"Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us—if at all—not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men."
T.S Elliot, The Hollow Men (1925)
Joseph Conrad explored the themes of moral fallibility and the corrupting effect of absolute power in his novella, Heart of Darkness. It was a ground-breaking work of fiction (although loosely based on Conrad's own experiences in the Congo during the height of European colonialism). The novella had a profound impact on the literary world, and eventually on the film industry as well. 70 years after its publication, Conrad's work was adapted for the big screen, with the adapted screenplay forming the basis of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, a 1979 war film set during the Vietnam War, starring Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall and Martin Sheen.
In the movie, Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) is sent on a mission to Cambodia to find and kill a rogue (and possibly insane) Special Forces/Green Beret officer called Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando). What should have been a routine clean-up mission pushes Willard to the brink as he is confronted by Kurtz' ruthless megalomania. Both the film and the book follows the fall from grace of men called Kurtz, or at least their devastating impact on the psyche of both Willard (Apocalypse Now) and Marlow (Heart of Darkness). The fact that both protagonists are confronted by their own shaken concepts of morality, regardless of the distinct differences in time periods and politics, is a unique reminder of how history tends to repeat itself. This may seem highly cynical, but that was the beauty of Heart of Darkness, that our concept of morality (and even immorality) in itself is mutable, and dependent on the situation we find ourselves in.
By now you must be wondering what a century old book and a 33 year old film have to do with Spec Ops: The Line, and the simple truth is, far more than you can possibly imagine. The developer, Yager Development, has taken the theme of Conrad's work and placed it in a modern setting. Where the jungles of the Congo and Cambodia provided the backdrop for Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now (respectively), Spec Ops: The line is set in an alternate version of Dubai. This version of one of the most opulent and impressive cities in the world has been ravaged by a cataclysmic natural disaster. Massive sandstorms have laid waste to the region and a serious humanitarian crisis have been left in the wake of the storms. As part of a humanitarian operation, Colonel John Konrad (clearly a reference to the author of Heart of Darkness) volunteers his services (and that of his 33rd Battalion) to help evacuate the city, however it quickly emerges that his attempts may have ended in failure. It's on this note that the game puts you into the sizeable boots of Delta Operative Captain Martin Walker, who leads a three-man team to the Emirates on a reconnaissance mission. The aim of the mission is to provide intelligence on the missing 33rd, the state of Dubai and whether or not the city still has survivors. All seems to go as planned until the squad finds themselves in the middle of a brutal civil war. The war rages between the various factions in Dubai, which includes the locals, Konrad's 33rd Battalion and even the CIA.
What should have been a routine humanitarian mission has turned into something sinister. Instead of evacuating survivors, the soldiers from the 33rd have become tin-pot dictators, who savagely rule over parts of sandstorm-ravaged Dubai. The 33rd Battalion have also started referring to themselves as the Damned 33rd. Their fall from grace becomes even more apparent after Walker's Delta squad witnesses members of the rogue Battalion slaughtering civilians. This act of brutality forces the three reluctant Delta Operatives to take on their fellow American soldiers. However, Captain Walker is unable to reconcile the reality of the Damned 33rd 's cruelty with the “good” officer (Colonel Konrad) he once served under. He becomes convinced that Konrad had become the victim of mutiny and sets off on a mission to find the Colonel (and in turn dealing with a mysterious radio DJ, The Radioman, who seems to have taken control of the Battalion).
The strength of the game lies in how effortlessly it hangs a heavy cloud of moral grey over the heads of Walker and his team (Adams and Lugo). In order to survive the onslaught of the 33rd, the team becomes tainted by a series of deeply regrettable acts. After almost every gunfight, Walker, Adams and Lugo find themselves questioning their actions. They even seek justification for their transgressions. It's an interesting and refreshing change from the soulless automatons in other games, who barely question the morality of their actions (beyond mere juvenile action-movie chest-beating), or who are apparently immune to the psychological effects of war. What is even more interesting is how Walker and his team's justifications change and become warped with their growing cynicism. For instance, Sergeant Lugo starts off as the comedic relief in the group, however his mood darkens sharply through the game. In the end, the sheer weight of what they've had to do to survive feels overwhelming. Walker's assurances to his teammates that what they are doing is justified becomes increasingly hollow. In turn, the tension within the group becomes progressively tangible as their situation becomes even more dire.
