Military video games are generally so gung-ho about combat they might as well be recruiting posters for the armed forces. There isn't much time for rumination when you're racking up the kill streaks and body counts - you have to assume the cause you're fighting for is just. Kill "em all and let God sort "em out.
"Spec Ops: The Line" (2K Games, for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, $59.99) doesn't let you off the hook so easily. Yes, you will slaughter hundreds of people over the course of its single-player campaign. No, you won't feel good about it.
"Spec Ops" takes place in Dubai six months after it has been demolished by an apocalyptic sandstorm. Its luxury hotels and skyscrapers have been abandoned or even toppled. Only a few refugees remain, along with a U.S. Army infantry unit and its leader, Col. John Konrad. After receiving a distress call from inside Dubai, your three-man commando team is sent to investigate.
Konrad's name is a giveaway to anyone who passed high-school English lit: "Spec Ops" is a take on Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," by way of Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 Vietnam War adaptation, "Apocalypse Now." The parallels to the film are deliberate: The diary of the game's protagonist, Capt. Walker, is reminiscent of Capt. Willard's narration in the movie. A game character called Radioman channels Dennis Hopper's photojournalist. And even though "Spec Ops" is set in the near future, its soundtrack features Vietnam-era nuggets like Deep Purple's "Hush" and Martha and the Vandellas' "Nowhere to Run."
As your team approaches the sand-choked outskirts of Dubai, you're greeted by refugees who try (with gunfire) to stop your mission. But as you venture further into the city's decadent palaces and casinos, you stumble into a war between CIA agents and Konrad's "Damned 33rd" infantry. The enemies here aren't terrorists, drug lords or aliens. They're your fellow Americans.
"Spec Ops," created by the Berlin-based Yager Development studio, doesn't tackle specific elements of U.S. foreign policy, but its vision of apparently crazy Americans running amok in the Middle East is unflinching. It's hard to imagine a U.S.-based developer trying to pull this off.
But while the story here is riveting, the gameplay offers nothing particularly fresh. The settings are distinctive, but most of the levels settle into the familiar rhythm: take cover, kill everybody, move on. And the game drags you down a relentlessly linear path, with little freedom to explore. On occasion, it awkwardly reminds you that you're playing a game: Oh look, someone's put a convenient zip line on top of this tower!
Still, even when I was bored with its lackluster combat, the audacious storytelling in "Spec Ops" kept me moving. "Spec Ops" is as gory as "Call of Duty," "Battlefield" or any shooter of the last decade - yet it dares to question the gamer's enjoyment of such violence. (Near the end it flashes the question, "How many Americans have you killed today?") The messages may be muddled, but they are thought-provoking, and Yager and 2K deserve credit for tackling them. Three stars out of four.