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05/10/2019 11:53:20 •••

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?"

01/10/2018 00:00:00

I think Kojima has these guys beat by a long shot in terms of pretentiousness, but regardless, I actually like that none of the other factions in the game are any better than the player\'s; the story runs on Gray and Grey Morality (or maybe just Evil vs. Evil). To me, it makes the game feel less heavy-handed and mean-spirited than it would otherwise (although it\'s still pretty bad in that regard; despite the writer\'s claims to the contrary, it does single out the player for ridicule at a few points). As a deconstruction of the shooter genre, it\'s very good, and as psychological horror, it\'s excellent, but when it tries to deconstruct games or media in general, it falls on its face. I personally can\'t stand Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, and it\'s not something I think should be emulated.

01/11/2018 00:00:00

I just - I feel kind of cheated by the fact that every review seems to focus solely on the story - which obviously they would, it's the most important thing that warrants the most discussion - but there isn't even an asterisk to say 'By the way! The gameplay is an absolute chore. It's just as bad as any of the Call of Duty games this is trying to deconstruct.' And I'm not sure how the reviews can be so positive when such an important aspect of the game - the one the player spends the most time on - is so bland and uninspired.

The story is interesting to say the least, but you can watch a 45 minute video on You Tube and boom, you've seen it all. And you didn't have to force yourself through a 10 hour experience that feels like trying to wade through a neverending swimming pool that's been filled waist-high with cold porridge.

01/11/2018 00:00:00

Really? I liked the gameplay. Sure, Walker\'s fucking glued to the ground, and it\'s a straight Gears of War ripoff, but at least you\'re a lot less likely to get insta-killed by grenades you can barely see and can\'t clumsily backpedal away from in time.

Or, more likely, I suck at CoD so bad that this feels like a welcome change of pace.

01/11/2018 00:00:00

\"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.\"

You know, I never understood why some people called Undertale pretentious, but I think I kinda get the point now.

01/11/2018 00:00:00

I was complaining about Spec Ops The Line on Twitter and somebody did make the point \'Oh, does that mean Undertale is pretentious for criticizing you for playing?\' and the key distinction between games is that Undertale only calls you a piece of shit responsible for killing everyone just so that you can see all of the content, if you actually make the choice to go out of your way to be a piece of shit who kills everyone just so that you can see all of the content. Which I did, because I wanted to do the Sans fight.

But Undertale presents an alternative; you can play the game and NOT kill everyone. Or anyone. It\'s great.

The devs of Spec Ops say that they present you an alternative, but that alternative is \'Stop playing the game that you\'ve paid money to play, and pretend that the story is over even though this is essentially like stopping a book you don\'t like 10 pages before it ends and pretending that the rest of it doesn\'t exist.\'

01/11/2018 00:00:00

I think the game's reputation in many ways rests on critiquing the cliches of a genre when that genre was at its height. The infamous white phosphorous scene, for instance, is supposed to evoke what was then the ubiquitous cliche of the moment in a modern military shooter campaign where the gameplay breaks off and the player's perspective shifts to a drone or bomber or other vehicle's targeting software, blows the holy hell out of a bunch of wiggling dots on a map, then switches back to the player who gets to feel cool and military. It hits a lot of the same aesthetic and gameplay notes, then makes you walk through the aftermath, and it's effective because it gives you that little squirt of adrenaline and dopamine, then, assuming you go in blind, makes you feel like shit for doing something that, in the moment, felt fun and cool.

But, well, it's been more than half a decade since military shooters had turned old and tired for everyone, rather than just the burnt-out critics who had to play them all over and over, and now that the genre criticism doesn't ring quite as true in an environment where said genre is less ubiquitous, we're just left with the stale gameplay that they concocted the story to try to conceal.

Plus, well, again, a big part of the problem is that not going in blind ruins it for you. Since you already know it's going to actually be a black, tarry look at the genre rather than a straight example, the narrative doesn't creep up on you. Said Signature Scene, for instance, pretty much can't hit with the same impact if you know how it ends, since you can't go into it with the same mindset.

