Spec Ops: The Line… a Horror Game?

It may be a surprise to some that I’ve written an article on Spec Ops: The Line for a feature predominantly about horror. Well, my justification for this little bit of self-indulgence, (as Spec Ops: The Line is possibly the greatest game ever made and I love boring people about it), is that in my humble opinion, Spec Ops: The Line should be classified as a horror game. True, it won’t make you jump; true, the ‘baddies’ you fight are normal, squishy humans and not shuddering mutants, but Spec Ops: The Line terrified me far more than many games that announce themselves as horror games recently.

‘Do you feel like a hero yet?’ I was asked as I concluded Yager Development’s stunning psychological third-person shooter. My answer: ‘No, I do not. I feel like a monster’. Spec Ops: The Line follows the harrowing journey of Captain Walker and his two unfortunate squad mates, Adams and Lugo. They are sent on a scouting mission to Dubai, a city being ravaged by a sandstorm, to search for survivors. Instead, Walker and co find a troop of defecting Americans called ‘The Doomed 33rd Battalion’, and instead of following his orders, which were to rescue survivors, Walker engages in combat with the deserters in an attempt to save anybody they have endangered, whilst becoming obsessed with their decorated, war-hero leader, Colonel Konrad .

Spec Ops: The Line 1

The gameplay is smooth and very well executed, with cover-based shooting being the key feature but with several other game mechanics adding variation. Walker can order Lugo to snipe at distant enemies, he can order Adams to throw a flash bang at groups of enemies, or he can order them both to focus their attacks on one individual if he decides they haven’t already got enough holes in their bodies. The game also incorporates sand into combat on occasion. When you use a frag grenade, the explosion throws up a sand-cloud which obscures vision, and sporadically enemies will be stood in front of pieces of the environment which can be shot to release the sand held behind them. In terms of gameplay, Spec Ops: The Line’s greatest achievement is that a single battle in which three soldiers fight against ten actually feels like a desperate struggle for survival, rather than like ten-pin bowling. Ammo is scarce, so emphasis is on accurate, efficient marksmanship, and if you pop out of cover for any lengthy amount of time whilst under fire, you’ll be tasting pennies before you can scream ‘Oscar Mike’.

The combat isn’t important. It’s a very competent way of tying together the story and the experience that Spec Ops: The Line seeks to provide, and it is enjoyable in the sense that it’s satisfying after a difficult, well-fought battle to come out victorious, but after you finish the game you won’t be thinking about the combat. Spec Ops reaches incredible heights of emotional provocation, with the main emotions being terror and guilt. Walker starts out as a confident, authoritative captain with the welfare of survivors at heart, but he slowly deteriorates as the game progresses, systematically having his humanity stripped from him by his own endeavours. He ends the game broken, charred and warped. His squad members, twisted by fear and mistrust, are torn-apart by the emotional consequences of the horrific things Walker orders them to do. Even Walker’s voice acting collapses into a painful rasp, full of hatred and anger, which is all that is left inside the captain by the end of the game.


Walker and his men stumble along the line between their humanity and war-fuelled insanity as they attempt to come to terms with what they’ve done whilst butchering more and more of their fellow American soldiers in the name of a cause that they’ve long since forgotten. You feel guilty, miserable, and culpable. Even the loading screens aid the psychological despair the game evokes, where replacing the normal loading screen hints like ‘press B to block’, Spec Ops: The Line condemns your actions by telling you ‘this is all your fault’, or even more deceptively ‘you are still a good person’. Are you sure about that, Spec Ops?

Then there’s that one moment. People who have played the game will be recalling that one moment with disgust and nausea, or at least they should be. I’m not going spoil it, but that one moment in Spec Ops: The Line was the single most horrifying moment in my life as a gamer thus far, and I consider myself a veteran of horror games, and they actively attempt to disgust. It wasn’t icky in the same way that finding the dog in Silent Hill 3 was, and it wasn’t stomach churning in the same way finding a body was in Deadly Premonition. It was the raw, unadulterated horror of witnessing the realistic consequences of the character’s actions, and it still makes me feel hollow to think about it all this time later, although perhaps I’m just a delicate flower.

Spec Ops: The Line 3

Spec Ops: The Line is a psychological horror game, and it’s possibly the most subtle horror game ever made. You could blast through the short campaign without paying attention to anything other than your kill count, but if you take in the narrative and Walker’s character arc, which in my opinion is by far the most well-executed character arc in gaming, then you’ll be subjected to a horrifying tale of man’s inhumanity to man that will make you feel physically sick and terrified in a way that zombies and aliens never could.  I completed Spec Ops: The Line in one sitting because I felt like I couldn’t stop until it was over. I wanted to redeem myself and Captain Walker, I wanted a clear-cut villain to be unmasked so I could play the hero, but the truth is that I wasn’t the hero, and no redemption came. Spec Ops: The Line is a horror game in which you play as the monster without realising it till it’s too late. I was dragged in and crippled with guilt, but I knew that I had to see it through to the end, just make sure to have some jelly beans on standby to cheer you up afterwards.

I’m a huge horror fan and I want to cover as many terrifying games as possible. If you have any recommendations for games that I could include in my Horror Show feature, please get in touch. Either leave a comment below, or contact me on Twitter (@thisisajoe) or message me on Tumblr (http://whatsjoebuildinginthere.tumblr.com) or drop me an email at joe-b-h@hotmail.co.uk

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About Joseph Butler-Hartley
A jaded horror enthusiast, I get my kicks hiding in cupboards from whatever hideous creatures happen to be around. However, I'm more than happy playing a wide range of genres on both consoles and PC. Apart from writing for Z1G, I'm also a History student.

  • MichaelJamesDalgleish

    Great piece Joseph. I absolutely loved Spec Ops: The Line, one of the most harrowing and memorable games I’ve ever played and I totally agree with everything you put. In a market filled with vanilla military shooters that promote you as the ‘Hoo-Rah’ heroe, Spec Ops makes you feel very uncomfortable about what you are doing, the ending still haunts me to this day….

    • thisisajoe

      MichaelJamesDalgleish Yeah, there’s a lot of this game that still haunts me.. Thanks!