Spec Ops The Line

FBT is In The Shit in The Line.

Released in 2012, The Line quickly disappeared, buried under a year-long march of AAA sequels and derided by critics for its generic CoD clone game play. While some praise was given for its plotting, it was seen as a cynical attempt by 2K to use an aging franchise (the last Spec Ops was in 2002) to enter Call of Duty territory. The Line was completely ignored by gamers. So why re-up now?

Six months earlier, the UAE was hit by the worst sandstorm in history and the 33rd Battalion, led by Colonel Konrad, diverted against orders to aid in evacuating the populace after the region was declared a no-man’s-land. The 33rd were never heard from again. Suddenly a brief, repeating radio message from Konrad gets through the lingering storm, detailing that the mission had failed and the losses were ‘too many’. Then we’re dropped into the middle of a mid-air helicopter fight – at first it appears part of the flashback but it isn’t and it’s a frantic scramble for the fire button as helicopters try to blow us out of the sandy sky. It’s an insane, exhilarating opener as we fight around skyscrapers and building sites until suddenly, with only a cut to black and ‘earlier’ to indicate all that is to come, we fade up on one part Fallout, one part Mad Max; we’re in the boots of Captain Walker, who leads Lugo and Adams, delta operators sent into the remains of Dubai to recon and report the fate of the 33rd. As we walk, complaining about the sun, sand and shit detail we’ve landed, the tops of Dubai skyscrapers shimmer in the heat, half buried in the sand. Based on that opener, I guess the Deltas do more than just recon and report.

We pick our way through the ruined city and the bodies of those caught in the storm, the team bantering about the pointlessness of confirming what’s very clear – everybody’s dead. Then we discover not quite everyone. A bunch of locals appear brandishing weapons. It escalates, Walker fires, all hell breaks loose. Fairly typical Call of Duty hell. We’re shouting recognisable orders, killing bad guys in a well staged, frantic but typical gunfight. So far, so CoD and sand-swept Dubai is like a gaudy ghost town; ornate and stylised, one minute we’re in dark, body-strewn mausoleum-like shopping malls buried under sand, the next we’re picking our way from roofs to sand dunes - it's really good, disorientating level design; when you get chance to stop and look around that is; The firefights are unforgiving, reaching an intensity on a par with Heat’s bank shootout. One wrong move, one falter and Walker’s down. There’s a standout early on where there’s guys on multiple levels of a building and I’m being flanked and then a sandstorm rolls in and I realise we’re on the glass roof of a building and the hail of bullets are weakening it. But The Line feels similar to CoD and others – It all merges.

As we push on, what happened comes to light. The 33rd‘s evac failed catastrophically and thousands were lost to the sand. Riots and panic swelled and Konrad declared martial law to wait it out. But the storm didn’t end and Konrad seemed to shift from saviour to dictator. A splinter group of 33rd attempted a coup with little success while the locals banded into a resistance – added to the mix was the CIA, who’ve covertly entered Dubai to cover up Konrad’s little fiefdom. The 33rd think we’re with the CIA, so we have no choice but to return their fire too and push on for answers. But before we reach Konrad it gets much worse, as The Line attempts to steal CoD’s crown with its very own ‘No Russian’ mission.

Walker discovers a ‘white phosphorous’ mortar, and to the disgust of his teammates, turns it on a group of patrolling 33rd between them and Konrad. The result is devastating and sickening. While The Line’s No Russian moment could be dismissed as a cynical move – and most reviews felt it was just that - it has more weight than any contentious moment in CoD; the scene changes everything, including the characters and it’s never forgotten. Walker starts to show signs of stress and it’s interesting to inhabit a character who might be cracking; usually that’s left up to your followers while you stoically press on, if it has any real impact on you at all.

Things continue to get worse for Delta. Pulled into the CIA’s private little war we doom the refugees, the 33rd – and ourselves, before eventually reaching Radioman, a DJ we’ve been hearing who, when he’s not extolling Konrad’s actions is feeding the 33rd info on our movements and laying traps for the CIA. By now we don’t have the patience for him and we leave the radio tower with Konrad’s position. It’s personal now. Where early on, Walker professionally barked out orders now he’s screaming for the team to kill the fuckers and swearing revenge on Konrad, who just goads Walker while setting him impossible choices to prove Walker’s not the soldier Konrad is.

At last we reach Konrad’s compound and the ending is reminiscent of Bioshock’s Ryan encounter. It’s a wordy, head-spinning boss-fight as Konrad and Walker face up to their actions. As the final twists and choices play out, the true brutality of war – not what men do, but what they tell themselves in order to do it – is explored. As bad as they are, those choices feel chillingly, horribly right no matter which you pick. What the hell did I just play?

