Heart of Darkness meets Call of Duty.
In high school, I read Joseph Conrad's long trek up the river and hated every second of it. I thought to myself "Why do they make us read this? What's the point?"
It's odd that I echoed those same sentiments in the first two-thirds of Spec Ops: The Line, a game by Jager and published by 2K that draws heavily from Conrad's novel and the film it inspired, Apocalypse Now. Why did I have to play this game? Why does it keep going on and on? What's the point?
The Line deals with the realities (and un-realities) of war and conflict heavy-handedly, appropriately, seeking to impart some knowledge on the gamer that you are not a hero. No, you are a violent, murderous individual with a penchant for death and destruction. Somewhere in there, you're a soldier.
Too often, military first-person shooters glorify the actions that only seem "good" because of their label. The loading screens in Spec Ops make direct reference to this. Late in the game, after you've lost all sense of your humanity and seen the atrocities of war first-hand, the game asks you point-blank: "Do you feel like a hero?"
Another loading screen asked me something to the effect of "The US Military does not condone the killing of unarmed combatants, but this isn't real so does it even matter?" I may have never noticed these subtle prods if it weren't for the impossible difficulty spikes towards the end of the game.
One section required myself and another squadmate to fight off three separate waves of difficult enemies on a sand dune. In addition to five high-level opponents, an armored car dropped a knife-wielding psychopath and a heavily armored AA-12-toting bullet sponge. Needless to say, I got a little frustrated at a challenge I wasn't really prepared for.
The best games give you a set of tools and slowly teach you how to use them. The Line gives you cover mechanics, a selection of firearms, and a pair of commandable squadmates. In the beginning, you'll need none of these. It felt as if my bare hands would suffice.
By the end I was banging my head against a wall in frustration. At first I refused to lower the difficulty despite the fact that the game offered. I walked away, but when I came back the next day and ran into the same wall, I dropped it down a notch and waltzed through to the end.
Difficulty spikes aren't the only problem. In eight hours of gameplay, six of it is spent almost entirely in sand. The oppresive nature of the desert probably affected me as much as the fog did Charles Marlow. There were times I'd enter a building and sigh in relief at the blues and greens and nuanced lighting, only to be directed to shoot out the roof so a bucket of sand could be dumped on the enemies within.
Despite this, The Line is certainly competent enough, and set pieces make for entertaining fodder between narrative sequences that inspired a critical eye, of which my junior year english class required of me.
On more than one occasion, Jager presents the player with "choices" but leaves only one option available. In one such sequence, players have to use White Phosphorous to wipe out an army of soldiers in their way. This also results in the killing of hundreds of civilians.
Not only is the player character's mind being ripped apart, but the squadmates argue and fight under the duress too. "He made us into killers," one screams. In another section, the other squadmate shoots an unarmed opponent and argues against protests with "What did you think was going to happen? He sent every armed man in Dubai at us!"
I wasn't prepared for what Spec Ops: The Line was selling, and hated every second of the experience at first. Slowly, I started to "get" the narrative. I started to understand why I was playing the game at all.
US Soldiers don't shit and fight and DIE in the desert to be heroes. They do it because their country and commanding officers ask it of them. And when they come home? What happens then? They're forced to swallow the disillusions and insults Call of Duty lobs at them. They're belittled in nearly all forms of media that make light of their dark struggle. [And they don't get the healthcare they need… ~Ed. Nick]
The gamer in me hated much of Spec Ops: The Line. The critic in me loves it. Like anyone else of two minds, I'm forced to decide which side of the line I stand on.