These are what we call the 'YMMV items.' Things that some people find in this work. We call them 'your mileage might vary' because not everyone sees these things in the same way. This starts discussions in the trope lists, a thing we don't want. Please use the discussion page if you'd like to discuss any of these items.
Writer Walt Williams is not terribly keen on the game being described as an "anti-war" video game: he has stated that his primary intention was to create a narrative which asked players to question why they play shooters in the first place, and the War Is Hell aspect of the game came about largely as a necessary consequence of this rather than out of any especial desire to attack war in its own right.
There's also one common thread running throughout Walker's various blunders in-game - every instance where things went pear-shaped because of his actions, it happened when he acted with only partial information. The mortars? He didn't scout the area thoroughly enough to find the civilians. The aquarium? He didn't ask any hard questions about why the CIA was there, instead trusting that they were on the level. Any of which can happen in an actual warzone.
Alternative Character Interpretation: Most of the major characters in the game. The subject of how sympathetic Walker is as a character is one of no small amount of debate - is he a Well-Intentioned Extremist who becomes a Fallen Hero out of a misguided desire to save the people of Dubai, or a pathetic, selfish Heroic Wannabe who only cares about improving his own stature, regardless of the consequences? (The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive.) How much of Walker represents the player, and how complicit is the player in what Walker's done? Are Konrad and the 33rd really doing the right thing by staying in Dubai, or are they just as misguided as Walker himself? Was Riggs right to destroy the city's water supply? Etcetera.
There's really three different Konrads. There's the Konrad that Walker thought he knew, the hero who would never let the 33rd do all this stuff in Dubai. There's the Konrad that he thinks he's confronting later, the maniac he blames for everything. And then there's the actual Konrad, who seems like was once a decent man before everything spun out of control. The exact measure of the "real" Konrad is up for debate...just how much of a monster he was.
Angst? What Angst?: After the white phosphorous incident, Adams is clearly disturbed and Lugo begins freaking out. Walker, on the other hand, has no outward reaction, which flabbergasts Adams. Key word being "outward": the guilt of it drives him to insanity and causes him to start hallucinating. And given Walker's position in the chain-of-command, this also makes sense. Everything he said in that calm, cold tone after the incident was completely accurate - if the group didn't move from their position, it would only be a matter of time before other forces converged on their position. Keeping on the move will also help him avoid reflecting on what he just did. Pragmatism at its most disturbing.
Anvilicious: Thoroughly and unrepentant about it. The New York Times specifically criticized the game for its lack of subtlety and borderline-gratuitous content.
Audience-Alienating Premise: The game was advertised as a fairly standard military shooter, though it is emphatically not one, because it would be impossible to come up with an appealing way to advertise what the game really is to the people it was intended for.
Broken Base: After the white phosphorous incident, there are exactly and only two opinions that people seem to have (reactions so polarized as to almost drag the entire game into Love It or Hate It territory):
You either believe that it's a masterfully executed Take That against both the player and the shooter genre, where it forces you the player to look at the more realistic aspects of using a horrible, horrible weapon in the name of progression, with no cutaways or easy answers. In a word, it gives something that most paint-by-numbers modern military shooters don't have: consequences.
Critic Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw seemed to fall into both camps at once: He "felt like shit" for his initial delight at the white phosphorous "mini-game", but at the same time compared much of the game's horror to a person mooning you then criticizing you for looking at their butt. He did still make it his Game of the Year.
In an interesting way, Walker could be seen as a much darker take on Cloud Strife from Final Fantasy VII. Both characters desperately want to be heroes, but after committing and experiencing horrific acts, both lose their minds and make up a fantasy in their heads where they are heroes, as that is the only way they can cope with the trauma they received.
He can also been seen as a comparison to Sayaka Miki as characters who want desperately to be heroes, but find that they can't reconcile their fantasies with reality. Both resort to increasingly disturbing violence against what they perceive to be "evil", become consumed in madness, realise it far too late to undo what they'd done, and become warped, monstrous versions of the good people they used to be.
Walker also exhibits some interesting similarities with Alden Pyle from The Quiet American. Both characters are intelligent, well-meaning and idealistic Americans, but are nevertheless hopelessly misguided in their attempts to provide helpful military intervention in a foreign country filled with multiple warring factions, and only really succeed in worsening an already volatile situation that they barely understand to begin with. The most obvious difference between them, however, is that Pyle is the antagonist of The Quiet American, whereas Walker is the protagonist of Spec Ops.