For two thirds we're just playing CoD:Dubai but that other third, that 33rd … did I just play an anti-war shooter? The ending is definitive but when we caught up with the Helicopter fight from the start, Walker yelled “This isn't right, we did this already”. Walker got Deja-vu? Time for some of my own. I'm going to cross the line again.

Critics of The Line complained the ending meant zero replay value, but on an immediate replay, now aware of what’s coming I start to notice clues. And they’re everywhere. The Line is one of the most subversive games I’ve ever played. As I battle through the firefights, pondering how cliché they are, how daftly extreme, Walker’s opening line about having done this already suddenly makes sense (least to me); we have done this already - The Line is a parody, a commentary and criticism of modern tactical shooters, of their repetitiveness and cynical realism (it's okay to shoot them, they're 'extremists'). The Nazi shooters were palatable for obvious reasons, as are the sci-fi, zombie, horror games but the Modern era is just … The Line took that a step further into satire and has me shooting US Troops – Walker’s doing it without orders but I didn’t even question it.

Walker insists Konrad, his hero and mentor, will have the answers – therefore we’re justified in any action we take that gets us that truth. That’s a typical CoD trope if ever I heard one – But Walker doesn’t need answers, he’s not been ordered to get any. The White Phosphorous, the CIA’s plan, killing hundreds of US troops, dooming the refugees, Walker didn’t need to do any of it but we go along because it’s how we expect our shooter hero to behave, that the end will justify the means, but it really hits home during the confrontation with the Radioman; I realise this time it’s his directions the 33rd had been responding to not Konrad. Was he taking orders from him or acting out his own war fantasy? Was he brainwashed by Konrad’s rhetoric? We’ll never know because Walker doesn’t ask; I realise now the Radioman could have been forced to stand down the 33rd and stopped this. It’s as if Walker allowed it to happen so he could continue his personal mission, wanting to stop Konrad the old-fashioned way.

As I reach the final push, Walker’s hallucinations take on an almost unbearable level of intensity. First time they were arty distractions but now knowing the ending they really hit home, representing Walker’s mind breaking as it tries to reconcile what we’ve done. You just want him to stop but it won’t; The Line stays firmly in the now; there’s no cut scenes, none of the mission complete or v/o explaining the battlefield before deployment; we're never removed from the event, it’s oppressive and real-time and you can’t stop. Even the loading screens, traditionally where you pick up useless info like how to crouch instead update you on the futility of Walker’s actions - and his failures. Repeating the ending with its various choices doesn’t really offer any catharsis. It’s all bad after what we did, but despite being totally aware of what’s going to happen, I’m still shell-shocked by what The Line put me through even if ‘we did this already’.

The Line is obviously Apocalypse Now the Video Game, complete with Walker living through Willard's descent, Konrad (being a reference to Joseph Conrad) going native and the Radioman filling in for Dennis Hopper but it’s more than that; The Line is parodying me as much as the genre; I'm listed as a guest star in the castlist. There’s a scene where Delta is surrounded by furious refugees. First play, I aimed at them and they backed off. This time, I pulled the trigger … and the game awards me an achievement for it. If that’s not a comment on shooters, shoot me.

Even 2K fell for the cover art. They forced in a multiplayer option exposing their CoD-Franchise expectations but seeing Multiplayer in the menu now, it’s like a delicious in-joke worthy of Tyler Durden; a meta-comment on the shooter genre, how do you deathmatch The Line? 2K expected Saving Private Ryan and got Three Kings. It’s a credit to Yager that they managed to keep The Line’s satire and horrors intact; the choices we make are never good; we don’t have a Paragon option - it's all Renegade. A Good Ending where White Saviour Walker leads a bunch of grateful refugees to safety would have completely undone what the game is saying and I’m amazed that didn’t end up a 2K-enforced option, a more palatable marketing angle.

The Line tanked on release; to be fair though, it must have been an impossible game to market; How do you sell a shooter that’s anti-war and takes sly digs at the gamer? How do you differentiate The Line without spoiling it? It’s a shame that The Line didn’t at least develop a cult following. It should have been Nevermind to CoD MW’s Use Your Illusion, exposed military FPS's ego and cock-rock pretensions but instead we got more of the same old. The Line made me realise it’s iffy to be re-enacting realistic modern warfare as entertainment. Too soon. Much of it is open to interpretation (I could be wrong about the Deja-vu line) and that alone elevates it beyond any typical follow-orders war shooter. But it doesn’t elevate the genre, it turns a mirror on it, and on us gamers who want it to be real, just not real-real. Not white-phosphorus real. The Line is the definitive present-day war shooter.

Developer | Yager Development | Publisher 2K Games | 2012

platforms; Win | X360 | PS3