Spec Ops The Line is probably one of my favourite games that I will never, ever play again. Not because I was unhappy with the controls, design or any of the usual stuff that puts me off a game, but the story that it told was so harrowing and bleak that it forced me to turn off my console in an attempt to escape from a depressing tale that explicitly featured blood-curdling images that have since been burned into my brain. I might not want to play it again, but here’s why you really should.

It Actually Has A Story Worth Telling

Why do so many people play shooter campaigns? Is it for the incessant guns and gadget porn? For that slow-mo breach as the bullets whizz past, or it is just to hear a lot of military terms being screamed down the line that most people wouldn’t understand? I think a decent chunk of gamers tend to play shooter campaigns just because it’s there. For Call of Duty, and maybe even Battlefield, a lot of players just disregard the single player campaign like a crumpled wrapper and proceed to sink their teeth into the meaty multiplayer, but it can’t be that hard to believe that at least some tend to play a chapter or two of the campaign.

Most gamers buy CoD/Battlefield for the multiplayer, not the story, but hardly any buy them for the opposite reasons  and that’s absolutely fine. However, the focus on multiplayer in shooters does lead to extremely clichéd stories that many just lap up because it’s not why they bought the game. Spec Ops changed this level of mediocrity and became the first military shooter I’ve played that excels at storytelling on both a visceral and visual scale.

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I think Spec Ops the reasons succeeds with its story is because you head into this story thinking it’s a CoD wannabe. It starts out with the run-of-the-mill helicopter/minigun shootout before you’re learning how to take cover, throw grenades and so on. However, the first major sign that I knew this game was going to be different came around Chapter 9. Without spoiling too much, you’re offered a choice to kill either a civilian thief who stole water, or a solider who was meant to apprehend the thief but killed his family. Both are regarded as “savages” who must be subjected to some form justice, i.e. shot point blank in the head. So it’s up to you to be the judge, jury and executioner. What do you do? It’s not a binary good or bad style choice at work here, but rather a moral dilemma.

The thief committed a capital offence, but he was just trying to help his family, and the soldier was reckless, though he was still following orders. Either way, it’s up to you to decide who deserves to live. The story takes a grand inspiration from Heart Of Darkness but places in a lot of morally grey areas in Spec Ops: The Line that certainly work to embellish the story. It adds a sense of questioning and personal thought that you would never really experience in the latest first-person shooter. You rarely walk away from a decision thinking you did the right thing despite the main character’s protests that you always do make the right call. But is he reassuring his squad members, himself or you?

It Turns The “You’re The Hero” Trope On Its Head

“War does not determine who is right, but who is left.” As it stands, a lot of FPS games tap into our child-like belief of what a solider really is. He is an action her0, a saviour and most of all, a badass. So when you play these games, you become Action Man, G.I. Joe and B.A. Baracus combined and live out a fantasy of being the ultimate hero that takes down the badguys and saves the day. It’s a “hero” fantasy at its finest, but Spec Ops: The Line helps you open your eyes to what these games have done to gamer’s attitude towards war and civilian causalities. Call Of Duty may make you blow up vehicles with your RPG and have you run past the lifeless bodies, but Spec Ops makes you stare at that horrific destruction you caused.

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The further you progress through the game, the more hopeless your situation becomes and the more the game mocks you for still playing. Messages of “How many Americans have you killed today?” and “Do you feel like a hero yet?” flash up, taunting you for still thinking you’re doing the right thing. It’s a stark contrast to Call Of Duty’s “inspirational” war quotes. In Spec Ops: The Line, you don’t play a war hero, you play a war monster and destroy everything and everyone in your path. You’re a hurricane of destruction and death, and the only way to end the game is to shut it off. It’s a massive change to the war campaigns we are used to but it’s still a welcome one. War is hell and Spec Ops: The Line is your ticket.

