It can be argued that the primary – and maybe only - purpose of a video game is to show the player a good time. Yager Development smashes that idea and instead aims to make their audience feel miserable through Spec Ops: The Line, an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. However, it diverges from the original and previous adaptations by featuring no subtlety whatsoever, each cutscene being more shocking than the last. It is a brutal, wretched narrative with few redeeming moments. It is the kind of script that would be immediately blacklisted in Hollywood, an insufferable story that is so bleak it would make you hate the writers and burn the DVD.
That is, until the gameplay kicks in and you realize it is just yet another Unreal Engine 3 game. A horrifying cutscene followed by a scripted setpiece that forces you to commit an appalling crime is followed by a gameplay situation straight out of Gears of War. It’s a bizarre flip-flop structure that aims to provoke guilt and anger one moment, joy and instant gratification the next; by the very same action – causing death and destruction. It threatens to be a fatal flaw that ought to kill the experience completely, but somehow the game manages to remain engrossing. In spite of the relentless nature, Spec Ops: The Line remains strangely self-aware. While the above mentioned structure may be jarring to experience and kills immersion, the contrast does put forth some obvious questions. Notably, why are we pleasured by mindless violence and murder in games?
To Yager’s credit, Spec Ops: The Line freshens up the Unreal Engine 3 formula with minor details like the use of sand-strewn environments as a gameplay device, and more importantly, excellent world design. Set in post-catastrophe Dubai, drowned in sand, every bit of art direction is immaculate. The interiors in particular are as beautiful as they are haunting. They are uncharacteristically detailed, vibrant and colourful, which aids to contrast the ruined exterior and a narrative which is anything but vibrant. Nevertheless, it cannot escape feeling, looking and sounding like an Unreal Engine 3 game, despite a setting far removed from the hero-saves-the-world fantasy formula most UE3 games are known for.
Spec Ops: The Line, then, is a game that will always be remembered for its ambition, rather than a great game in its own right. For the daring narrative alone, it is an unique experience and a must play.