This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Spec Ops: The Line.
So here's Thought For the Day for you: is a shooter game about the horrors of war an inherently hypocritical thing? Can a game's plot really take the stance that the hideous things man does to his fellow man is beyond hollow guilt-filled rationalization when with its very next breath it goes "bing!" and gives us the Emotionally Dead achievement? Does it inherently cheapen the message to coincide it with exciting shooty action? Could a video game reasonably make us feel guilty for things it told us to do? Can a video game use shooty gameplay to induce emotions other than visceral joy, or will the intended message inevitably be overlooked by an audience who will probably just be tryin' to have fun shooting things?
Sorry, is this getting too contemplative early on? Here are some farting noises: *pffffffffffft* *pffffffffffft*
Spec Ops: The Line is one of those pleasant surprises that comes along every now and again, a video game story that really got to me, giving me genuine feelings of weariness, guilt, and actual physical sickness. Fun, fun, fun!
I was all geared up for another gung-ho, nationalist, realistic, modern war, everyone behold my spunking deathcock shooter, and the fact that it was set in Dubai didn't help. If it's not Russians, it's got to be Arabs, right? Although Dubai does probably deserve it more than most places. You know when a shithead wins the lottery and immediately buys a frozen champagne sculpture of his own scrotum and pack of Filipino slave boys to hold up his home shelving units? Well, if that person was a city it would be Dubai. Only, in this game, the analogy only works if the person then contracts hypersyphilis from Mars, because a massive sandstorm has totaled the city.
When a distress message is received from a lone American colonel who stayed in the city to help the survivors, a Delta Force operative named Walker and his two pet NPCs are sent in to investigate. Now, since your two chums are a wise-cracking white boy and a black guy who causes explosions, I thought they were big meet-up buddy-buddy Bad Company style at first, but my distaste for the glorification of the military deflated somewhat when I noticed the game sitting next to me saying: "Too right! Fuck these guys!" The game claims to be inspired by Heart of Darkness, the same story that inspired Apocalypse Now. "That's rare" was my first thought, and my second thought was "Wait! Did you assholes just spoil the plot? So we're gonna find this colonel and he'll be ruling over the natives and be played by a fat Marlon Brando?" And that's sort of the case, but it's not blanketly ripping anything off.
Going back to what I was saying earlier, while fun is a defining factor of video games, it's not universal, because there are horror games that induce fear and depression for the emotional high. And Spec Ops: The Line could almost be classified as a horror game: you're trapped far from home, desperate to survive, and grimly confronted by the human heart at its darkest at every turn. Wait a second - *pffffffffffft* *pffffffffffft*.
I don't want to spoil much, because my magic crystal ball tells me I'm going to recommend this game, but a turning point comes when Walker and the player unwittingly do a bad thing. I felt like shit afterwards, like I played the Modern Warfare 2 airport scene with every civilian replaced with Bambi's mum. Stop guilting me, Spec Ops, that was your idea, you asshole! From there, Walker marches an ever-descending spiral, and any semblance of buddy-buddy warfare crumbles with the emotional states of his men, culminating in a hideous maelstrom of madness and destruction and *pffffffffffft*.
All right, pardon me if I'm not feeling very funny about it.
So you can see why the usual fast-paced cover-based shooting action seems to be trying to have the story's salty tear-stained cake and eat it. Headshots make people's entire heads explode, leaving a neck stump with a clean white bone sticking out like a blob of mozzarella on an incredibly poorly made margherita. And it even does that Dead to Rights thing where the game slows down for a second to give you more time to appreciate how efficiently you're exterminating your fellow man. So the game gettin' all gritty and confrontational about it does seem a bit disingenuous after that. Maybe's that the point, to let you lose yourself in shooty excitement and then yank on the choke chain. But still, it's like if a lady broke into your house at night, took all her clothes off, squatted over your face while you slept, and when you woke up she chastised you for looking at her butt. I didn't even want to look at your butt, Spec Ops! You're the one who brought it up and won't let me continue till I've shot all the rogue American soldiers coming out of it.
After all that, the gameplay's not much to write home about at all. For the game's talk of being a tactical shooter, this apparently doesn't mean much beyond "There are two drones hovering behind you that will shoot things other than you." And your ability to command them is isolated to a single button. Point it at an entrenched group and your pet black man will grenade it. Point it at a faraway enemy and your pet white boy will snipe it, after he's finished completing the Daily Mail crossword. Point it at anyone else and your lads will immediately run out into the open and die. And if you're already pointing your cross-hairs at one of the many silly buggers on offer, then surely it would be more expedient to just shoot them yourself. I mean, unless you're out of ammo or your dog is pushing his head onto your hand for a stroke. Actually, ammo is surprisingly scarce, but I'd sooner enlist my NPCs to run out fetching discarded guns with big neon targets painted on their buttocks than rely on them to take over the shooting.
The other unique gameplay mechanic is using sand, but it's contextual as butts and hardly worth mentioning. Enemies will obligingly stand in front of or under windows with sand piled up on them and you can shoot them out if you're the passive-aggressive kind of Delta Force war criminal.
But I'd still recommend Spec Ops: The Line for its story aspect, which has everything I ask for in video game story: good pacing, coherent character arcs that drive the plot, and almost uniquely among realistic modern war games, you hardly kill any foreigners with all the rogue American soldiers queuing up for bullets, which is nice. And that's the only context in which the word "nice" gets within the same star system as Spec Ops. In some ways it's a rather grim exploration of the relationship between player and player character. Are we really in control of Captain Walker or do we merely represent the last vestige of self-awareness in his increasingly damaged mind as he railroads us into committing atrocities, and our distrust and fear of him grows in parallel to that of the men in his command as he weakly tries to rationalize to both them and us until we feel as disconnected from him as the rest of reality and. . .
Do you remember when shooters were about killing demons from hell? Those were good days. Perhaps this is an inevitable part of gaming growing up, as our childish fantasies are torn from us and we are forced to confront consequences in an unfair, uncaring and unavoidable world of hatred, misery and death.
- Escaped Nazi war criminal : Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- That naked lady breaking into my house and squatting over my face thing was actually based on the true story of how your mum and I met
- It's just been downhill ever since iddqd stopped working
Extra: Escapist Expo
So the Escapist Expo is still in September and you should still totally come. But also, in October, I've got a second novel coming out. It's called Jam and you can pre-order it from Amazon (US/UK) and tfaw.com. It's about an apocalypse, with jam in it!