Being working-class is such a bother. Salt & pepper sandwiches aside, we in the more nerdy ranks of the proletariat often find ourselves forgoing the $60 price tag of new video games, instead waiting until such games find themselves heavily discounted. Yet often times, the mental wish list fails; thus, we of meager means end up finding games locked away in a sort of Purgatory – begging for a deliverance that simply will not come, as new titles queue up to be summarily forgotten in a few months’ time.
To remedy this, yours truly brings the first installment of “Best of the Bargain Bin”: a series dedicated to discounted games ($30 or less) that you may have missed. So hit the jump, where your humble and obedient servant takes his digital dune buggy to Dubai, for the wartime whimsy that is Spec Ops: The Line!
Like many of my fellow gamers, I’m not tremendously hot on modern military shooters. Granted, they can be well-made – excellent graphics, well-voiced characters, respectable pacing, and the like – but something about the vibe of such games has never really appealed to me. Thus, the rather minimal exposure I had to Spec Ops – cover art featuring a gun-toting American soldier, that somehow screamed, “Dude-bro’s Imperialist Adventure #267” – caused me to overlook it. Yet interest piqued after hearing that the game was inspired by “Heart of Darkness,” the famed book that in turn inspired “Apocalypse Now.”
On the whole, gameplay isn’t terribly remarkable: a squad-focused, third-person shooter with a cover mechanic and regenerating health. Then, just to tick the final “generic shooter” boxes, one is occasionally treated to vehicle sections. It’s perfectly serviceable – personally. Yet amidst the cacophony of bullets, shouting, and running from cover to cover, there is one thing that Spec Ops: The Line does far better than in peers: storytelling.
Indeed, the game pays homage to its source material. Early on, you are introduced to the menacing Colonel Konrad (named after Joseph Conrad, who wrote “Heart of Darkness”), whose status as the protector of the locals has inspired a cult-like reverence around his leadership. In Apocalypse Now, the catalyst was the Vietnam War; in Spec Ops, it is a sandstorm that has laid Dubai to ruin. Our intrepid Captain Walker and his (initially) merry men are sent to investigate a distress call sent from the city, leading to a series of events that find you treading through a labyrinth of surreal weirdness, gruesome sights, and as everyone who has played it knows, a few moments that are genuinely difficult to watch – words I do not utter lightly.
The game has that most delicious of storytelling morsels: genuine weight. Granted, both Spec Ops: The Line and its peers find gamers mowing down wave after wave of enemies – alternating between rifles, shotguns, turrets, and anything else that happens to be helpfully laying around – but there is a significant difference in tone. There is plenty of graphic content, but in an odd way, it’s done rather tastefully. Spec Ops‘s imagery isn’t “shocking;” it’s lurid. It aims to haunt, and does so with great effect. However committed Walker might be to the mission – and however much his grisly tasks are executed in the interest of survival – he is still a deeply human character. One gets the the sense that each little thing – whether it’s the necessity of killing, issuing an order one doesn’t want to give, or simply delving deeper into the audiovisual horror that is the ruins of Dubai – weigh heavily on our stalwart protagonist, inching him ever-closer to the edge of madness.
If you have never played Spec Ops: The Line, it’s more than worth the purchase price. Its brief, yet memorable campaign – one that has found me enjoying more than a few playthroughs – is wrapped up with one of the best endings I’ve seen in a long time.
Spec Ops: The Line can be found at Gamestop for about $20-$30, depending on your platform. Used copies can be ordered from Amazon for about $5 less, though one should keep the cost of shipping in mind.