Looking Back to 2012 and the Hard Truths of Spec Ops: The Line

I have a confession to make about the subject of this article: I have never finished Spec Ops: The Line.

Normally, these retrospective articles I write about games from the past are written from a position of having played them through multiple times, and the happy memories that came from my time spent with them. This article, however, is written from an exactly opposite point of view. You see, Spec Ops: The Line had such an impact on me, personally, that I was unable to continue playing it. I shall explain why and what impact it had as I go on, so bear with me. So, let’s look back to 2012 and the launch of what, on the surface, was just another generic military shooter. Although really, it was so much more than that.

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Spec Ops: The Line was first announced in 2009, and finally saw the light of day in 2012, releasing on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC – after a somewhat troubled development. The first thing to mention is that the game is set in a Dubai that has been destroyed by a massive sandstorm, and as a result it was banned in the UAE straight off the bat.

The story is that our character, Captain Martin Walker, has been sent to lead an elite team of special forces soldiers into Dubai to find a certain Colonel John Konrad, who was attempting to lead a caravan out of the destroyed city. The caravan never arrived, all contact was lost, until a looped radio signal was finally detected from Konrad – the caravan had failed and the death toll had been “too many”. Of course, given that our character had a previous relationship with Konrad, we are chosen to lead a three man squad to attempt to find him and discover what happened. And things only go downhill from there…

What I didn’t realize, until when doing some background research, is that Spec Ops is actually a fairly old franchise, with Spec Ops: The Line being the tenth game in the series. However, it appears that the games have never exactly set the world alight, and despite the almost cult following that the game has picked up in the intervening years, it was classified as a commercial failure; the death knell for the franchise. That is something of a shame, as the psychological aspects of the storyline were very well executed and quite disturbing.

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Spec Ops: The Line played out in a third person, cover based shoot style, and for the most part worked well. There were some good set-piece fights to get involved in, and the action was pretty much gung ho blasting as always. Graphically it was much as expected, with a lot of sand around, but fights in ruined buildings, often on multiple levels raised it a little. Soundwise it was interesting, as well. The gunfire and so on was very much from the big library of gun noises, but there were odd things that started to denote that something wasn’t quite right with the character we play as.

As the game wore on, not only did our team start to look more ragged and worn, but the commands that we gave to our squad mates started to change, going from professional to psychotic; similar to reports of enemies being downed. Even the executions that can be carried out become more violent as Walker’s mental state starts to unravel.

This is where the beauty of The Line’s narrative comes out. What the developers have tried to do – I think anyway – is try to make us see that even in a game context, the decisions that we make can have real weight. The inspiration for the game is the book The Heart of Darkness (by Joseph Conrad, interestingly) and the film adaptation of it, Apocalypse Now. These sources focus on how war affects the participants, and how people who commit heinous acts are haunted by their actions, and the way that the brain tries to cope with them. And acts don’t come much more heinous than one that is carried in Spec Ops: The Line. Let me elaborate.

In 2011, I had a sound. Well, I say I did, obviously my wife did, but when this game came out he would have been around one year and the apple of his daddy’s eye. So, picture the scene: it’s mid afternoon, the boy was having a nice snooze, the wife was having a lie down, and so I decided to play a little bit of a video game, in this case Spec Ops: The Line. I got to a section of the game where the way is blocked by what is shown to us as enemy soldiers, far too many to deal with. Luckily, as game logic would have it, there is a way to clear the way, by dropping white phosphorus on the enemies in the way. Win win, right? We can clear the way and not worry about having to fight our way through. So, with gay abandonment, flaming death was unleashed on anything that moved, and we moved on afterwards.

Except the people that we had just flambeed weren’t enemy combatants, they were refugees seeking shelter. And we had burned them – Every. Single. One. This was upsetting enough, but the final straw for me was when we walked up to a smouldering corpse and found out it was a woman crouching over her child; she hadn’t been able to save them. A child who looked, to my horrified eye, like my son. At that point I put the controller down and walked away, and I haven’t been able to bring myself to play the game since.

I’m not squeamish, I have played and finished games a hundred times gorier than Spec Ops: The Line, but there was just something about the pose of the woman and her child that resonated so strongly (and still does now, ten years later I’m still getting emotional about it) that it was the end of my career playing Spec Ops: The Line.

But what about you guys out there? Are you made of sterner stuff than this big Northern softy? Did you finish the story, and did you enjoy it? Did the story make you think and question your instincts to shoot first and ask questions, well, never? If not, it may interest you to know that it is backwardly compatible and Spec Ops: The Line is available from the Xbox Store to be played on Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S – if you want to experience the game, you can.

Anyway, whatever your experience, let us know about it in the comments.

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