Spec Ops: The Line is a military third-person shooter. It is an entry in the long-running Spec Ops series but with no reference to the story or gameplay mechanics from the earlier games. The game is set in Dubai where a series of sandstorms has ravaged the environment. After serving in Afghanistan, colonel John Konrad volunteered to lead the 33rd battalion to evacuate the city. After six months there had been no news of his mission until a transmission was picked up where he explains the evacuation was a completely disaster. A team of three men who served under Konrad are tasked to locate survivors and then leave the city immediately to radio command from outside the storm wall and send in the cavalry. The squad consists of Captain Martin Walker, Lieutenant Adams and Sergeant Lugo, and the player only controls the first while the other two are controlled by the AI. They need to employ tactical squad-based maneuvers combined with shooting and seeking cover to progress through the missions. The overall story draws inspiration from the book Heart of Darkness, also known through the film adaptation Apocalypse Now, and therefore it is no coincidence that the colonel’s last name is Konrad, in reference to the book’s author Joseph Conrad.
The game is introduced with a flashforward of a frantic fight in the air between two helicopters in the prologue and then starts off in the first chapter when the squad enters the city. Initially the entire area is abandoned, but they quickly find some bodies of the 33rd and are attacked by locals insurgents. The different missions then lead the squad through sandy Dubai mixed with modern buildings and palaces now in decay. Game mechanics include seeking cover, aiming from behind obstacles, vaulting, sprinting, and taking out the insurgents. As only the main character is controlled by the player, team mates act on their own but can also be given different orders. These are not only general, as Walker can for instance ask to engage a specific target, move to a specific area, throw a flashbang or heal each other. Next to different weapons such as regular guns and grenades, there are melee attacks and brutal executions. At a certain point mortars can be used along with a camera to shoot with a gun controlled through a laptop, there are static turrets, and a mission shooting from a helicopter. Weapons can be picked up from killed enemies. Health is regenerated automatically by staying behind cover. When wounded, blood splatters appear around the edge of the screen and it turns into grayscale.
The environment plays an important roles because of the obstacles, sudden sandstorms and the influence of sunshine. Many objects can also be used for alternate attacks, such as shooting a roof holding a lot of sand or targeting windows to rain down glass on opponents. Sand can bury people, blind vision in a storm and a grenade explosion can cause it to kick up in the face of opponents. The missions are largely linear in corridor design and often contain scripted sequences and encounters that unfold into engagements. A large focus of the game is on the interaction between the squad members who comment on the situation. Many parts include gruesome sequences with wounded, burned and dismembered people and the game often focuses on the moral dilemma of wanting to evacuate survivors while they are constantly attacked by insurgents who fear the Americans come to kill them. Much of that conflict is played out in conversations between the three soldiers. At certain points ethical choices need to be made and usually that implies picking one of two evils. These choices do not directly affect the mission outcome, but lead up to four different endings in the finale. Later on in the game Walker will also work together with other people. In the singleplayer mode there are 15 chapters in total.
Multiplayer modes includes regular (Chaos) and team deathmatch (Mutiny), and it is based around two factions: The Exiles and The Damned. Before starting a game the loadout can be customized and up to five classes can be unlocked, with a unique class for each faction. The four general classes are Officer, Sniper, Gunner and Medic, with Scavenger as a unique one for The Damned and Breacher for The Exiles. Each class has access to different weapons and items with a persistent statistics system that keeps track of the player’s progress over different games. By leveling up new weapons become available. Each class also has access to perks and once the maximum level has been reached, it is possible to re-enlist and unlock upgraded versions of each class. By using perks often they are also upgraded. Other game modes focus on objectives, such as Rally Point, which is similar to a King of the Hill game mode. Uplink is based around protecting a communications array and holding spots with a territory system. The third one is Buried where teams need to protect repairable points on the map. Each team is designated three weak points that need to be taken out by the other team, but these can also be repaired. Once the three have been taken out, a final weak spot is revealed in the enemy base and the team to take that, wins the match. Variations in game modes are provided through playlists, such as Combat as a combination mode or Attrition where there are no respawns.