Spec Ops: The Line is an interesting game; very rarely do you get a shooter which sets out to make you question what you are actually doing. Call of Duty and the infamous ‘No Russian’ level had a slight tilt at this moral conundrum, but it wasn't the central theme of the game. For Spec Ops to task you with killing enemies and then get you to question whether what you are doing is the right thing is very rare in our medium.
The premise of the game is that as the captain of a Delta Force team you are charged with going to Dubai and finding out what has happened to Colonel John Konrad and his battalion which was sent into the city six months earlier to help evacuate the populace after a massive sandstorm hit. Dubai is now cut off from the rest of the world by a giant storm wall that prevents any communication from going in or coming out. It is your job to go in and find out what has being going on and why the 33rd Battalion has defected; so far so generic, but it isn't long before the situation starts to unravel and you learn that perhaps things are not quite what they seem. As you progress through the city the mental state of both the player character and his team-mates begin to unravel as the acts you are required to undertake, in order to get to the truth, become more and more questionable.
There were times during the game where I really had to sit back and think about what I had done. One part in particular, which I wont go into as to do so would spoil the experience, really stood out and made me really question whether the lives I had taken were justified by the mission objective. This became even harder when the original goal to evacuate Dubai and save the populace was overtaken by the desire for revenge. It is at this juncture that I felt the game faltered slightly. To change direction in such a way means it's a whole lot easier for the game to make you feel bad about what you are doing. Whilst the saving of innocents can often justify deplorable acts, when it becomes just about revenge there is less ambiguity and it is much easier to see such acts for what they really are. Consequently the question of what behaviour is acceptable during warfare becomes less effective. While I applaud Yager Development for sticking to their objective, I feel that this change in tact did the game a disservice and watered down the central conceit about what is truly acceptable in combat.
However Yager Development should be commended for following through on their promise to centre the game around this question and they generally succeed in their objective. There are a lot of violent games released every week, but this is the first time I can remember actually questioning all the carnage. That they managed to invoke that response is testament to the world they have created. At times it can come across as slightly hackneyed, but it is mostly conveyed with finesse.
There have been complaints from various media outlets that the game surrounding this moral quandary is not up to scratch. While I will agree that in places the graphics look a bit ropey and the combat is not on a par with other cover based titans, such as Gears of War, it is functional and I found it enjoyable to play as a shooter; besides quibbling about such things is missing the point. Journalists and commentators are forever bemoaning the fact that games never bother to tackle moral issues. It is always clear who is the bad guy and you always play the good guy. However, when a game comes along that tries to tackle the issue of the morality of war, instead of recognising the bravery of such a move, the focus is instead on how the game isn’t as technically sound as the best games in the genre. There are already enough Gears of War clones in the market and Yager should be praised for trying something different. Games seem to be able to get away with average story when backed-up with good gameplay, but not when the story excels and the gameplay doesn't. To me this is wrong headed; the industry needs to grow up a bit and understand that gameplay is not the be-all and end-all.
If, like me, you have a desire to see the shooter genre move forward and for third person shooters in particular to move away from the sterile arena in which they have been trapped, then I recommend that you take a look at this game. Don’t expect a technical marvel, but do expect to encounter something a little different; a game that is willing to buck the trend and get the player to really think about what they are doing.