“The truth, Walker, is that you're here because you wanted to feel like something you're not: A hero.” Without wishing to spoil anything, these words were spoken in the recent game Spec-Ops: The Line. One question that often comes up with video games is what advantage a game has over a movie or a book? The answer to that is the level of interaction that a person has with a game’s world and story. I’ve read movies and books that can get a person to think about the actions that a person may take, but I have never seen or read anything that makes me question my own actions. This is where the game Spec Ops: The Line comes in, and it really does do a great job at responding to the actions of the player with actual consequences unlike other games. While the gameplay is very standard the story telling is probably some of the best stories told in video games in recent time.
A recent problem with the game industry is the slew of modern shooters paving the way for very uncomfortable themes. For example Call of Duty: Ghosts’ story is about America building a doomsday cannon in space- and the game has no self-awareness whatsoever. The game doesn’t get much better when the player gains control of the cannon and nukes all of South America. So the theme to Call of Duty: Ghosts comes across as being that America should build a death weapon to kill everyone who isn’t American. Thank goodness for Spec-Ops: The Line coming along and showing us how a deep and complex story should be told. While the gameplay is certainly standard in this game, it goes along with telling the absolutely excellent story. It’s one of the few games that everyone should play. Whether one plays games or not, it’s a game that gets people to think with its innovative story telling.
Spec Ops: The Line is based on the book Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, which was also the inspiration for the movie Apocalypse Now. The basic plotline of those pieces is that a Colonel in the army goes native deep in the heart of jungle lands and starts ruling over the native population. That’s not a spoiler, for those who are wondering. It is established very early on in Spec Ops: The Line that Col. John Konrad (the main antagonist) is ruling over the native populace. The game also doesn’t borrow that much from Apocalypse Now or Heart of Darkness. The reason that the Colonel has decided to ditch the US army and go native is that a recent sandstorm has struck the Middle Eastern city of Dubai. After the major politicians and other VIPs leave the city Konrad is ordered to abandon the city and come home to America. Konrad chooses to stay in the city along with his unit, the 33rd infantry, which would become known as the “Damned 33rd.” The colonel and his troops made one last desperate escape attempt, but failed miserably. The city went dark for six months before American forces received a radio message from Konrad asking for aid.
Enter our protagonists, Captain Martin Walker and his two NPC (non-player character) subordinates. The first thoughts that I had going into this was that it was going to be another Call of Duty clone. I was expecting another gun ho, nationalistic war game about how great it is to go to war. However, the game pulls a massive fast one though when, in the context of war, the game has the player do something unforgivable. I know that I felt like crap after it happened. After this event, Walker’s mind begins a massive descent into madness and brutality as he moves toward a goal that is becoming increasingly blurred. What I like about the game’s story is how it starts. The player starts with the expectations they would have about any modern game, which makes the grand twist all the more shocking. Those who tend to look at modern shooters with disdain would especially find the moment to be a huge shock to them when they find themselves questioning their own morality.
However, some people though may find the tone to be a bit wonky at times, especially in regards to the gameplay. One bullet from your gun is enough blow an entire enemy’s head clean off, with bone sticking out of the neck stump. It also does that thing where it slows down the gameplay so you can get a good look at your freshly slain kill. These features do seem to go against the actual message of the game, but I feel as though this was intended to let the player lose his or her self in the game before the game yanks on the collar and pulls the player back down to reality. On the other hand, however, it’s almost like if someone flashes you in the parking lot and then yells at you for looking. I never asked to see those violent kills in Spec Ops, so I wouldn’t be surprised if a few people were turned off because of this. Keep in mind, though, I could have stopped playing at any time, so that’s what makes me believe that the game was making me lose myself in the first half and then begin the spiral into madness. One of the more important questions, though, is “how does the gameplay work?”
The gameplay itself is a basic third person cover based shooter with tactical elements. I think that the third person really goes along with creating a sense of disconnect between the player and the character. This makes it so it doesn’t feel like the player is just being lectured by the game and goes to show the effects these actions can have on a soldier. If it had been in the first person a lot of what it was trying to say would have been lost. No one likes to be told how to feel. In Amnesia: The Dark Descent the game had a sanity meter which would tell you how scared you should be, which seems to say that the developers were not very confident with their own work. While the final confrontation is as much confronting the player as it is Walker, if it had been done from the first person perspective it would have felt more like a lecture at the player forcing them to feel bad. As for the tactical part the game, it’s probably the weaker aspect. You point at a group of soldiers you particularly don’t like, and your explosives guy will blow it up. You point at a faraway enemy you don’t like and your sniper guy will shoot it. These effects don’t go toward much and are barely used because it’s does not take long before you realize that it is easier to eliminate the middle man and just shoot them yourself. The tactical part of the game falls flat so what else is there?
A unique selling point to the game is its use of sand. Sometimes you can shoot out windows to have a huge ton of sand come crashing down on top the enemies, but it’s hardly worth mentioning. It’s not going to make any one jump up and down. What I found most interesting about the gameplay was the development of the character shown through his actions. You can perform executions with your enemy. At first it start as a way to end someone’s life painlessly, but as Walker’s mind collapses he starts wanting to cause as much pain to his enemies as possible. This is also shown in his dialogue during combat. At the start he would shout “he’s down” and by the end of it he would shout “F***ing stay dead!” I do like how well the gameplay goes to show Walker’s descent into madness. One other thing that I love is the focus it keep as the game progresses.
I have heard some complaints about how the game is too linear, but I don’t buy that. If you are going for a very story and character centered game then you should go with linearity. This keeps the game focused and on task. In a game like Grand Theft Auto IV, which had a fantastic main character, a lot of the drama was lost in the sandbox. There could be a scene that could put The Godfather to shame but once you were out in the sandbox and was able pile up the bodies of ten people and do a ramp off of them in a flaming car into the river, all sense of drama would be lost. A game like Spec Ops: The Line needed to be linear to keep the focus on Walker and his own journey.
While the gameplay is incredibly standard it’s really hard to criticize a story that got me to really look at my own morality. The final confrontation between Walker and the main antagonist is, in my opinion, one of the best moments in video games in a long time. This is a game that can be recommended those who do play video games and those who may not think much of video games. This is one for the history books.