I want to start this off by saying one thing;
Spec Ops: The Line is not a bad game. I might even be inclined to say it is better than many others that infest the “shooter” genre. Of course, that’s not to say I wasn’t disappointed with it.
SPOILERS FOR SPEC OPS: THE LINE – YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED
Spec Ops is a game that wants you the think about what you are doing; and to care about the narrative. Caring about the story beats in a game is hard enough; compound that with it being a shooter and shackled with those game mechanics and you can see where this can start to seem difficult. What makes Spec Ops so tragic is that fact that it almost does it. Almost.
The doesn’t need to be explained in its entirety to see the problem. You follow Cap. Walker and his squad as they work their way through Dubai; slowing watching everything spiral out of control as they search for answers and the enigmatic Gen. Conrad. It is obvious from the beginning that the game designers pull heavily from darker war movies like Apocalypse Now and others like it; and that they want you to be an active part in this narrative experience. As the situation progressively gets worse and worse; the game forces the player to do more and more heinous acts to further their own goals. This climaxes, to an extent, when the player is forced to burn the enemy soldiers alive; and in the process kill a large group of civilians . It is a truly dark moment in a game that is full of dark moments; and that it where it struggles.
Spec Ops is a dark game with incredibly mature themes; and for that I applaud it, but it needed to be something more; it wanted to be something more. Never once in the game do you see your squad happily bantering; you never know what life was like for these guys before there were metaphorically sent into hell. Part of what makes those darker war movies work are those moments of “down time,” to let you know that maybe these men are not monsters, that they are indeed human. It is that humanization of these characters that not only makes you care about them; but causes the view to relate to them as well. From the very get go in Spec Ops, nothing is good and it never lets up. These characters are never given a chance to resonate with the player. We are supposed to care about Walker’s mental stability, and the lives of his squadmates; but without the requisite characterization; these soldiers just fall into “dude-bro” stereotypes that we see all the time in the genre. Thus, when these intense moments arrive ; the player feels nothing. You see it on the screen; acknowledge that darkness; but you don’t feel the emotion that game striving for you to achieve.
In the end; I still think that you should play the game. The fact is; any game that creates this sort of discussion is worth checking out. Gaming is growing up; and Spec Ops is sure sign of that growth; yet it is also an example of how we are not there yet. I think we are on the cusp of something amazing in our chosen medium. Games like The Last of Us, Beyond: Two Souls, and the new Tomb Raider are looking to push that envelope and give us some of the first truly “mature” games. That’s not to say that they will reach those heights; or that they will be good, but again; the fact that this is happening at all can only be a good thing.