Spec Ops: The Line [Retrospective]

[This was originally posted on DESTRUCTOID, here.]

With it’s cover based combat, over-the-shoulder camera antics and butch male characters I’d initially forgive you for confusing Yager Devlopment’s Spec Ops: The Line with Epic Games’ Gears of War but the similarities between the two series end there. Spec Ops’ is Gears of War all grown up, it’s the daddy-game, injecting into the modern mainstream shooter an edgy storyline that grabs you by the ears and shoves you neck-deep into the sand.

Flashforward – hurtling through the air firing a minigun, helicopters, sandstorms, windows smashing, you hit another helicopter. Fade out. Flashback – to the beginning, three American soldiers arriving at the outskirts of a war-torn sand-worn Dubai, their mission? Locate Colonel Konrad (if he’s still alive), gather any survivors and radio for extraction, but (as always) it’s not quite as simple as that…

Spec Ops plays like any other mainstream FPS shooter though shares structural similarities with cover-based shooters like Gears of War and Kane and Lynch. Battling your way through Dubai you encounter wave upon wave of enemies, from close range shotgun wielders to long-range laser snipers and assault classes in-between; it’s nothing an FPS player isn’t already used to. We’re treated to the occasional orchestrated scene (using a turret to clear the platform opposite of enemies, allowing your colleagues to move forward, etc) and in order to progress to the next area the current area must (usually) be clear of enemy units. Sound standard enough for you? Well, that’s kind of the point…

I distinctly remember being forced down a tight corridor full of dead rotting corpses quite early into the game. The protagonist comments on the amount of bodies and whether the 33rd could have really done all this. But wait a minute, I was thinking, didn’t we (me as the protagonist, and my team) just gun down a huge amount of forces in that room back there, and now you’re commenting on this small amount of death in front of you? Through events such as this, Spec Ops seeks to highlight the hypocrisy of modern FPS’ like Call of Duty; criticising fish-in-a-barrel gameplay mechanics, hyperbolic storylines and simplistic use of us-versus-them narratives.

The narrative begins to pick up pace as you find yourself gunning down American forces in an attempt to find out what really happened to Konrad and the 33rd. The politics of war-torn Dubai complicates as the CIA appears and I soon found myself struggling to identify friend from foe. Choices are made, more soldiers are killed, then it happens. There’s no way round it (I tried), and what happens simply has to happen – the horror of it appears in hindsight; that you were the one in control at the time, and that you (your protagonist) will have to live with the consequence of his actions.

The gung-ho continues, albeit with a darker edge, at times the games seems so unsettling that you may feel inclined to put down the controller and turn the console off. As the horrors of war mount and as more and more soldiers fall to rhythm of your rifle you begin to dislocate, separate, feel alienated from that in front of you. Move, fire, kill, move, fire, kill. Every step forwards feels like another step back. The glory of war, of salvation, fails to appear.

My friends who recommended Spec Ops to me argued that it’s a game that should not be judged by it’s gameplay, but by it’s plot and the plots relationship to the gameplay. That seems a fair assessment. However, though Spec Ops’ writing is far above most mainstream titles if you’ve read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or seen Coppolla’s Apocalypse Now you’ll be a little unsurprised by the message lurking beneath Spec Ops’ narrative. Whilst no events are ripped wholesale from either the book or the film, certain scenes and the general tone of the game will appear very familiar (and I’d argue the only ‘real, conceptual’ differences appear in the final scenes of the game) and I found myself hard-pressed to finish the game due to guessing the ending.

In conclusion,while Spec Ops does a fantastic job of subverting the modern mainstream RPS genre it sacrifices gameplay for a narrative that has already seen significant use in other circles. Though this sacrifice manipulates the player into a position that emphasises the message of the plot, and thereby essentially forgives the sometimes mundane experience of running and gunning, my previous knowledge of Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness spoilt the overall effect for me.

I wish I could have experienced this game fresh, without knowledge of the media that influenced it. I can imagine this game having a profound effect on the minds of the numbed Call of Duty players out there.

Give us more of this, please. Just a little more originality.

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