Also, I agree on the Undertale thing. There are a few subtle moments where the game lets the player not do bad things if they're creative, like firing in the air to disperse would-be rioters or saving both hanging victims, but I mostly agree with your thesis that the game essentially pushes the player into doing bad things, then scolds them for it by insisting the winning move is to turn the game off. Cleansed of the gloss of "yeah, this sucks, but is it that different from every other military shooter?" it does come across as preachy and lacking in substance.

...Hope this was coherent. I've just realized I'm rambling, and ha look at the size of this comment. I really should just write my own review at this point.

I guess, as a summary, I think it's fair to say that the game probably worked when it came out, and that it's not necessarily a true failure just because it captured a moment of zeitgeist rather than going on to become a timeless classic. Dated is different from outright bad.

01/11/2018 00:00:00

... That\'s an interesting way of looking at it. I absolutely hate to say this, but I think that in order to fully understand this game, I\'m going to have to pick up and play some of the generic shooters that were around at the time, just so that I can see what Spec Ops was trying to deconstruct. Luckily, Call of Duty: Ghosts, Gears of War and Medal of Honor: Warfighter are all about 99p each now.

I\'ve gone into plenty of games with the surprises ruined for me and managed to have fun because, well... the games are fun, but I can see how a game with such a heavy focus on unexpected narrative changes would be devalued by prior knowledge.

And I wouldn\'t worry about rambling, there\'s a reason my reviews are always 3,000 characters. I usually get to about 4,000 and then spend an hour narrowing it down.

01/11/2018 00:00:00

I guess one reason I took to it (even though I\'m indifferent to, at best, and hostile to, at worst, \"games about games\") is that I didn\'t view it as a deconstruction so much as a character study or psychological drama along the lines of Silent Hill 2. In terms of military media, I thought it had a lot more in common with The Hurt Locker than Apocalypse Now, the latter of which I\'ve admittedly never seen. It\'s impressive, because Walker, Lugo, and Adams have next to nothing in terms of actual backstory. Their characters are entirely defined and developed by how they interact with each other in the game itself.

That being said, one other, more personal reason I love it as much as I do is that it, perhaps unintentionally, has one of the most brutal and soul-crushingly accurate depictions of how it feels to be suicidal in its finale. It\'s not a game about suicide or suicidal ideation, and it doesn\'t really have suicide as a theme, but its portrayal of that mindset, and the nihilistic, hellishly isolated atmosphere that helps that mindset flourish, hit me harder than it was probably ever meant to.

Maybe that means that it\'s a game that only works if you come into it already feeling a certain way and willing read more into than there is, but regardless, it meant something to me.

01/11/2018 00:00:00

Good points Robotnik. I would be going way easier on the story if it was simply a story about Walker and his actions and their consequences, without all that stuff from the devs about player agency and \'games about games\' and so on. A more solid, fleshed out character study of Walker would be more interesting to me than what Spec Ops: The Line turned out to be.

Its depiction of suicidal feelings in the ending is... I like that they tried, but I preferred the crushingly depressing and down to Earth \'Actual Sunlight\' portrayal of it; this one feels kind of weird, the way you have to shoot imaginary Konrad or you seemingly shoot yourself without control. When I got that ending, it didn\'t feel like Walker was suicidal to me, more like he was possessed by something that made him shoot himself without wanting to. Which I guess is a kind of suicidal, but... yeah, interesting but didn\'t work for me.

01/11/2018 00:00:00

Well, you can shoot yourself if you want. You just have to turn and aim at Walker\'s reflection, first. I was referring more to the ending where he shoots the reflection, but opens fire on the relief force in the epilogue and goes down shooting, basically committing Suicide by Cop. That was my first ending, and the one I prefer.

05/10/2019 00:00:00

I think what pisses me off the most is that the 33rd fired on you first. My first time playing I killed the 33rd soldier cause I knew he was gonna rat me and my teammates out. Walker was right to defend himself and his team.

05/10/2019 00:00:00

Also: people like to claim that the white phosphorous scene was solely Walker when the 33rd was hiding behind civilians basically. Itís equal parts their fault.

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