Highly-regarded third-person military shooter Spec Ops: The Line has been removed from sale on Steam and other digital storefronts, and nobody seems to know why—not even the game's designer and director.
Spec Ops: The Line came out in 2012. It didn't sell especially well—it was a decent third-person military shooter dropped in among games like Modern Warfare 3 and Black Ops 2, and that's a tough spot for any game—but we still talk about it today because of the story. It's a Heart of Darkness-style road to hell that dives headlong into the horrors of war and the trauma it inflicts on soldiers and civilians, with moments (one in particular) that make Modern Warfare 2's infamous No Russian level look almost quaint.
It's not entirely successful in its ambitions, because the linear nature of the narrative takes some vital moments of choice out of the players' hands (we dug into that aspect of the game a couple years after it came out, although note that there are some major spoilers), but it is undeniably an important videogame—after all, as I said, we're still talking about it.
Anyway, the bottom line is that it's good and you should play it if you're into military shooters—but that's going to be tricky right now because it's no longer available on Steam. The delisting was noticed last night by Wario64, and it's subsequently been removed from other storefronts including Fanatical and Gamesplanet—although, somewhat oddly, it's still available for purchase (for the moment, at least) on GOG and Humble, and for Xbox consoles.
The removal caught Spec Ops designer and director Cory David by surprise:
"Makes no sense—especially because the themes portrayed in SpecOpsTheLine are more relevant now than ever," Davis tweeted. "Why has this happened?"
The cause for Spec Ops: The Line's removal wasn't initially revealed, but many speculation that expiring licenses was the culprit. There's quite a bit of licensed music in the Spec Ops soundtrack from artists including Jimi Hendrix, Deep Purple, Martha and the Vandellas, and Björk; Hendrix's famous rendition of the Star Spangled Banner plays in the background of Spec Ops: The Line's menu:
In the end, that's what it turned out to be. In a statement provided to PC Gamer, a 2K Games rep said "Spec Ops: The Line will no longer be available on online storefronts, as several partnership licenses related to the game are expiring."
"Players who have purchased the game can still download and play the game uninterrupted," the rep said. "2K would like to thank our community of players who have supported the game, and we look forward to bringing you more offerings from our label throughout this year and beyond."
The rep added that the game remains available on some other storefronts because of differences in delisting processes.
It's not all that uncommon for games to be removed from sale when content licenses expire. Music is probably the most common cause, but any sort of licensed content—cars, archival footage, the grim darkness of the far future—can lead to sales being halted after a certain amount of time has passed. When that happens, publishers have a choice: Renew the license, remove the offending content, or drop the whole thing altogether.
As much as I hate to see it go, it's not entirely surprising that 2K chose the latter option in this case: Despite its notoriety and importance, Spec Ops: The Line is 12 years old and not exactly a huge seller even at its peak. Maybe someday we'll get the remaster that some fans were hoping for, but for now, if you want it, you'd better get moving with Humble or GOG (where it's currently on sale for 80% off) before it's pulled from those stores too.