The third-person-cover-oriented shooter became a much-vaunted genre with the release of the first Gears of War: though the mechanic had been used previously in games such as Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty and Kill.Switch, the release of Gears of War served to popularise it to an extent that its implementation of the mechanic became much-emulated – perhaps even to the extent of creating a raft of games that could be considered clones, games with worlds populated almost entirely by waist-high walls fit to take cover from enemy fire behind. Spec Ops: The Line is very much a game inspired by the blueprints laid out by the Gears of War franchise, while also doing enough itself to set itself apart from the crowd.
Spec Ops‘s ace in the hole is its narrative: while the story is, on the face of it, a typical tale of a military operation in the Middle East, it is told with a unique flair and in a thoughtful manner. It does not seek, in the manner of the Call of Duty series, to abstract a fictionalised conflict away from the realities of war: Spec Ops‘s Dubai is, though worn down by the conflict, very much a living city. The game does not seek to remove the plight of civilians from its narrative: it in fact embraces them as actors in the conflict and attempts at all stages to prevent itself from slipping into the fetishisation of war that its contemporaries do. The game is not one consistent of a simple delineation of the player team and an enemy team: civilians mill around in the conflict and the demarcation of who is indeed an enemy is fluid and often changes over the course of the campaign. The storytelling of the game compels the player to consider in detail what it is that is happening: why are actors acting in the way they are; what are the moral dimensions of the choices being made; does it matter if these choices lead to the desired outcome? The power with which the ultimate conclusion of the story is delivered makes it difficult to describe without undermining the sense of shock will get from its ending when experiencing it for oneself: suffice it to say that the culmination of all of the action does not disappoint and even rewards players for picking up on subtle hints as to the mental state of the player character throughout the game.
As mentioned, Spec Ops is a third-person shooter: the game makes clever use of this viewpoint in its analysis of its key themes of the morality of war, what is means to be a hero and what it means to know oneself. The game engine is competent in delivering a satisfying shooting experience: all behaves as one would expect a third-person shooter to behave. The player is able to select from a variety of weapons (rifles, grenades, shotguns et cetera), each with their own requisite strengths and weaknesses, with shooting being undertaken by taking cover (usefully performed by using the same key as for sprinting, allowing for the necessary speed of movement for the player to avoid taking too much damage), looking down the sights of the weapon using the right mouse button and them firing with the left mouse button. It is also possible to blind-fire by merely clicking the left mouse button without looking down the sights. Indeed, as it may sound from the above, the actual shooting aspect of the game does border on the generic: there is not too much in the actual gameplay that makes it stand out from its contemporaries.
Where Spec Ops shines is most definitely in its presentation: graphical minutiae are attended to well, with even the HUD being an exercise in understated functional-yet-aesthetically-pleasing design, and the audio components are solid, from the voice acting to the post-rock-esque score that rises and falls with the urgency of any given on-screen action. Its fairly generic gameplay may well be an asset in how it goes about presenting itself: several situations within the game put the player in a position to choose to either perform an unpleasant act of war or to think and not do so. Given the acclimatisation of the type of play presented on the surface by Spec Ops‘s mechanics that the player will have given the previous third-person shooters they may have played, thought may not be given to any solutions that are not handed out at the butt of a gun: much as a soldier may not think of a non-violent resolution to a problem. The number of such options available to the player decreases as the game goes on: a process that occurs wonderfully in line with the mental decline of the player character.
Though much has been made of the thoughtfulness of some of the design choices made on Spec Ops, certain aspects of the play experience do not gel well with what the developers sought to bring out in the game through its gritty treatment of the horrors of way. Key among these is the ability of the player to brutally execute a prone enemy: in all other examples of cruelty in the game, we are compelled to do unattractive things from a drive for vengeance or as a proximate solution to the problem of survival. Here, it just seems gratuitous in a way that does not sit easily with the message that is sought to be imparted by the game. Perhaps this is the point: perhaps the developers are trying to tell us that we are not paying enough attention. Even if this were the case, it is a little too jarring to be ignored.
Though Spec Ops may suffer from certain aspects of an orthodox approach to its genre, this is intentional. It seeks not to entertain – not to be fun – but to prompt thought as to the real-life implications of the player’s actions. The loading screens upon player death play on the concerns that a player may have as to the destruction being wrought by their actions: the player is asked if they care about what they are doing, given that all of this isn’t real; the player is asked if they feel like a hero yet; the player, if they are anything other than emotionally empty, feels hollow. If Spec Ops teaches us anything, it is that heroics have nothing to do with survival: Spec Ops treats us to a wonderful exposition of the human capacity to rationalise the terrible.