Yes, it took me a while. I didn't have a choice. Or maybe I did.
Dear shooter genre, I believe it's time for a cease-fire. I will tolerate all your gung-ho gun-crazy, pro-American military fetishism, just as long as you drop a game like 2K Games' "Spec Ops: The Line" at least once a year.
You've heard about it by now: you lead a burly American soldier and his two AI-tard partners into Dubai after a horrible sandstorm to look for survivors. In your quest for what's right and heroic, you have to deal with your own morality, its limits and your own rationalizations for it.
The game is allegedly defined by one moment in the story where your code of ethics is called into question and you're called, as a player immersed in all the justified slaughter, to face head-on the horrors of your own actions. It's the first "thinking man's shooter" in a long time and it stands out because of it.
But this is selling the game short and to be honest it's one of the reasons I wasn't in any hurry to play it (that and lack of disposable income). The horror you witness isn't a twist. Instead the realization of what a monster you are comes gradually. It's not long into the game when your actions start becoming questionable. The story presents them as the "only option", but that's the point; how far can you go with this excuse? The subtitle "The Line", after all, refers to that moral line that you are or aren't capable and mostly willing to cross in order to succeed in your goals.
What I like specifically is how morosely ironic the story is. It takes all the sad and pathetic conventions that have made big military shooters out there popular and puts them front-and-centre. You like running around dust-covered landscapes with big guns? Fine. Here is Dubai after a fucking sandstorm. Can't get any more dust (well, technically sand) than this!
You rationalize shooting brown people by the hundreds because they talk funny and you can disconnect yourself from them? Fine, motherfucker, in my game you're killing (mostly) white, apple-pie and Big Mac-raised American soldiers and nothing else. KILL, hero, KILL KILL!
Unlike Metal Gear Solid, which is also critical of war and American politics, "The Line" is a lot more contained. Kojima's epic looks at the bigger picture, the workings of world politics, philosophy and western society, while it drops all its human drama on its protagonist (the interesting one, not that other shit one) for relating and taking the story down to the human level. The Line's narrative is focused on ethics not as a philosophical concept, but rather an earthly one, in the direct level that affects us, in our world, our contemporary societies.
After all, unlike MGS, The Line isn't really anti-war. It's critical of the US' interventionist foreign policy and the fact that it has produced far too many horrors from the people that are the "good guys". Even so, it's still not judgmental toward the micro-politics or even the people involved and just poses the question if you would be willing to rationalize the carnage you spread, as a soldier, as a gamer, in the name of heroism or as part of the greater good. It's a brutal story that's not ashamed to adopt the most horrifying images to make its point.
The reason the narrative works within the game is its excellent pacing. The main characters aren't deep or interesting as they have to serve as conduits for the player, but they do feel very human. Instead of the story moving forward by jumping from cut-scene to cut-scene, there is constant dialogue, from banter to arguments over morality and the situation ahead. If a fire-fight isn't going on, the characters will talk.
The story doesn't let up for a moment and that's what makes it feel organic and integral to the game and thus when gameplay breaks up the plot, the two don't feel intrusive to one another.
It's not perfect, mind you. From a gameplay standpoint it doesn't challenge its shooter roots and doesn't spice up the formula at all. The exchanges with the enemies are fast-paced and exciting, but even so the constant shooting can get a bit tedious. Especially toward the end the experience feels like a chore you tolerate just to see the ending; it feels like the game has thrown its best tricks and challenges at you by the mid-point and it's starving for something interesting to show.
Also, while it does come with a multiplayer component, it's fairly simplistic and obviously phoned in. That much was confirmed by the lead developer after the game's release, as the multiplayer was a requirement from the publisher. If you're looking for your next online killing spree fix, this isn't your game.
Then again, if that's what you're looking for, what the fuck are you doing playing a narrative-driven game? The focus is obviously elsewhere and thank heavens for that. The deep, well-written story combined with vibrant visuals, great pacing and strong performances and sound make this a must-play title. It's one of the best shooters in a long time. It's definitely the strongest military shooter I've played since the original Modern Warfare, if not the original Call of Duty altogether.
With the genre still dominated by games like Black Ops II and Warfighter, a title like "Spec Ops: The Line" is the point of contrast that differentiates between gaming as an intellectual vacuum designed to steal your disposable income and it as a new and exciting medium with endless potential for creativity, innovation and perhaps, one day, art.
It's one of the best titles of last year and if you're going to spread death, pain and orphans in one game, it is highly recommended it's this one.
Version reviewed: PC, digital download obtained via Steam. Game ran on full settings on AMD Athlon xII 250, ATi HD6570, 3GB RAM on Windows XP SP3.
Additional information: The game supports Microsoft GFWL gamepad (and its derivatives) and no DLC is either required for the full experience or has been released. For players with impaired hearing, only the dialogues are subtitled.