This Games Gets Moral Choices

Pick A or B? Choose The Good Or Evil Ending? Let’s be honest, games are awful at morality and decision making. You’re either a saint or cartoonishly evil, there’s never any middle ground. The inFamous series is guilty of this trope because you’re either always doing good or bad, and flip-flopping between your choices leads to you having weaker powers or upgrades. If you want to have unbelievably powerful abilities, you have to make a binary choice between being good or evil.

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Spec Ops: The Line presents a lot of moral dilemmas to you and it is up to you alone to decide how to act. However, the main difference between this game and others with moral choices is that Spec Ops doesn’t reward you for the decision. There’s no good choices to make here because either way, you’re going to make horrible decisions. The consequences of your choices is your cross to bear for the rest of the game because it’s all your fault for what occurred.

The game doesn’t present you with binary choices. You’re usually given a straight forward (and brutal) option, but at times, there’s an easier solution that you wouldn’t have known about. So when you commit to moral choice A and learn there was an easier option B, you feel angry at yourself for thinking that your first decision is the best decision. You feel cheated and mad at the game, but the game simply states that it never told you to do that and it was all your own decision. This is why the game gets moral choices. The game never disguises the dilemma and you know what you’re doing. A strong moral choice is a grey one: you reassure yourself you did the right thing, but you will still have a harrowing feeling in the pit of your stomach that it could have gone better.

So, what do you think of Spec Ops: The Line? Was it an experience you’d recommend? Do you hope other war games follow its story style? Let us know in the comments below.

Nathan Hughes
Follow me on Twitter (www.twitter.com/OnlySP_Nathan) for more nonsense.

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12 Comments

  1. For me, Spec Ops opened up a new take on a saturated market, but it isn’t a great game. It gets props for trying something new, but that can’t change the fact that, at its core, the story is very difficult to understand and the gunplay is mediocre at best. I played Spec Ops all the way through, and at the end, I had no idea what I had just played or done. There were a few scenes in the game that really reinforced the point the author of this article is making, but there weren’t enough of them and they weren’t varied enough/embedded in gameplay enough. Those moments can only do so much for the game, and at the end of the day, I would give Spec Ops a 7/10: 100% worth a full playthrough, and a second if you have spare time on your hands with nothing else to play, but that is it. I wouldn’t buy it unless it is <$15, and even then, I only bought it once it was $5 on Steam.

    1. I think the point of the story was for it to be difficult to understand. They wanted you to think about what was going on and question yourself. The gameplay isn’t what made the game good, I agree. But in terms of its storytelling and how it was presented, it was easily one of the most intriguing games I’ve played. It wasn’t even on my radar really, I just played it because I had to review it and came away like mentally traumatized haha.

      1. exactly. The game is not fun, it is designed to be played by some unsuspected gamer and shock the player unexpectedly, i agree this game must be played but it is not a good “game” that i would replay for years to come.

        That is one of the reasons the game didnt get alot of popularity, becasue it is so sneaky, it wants to stay off the radar.

      2. My point about the story is that by the end, I had literally no idea what had happened in the entire game. That is BAD, because you should always at least have an idea of what happened. The part that got me the most is that the developers literally take you on a mind-f*** ride and then end it with a scene that says that the whole thing may have not been real, but they don’t say it wasn’t real, they leave it way too ambiguous. I can’t quite remember the ending fully (because it made literally NO SENSE AT ALL), but all I do remember is feeling a mix of “holy s***”, “wtf just happened”, “that was disappointing”, and “that was a waste of six hours.”

    2. ” the story is very difficult to understand and the gunplay is mediocre at best.”

      Read my comment on what is the problem with the story, it is that the game LIES to you about waht happen while black ops does it more subtly and you could notice it as some point.

      My problem as well was the mediocre gunplay, it was too easy, i increased the difficulity and the elite soldiers near the end of the game with the boat and the machinegun bunker utterly destroyed me. I was doing very little damage and they were doing massive damage, the gameplay basicly “sucked” Maybe it was intentional so you died and saw the “do you feel like a hero yet” at the loadscreens.

