. The entire plot can feel a little over-convoluted at times but the crux of it is that every time Walker and his crew come across one of these factions, they immediately assume that Walker is the enemy and begin shooting. This leads Delta Squad on a nightmarish trek through a shattered city, attempting to not only survive but also do ‘the right thing’. The point that Spec Ops makes quite clear is that in war there is no ‘right thing’ and for every action there is brutal consequence. That it’s not so much what you as a player do but the fact that you choose to do it is what drives home the horror of war.
Despite the strong narrative, Spec Ops is far from a great game. The graphics range from acceptable to outright bad with some severe cases of aliasing throughout causing some especially rough cut scenes. Naturally, for a game set in the desert city of Dubai, there is an abundance of sand, but whenever the game forces you into a sandstorm, there’s never a sense of the finer details, almost as if a particularly opaque filter was placed over the action. The gameplay similarly ranges from good enough to taxing with occasionally non-responsive controls and bland AI, but the biggest tedium is that there’s no punch to any of it. Yager Development were clearly not looking to revolutionize the third-person shooter here and the abilities and action is so by-the-numbers that it’s as if the interactive moments were nothing but a vehicle for the story. Although it’s nice to see a game with mechanics serving the story, it would be nicer to see better mechanics all around. These issues factor into the multi-player mode, which feels utterly routine in execution and some extra bugs suggest that this mode really isn’t worth anybody’s time. Yager do deserve some extra credit, however, for their excellent audio work; the original soundtrack does a stellar job at setting the tone for some of the more weighted narrative moments and the well timed inclusion of a handful of licensed songs add a lot of the games atmosphere. The voice acting which feels a little overly forced and jive becomes infinitely more credible as the actors consistently adapt to shifts in the plot and generally sound more and more defeated as the game continues.
Spec Ops: The Line isn’t really a very good candidate for the ‘Games as Art’ movement because the ‘game’ part of the equation never really delivers. Spec Ops is, however, a methodically presented insight into the consequences of the actions that many games utilize. The plot has some pratfalls, but some excellent voice performances and strong thematic consistencies make it an important narrative experience for the gaming medium.