Reviews: Spec Ops The Line
Not Pretentious Enough
And I wasn't expecting to say that. Spec Ops: The Line is a third-person shooter that deconstructs many of the tropes found in modern shooters. Every review of the game focusses primarily on the narrative, partly because of its uniqueness, and partly because the gameplay is unremarkable at best, and shite at worst. In order to stand out from the Call of Duty and Medal of Honor games out there, Spec Ops is a game where you fight endless waves of repetitive enemies by crouching against chest-high walls and waiting for your health to regenerate before peeping out to shoot the 1,856th soldier to attack you this hour. This game has 15 chapters, but if you check the YMMV page, there are 10 That One Level entries. But what matters is the story. Vicious sandstorms have buffeted Dubai, and after a failed evacuation, Captain Walker and his team are sent in to investigate before inevitably getting caught up in a series of situations in which they have to shoot everything, and surprisingly, this doesn't help. It's... not bad? It's interesting to have a game like this where you actively make things worse. But it's far from perfect. Between the Damned 33rd Infantry, insurgents, and the CIA, everyone seems content to just hang around and shoot people. Except for one Signature Scene, I never felt like I was making things worse, just that I was hurrying the rate at which they were already getting worse. There's a fight between the 33rd and the CIA, where the 33rd are executing civilians as a form of interrogation, but the CIA are planning to kill civilians, and... okay, so everyone is shit. I don't feel like the bad guy when everyone else is just as bad. When I say the game isn't pretentious enough, I mean it should've picked story or gameplay and stuck with one; it's still very pretentious. The devs were trying to draw parallels between Walker and the player, as both push onwards, hoping for a happy ending, but keep making things worse. Look, I'm sorry to Spec Ops and Metal Gear Solid 2, but I have never known a game to tell players they should've stopped playing in a way that didn't come across as smug and masturbatory. Because it's so obviously fake. The devs didn't want you to stop playing; they wanted you to keep playing so that the game could tell you that you should've stopped playing so that you could act like your mind was blown. I hear there was some tension behind the scenes between the writers and the designers, but while that certainly explains why parts of the game suck, they don't justify it. I was reading that the purpose of the game was to make you think more deeply about what it meant to take a life, and then I got an achievement for getting a certain number of kills with the sniper rifle. I'll take a unique and original story that doesn't work over a tried and tested one that does, but even Hideo Kojima would look at this and think "Wow, up your own ass much?"
Admirable, but extremely flawed.
Where to begin? Spec Ops: The Line is a "game about games". In this case, the game is an analysis on the modern military shooter, and our glorification of their violence as a way to feel like a hero. Indeed, the game goes to great lengths to show how such a way of thinking is flawed and unsettling, and forces players to rethink as to whether or not they are comfortable with violence as a means to make one feel like a hero. In that respect, it is quite an ambitious title in terms of themes and questions, and should be applauded for that. However, despite what many bloggers will tell you, the game's message and themes are not perfect. Its message that acting like a hero through violence is indeed a good one…….if it weren't for the fact that the game basically forces you to commit these atrocities without any choice. While the game and its defenders will try to say that that was the point, the player, despite what the metaphors say, aren't Walker. The player didn't choose to use White Phosphorus, nor did they choose to blame everything on Konrad. Really, the only choice one has in this game is to stop playing, which in and of itself is quite a dubious solution to present, especially after one has paid $60 for it. It's basically saying that you payed to not play the game, which doesn't feel clever so much as defensive. If that is the only choice, then why bother with the story? Really, as much as one can try to say that these flaws are "what the writers intended, and you don't get it", they must be pointed as such. The game takes an incredibly one-sided view, blaming the player for everything that happens. Who forced these decisions to happen though? While the player did go through them, it's only because the developers chose to railroad them into doing so. In that regards, they share much of the same responsibility as the player, yet the game only targets the latter, calling everything their fault. Because of this one-sided nature, it is hard to really get into the story, as it is essentially beating you over the head as much as Walker is beating Konrad up. And what is the message? You suck for wanting to be a hero through violent war games? Sorry, but that is far from profound. If that's the message, then what is the purpose of playing? To conclude, SOTL is admirable, but its one-sided POV and defensive nature drag it down.
