Eric Hirshberg has a bone to pick with the public. On the subject of Call of Duty, the Activison CEO said, “There's a sense that games are more exploitative in a way that The Hurt Locker – which also was designed as a form of entertainment – isn't.”

“The producers didn't create The Hurt Locker as a public service,” he continued. “It was a piece of entertainment that they sold tickets to and sell DVDs with. And, yet, that's not viewed as exploiting current events. It's viewed as somehow artistically interpreting and commenting on current events. The creative process of making that movie and making our games is very similar, but they're received differently.”

True enough, but Hirshberg misses the point. Modern Warfare isn’t interpreted the way The Hurt Locker is simply because it can’t be: Modern Warfare doesn’t have anything important or interesting to say. A cast of two-dimensional characters take a slick rollercoaster ride through adversity to arrive at the inevitable triumph of the West over freedom-hating foreigners. Watch your step as you exit. Modern Warfare is “git sum” media, Navy Seals, an empty spectacle – the very kind of thing film critics praised The Hurt Locker for transcending.

Hirshberg’s misguided lament for Modern Warfare’s lack of artistic credibility perfectly highlights the identity crisis facing this emerging medium: are videogames a channel for creative expression – do we even want them to be – or are they fizzy entertainment to be chugged, enjoyed and traded in? While its name may be about as inspired as “Modern Warfare”, Spec Ops: The Line is an interesting experiment in tackling something larger than cops and robbers, red versus blue.

In the near future, Dubai has been brought low by a series of massive sandstorms. When they began, Colonel John Konrad and the 33rd U.S. Army battalion were deployed to aid in relief and evacuation efforts. As the sandstorms worsened, Konrad was ordered to evacuate the 33rd but defied the command so as to set up a last civilian convoy. After a final sandstorm hit, all communication with Konrad and the 33rd was lost.

Six months later, U.S. intelligence picks up a scrambled recording from Konrad and dispatches a Delta Recon Team led by captain Martin Walker to find the decorated colonel. As Walker and his team penetrate deeper into the ruins of Dubai they read addled mandates scribbled on walls and listen to looped messages played over improvised speaker stands. Soon, they discover mass graves, tortured remains and evidence of unspeakable cruelty exacted upon civilians and soldiers of the 33rd alike. Finally, Walker comes to understand a terrible secret: The 33rd has abandoned its humanity and a maddened Konrad has appointed himself ruler.

The colonel’s name is no coincidence: Spec Ops: The Line is an interpretation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It’s a journey towards the abhorrent and alluring Konrad, to understanding that beneath the veneer of civility we all have a natural capacity for savagery. To call it derivative is an undue criticism: Conrad’s novellas have been repurposed time and again over the years – most famously with Apocalypse Now. But even Coppola’s epic has largely been reduced in the public consciousness to catch phrases about the best time of day to appreciate the smell of incendiary weaponry, and which Wagner arrangement most frightens the residents of a small Vietnamese fishing village.

In many ways Heart of Darkness is a story that games are more suited to tell than any other medium: we all indulge in murdering one another online, and often do so with spectacular brutality – why not explore our fascination with that?

What’s curious is that developer Yager seems to be doing everything it can to bury that beneath sand. Literally. Rather than drawing attention to something different in gaming, Spec Ops: The Line’s marketing materials highlight the “marquee role” of sand as a dynamic element in the room-to-room combat. Occasionally, Spec Ops: The Line presents the player with the option to exploit the sand, for example by shooting a panel to bring down an avalanche on the heads of adversaries. As it stands, it’s a noteworthy feature but not exactly a headliner: Yager will need to deliver more interesting applications in order to elevate it.

Mechanically, Spec Ops: The Line appears to be a serviceable third-person cover-based shooter. Waves of various enemies will appear from different spawning locations and work to outmanoeuvre Walker and company. Walker can give his team rudimentary commands, adding some light tactical gameplay but Spec Ops: The Line doesn’t reinvent or innovate in any meaningful way.

The crescendo of our hands-on session is a prisoner scenario. Konrad has a thief and a soldier strung up by their wrists, dangling from an overpass. Each prisoner has two snipers trained on them. The thief stole water for his family, a capital offense under the new regime, Konrad tell us. The soldier was sent to administer punishment and killed five of the thief’s family members. The decision put to Walker by Konrad is which of the two should be killed.

The scene can play out several ways: the player can kill either, or neither, or perhaps both. In the heat of the game we chose to shoot the soldier, but the moral quandary lingers. Would the soldier have committed the greater crime if there hadn’t been a theft? There is no correct answer, no reward and no penalty.

Here’s where Spec Ops: The Line looks most promising and appears strongest. Ambiguous scenes such as this test the player in a way that exterminating all the brutes with a two-weapon load-out never can. The real challenge that faces Spec Ops: The Line is reconciling thematic substance and stock shooting. We’ll find out whether Yager is up to the task or whether it has bitten off more than it can chew when the game is released early next year.