This humdrum gunplay is paired with slightly clunky movement mechanics, which might see you failing to sprint on cue or melee attacking a low barrier instead of vaulting over it. Spec Ops does not compare favorably to its genre peers when it comes to maneuvering around the battlefield, but these shortcomings are rarely an issue in the single-player campaign. In the competitive multiplayer modes, however, they become a hindrance exacerbated by your relative fragility. Some interesting map layouts, a light class system, and a nice array of objective-based modes can create some fun conflicts, but the creaky locomotion makes it unlikely you'll feel invested enough to make a significant dent in the bevy of unlockable weapons, perks, and gear options.
The campaign itself can be completed in under seven hours, and the journey you undertake is inspired by the novel Heart of Darkness, in which a man journeys upriver into the jungle to seek a powerful and enigmatic character who may or may not have gone off the deep end. In Spec Ops, you play as Walker, one of three Delta Force soldiers who arrive in search of Colonel Konrad, an American commander who took his battalion to Dubai against orders in hopes of saving the people trapped therein. It quickly becomes clear that the situation in the city has deteriorated drastically, and there are numerous factions struggling for survival.
Though your mission is to rescue survivors, the first humans you encounter are hostile. A failed attempt at communication leaves you no choice but to fight back, and this pattern repeats throughout much of the campaign, establishing one of the main narrative contrasts of Spec Ops. You're there on a rescue mission, but you just can't seem to stop killing people.
There's beauty in destruction.
Sometimes, you are given a choice. Try to rescue the potentially friendly operative, or save two innocent civilians? Who is guilty, the man who stole water for his family, or the soldier who administered harsh justice? There are no right or wrong decisions, just a difference in who dies and how. These moments shine a spotlight on your squad chatter as Lugo and Adams chime in on the situation you are presented with. They generally argue different sides and react strongly to what you do, but your character's response is almost always to bully them with talk of "doing what's right" or "doing what you had to do." Then it's back shooting the guys who are shooting at you and exchanging profanity-laden victory shouts. The moments meant to encourage reflection fade to the background, drowned out by the overriding narrative justification of self-defense.
There are some story moments that make an impression, however. There's a humorous homage to the similarly inspired movie Apocalypse Now, and a number of licensed songs are piped in to the battlefield to set an appealing fatalistic tone. Both of these examples are the work of the mysterious Radio Man, a disembodied and incongruously jocular voice emanating from speakers rigged throughout the city. Other moments force you to look at the horrors you've wrought, but these often feel cheap because you so rarely have a choice in your action. It's not until late in the campaign that Spec Ops gets more daring and disruptive with its storytelling, but by then it feels like too little, too late.
The disconnect between the gameplay and the narrative elements of Spec Ops: The Line is numbing, which makes it more difficult to contemplate the murky morality of war in the way the game wants you to. There are some intriguing things to be teased out of your adventure through the lovely ruins of Dubai, but the contrast between ambition and execution makes the experience as unsteady as the shifting sands.