Critical Dissonance: Critics, by and large, were impressed with the game's story and themes (if generally finding the gameplay decidedly lacklustre - neither noticeably good nor bad), but it sold very poorly. Players who did pick up the game were broken in half - one camp thinks it's brilliant for opening questions that many other games conspicuously fail to acknowledge about simulated violence, power fantasies, morality, and other assumptions that come part and parcel with the genre, in the frame of an affecting and stark character study - enough that a critical examination supportive of the game was written. A second finds it pretentious, hypocritical, and self-righteous about imaginary violence, as well as too flawed in itself to be making any criticisms (especially in relation to criticism leveled at violence of the player, while being violent itself like the White Phosphorous incident). It was enough to spawn two games mocking Spec Ops' morality play: Video Game Morality Play and You Were Hallucinating The Whole Time. A third camp didn't care about the story and dismissed it yet another shooter set in the tired modern military genre, with mediocre cover-based gameplay.
Cry for the Devil: The game welcomes you to empathize with Walker himself, and ultimately lets you decide whether or not he's redeemable.
Cult Classic: Predicted by writer Walt Williams, who noted in an interview that the game's Audience-Alienating Premise meant it was unlikely to ever be the sort of game with mass appeal. It has a hardcore following amongst certain gamers, enough to have a book written on it.
Darkness-Induced Audience Apathy: One might quite legitimately have this reaction to the game. By the end of the game, no one involved in the narrative experience of the game - not even the player - could be described as "sympathetic". Some marginally more sympathetic than others, maybe, but...
Death of the Author: Actually encouraged by lead writer Walt Williams - he noted in an interview that while he believes that the entire game is Walker's Dying Dream or "purgatory", the game is purposefully left open to interpretation.
Do Not Do This Cool Thing: Naturally, being a shooter with an anti-war message. For better or for worse, it is much more successful than most.
Enjoy the Story, Skip the Game: As is probably evident from This Very Wiki, the reaction among virtually all players and critics to the game amounted to "great story; bland, mediocre, repetitive gameplay" (with the exception of those players and critics who didn't like the story much either). It's no accident that the multiplayer mode, which features no narrative elements whatsoever (and wasn't even designed by the development team behind the single-player mode, who hated the Executive Meddling addition), is the single worst-received part of the game.
After the player knows The Reveal, Konrad saying "I assure you, I'm as sane as you are, Captain" is downright hilarious.
Hype Backlash: Quickly heading this direction. As time goes on an increasing number of players and critics are starting to feel that the game's deconstruction and story aren't as clever, well-done, and mind-blowing as the game's fandom has claimed it to be. There's also a growing subset of people that are viciously tearing apart the game and it's themes in the same way the game picks apart shooters.
Inferred Holocaust: Amazingly for such a dark game, this trope ends up being inverted in a majority of the endings. The loading screens would imply that it rains after Walker and Konrad's "confrontation". Given the water supply being destroyed by Walker's actions, this would at least give the people of Dubai a bit of a chance to survive by the time reinforcements actually show up. There are, however, several strong suggestions that most or all of the game's endings are hallucinations or otherwise not real.
It Was His Sled: It's become fairly common knowledge that using the white phosphorous mortar inadvertently kills a large group of civilians, and the player character isn't the rugged, noble, mentally-balanced hero you'd expect him to be, along with the game's anti-violence spiels in the form of Konrad and the mocking loading screens that verbally berate the player.
Jerkass Woobie: By the end of the game, everyone. Even the player themselves.
Word of God says they wished achievements had not been included in the game for this very reason. Unsurprisingly, several reviews have criticized exactly this aspect of the game.
Several critics found that some of the more self-aware, Breaking the Fourth Wall elements of the game (such as Walker lampshading the use of In Medias Res in the helicopter sequence) took them out of the experience somewhat.
Under some of the loading screens is text such as "Do you feel like a hero yet?" or "To kill for yourself is murder. To kill for your government is heroic. To kill for entertainment is harmless." When you get more and more of these messages, some being repeated multiple times, eventually having no subtlety and saying things like "This is all your fault", it stops giving you a somewhat subtle feeling of guilt, and makes it feel as though the Radioman is now yelling at you for playing this game.
Love It or Hate It: There's very little middle ground between "a deep examination of violent games, violence in media, and player involvement" and "shallow, hypocritical, moralizing piece of garbage that suckers players in and then insults them for doing what the game asked".
Misaimed Fandom: The game has a following among fans of classic/non-military shooters, who adore it for ripping the modern military shooter (and their players) to shreds. The game has an anti-violence message in general that applies beyond Call of Duty and its ilk.
Many commentators and fans have pointed to Yager Development's being based in Germany as a reason for the game's themes and message, arguing that such a profoundly subversive, anti-American game could not possibly have been made by an American studio. While Yager is based in Germany and has a multi-national staff, the game's writers and lead designer are all American.
