I have hundreds of games in my Steam catalog and on my shelves that have been unplayed. My Backlog. I’m trying to get through those games one by one, and then write a short review for my friends to tell them whether it’s worth playing. I am not a writer or a games journalist. This is just me, telling my friends about a game.
Sometimes you play a game for the gameplay alone, and you play it until you get bored of the mechanics and you move on (if ever) and other times you play a game solely for the experience it creates, the story it tells, and once you have experienced it you move on. Spec Ops is the latter type of game. It’s an experience to be had, but I can hardly see myself playing through it a second time, playing any of the multiplayer or even just replaying sections. Maybe as a way to more fully understand the story (because it is mysterious), but more likely than not I will only go through it once.
That’s not to say the mechanics are bad. It’s not that at all. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by the competence of the shooting in the game. The game covers most of the standard shooter norms of today such as regenerating health, does some things better than others such as projecting the arc of your grenades, and has a wide variety of weapons and situations to enjoy. It does have a somewhat obscure control scheme that takes getting used to, for example how space runs and left shift vaults over terrain. There are a few peculiarities to the system, but you learn to live with those and eventually grow accustomed to them.
The real problem is that the mechanics are woven into this story which is so strong and doesn’t lend itself to repetition. There are a number of things you can do differently in your play which will give you new cut scenes to watch, but the whole of the story won’t change very much and you’ll likely be bored going through it a second time. I won’t spoil any of the story beats but I can say that it’s an engaging tale and makes you question yourself as much as the actions of the characters within. They give you Mass Effect/Walking Dead style choices to make and it’s rarely clear what the right choice is. Sometimes it’s a question of honor, or morals, but the continuing theme is the questions are never easy.
In addition to the narrative, the set pieces are really impressive. The views of the city, the weather effects and just the dynamic element of sand can be amazing at times. Even the decorations of the scenes are great. (There is a shout-out to Discworld, which I loved). They also use music to create drama as you fight, something I don’t see very often. Not music in the sense of a motivational orchestral score, but instead more like top-40’s stuff you would hear layered over a scene in a Guy Ritchie or Quentin Tarantino film.
I don’t want to go too much into the story, for fear of spoiling something, but I did want to say that Spec Ops is one of the few games that really makes you cognizant of the fact that you are killing people, not just “bad guys.” They constantly revisit the theme of what is right and wrong, and one way they do that is to pepper the world with non-combatants and force you to interact with them.
In this one scene, I was fighting my way through a hotel and had been killing dozens of guys rushing towards me. I rounded a corner, and saw someone running at me so I fired and took her down. Moments after I fired, I realized the person charging me was actually just a civilian woman trying to get away. She wasn’t a threat, and I had just killed her. Accidentally, granted, but nevertheless bad. These were people I was supposed to be saving. I felt genuinely bad for my mistake, and while I did dismiss it partly as a casualty of war and partly as a virtual human being that hadn’t really been extinguished, it still gave me a moment of pause.
This is what Spec Ops is all about. Not just doing, but reflecting on what you’re doing. And the game is better for it.
There isn’t much bad to say about Spec Ops besides it’s replayability. The levels can be pretty linear, and the overall game is quite short (I finished it in a single night–about 5-6 hours), but neither of those things really hurt the experience. The decisions aren’t particularly meaningful to the greater story, but I’ve grown accustomed to games giving you the illusion of choice and then driving the story down the same path. So, it wasn’t a big deal when the first time I was posed with a “what would you do?” scenario the choice I made did not play out as I expected. (Someone was trying to run away, so I shot him in the leg–which counts as murdering him). I reset that decision and played it again, but the outcome was basically the same and the decision had no impact. From then on, I decided to just live with my decisions and enjoy the ride I’m on–not be disappointed that I can’t drive.
From a gameplay standpoint, the one criticism I have is why do you always run out of ammo? Ammo was scarce in the game for a given gun, but I always had plenty of ammo if I switched up my main weapon. The whole ammo situation really broke up the pacing, because I would spend the end of every firefight running around looking on the ground for dropped weapons. Meanwhile, my allies were telling me to hurry up and go but in a very meta, out-of-the-story gameplay moment I would just search all the nooks and crannies for spare ammo. I realize that you use a lot of ammo, and that no one would be able to carry that much ammo around all the time, but at the same time no one would be tasked with killing as many people as I am. By the end of the game my death count was over 500 at least (based on some of the kill-count achievements I got). They need to more evenly match up the amount of ammo you’re carrying with the amount of people you need to kill. I didn’t feel the scarcity of ammo served the game positively at all.
And now that I think of it, the allies were very competent. The game gives you a system to direct your allies to attack certain targets, and occasionally they get knocked down and you (or your other ally) have to run over to revive them. I thought the allies were exceptionally well done. They didn’t do much work in the gunfight, but they also weren’t completely pointless showpieces–firing but never hitting anything. They didn’t go down all the time, so they weren’t a nuisance, but they did go down on occasion and created drama. They didn’t get caught on terrain while walking, though occasionally they did stay behind cover where they had no chance of being in the fight. The fit well into the game.
Overall, Spec Ops: The Line is a solid shooter. It might not have the replayability of a multiplayer modern-day shooter like Battlefield or Call of Duty, but what it lacks in length is makes up in girth. The story is uncommonly good for any type of PC game, shooter or not, and a worthy experience for both fans of the genre and just fans of a good narrative.