We didn't have a choice
Spec Ops: The line is a functional game. If you played a buttload of third-person shooters, the mechanics might feel a little stale (I don't play that many TPS's, so maybe that's why I enjoyed the game so much despite the gameplay being "average"). However, the story is a thorough and insightful deconstruction of the modern military shooter. The main targets being the sanitized, guilt-free violence and the idea of player agency, or lack thereof in military shooters Spec Ops: The Line does not make its violence pretty. Your characters are still death incarnate, but each shattered life takes a toll on their psyche. The violence they both witness and perpetrate breaks them down physically and emotionally until they turn into savage, vengeful killers. While most military shooters make you revel in your capacity for destruction, this game makes you grow to fear it. Not that you had a choice. In fact, Spec Ops: The Line highlights this aspect of military shooters in general. For all the strategic possibilities military shooters provide you, in the end, your only means to engage the "enemy" is to kill them. You usually won't notice this because you're violence is rewarded and praised, but in Spec Ops: The Line, it becomes increasingly clear that butchering your way through the game might not be the best idea. The moral, right call would've called for back up, pulled out, tried to negotiate. But you're characters can't do that, because they're in a game where progression is based on the increasingly immoral act of killing. In the end, the game's question to the player is: How complicit were you in what happened? You were the one controlling the main characters. You were the one who wanted to have fun by shooting everything in sight. You were the one who wanted to see the game to the end. The truth is, your characters never really did have a choice, because this was the nature of their medium. And guess whose fault it is?
It's all right
As a character study and a deconstruction, I find The Line's story quite appealing, although it probably could've stood to be a little longer and/or built-up. The gameplay is, if not perfect, at least fully functional and not frustrating, which is all I ask. Regarding the You Bastard implications, I have rather conflicting feelings. For the most part, I'm of the opinion that video games are no more inherently "interactive" than literature or films, unless you're explicitly given a choice on how to proceed in or resolve the story (and even then, there are only certain, pre-programmed, choices that can be made) . In the end you're only pushing buttons to follow a path or paths determined well in advance; turning the game off and trying to wish away the events of the story will be no more successful than stopping halfway through a novel and pretending all those pages aren't still there, and strikes me as akin to the action of plugging one's ears to drown out something unpleasant that's already occurred and cannot be undone. That said, even if I were to accept the claim that turning the game off is somehow a valid ending to an already established narrative with four possible conclusions (and I won't consider any solipsistic arguments along the lines of "It only existed and happened because you watched/read/played it!") and that I need to take "responsiblity" for anything "I" did playing the game, I wouldn't feel bad about my actions. If the point is to think about anything (violence, morality of war, "power fantasies", whatever), I thought. And I decided not to change my opinion.
It is only in our decisions that we are important.
