SPEC OPS: THE LINE / 2K Games / PC
I didn't get around to playing this until about a year after release and I have to admit I went into it with my Cynicism Visor on and fully powered. No end of critics and bloggers talked about the game's "important" and "exciting" narrative. There's been a lot of that sort of talk in the past few years about indie games that turned out to be piles of pretentious unplayable garbage, so I was wary. But Spec Ops: The Line is an odd duck in that regard - it's not an indie but a revival of the dormant-for-a-decade Spec Ops franchise, published by 2k Games and apparently given a reasonable budget (I couldn't find an actual figure, but given the 5 year length of development and graphical quality it had to be at least in the low tens of millions.)
The other Spec Ops games came out between 2000 - 2002 and were basically made to cash in on the brief "squad-based military tactical shooter" craze that Rainbow Six inspired. So it's not only strange to see the franchise reappear at all, but to see it re-emerge as some sort of reimagining of Apocalypse Now and meta-commentary on the Dudebro Shooter. What's REALLY strange is that this is apparently exactly what 2K went out and solicited for the franchise, rather than being something a rogue developer managed to sneak out the door / talk the Marketing Overlords into taking a gamble on somehow.
Strictly in terms of gameplay and mechanics, it's a fairly stock cover-based shooter in the SOCOM / Gears of Warsian mold. It's another Unreal 3.0 engine game, and specifically looks like a recycled Red Faction: Armageddon engine with the Geomod features watered down to simply shooting windows out here and there in scripted areas to flood enemies with sand or knock the floor out from under a guy with poor planning skills. You play as Captain Walker, standard 30something hard-boiled Special Forces hero with Wolverine fast-healing abilities, and are accompanied by two squad mates whom you have very limited control over. One has a makeshift tripod welded onto his gun barrel and can be ordered to snipe distant enemies, and the other has a seemingly limitless supply of flashbangs stuffed down his pants which can be employed to stun a room full of enemies for a few seconds.
The setting is an alternate modern day where the most incredible and massive sandstorm in history has engulfed and ruined Dubai. The city's most wealthy and powerful somehow got advance notice of it and slipped out the back door ahead of time, but the rest of the city was trapped by the sand with air evacuation unable to reach them (the game is fuzzy as to why they don't have The Weather Channel there.) Our three-man Delta Force team is dispatched to recon the area with only one lead to work with - a partial radio broadcast from the commander of the 33rd Infantry, the only unit that attempted an evacuation and became trapped with the rest of the city, reporting that the evacuation attempt failed. The Delta Force team quicky finds the makeshift radio tower and its looping taped broadcast at the game's outset, amidst a bunch of crashed buses and dead bodies. They're also immediately set upon by armed locals; a misunderstanding and some itchy trigger fingers turns it into a massive firefight. Our heroes decide to disregard mission parameters and take it upon themselves to explore further into Dubai looking for the missing 33rd and their commander.
Where the game contrasts itself from the typical ultra-macho OOO-RAH dudebro military shooter is in tone and narrative. An upside-down American flag and dark ambient music in place of the usual triumphant symphonic bullshit gives you a clue right up front that this isn't going to be a standard experience. The vibe throughout is almost more that of a horror game with constant ambushes, discovery of gruesome corpses, the ramblings of an insane radio operator in the background, and later hallucinations as the weight of the collective atrocities seen and participated in gradually breaks the minds of our characters. One of the designer's objectives with the game was to mimic the disassociation and psychological effects commonly seen with PTSD in war veterans; without having experienced that it's hard to say how authentic or effective it is, but it certainly makes an impact and leaves an impression. There's no question that this isn't meant to be Call of Duty, even in the early going.
But here's the trouble with Spec Ops: The Line - if you want to enjoy the (really rather compelling) narrative deconstruction of the jingoist Dudebro Shooter, you have to actually play through a jingoist Dudebro Shooter to get it. In no wise does the actual gameplay or structure deviate from the material it criticizes. It's a standard linear corridor affair where you are shuttled from set-piece to set-piece, each conveniently arrayed with cover and fueled by respawning generic enemies dropping in from some point Across The Way. All of this accompanied by constant obnoxious screaming of "TANGO DOWN SHIT FUCK WE GOT TWO COMIN IN GO GO GO TAKE COVER FUCK FUCK!!!!" The Line isn't even one of the better polished of these experiences; while it actually looks remarkably nice for a not-quite-AAA title and runs smoothly on a modern PC, it's also prone to some really irritating jank in the gameplay and some shortsighted/thoughtless design moments. Any cover that isn't a nice solid wall is prone to cause the character to randomly push themselves off of it when they hit a portion that isn't totally a solid edge. If you get a little too far ahead of where the game wants you to be, you can witness the enemies doing Invincible Super Sprints to get into place. Enemy invincibility also extends to certain animations like vaulting and rappeling since apparently there wasn't enough money left in the budget to make separate death animations for these. Enemies also tend to behave like self-aware pawns whose only role in existence is to hamper the player at any cost to themselves; anyone equipped with a shotgun will meatheadedly charge your position and sometimes gets to go into Invincible Super Sprint mode randomly to boot. There's even a Hustlin' Jim enemy that specifically runs at the player character at super speed weilding a knife, even if it means running right by your allies who are pumping bullets into him the whole way. It's actually an intimidating enemy thanks to their crazy PCP Power but it also makes no fucking sense whatsoever outside of Video Game Logic. Breaking cover to run from a grenade is iffy and scanty ammo sometimes leaves you in positions where you have to cower at the back of the battle waiting on your allies (whose ammo never seems to go dry) to mop up all the enemies for you.
