When form and content go mano-a-mano in a video game, form usually prevails. That's why we have so many mechanically brilliant games that seem criminally confused about their own themes. There's the affable, mass-murdering hero of the Uncharted series, and the viscerally thrilling Call of Duty games, whose loading screens meekly suggest that war might be hell or something. In form, the recent release Spec Ops: The Line is as generic as its name — a competent, intermittently slick third-person shooter whose combat setpieces hold zero surprises for even the novice player. In content, however, it is one of the most unexpected titles to come along from a major publisher in some time.
Heavily inspired by Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and even more so by Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, The Line follows a three-man squad of Delta operatives into a ravaged Dubai. An epochal sandstorm has destroyed the city, burying it in piles of sand thousands of feet high, and cutting it off from the outside world. The squad's goal: to find the commander of a rogue army unit, who has set up a fiefdom in the storm's aftermath. Almost immediately, the Deltas are attacked by a group of civilian insurgents, and for the moment we seem to be treading familiar thematic ground.
That feeling lasts for about five minutes. A keen-eyed player might notice that some of the so-called insurgents keep trying to run away, which is unusual. Even the most oblivious thrill junkie will notice something is up when they happen upon the American troops, who immediately open fire. Within the first hour of play, the notion of good guys and bad guys has already been thrown out the window. And more insidious reversals are yet to come. Although moral decisions play a big role at key junctures, the choices are always between two bad options. None of the characters you encounter could be said to be upstanding citizens, but as things progress, it's hard to fight the creeping notion that you might be playing as the bad guy.
The human cost of war is a hard thing to portray in a game. The Line achieves this in familiar ways, by unflinchingly showing the atrocities of a war zone, such as bodies hanging from lampposts and the after-effects of white phosphorus on human flesh. As with the slow-motion killshots in the recent Max Payne 3, you'd hate to meet the person who could find such things titillating. Yet The Line finds more subtle ways to drive its point home, from the idle chatter from your soon-to-be victims to the fear and rage in the eyes of the civilians whose neighborhoods you just shot up.
At core, though, The Line is less a game about war than a deconstruction of war video games. Players are so used to focusing on form and not content that we are used to charging to the next objective marker and filling everything we see with bullets. In The Line, you may never be totally sure what is happening in the middle of the desert, but one thing is always clear: whatever you just did has made things worse. Although the pursuit of Colonel Konrad provides the narrative throughline, it's not a matter of heading toward a boss fight. It is, improbably, a convincing journey into a heart of darkness.