Every time I've replayed this game, I've noticed something new. The way the levels start high and descend. The Fontaine-brand water. Idle chatter in the enemy ranks if you wait before attacking them. The enemy heavies probably don't exist. It's what Six Days in Fallujah wanted to be. It's a Silent Hill game in all but name. It's Metal Gear Solid with a less meta kind of lunacy. There aren't many games, let alone Unreal Engine 3 games, that put half as much effort into the protagonist's eyes. There's a fair amount of subtlety in The Line, more so than it often gets credit for. Of course, a lot of it isn't subtle at all. I don't see this as a negative; subtle writing can be pretentious nonsense just as easily as unsubtle writing can be dumb and bland. I think the approach The Line takes is a good one; once it becomes clear that something weird is going on, the game doesn't waste time being coy about it, it becomes more and more upfront, using its runtime to keep going instead of wasting it trying to fool the player. Then we come to the plot, and that one moment that foregoes even the illusion of choice, never mind the ultimate futility of the choices that are available. The devs get a lot of shit for saying "Oh there's totally a choice, you can choose to turn the game off." I think many players misjudge this, maybe because many players giving the game a spin because they've at least heard that it's only masquerading as a Call of Duty clone. The problem is, if you're going into this game aware of and eager for the deconstruction and criticism, the game is preaching to the choir. If you already know what its trying to say, it's going to seem preachy and hostile. Rather, I see it as a tool crafted specifically for a player who's expecting the COD clone. It's a tool to get someone who's never thought about how cookie-cutter and absurd the military shooter genre is to actually think about it. Even I, as someone who likes it, know it's not perfect. Some things like the death quotes and that admittedly memorable fourth wall-breaking moment are just too much. Still, I think the pros outweigh the cons. If you don't like it, you don't like it, and that's fine. If you haven't played it, though, you should. Even if you end up not liking it, you'll probably at least like that they tried.
A thinking gamers game 4 out of 5 stars
I can not say what this game deserves in only 400 words. The complexity of it is astounding. Its a great game. You see, when I play a game I play along the lines of the story rather than to beat it. I LOVE to players the "what if" game and think of my enemies as if they have real lives. Sadly others do not. I see them laugh at the idea of killing other people because "Its only a game!" Then cry when the main character dies. This game makes the player think about what they have done. It does it beautifly and stops you in your tracks. The main message of the game deserves you to stop and worship it. The message is that in real life you have consequences for your actions and the game literally BEGS you to stop playing it. Why? Because if you do, the characters get to live happily ever after but if you let the game "force you" to commit the atrocities Walker and you do, you can blame no one but yourself. Good for any gamer or just really anybody that wants(or needs) a good think. Final rating 4 out of 5.
There Are Truly No Words That Can Elucidate...
how much I love this game. There is nothing I dislike about this game. The graphics are spectacular from both a technical and artistic perspective with beautifully detailed models and a fleshed out world that looks and feels lived in while slowly decaying away. The setting of Dubai is extremely important from both a narrative and thematic perspective and the graphics bring it to life spectacularly. Character models are richly detailed and transform over the course of the story. The music is also perfectly suited and contains 1960s protest songs along with hard rock and some more atmospheric pieces to set the tone. They do exactly what they need to and complement both the story and the characters. Gameplay-wise I've heard this game described as generic and while I would agree with this descriptor, I wouldn't say it's bad. It reminds me of Uncharted without the platforming sections. But the guns, grenades, and cover mechanics work basically the same. The only difference is that the presence of your squad allows you give out some tactical commands. I would say that it surpasses Uncharted, though, in that the combat sections felt like they dragged on much less in Spec Ops and that Walker definitely seems to take more damage per shot (even on the lowest difficult) which makes him feel more vulnerable (a feeling compounded by limited ammo). The narrative, finally, is superb and THIS is an example of the power of video games as a medium. Walker's story would not be nearly so affecting were it not an interactive journey. The devs used every shooter and action hero convention to create a familiar and comforting environment and then ripped away the narrative mask to completely unsettle the player. It works very potently because of the awareness that Spec Ops doesn't exist in a vacuum and even when the player is "railroaded" into making certain choices, this acts as commentary not only within the game but on the industry itself. In how many other games are players forced to make similar choices? And in how many of those games do we really think about the consequences rather than just accepting it as part of the fun? Spec Ops: The Line is powerful precisely because it understands the reasons (both good and bad) that shooters are compelling in the first place and has the player examine just what their reasons are to continue playing.
Go for the Story, Stay for the Guilt
Its said that a good work makes you think about it and a great work makes you think differently. I will never be able to see another first person shooter in the same light after the events of this game. The voice acting is excellently executed, the scenery holds a unique blend between a worldly beauty and surprising surrealism, and it all plays well. If you desire to take in the story of a game then this is the game for you, if you want something to play with your friends over the weekend for fun... you may want to reconsider. I for thought it was well done, just be sure to understand what you're getting into before you dive head it.
