Spec Ops The Line puts you in the shoes of Captain Martin Walker - the leader of an unconventional team of three Delta operators, sent into the ruins of Dubai to find a Colonel John Konrad. It's about a beautiful and disturbing reimagining of what is honestly one of the most gorgeous cities in the world. It's about watching how this team of hardened professionals handle the realities of a city at war with itself. And it's about hiding behind cover until your health regenerates.
Well... it's sort of about all of these things - but not quite. Dubai is a spectacular city to behold and Spec Ops does its best to showcase this, but it really only dedicates fleeting moments to allow the player to appreciate the wonderful vistas the game offers. A great deal of the game is spent running through eerily similar corridors - appropriate for a corridor shooter, I guess, but a bit of a waste of the setting. There are definitely some wonderful panning shots, and towards the end of the game the Burj Khalifa becomes a breathtaking point of interest.
The team at hand - your loud-mouthed sniper Sgt. Lugo and the no-nonsense heavy gunner Lt. Adams - definitely show signs of wear and tear as the battle for Dubai wages on. A line at the beginning of the game - where Lugo makes a joke about sand invading his pants - seemed initially out of place to me. Later though, when Lugo's sense of humour dissipated under the weight of the world around them, the joke was a nice demonstration of the character growth.
There are moments in Spec Ops The Line where you're forced to wonder whether there were two very separate teams working on the game. The moments where your team reflects on the horrors of war as they move through the game area - but you the player are constantly running up to downed enemies to execute them (executions are worth extra loot!).
There's a weird disconnect between what the story, cutscenes and imagery are trying to tell you and what you're being taught by the gameplay. Headshots reward you with a second of slow-mo - valuable when assessing your surroundings - but explode the head in graphic red chunks, eliminating all that exists of what soldier grunt #3485 was. The game hammers home a heavy concept of realism as you move through the ruins of Dubai, but it also falls into typical video game traps like "elite" and "heavy" enemies - as if, in the middle of the middle of the sand-blown ruins of Dubai, a person would don three times as much armour in an effort to kill three random Delta soldiers.
Walker seems so separate to the entire situation that it almost borders on satire - a subversive example of how modern shooters expose people to (elements of) the horrors of war, but most people pay no mind to it. In this case Walker almost exists as a player insert instead of just a player character - how a gamer might treat the situation in Dubai as opposed to a hardened soldier. There's an argument to be made for Poe’s Law - this being satire so good it's indistinguishable from reality - but this is probably not the case. There's a reprehensible moment where a Fourth Wall breaking loading screen tip which a joke about death being better than having PTSD, and that's in pretty poor taste any way you look at it.
The game isn't all story though. It's not acceptable in this day and age for a cover-based shooter to not accurately handle its cover mechanics. There are a number of problems with cover in Spec Ops The Line which, when combined, blow out the difficulty in certain situations. There's a slight delay - hundredths of a second at most - between when you hit the cover button and when Walker hides behind a wall. 0.5 of a second probably isn't the difference between life and death, but it doesn't combine well with the second issue. Some waist high walls appear to be unacceptable as cover - and when you find one you'll wish there was no delay.
Walker also gets stuck on walls more often than he should, which is an annoying way to die - and he gets extremely attached to his cover... when a grenade rolls past you it's sometimes difficult to get away because you're stuck to the wall. Worse - when you do die (and you will) the checkpoints are far further back than they should be. Elsewhere, when game mechanics are working correctly they're simply not all that interesting - it's a very by-the-numbers cover-shooter, which seems extremely weird when contrasted with how abstract the game is in its story.
I think the most curious thing about Spec Ops The Line is that the truly interesting things occur near the end. It's bottom heavy this way - there are four extremely different (and well conceived) endings, the game starts to take advantage of its setting better and - while the cover is still pretty atrocious as a mechanic - the game drives you to finish anyway. It's almost as if this nine(ish) hour game was petrified of being a six(ish) hour game - and it slowed the pace to compensate.
It seems that Spec Ops The Line lacks a strong direction. There's a very powerful hint of an outstanding game sitting beneath what is ultimately a flawed experience. I can imagine it being easier to play on PC - not something you'd typically say about a third person shooter - and yet I can't see that making up for all of its faults. I enjoyed the many endings of the game, and I enjoyed contemplating what everything in the game meant, enough that I think it's probably worth you experiencing - but be warned, it's a bumpy ride.