As noted elsewhere, the game has received a lot of flak for its mediocre multiplayer component. Yager was not responsible for this aspect of the game (and indeed had no desire to include a multiplayer component at all); it was developed by a separate studio and included at publisher's insistence, or the game wouldn't have been approved.
A lot of critics praised Spec Ops: The Line for deconstructing the modern military shooter (and the violence in games as a whole), but it is not the first game to do so - or even the first game in the last decade. Haze attempted it earlier, in 2008, as a deconstruction of game violence as a whole (the plot was sci-fi to attack the sci-fi FPSes of the time, but at one point, the game was to be set in Afghanistan as a modern shooter). Unlike The Line, however, it received mixed reviews for it's controls, glitches, rushed development, and abusrd story that removed many features and storylines and even less subtlety than in The Line.
Blacksite: Area 51 was also a similarly anvilicious, deconstructionist take on the modern military-themed/sci-fi shooter, but suffered the same problems as Haze. The game itself dealt with US foreign policy and has a similar You Bastard undertone.
Bizarrely enough, the game that helped start the trend of Take Cover (that Spec Ops uses as a framework), kill.switch, had a You Bastard undertone and explored player agency. The player character was a faceless man working for a weapons corporation that profited by sending remotely controlled soldiers to start civil wars, and then selling weapons to both sides. You control one such soldier. It's further highlighted by the player character's callous dialogue and eventual death by a third party, who gives the soldier the PC had been controlling free will... and a chance to end the corporation that had been controlling him.
There were also plenty of jabs at games in general in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty; the player is led to expect they'll be playing as the previous game's beloved hero, and then finds they won't be; the player character seems to be an audience stand-in who reacts as the player would, but he's not, he's psychologically traumatized, regretful of his actions if he shoots a guard, and is supposedly trained on virtual reality (read: video games); the player is led to expect a standard power fantasy, then finds that much of the plot is dedicated to proving how little power/free will a player actually has; the player trusts the game, only to encounter Interface Screw, Fission Mailed, and other cracks in the fourth wall, all ending in the main character metaphorically shucking off the player's control. The main difference is that Spec Ops: The Line is more focused in genre criticism and less experimental.
Player Punch: The white phosphorus incident. The devs claim several people in their focus groups had to stop playing after that. Exactly as intended. Let's put it this way: it was so horrible, nightmarish, and downright realistic, that even someone as cynical as Yahtzee wouldn't dare to make light of the scene.
Possibly made even more effective by the way it's preceded by a scene that's a combination Crowning Moment of Awesome/Crowning Moment of Funny (Radioman "singing" along to Dies Irae whilst a gunship rips apart the side of a building you're desperately running through to try to get to safety), followed by scenes of said helicopter crashing into a building just across from a wall, your first "boss" fight, drama within the squad and the opportunity to be a hero by saving civilians. By this time the player will be playing this like a high octane war shooter, which carries over into the next chapter.
Rewatch Bonus: Lots of the foreshadowing becomes more apparent with added context. The significance of Konrad putting his pistol in his holster in the opening cutscene, for example, is much more obvious in retrospect, or the fact that Radioman can easily provoke a reaction in Adam and Lugo, but only Walker acknowledges Konrad.
Scapegoat Creator: In this case it's a studio rather an individual. As noted elsewhere, the game was repeatedly criticized for its poor multiplayer component, but this element was not developed by Yager and they had no desire to include multiplayer in the first place.
Signature Scene: The white phosphorous incident is pretty much the defining moment of the game, mainly because of being a massive Player Punch and the moment where the Genre Shift really kicks in.
That One Boss: That Heavy Trooper with the strobe light and the ability to teleport. Walker is hallucinating, but in most other cases, "dying" at the hands of a hallucination will just lead to a reload from the last checkpoint and the hallucinatory element vanishing. Not this guy. He'll kill you over and over again until he stops being atmospheric and starts being frustrating.
Play Chapter 6 on FUBAR difficultly. You have no backup, all your guns are gone, you are surrounded by enemy soldiers who can and will flank you any time you are not looking, and three shots from any gun kills you stone dead.
Chapter 14, in particular, expects you to push uphill to a guardhouse despite being up against two entrenched turrets. And while Adams himself says that "charging head-on is suicide", that's more or less what the game forces you to do against one of the bunkers…at very close range, with little cover, while well-armored, grenade-throwing enemies vault over the sandbags and melee you. You don't have many options other than bum-rushing the bunker and hoping you last long enough for Adams to help you take it.