I don’t know if there could have been a more appropriate main theme for Spec Ops: The Line than Jimi Hendrix’s Star Spangled Banner. Exactly as the free falling course of its story, Hendrix’s composition is a deformed and “dirty” version of the United States’ national anthem that emphasizes (in analogy with the game’s events) the perversion of some very noble principles.
Principles embodied by the character we control, Captain Martin Walker, sent in Dubai to recover a certain John Konrad, a colonel who violated his orders to get an entire military division in the city in the hopes of evacuating those who were still alive after a series of truly apocalyptic sandstorms.
Initially, Walker has a very idealistic attitude, believing that the mission could be done without any major complications. He intends to localize Konrad and let the real evacuation teams do their job in regard to civilians. But the situation takes a major turn when he realizes that the 33rd division might not actually want to leave Dubai.
And so, finding Konrad is now even more important, as much as this was even possible. But there is another major detail we initially learn from a loading screen: some time ago, Konrad saved Walker’s life, so maybe finding the former is a vital objective for the latter, with the potential to transform itself into an obsession.
I was immediately grateful to the story for evading the cliche of Americans who travel all over the world to spred democracy. Although the first soldiers you meet have a clear Middle Eastern allure, we immediately get an American vs. American scenario, with the afferent confusion of friendly-fire situations.
I also thought I could be grateful for the lack of cinematic sequences, because very shortly after the start we come to a hostile exchange of bullets accompanied by one of the many classics on the soundtrack, a moment when it could be said that The Line becomes too fancy for its own good, apparently trying to force the atmosphere without a sufficient technical base.
And there’s nothing wrong with this type of scene-setting, on the contrary, but the game does not excel from a mechanical perspective, and the artificial intelligence is sometimes a disaster, problems that strongly sabotages the grandiosity of the respective scenes.
For those who’ve seen Apocalypse Now, the scene will immediately remind them of it, not exactly surprising seeing as how both of them are inspired by Heart of Darkness. No, the cinematic sequences are not lacking and are numerically on par with other action games, but are also as professional as in other titles.
And with this we’ve come to one of The Line’s biggest deficiencies: the fact that as a 3rd person shooter it is completely standard, mediocre even, with an AI that would be better strongly restricted or scripted than free to jump right in your face when you bring down enemies with a turret or incapable of any reaction when you are sometimes three meters distance from a hostile soldier with no obstacle between the two of you.
Besides Martin Walker, your team is comprised of two more soldiers that you can order to attack an enemy and also, while in some fights, give contextual commands for using a certain type of grenade. When one of them is down, you can rush over to him for resuscitation or you can order the other one to do it.
Sadly, their AI is in a perfect symbiosis with that of the enemy, a fact painfully and comically observed when you are attacked by adversaries that rush you with only a knife. Yes, we have a hostile that rushes in your direction, amidst the gun bursts, with a knife. I think I understand what was intended here, maybe the designers wanted a ninja type soldier, very fast and lethal at close range.
And it would have probably worked if he was put in situations where he could unexpectedly jump behind your back, but not when you see him run towards you from a 10 meter distance. And what do your teammates do when they see him? They yell at you to be careful. No shooting, no coming at your side to protect you, just a friendly warning.
The cover mechanics are good, but they could have been much better very easily. It takes some time until you get used to it, because it’s not immediately clear when exactly you switch between two objects that offer cover and the vaulting key is mandatory the same as the melee attack one (thank you console controllers), with the priority of the two functions not being perfect by any measure.
But these are not the things that generated the hype on which the marketing campaign relied on before launch. It was the story, or more exactly, its refusal to spare the idealistic expectations with which most games have accustomed us, where the bad guys are only bad, just like the good and innocent cannot be anything else.
The starting vista is almost surreal. We are somewhere on a highway, filled with cars buried in sand. In the far off we see Dubai at the opposite extreme of what it currently represents, a monument of opulence, but also of technological and architectural achievements, buried under sand dunes that sometimes swallow entire buildings. And surrounding everything is the desert, as far as the eye can see.
Although it’s ultimately only the space where the hostilities take place, the attention and detail with which Dubai has been reconstructed and destroyed made me regret that I could not truly explore it, being obligated to manage with the classical, completely linear structure of a shooter.
And maybe a city won’t be able to express itself as clear as a human character, but there are moments when its decrepitude and architectural devastation speak more loudly than anything else, when Dubai become as striking as Walker and his fellow soldiers. In any case, you’ll remember it much more profoundly than the anonymous mass of 33rd soldiers.
But to the game’s praise, the one in which I’ve invested the most emotional attachment is also the center around which every ambiguous choice on the way revolves. As I’ve said, Walker starts the mission very confident and with an apparently clear goal, that of finding Konrad as fast as possible. But the almost apocalyptic state that Dubai has gotten into has prepared something else for him and the others captive there, moments that will test him – and implicitly others, soldiers and civilians alike – far beyond the limits of their own ideals.
Walker’s transformation from an idealist into a pragmatist of survival starts slowly, but surely, and becomes very clear after a certain moment that puts you to the test first, as an observer of the events. The change doesn’t only reflect in the results of his choices – which ultimately define us, the ones controlling him – but also in the changing visual aspect of the three team members and in the superbly directed interactions between them.
All of them are slowly engulfed in dust and scars, Walker himself getting half of his face burned somewhere after the second half of the story. But one of phenomenons for which I truly appreciated the way the transformation of the team is represented is the fact that you’ll come to a point where you can’t trust him anymore, although he is ultimately your avatar in this world.