This emotional and provocative roller coaster ride would not have been possible without exceptional voice acting. It's another aspect of the game where it excels without question. Veteran voice actor, Nolan North lends his voice to the protagonist, Captain Walker, and the result is definitely Oscar-worthy. You can literally feel the mental anguish that Walker goes through as he inches closer to the edge. Another actor that deserves to be recognised is Jake Busey. Busey provides the voice of the game's would-be antagonist the Radioman. You have to admit someones skill when their performance is so exceptional that you literally feel hatred for that character.
However, regardless of an exceptional storyline, or thought-provoking content, in the end, what can be either damning or praiseworthy is the gameplay. Spec Ops: The Line resembles a typical cover-based third-person shooter, that shares some similarities with the Gears of War franchise. It's essentially what you'd expect from a cover-based shooter, although in this game, there is a stronger emphasis on managing your ammo. It helps to stay in cover longer, and to choose your shots more carefully. Fortunately, Lugo and Adams do back you up, and it's possible to use their specific skillsets to your advantage. Lugo can be used to snipe distant enemies, whereas Adams can provide suppressive fire and the odd grenade to clear out a stubborn enemy infestation. A major gripe is with the squad management, or should I say lack there of. Lugo and Adams tend to forward rush, and on higher difficulties that means having to brave a rain of bullets to reach them for the inevitable revive. The game could have benefited from a way to manage your squad-mates more efficiently. The other issue that should be mentioned relates to the controls. While the controls of Spec Ops: The Line are decent, the fact that buttons have two actions mapped to them can cause frustration. The cover system is particularly cumbersome, and since running and cover are governed by one button, the possibility of an unfortunate controller-related mishap is greatly enhanced. For instance, Walker won't always slide into cover at the right moment, and even the slightest hesitation could prove to be fatal.
The game's visuals are very inconsistent. The wasteland of Dubai is realized exceptionally well, especially once the sunlight reflects off the ruins of the once great city. Spec Ops also features some of the most impressive sand dunes I've had the pleasure to see. However, the characters themselves have a stiffness to them that's hard to deny. The characters, their movement and weapon damage are not nearly as detailed as in similar games in the action third-person genre, but Spec Ops does have a few tricks up its sleeves. While it may not model individual sand grains, it is possible to use the desert to your advantage. Enemies can be buried or incapacitated by shooting windows, and allow flowing sand to crush them, or alternatively the sand cloud from a grenade blast may even stun or temporarily blind them.
What took me by surprise was the competent multiplayer. I expected a content-starved mode with a sparse selection of maps. What I found was a surprisingly decent online experience that features level-based unlockables (perks, armour, weapons), customizable avatars, customizable classes, 8-player multiplayer, and an online experience that punishes run-and-gun gameplay. The emphasis is on a more methodical and strategic (and slower) type of gameplay. One that takes advantage of the crouch/cover system. Obviously this means that there can be an over-reliance on sniping and hiding (turtling/camping), but the multiplayer does save itself from being an outdrawn hide-and-seek spectacle by throwing in occasional sandstorms. Sandstorms disable your mini-map and also helps you to flank those individuals who love to hide behind their sniper's rifle. If you do find someone crouched behind a barrier or hiding behind a box, the execution animations are deliciously gruesome.
Overall, Spec Ops: The Line is an exceptional title. While the issue of morality or the nature of good and evil are not new concepts to gaming, the approach is definitely unique. Where war is often times celebrated or trivialised in games, Spec Ops ignores such simple romantic notions in favour of depicting a harsher and more authentic reality. I can't think of another title that has managed to explore these concepts in such an eloquent manner. For that alone, Spec Ops: The Line comes highly recommended. Throw in exceptional voice-work and non-stop action, and we have a winner in our hands.
- Thought-provoking and deep storyline
- Exceptional voice acting
- Decent Multiplayer
- Sluggish cover system
- Inconsistent visuals