At first, Spec Ops: The Line could easily be mistaken for any modern military shooter from this past generation. The game begins with Delta Force – a three man squad comprised of the protagonist Captain Walker, Lieutenant Lugo, and Staff Seargeant Adams – investigating the aftermath of a series of dust storms that have hit Dubai, and the fates of the military battalion sent to evacuate the refugees. And for a couple of hours, this is mostly forgotten, as the player moves from combat sequence to combat sequence, settling into the groove that other military shooters have well since trodden.
Gradually however, things begin to grow more complicated. It turns out that the 33rd Battalion is still functioning, and has had to resort to martial law in order to help the refugees survive the devastation caused by the dust storms. The CIA have also been sent in as part of a large cover-up, something the 33rd wants to prevent in order to save lives. While driven by a sense of justice, Delta Force’s actions leave little more than death in their wake, exacerbating an already fragile situation. It’s here where Spec Ops really begins to reveal its true colors; it’s a rather brilliant dissection of the modern military shooter, homing in on several of their characteristics that it finds harmful to public discourse and the people who play them.
Most immediately, Spec Ops shows the disturbing implications of moral absolutism (or your typical good/bad dichotomy) when applied to games related to real-life military conflicts. You see, generally speaking, enemies in a game could be interpreted as impediments to the ultimate goal of winning a game. Therefore, killing said enemies is generally considered a full-on good thing in the context of the game, if the narrative itself gives no reason for this to be questioned. Normally this isn’t an issue, but Spec Ops posits that when a game is staged in real-life military conflicts, it can detrimental to the public perception of enemies, diluting and simplifying its discussion for those who play them. It shows this throughout the game by demonstrating that good intentions don’t necessarily make-up for horrible acts performed with little-to-no intelligence; this is most prominent in the infamous white phosphorous sequence, where the player unknowingly burns alive hundreds of innocent refugees.
This is but a single example of several atrocities you as the player commit throughout the game. These instances include, but are not limited to, the destruction of Dubai’s only remaining source of water, firing into a crowd of civilians, and the pointless murder of hundreds of people as an act of revenge. At several points in the game,people indite Walker, where he replies with a variation of “we had no choice”. This is obviously quite silly; we all possess the capacity to choose what we should do, even if our options are limited.
Except that from the perspective of the player, you actually don’t have a choice. There isn’t any option in Spec Ops to lay down your weapons, or retreat, or radio for help; there is only the option of shooting people to move forward. It’s here where the game wants the player to consider the nature of this quandary: if the game itself is responsible for causing you to perform horrific acts, what does that say about most other 3rd person shooters? This is perhaps most present during the ending, where the game itself indicts the player for choosing to play such a game. To quote Konrad, “none of this would’ve happened if you just stopped. But on you marched. And for what?”
Spec Ops also has an additional underlying theme of the problems inherent in American nationalism and militarism. This is evident due to the realistic (to a certain extent) portrayal of the people you’re fighting, with humanizing conversations overheard at several points and additional information given to specific people, such as the radioman. But while Spec Ops provides this focus on those who your enemies, it doesn’t ignore the effects on the people who have been doing the fighting themselves. Throughout Spec Ops, your initially cheery dude-bro Delta Force team gradually deteriorates as the player performs more and more horrible atrocities. By the game’s conclusion, Walker is near-crazed from his experience in Dubai, shouting expletives instead of commands in battle, and it’s posited by a loading screen that Sergeant Lugo (who was murdered by refugees) was better off, because he would otherwise return home with debilitating PTSD issues.
It’s this well-woven commentary that gives the otherwise generic gameplay its power. There’s little denying that by itself, shooting dudes in Spec Ops is little more than a mildly enjoyable experience, like any other 3rd-person shooter. But put into the contextualization of the narrative, I found the gameplay to be positively gut-wrenching, with each bullet I placed in someones head a sickening experience. It may not be strictly “innovative,” but I think that’s the point; why would a game that aims to criticize military shooters resemble something else? Some smart reversals of standard shooter set-pieces also serve as some of the game’s most disturbing moments.
Spec Ops isn’t free from criticism: it’s a bit unsubtle in some areas, and its cynicism is difficult to stomach at times. But that doesn’t change the fact that this is still a mature, well-written title that asks gamers an important question: should we really be twisting realistic military conflicts into perverse activities for our own amusement?