Spec Ops: The Line – Review

Platform | Release Date
360, PS3, PC | June 25, 2012
Developed by Yager
Published by 2K Games

The Pitch:

It’s been 6 months since Dubai was wiped off the map by a cataclysmic sandstorm. Thousands of lives were lost, including those of American soldiers sent to evacuate the city. Today, the city lies buried under sand, the world’s most opulent ruin. Now, a mysterious radio signal is picked-up from Dubai, and a Delta Recon Team is sent to infiltrate the city. Their mission is simple: Locate survivors and radio for Evac. What they find is a city in the grip of war. To save Dubai, they’ll have to find the man at the heart of its madness—Col. John Konrad.

You should know the name Walt Williams.

Walt Williams was the lead writer on Spec Ops: The Line; a game that judged by its gameplay alone is a very standard title. Third-person and cover based, this iteration on a franchise no one has seen in ten years really doesn’t do anything particularly special in that regard. It’s competent and not completely broken.

You run from cover to cover, popping up to gun down an army of troops with a variety of real world weapons – AK-47, SAW, FAMAS, and Desert Eagle among others. You throw different types of grenades and jump on mounted turrets when “Oh no, a bunch of enemies are coming to attack this position.” Chest high walls abound and yes, it even has Nolan North as the voice of Captain Walker, the main character. Multiplayer has loadouts, level progression, and checks all the boxes of what you’d expect to find in a title like this.

There are even the same stupid problems you’d expect from this type of game. Sometimes the geometry frustrates making the task of taking cover more difficult than it needs to be. You’ll zoom in on an enemy’s head with your Barrett M99 and watch the bullet hit an invisible wall. There are strange difficulty spikes navigating certain areas. I even once saw some texture pop-in with this Unreal Engine title. These are all quirks familiar to fans of the genre, none of which are game-breaking.

But Walt Williams has turned this otherwise typical game into something special. Not only is it rare to find a decent story in this bro-centric genre, it’s even rarer to find one that is the highlight of the experience. As a whole, the narrative completely negates the genericism of what surrounds it.

You’re part of a three man Delta Force squad dispatched to Dubai after it has been decimated by catastrophic sandstorms. The straightforward task at hand is to look for survivors and locate a missing Colonel (voiced by Bruce Boxleitner). Explaining much more than that would do the game a significant disservice but it’s worth seeing to the end. Typical “America, fuck yeah” bravado has been squelched, leaving behind a poignant story of one man’s journey to discover heroism.

While on this path, you’ll be forced to make in-the-moment decisions. Where many other games have succumed to the white and black, Spec Ops: The Line evokes Sophie’s Choice at each crossroad. There is always a negative consequence. It’s fairly heartbreaking to see both the physical and emotional changes of Walker, Lugo, and Adams. Their clothes become tattered, they bleed, and a straightforward “Kill confirmed, “ is replaced with gut wrenching rage full of uncertainty. Nolan North earns every bit of his top billing.

The biggest tragedy with Spec Ops: The Line is that it wasn’t released two years ago. Then, it would have been a hallmark title and have seen exceptional sales with plenty of accolades. Today, after a third Gears of War, after Max Payne 3 has added cover to its bullet dodging, after every title under the sun has taken the ‘safe’ third-person cover based shooter route, it’s likely Spec Ops will turn into a well-regarded commercial failure. If it wasn’t for Walt Williams and his writing team, Spec Ops: The Line would be nothing. Instead, the compelling story dives headlong into an uncomfortable territory most games don’t have the balls to touch.

Walt Williams.

About Jim Hunter

Jim Hunter is Editor-in-Chief of Splitkick and host of the Rocket Jump podcast. He has three kids and is constantly cranky, but also highly awesome.
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