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What better way to celebrate the release of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 than by playing Spec Ops: The Line, a military shooter that makes it painfully clear that everything you’re doing is stupid bullshit?
The Line’s seeming primary objective is to make you, the player, feel horrible about everything you’re doing. One part Heart of Darkness via Apocalypse Now with a dash of Fight Club, this ain’t about singing America the Beautiful every cutscene.
Your main enemies aren’t foreigners, but soon become the deranged members of the 33rd Infantry you were tasked to save from a sand-wracked Dubai. Your teammates aren’t buddies with a bond tempered by the challenges of their job – lines of communication and levels of trust are frayed, not the least those between Walker and his subordinates.
In the fray of battle, several voices shout in the air or over the comms, swearing in rage and frustration at the horrible situation they’re in. Hundreds of soldiers, and civilians, will lay dead at your feet, and the game mockingly awards you Achievements or Trophies for killing them in scores with several types of weaponry.
Most important is the downward spiral that Walker takes over the course of the game’s plot. His uniform torn, his face burned halfway to Two-Face, the warzone he and his teammates unwittingly dropped into has broken him inside and out.
At the outset, he communicates with Adams and Lugo in predictably euphemistic military language. A downed enemy via bloody headshot is “Target eliminated!” or a buddy-cop-ish “He’s done!”
By the end, his voice is cracked and hoarse, flecked with sand. And he’s mad – both crazy and primal in his aggressive tone. “Target fucking eliminated,” he growls. “AAGH, God DAMMIT,” he yells in agony as the enemy shoots him.
Occasionally Walker is taken over by hallucinations – short, infrequent and genuinely shocking. In terms of scale they pale in comparison to the “set pieces” of the game, which invariably end in human agony at the widest and most chilling level, and always lay the blame squarely on you, the player.
The truth is, Spec Ops: The Line explores how absurd the idea of a military first-person shooter game really is. The hours spent on harrowing mission shooting enemies, plowing through bunkers and encampments (now on horseback, apparently) would turn most good men into twitching psychopaths.
The moments where you’re given a choice doesn’t really give you branching narrative paths; they’re just a way to choose how you end up causing more misery among the hopeless citizens and the equally evil supporting characters you run into.
And they force you into the worst situations without any choice mechanism at all, because, of course, first-person shooters rarely do. No, when they give you the chance to take the mortar mechanism and fire white phosphorous death on an unwitting enemy, staring into a screen that obscures the hundreds of people you’ve sentenced to a painful death, you jump at the chance because hey, it’s like those old top-down shooter games you probably never played in the arcades in the 1980s.
Spec Ops: The Line haunted me after it finished. With four possible endings, not one of them reassuring, it does what many other shooters never dare to do: tell you that you are a crazy and possibly uncaring bastard for even liking them in the first place.
I feel sorry for anyone who bought the game based on the incredibly generic packaging thinking it would be another quick-and-brutal Call of Duty clone campaign.
When the promotional website includes bodies hanging from light poles just as the teaser, you know there’s something even grimmer beneath the surface.