      The game does subtle stuff like that, eg in the begining of the game when the credits appear it says “special guest ” and puts your name there, basicly saying you are a guest in this game and its gonna fck with your mind.

      “There were a few scenes in the game that really reinforced the point the
      author of this article is making, but there weren’t enough of them and
      they weren’t varied enough/embedded in gameplay enough. Those moments
      can only do so much for the game”

      Exactly, at the end of the day i didnt get my mind blown away, i just felt like i was playing a bad game, like the game had wasted potential to what it could have been an amazing action shooter campaign.

      For the rest that actually liked how the game messed with you… there is no choice, you cant make any choices the game makes the choices for you, they are all BAD and the game hammers them to your head and say “YOU SEE THIS? THIS IS YOUR FAULT AND YOU SHOULD FEEL BAD”

      But it wasnt my fault because i didnt make those choices YOU made them for me game. That could result into:

      a) bashing how scripted the games are and designed to make you feel like a hero and make you reallize that the only choice you got to make things better is put the controller down and stop playing. Or you gonna keep suffering.

      b) or get annoyed by how the game refuses to be “fun” and wants to annoy you and concludei it is a bad game.

      in the end of the game it says “so who you survived” and walker says “who says i did”

      Pretty dark and depressing stuff. I just wanted to have fun :( there wasnt any need to traumatize me this much game!!

  2. “It Actually Has A Story Worth Telling”

    But not a game worth playing.

    That was my issues with it.

    I got into it thinking that i will play a awesome action shooter, i got a “haha now we will make you do more bad stuff, do you feel like a hero yet? ”

    Its nice that it tries to bring down the fourth wall and make you feel guilty, but what i see here is a wasted opportunity for awesome shooter. Instead of awesome action scenes you got death dispair, regret and a whole lot of suffering.

    If it didnt have false marketing i would have liked it more.

    I got a big problem with how much that game lies to you, eg the hanged men and the snipers? Well that didnt happen according to the game, it is just your character being crazy, the general communications in the radio? That also didnt happen, but you showed me those things game, you showed them to me, now you change what happen and try to convince me of the opossite?

    Black ops handles that much better, when you get spoted in the mission that you sneak around with reznov, they dont attack him because HE IS NOT THERE, when mason says “reznov i almost shot you” in the undergound tunnel, the other character says “mason you need to get your sh!t together” it is subtle, it is showing you that something is wrong, all that is left if for you to pick up on that.

    However spec ops shows you lies, it shows you dialogues and scenes that didnt happen and in the end of the game it shows you diffirent cutscenes of those moments, essentially changing what happened, which is a cheap way of lying to the audience and like i said it’s marketing is false advertizing, they shouldnt have gone for that, they should have downright said that there is something weird going on with that game and i believe thats the reason why this game is not aprecciated, because it is not well known, it is not advertized well and it is not reviewed well, there wasnt alot of attention paid to this game becasue it tried to hide itself under the “generic modern war shooter” identity instead of showing what it is. If it did show itself, everyone would know about this game and you wouldnt need to make this article, but it choose to remain hidden and wait for a clueless consumer to pick up the game and play it as a typical shooter and then get blown away by what is the message of the game and what it is actually all about.

    In the end it didnt have that viral popularity blowout that the last of us and bioshock infinite stories did because it tried to remain hidden for the player to discover the unexpected and ofcourse make you feel bad for what you are doing.

    I am amazed that they actually let them release this game, i thought the publisers will be like “no way we gonna release that, it is not gonna sell” or maybe they advertize it as a modern shooter in order to shut up the publisher and make them sell it.

    Who knows, it still annoys the crap out of me, how the game gives you a choice, eg to save the cia agent or stick to cover in order to gather more intelligence and save the hostages and then the game takes that element of choice away from you with the white phosphorous and says there isnt really a choice it is an illusion of choice.

