That's why it's disappointing, and often baffling, when Spec Ops underlines its themes with an orange crayon. The discovery of a strung-up, mutilated corpse is meant to shock, but the scene feels deflated alongside an Achievement notification that essentially says, "War is terrible. Have 10 points!" That's the moment in which The Line's internal tug-of-war becomes plain as day: the grounded, provocative story that exceeds expectations, versus the emblematic action game. Spec Ops needs a mechanical hook to match its well-realized desert battleground, something that hasn't been eroded by years of games that play just like it.
The beautiful, buried city of Dubai is a paradise of waist-high detritus and abandoned automobiles, all perfectly placed to guide you through waves of faceless enemies. "How many Americans have you killed today?" the game asks (in a loading screen). "Do you feel like a hero yet?" Spec Ops: The Line stirs you with dark questions, asks about your role in the forced conflict that sustains games like it, but never prods you in the way that's most important to the medium. It's still a smooth sequence of shootouts, ammo roundups and flashy set pieces, albeit one that delivers a message.
There's no sense in executing Spec Ops for being a competent, stylish shooter, but the perceptible complacency in game design feels utterly jarring against the chin-stroking prompted by the premise. As with BioShock, there's some satirical dissonance between the narrative and the structure of the game itself, but seeing what they did there isn't enough to anchor the whole thing. When one character suggests that the killing would stop if only you weren't so intent on completing your mission (and the game), it feels like a veiled request to put the controller down. It does tempt for a moment, because there isn't one playable bit in this shooter that hasn't been done before, and better.
The murky moral choices faced by Walker can't help but stand out in this sea of sameness. They develop organically, devoid of a binary good/evil system, and mark the few moments where your actions and the story truly intersect. The game's best, bravest sequence marches you through a disaster of your own design – followed by a dun-dun-duuuun! cutscene which simply must illustrate THE CONSEQUENCES for you. It's another boneheaded example of Spec Ops: The Line taking a disquieting idea, circling it and putting it under a magnet on your fridge.
Spec Ops: The Line is the kind of game we think we want. It aims to be thoughtful and mature as it ponders our recurring role as the trigger-happy mass murderer. And yet it casts us in that same spot again, making a boring job out of it and highlighting why even "stupid" games can better engage, entertain and challenge. Heavy subject matter makes Spec Ops lopsided in a different way, and that's not really a win for games.
This review is based on a retail Xbox 360 copy of Spec Ops: The Line, provided by 2K Games.
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