Five Years Later, 'Spec Ops: The Line' Still Hates Military Bullshit


'Spec Ops: The Line' pulled no punches in its biting commentary.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at


I missed the initial release on this. I think it took a while for the news to percolate to me that that wasn’t just another shooter. In and amongst console releases and time when I haven’t been able to game (much of the last 5 years), I now feel I completely missed it.

All of which is a way of saying, reading pieces like this while the game is still not Backwards Compatible is very frustrating. Considering the staying power of the game - it seems to be referenced frequently - I sure wish it could be made available.


Can we collectively stop writing articles about Spec Ops: The Line already?


Spec Ops the Line really is kind of a disappointment for me.

The plot is basically just “Hey, we read Heart of Darkness!” And the trick of making gameplay bad to prove a point didn’t work then and it doesn’t really work now either. Also like the OTHER trick of “Ooh you’re a bad person for playing this game to completion player! You should have just turned the game off and never looked back!” Sucks.


To address the bolded bit first…uh, what? I doubt that they set out to make a game that played like trash, if that’s what you mean.

But anyway, the dev team was never, ever shy about the inspirations behind the story. And while it is essentially Heart of Darkness in Dubai, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. Modern military FPS games don’t have a good reputation for their narratives and often tend toward the jingoistic "shoot the middle-eastern bad guys/Russians/Etc. A Heart of Darkness narrative in this landscape is novel, which is both a point for Spec Ops and a point against the state of military FPS narratives in general. That’s not to say that the narrative in Spec Ops isn’t without flaws, but the grim nature that eschews jingoistic heroics for a descent into immoral lunacy was effective enough that people are still talking about and debating the game five years later, which is more than can be said for most middling military shooters.


Somewhat ironic that directly below this story is the link to the latest PUBG video. A game in which millions of people have taken great pleasure in killing others who are simply trying to survive, just like them.


I’ve often seen Spec Ops’ gameplay being boring defended as “well that’s the POINT”

And sure. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with just making Heart of Darkness but that doesn’t mean I have to like it? Nor does it mean I would prefer something more like a standard military shooter. I appreciate Spec Ops’ efforts to tear down the tropes of those games but I think it fails to do so effectively.


I really don’t get the love for Spec Ops. I understand the love as I’ve had many people try to explain it over the years to me but I still don’t get it. It’s a played-out Third-person shooter which pretends to have some deeper significance to score points. It doesn’t do anything interesting, actively talks down to the player for continuing to play the game, and then hoists itself up as “breaking down jingoistic tropes.” Why should I have to be talked down because I want to experience a piece of media? Can you imagine if you were watching Breaking Bad, somewhat rooting for Walter White, and then he turns to the camera and calls you horrible for hoping he survives his next scheme? It shouldn’t have had any of that very blatant message. If it were a boring third-person shooter that you could analyze and realize it was subverting these tropes, then I could get behind it. As it stands now? No thank you.


It was a lot of gamers’ first “wait, maybe games entirely about shooting non-white people in a different country…are fucked up?” experience so I understand why it left a lasting impression on folks.


Over the years, I’ve still liked Spec Ops but the commentary in that game I’ve found to be…a little heavy handed, I guess? Looking at those loading screens now and some of Walt Williams’ comments just induces eye rolls instead of being thought provoking (Which I certainly found it to be at the time) I did however like how it turned the modern military shooter genre on its head by having the plot devolve into more fucked up sequences than building to a dramatic climax like its contemporaries did at the time.

Spec Ops came at a time when I was fifteen and—as NeoRasa mentions above—started to think playing a white guy and bombing all these places in the Middle East didn’t seem right in addition to my views on games slowly changing. I still think Spec Ops is a good game, but as the years have gone by its flaws have only become more and more glaring.


My memories of Spec Ops are still quite fond. People complain about the gameplay. Maybe I missed something. Was it just so generic in nature ala most 3rd person shooters of the time? Or was it loose, badly scripted and designed poorly? I’m reluctant to play it again just in case it shatters those memories.


The shooting wasn’t particularly bad for the time (light years ahead of megacrap from around its time like Quantum Theory or Damnation) just bland and extremely linear. However 2K advertised some randomized weather and environmental features that the player would have to take into account while planning their attack like there would be a heavy tactical element to each encounter beyond regular cover shooter stuff, but in the actual game all of that stuff is scripted so some people were let down. I think between that and it being $59.99 and getting released the same week at Ghost Recon: Future Soldier and it was destined to disappoint.


Future Soldier was the most disappointing GR game to date though. I loved GRAW and GRAW2 and felt Future Soldier was on a bad path when it got delayed and pushed back. It didn’t show at E3 one year and then came out to middling reviews. Definitely had a better time with Spec Ops. Personal preference I guess.


Who here actually read Heart of Darkness?
[Edit: To be clear, this isn’t a diss. It’s not a matter of “I’m better because I read this book.” I really like the book, but nobody owes it to me or the discourse to read the book. It is a matter of relevancy when discussing the specific claim, though. I’d rather the convo move to talking imperialism, or ‘military bullshit’, without any need for the book justifying a read of the game.]

Okay, so, when people say “This is Heart of Darkness the game”, they’re uh, not right.
Like, the writer straight up said “Yeah this is inspired by Heart of Darkness,” what they were actually saying was “This is Apocalypse Now the game” while leaving the reference like, the vaguest bit obscure. Apoc. Now is very inspired by HoD, but The Line is that further step removed that it’s more accurate to say that it’s inspired by Apocalypse Now. Heart of Darkness is about trading ivory on the river Congo, and does not feature a single soldier. It features the psychological aspects and the ‘enigmatic character’ at the end of a ‘journey’ though, as well as (hella) themes of imperialism.

As to it being “bad combat”, I can’t help but feel that’s both overstated and underproven? One of those things that people said a bunch and so it’s taken as gospel. It’s not wildly interesting, but neither is a Call of Duty campaign.
For the most part, the fighting is supposed to feel good because that is the point of the text - you get so caught up in your own experience you fail to humanize the people you’re fighting.


I quite enjoyed the gameplay. It wasn’t spectacularly amazing or anything like that, and i think this general perception of it not being good might be because back then there were so many “good” shooters people had grown unaccustomed to “fairly ok” shooters, though this game was by all means competent and at times quite captivating (especially because of the environmental art and general fantasy of a decayed city). But now i only think of it as a good step, and honestly it’s hard to think poorly of how blatant the message is when even Modern Warfare, with a message that was somewhat complex but still fairly clearly against the destruction of war, was never really seen as a game whose story should be considered.