    I get that they wanted to see my character’s face reflection on the UAV screen and feel bad, but i was mostly annoyed because the gameplay could have been so much more, they could have sticked by those choices and allow you multiple ways of doing things and multiple endings instead they made it a scripted linear gamer and based it on illusion of choice.

    I guess in the end i dont like games like the last of us and bioshock infintie and gone home, i prefer games with solid gameplay mechanics that dont try to blow your mind with their story but offer alot of gameplay options like dishonored and such and give you ways to interact with the enviroment and ai.

    1. So, to put your entire comment in a few words, you’d rather play an open-ended game like Far Cry 3, or an open world RPG where you craft your own story than a linear experience. Which is totally fine, but the questioning of everything you did in Spec Ops was kind of the point. You were supposed to second guess everything.

      1. My point is this game isnt “fun” and its not underapreciated as a “game”

        Its not a particulary good “game” it wants to punish you to make you feel bad and littearly the only way to escape is stop playing.

        That is the premise of the game, and it is really impressive how they allowed them to release this game but in the end of the day when i look back a the games i enjoyed and want to replay, i would pick wolfenstein over this anyday becasue that game was “fun” to play while spec ops the line was advertized as a fun shooter but it is actually designed to make you an emotional wreck and since the ending cutscenes are faked and dont really have anything to do with what you saw when you played the game, you wont really notice anything hidden when you replay the game, you wont see any hints like your teammeats figuring out that your character is a nutcase and you wont really get solid gameplay.

        Its not a game that you replay in a few years now becasue you had fun playing the game and shoot bad guys, it is a game that you reccomend to someone who finds games like cod to be pretty riddiculus and wants to be punched in the stomach while playing the game and be shocked at how dark and traumatic the experiance really is.

        I would recommend this for a shock to everyone but not as a “fun” game, or maybe thats me liking 90s games where i played them and keep on replaying them for the gameplay and not for the story.

        1. Well, it is a game, so I mean, I see exactly what you’re saying. But you’re more so not a fan of the gameplay elements than the experience itself. And your definition of “fun” may not be the same as everyone else’s. The reason it’s so under appreciated is because of the way it approached the story part of the game. As you say in your last paragraph, your definition of a game sort of defers from some others.

          I do agree that the game is more of an experience than anything, but it’s still a video game.Also, the marketing was 2K’s fault, not Yager’s. I’m pretty sure at some point someone from the development team even stated that they way the game was advertised was not the way they intended.

          1. I think the experiance is based around gameplay, people give games like bioshock infinite, the last of us and gone home very high ratings because their story made them feel somethign rather their gameplay.

            I would still reccomend this game for its shock factor and being unique, but the gameplay is far from unique and not particulary good.

            I think games like this and gone home need a disclaimer when reviewed, that the ratings are for their idea and story than having “solid gameplay”

            Personally i dont think the marketing department knew that this game really is and thats my gripe with it.

            The proper recomendation will be “if you dislike modern war shooters play spec ops the line you are in for a surpise, if you expect a solid campaign set in a modern war setting, pick another military shooter”

  3. So yeah as a game that is underapreciated this gen, i would pick kingdoms of amalaur, saboteur, bionic commando, wolfenstein, timeshift and some other games that are actually underrated and qute fun.

    Spec ops isnt “fun” it is annoying, dark and will make you feel bad….AND YOU SHOULD FEEL BAD BECAUSE THATS YOUR FAULT MR “I WANNA BE A HERO”!!

  4. Story was subversive, but could have been better. Gameplay was ordinary and just got far, far too cheap towards the end. Bad habit of continually throwing you against ever more ridiculous odds to the point of becoming more than frustrating.
    Its moral choices were an interesting way of going about it, but I’d hardly say that it “gets” them because they were hardcoded into the design of the narrative, rather than the game itself.
    I probably will play it again at some point, but calling it one of the most underrated games of the generation is an overstatement because the ‘game’ part isn’t all that great.

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