The Pile Driver
"If you have a point to make, don't try to be subtle or clever. Use the pile driver." Astute readers will note that as a (paraphrased) quote from Winston Churchill, and Yaeger certainly subscribe to it in this brutal, harsh, tirade against modern 'hero fantasy' gaming. In it, you will be pointed to and accused of horrendous atrocities. There will not be a 'beacon of hope' that offers an unambiguous gleam of light. This game starts grey and goes pitch black. It is about bloody time. This game can perhaps be seen as a masterful piece of introspection. The actual gameplay is so-so; anyone who's played Gears of War will be right at home, Halo and Co D fans will adapt quickly. The graphics are just about passable, though the vistas and environments will blow your mind from time to time. All this is secondary to the experience of the thing, the fact it demands you look at what your own hobby might imply, the fact it raises questions that we, in defence of our treasured media, frequently take completely for granted. It has been rightly accused of being anvilicious, crude, without mercy, railroading you into situations and then guilt tripping you for it. This is forgivable, however, when it is presented as a way to get you to shut the fuck up and actually think for five minutes. The accusations of ham-fisted and uninspired preaching are true, valid and utterly missing the point. Your actions have real consequences. That alone puts it above 90% of most shooters, and most RP Gs. Yet, these consequences are ultimately meaningless in the grand scheme of things, because that's not how things actually work in a chaotic hell-hole like the one presented. Sometimes, no matter your best efforts, things go to hell. You are 'not' a hero, you can't save the world. That 'might' be the message of the game, but people seem to be divided on it once you get past the "it's a bit creepy you enjoyed killing those imaginary people, isn't it?". Look, Spec Ops: The Line has quickly become a rather large case of marmite for the gaming community. This troper, personally, adored it. I found it heart-wrenching, potent and unrelenting. Others found it simplistic, preaching and narmy. Try it, decide for yourself, because a game that aims to make you think rather than just kill a few hours deserves your attention, one way or the other.
Crosses The Line...Of Subtlety
(Note: it's been a while since I've played this game. This review may in for revisions. Also? SPOILERS!) It's rare to find a game as unusual as Spec Ops: The Line. A military themed third-person-shooter, with Gears of War style gunplay (sans roll dodge and general fun) and white-bread protagonist, but with a strong emphasis on story and characters? Color me intrigued! If there's one thing Spec Ops does well, it's taking a tried and true formula and turning it into something shocking and memorable. Unfortunately, I must take issue with the game, as it is hands down one of the most blunt, hamfisted, cliched, pieces of pearly putrefied pretentious wank I've played in years. Most of my ire is directed at the game's attempt at deconstructing the Modern War Shooter, taking an element of the genre and flipping it on it's head: American soldiers? They're the bad guys! Middle Eastern dudes? They're the good(ish) guys! American Hero sent to sort this shit out? Go crazy and possibly die after driving your friends into depression by your dogged persistence in pursuit of a goal that only makes sense to you! That could have gone well, but unfortunately the theme of the piece really seems to be "players are dicks". Often times that game comes short of breaking the forth wall in admonishing the player for the many acts of brutal violence you are FORCED to commit. This is undermined by the game reveling in bloodshed to a level that would impress Mortal Kombat. When the game shows you the fifty civilians you accidentally dropped a butt-ton of Wiley Pete on, it zooms in real close and focuses on a mother and daughter melted together by the intense heat. The gratuitous nature of that scene provoked less My God What Have I Done, and more the feelings of a small boy poking roadkill with a stick. It takes incredible hubris to shame a player for indulging in violence, when your game features exploding heads, Ludicrous Gibs, and the ability to pound downed enemies into meat paste. Combine this with plot holes, moral choices that mean exactly dick, and twists that make the story make lose much of it's weight, and you've got a story heavy game that gets an A for effort, but a C in execution.