At first glance, Spec Ops: The Line looks like nothing more than a straight-ahead military shooter. Its story tells of some future date when the desert-bound high-tech city of Dubai is being blasted by incredibly deadly sandstorms. These biblically proportioned tempests are leaving luxury hotels and skyscrapers buried beneath shifting dunes and swirling debris. Dubai's wealthy elite initially downplay the situation before evacuating in secret, leaving countless "lesser" citizens behind. And so, the United States steps up to help evacuate the populace with an infantry battalion led by American hero Col. John Konrad.
By the time gamers are inserted into the equation as Capt. Martin Walker and his Delta squad of two well-seasoned soldiers, though, the evacuation assignment has somehow gone terribly wrong. Konrad has refused orders to leave the city, thousands have died, and a giant wall of sand has completely blacked out communications. In fact, it's possible that everyone's dead. Walker's been ordered in on a recon mission to try to find out what happened with the muddled evac.
Amidst Dubai's crumbled, cracked and pitted opulence, the soldiers find survivors alright, but they end up having to fight and kill nearly everyone they encounter.
Figuring out what all this means becomes job No. 1.
Ten Thousand Rounds or More
Of course, since this is a shooter, you get that job done while looking down the barrel of your gun. The mechanics tend to be rather clunky and the gameplay grinding, but as gamers piece together the Apocalypse Now-like story, they rip swarms of enemies apart with tens of thousands of rounds of ammo from a variety of high-caliber automatic weaponry. Heads explode with a well-placed shot, and limbs are blown off with rockets. Blood and gore splash, and the not quite dead writhe in pain until you walk up to deliver one of several final blows—from a stomp to the throat to a bullet to the face.
It's the aftermath of battle that can be the most grisly, however. The Delta team encounters fly-infested pits and hallways full of rotting, executed soldiers and civilians. The screams of the tortured ring out across the radio waves. Corpses hang, upside down and mutilated, from beams and telephone poles.
And then there's the white phosphorus. Walker and his squad bomb what they think to be an enemy force with the flesh-searing chemical stuff, only to walk up and find the crisped and sizzling corpses of civilians—including a mother clutching her infant child. A barely alive soldier who was helping the innocent escape looks at Walker and asks, "Why?" before he dies.
Not Quite Heroes
That damning question and the moral dilemma it's stitched through doesn't stand alone. There are many. Late in the game, for instance, Capt. Walker and his team are presented with two men strung up and hanging by their wrists. It's explained that the man on the right was caught stealing water rations and the one on the left killed several civilians in pursuit of the water thief. As Walker, the gamer must decide which one deserves to die. And if he doesn't choose, then his own squad will be executed with sniper bullets to the brain.
Add in dialogue that's rife with f- and s-words, uses of crudities such as "b‑‑ch," "h‑‑‑," "d‑‑n" and "a‑‑," along with scores of misuses of God's name, and what at first seemed like a game of gun-blazing soldier heroes quickly becomes something far different.
The phrase "There is none righteous, no, not one" is spray painted on a crumbling sand-blown wall that can be spotted early in this game. And though the Scripture verse from Romans could be seen as just another grim graphic easily overlooked in the heat of action, it sums up everything Spec Ops: The Line is trying to leave us with.
For this is a game that's less about trigger-pulling finesse than it is about the price of the atrocities and morally gray, complex actions of war. It could be said that these questions of military power and morality are well worth asking. But the blood-soaked digital horrors faced over and over while reaching for the game's (not always ethical) answers have a disturbing price of their own.