And while 2K was apparently amazingly accomodating as regards the designer's vision for the narrative, apparently at some point during the (very long) development cycle the Marketroids got some authority over the process and hammered in their usual inappropriate garbage based on Focus Group Studies and whatever stupid Moneyball programs they run to make their decisions for them. In this case we're talking about an extraneous deathmatch multiplayer mode and achievements. Not only is no one playing this game in multiplayer, it's just fucking silly and out of place given the game's narrative and tone. The dark atmosphere and psychological immersion take a hit when you defend yourself from a sudden ambush by the civilians you are supposed to be rescuing with only a handful of shotgun shells at your disposal ... and the Close Combat Carnage Cheevo pops up. And once you've completed the story mode and are chewing over all of its unsettling implications, who doesn't want to expand the experience by playing Col. Konrad vs Rosika The Cleaning Lady deathmatch in the Napalmed Civilian Body Storage Vault!
While the narrative is the game's strength, it isn't perfect. I felt the total lack of agency took away from the punch. It's kind of an on-rails ride through the Dark Side Of Dudebro; the game likes to rub your nose in the consequences of your actions with lingering cutscene shots of charred corpses and whatnot, but you're not given any option BUT to proceed that way. The most hamhanded aspect is the much-publicized change in loading screen quotes toward the end of the game, from general tips to snide jibes at your character and psychological health for continuing to play the game. There isn't anything "deep" about that, it's just tacky and cheap. And the story on the whole is a bit heavy handed and without nuance; it's like My First Exploration Of The Idea That The American Military May Not Be The Good Guys.
This might seem like a weird personal parallel, but bear with me as I think it's apt. This past year I graduated from a California college. During most of my time there, I felt like the coursework was designed with the expectation that the student was a 19-year-old fresh out of their fairly well-off white suburb somewhere in So. Cal. Subjects like economic inequality and race relations were approached with all the subtlety and nuance of a diesel-powered jackhammer and the presumption seemed to be that the student had just stepped off the Moon and had no idea people in America could actually have Problems. And for those of us that were older and came from more varied socioeconomic backgrounds? Yeah, not so much. But financially comfortable white kids who grew up sheltered and clueless are the statistical majority at most California colleges, so that was who they decided to primarily serve and the rest of us were expected to just deal with getting less of a relevant education for our money. I get the sense Spec Ops: The Line has a similar relationship with its audience: the developers looked at the numbers and decided the Dudebros were far and away going to be the primary audience. And they're not wrong - I mean, there's no shortage of little Call of Doody shits screaming into headset microphones even into 2014, and the game does sell itself with the militaristic trappings that attract that audience. But what's here for those of us that have been anti-Dudebro since it became gaming's hottest trend a few years ago? What's here for those of us who rarely if ever play these games? It would appear we're just expected to sit through gameplay and noise that we can't stand to be told that this sort of great gaming experience maybe isn't so great as ... uh ... we already thought it ... wasn't? You can't even really get a smug validation of your existing views as the game is so busy telling you what a piece of shit you are for playing it through most of its length. Are we supposed to feel good because we shut it off early due to having a low tolerance for the janky gameplay elements? Is that how you win? I dunno.
Wheeee! Who says dystopia can't be fun?
As it happened I just played through Fallout 3 for the first time just a couple of weeks prior to this and I think the two games make for an interesting contrast. Fallout 3 allows you to kill nearly anyone that isn't absolutely plot-vital and commit some pretty nasty atrocities like wiping a town out with a nuclear bomb. But the player has total agency in how they approach the game. The "evil" actions can also be meaningful beyond a show of "look how bad being bad is!" as they confer significant financial benefit in a world where resources of all types are scarce and may further your greater goal of bringing clean water to everyone. Even if you choose an entirely "good" path, you'll still be killing plenty of human beings - mostly Raider assholes who decorate their abodes with only the most haute of Corpse Art and attack you on sight. The player's mental health and moral character aren't ever challenged; and in fact kills are celebrated with slow-mo replays from cool angles and bopping around the wasteland blasting 1940s swing music while annihalating everything in your path is surreal, hilarious and often immensely entertaining. And all of this is perfectly OK because Fallout 3 is a video game. It's been demonstrated - not just by science but by a body of work of 30 years and counting - that the human brain easily differentiates between fantasy violence against digital characters and real violence against real people. It's become clear that preference for something in an abstract fantasy format doesn't automatically correlate to preference for it in reality when it negatively effects other people.
As impressively executed as The Line's overall message is, I thus still have to wonder how necessary it really is unless you're a 14-year-old homophobic racist insult-screaming Xbox kid. Don't get me wrong - the enemies of my enemies are my friends at the very least, and I'm certainly not friends with shooters that glorify militarization and jingoistic patriotism (not to mention just being graphically top-heavy and boring.) But do we really need to take players to task for enjoying killing people in video games? It's a mixed bag, but at the very least Spec Ops: The Line is interesting and worthy of discussion, and anyone interested in video game development and history should probably pick up a cheap copy.