on Aug 1, 2012
I’m going to do something different with this review. I’m going to run this series with a guest commentator. Normally, text in gold boxes is for me, but in this case:
Just remember: This text is me, the gold boxes are Taliesin. Try not to freak out about this. Also, this isn’t the dawn of some strange new “buy me games for posting rights” policy. I like the idea of doing a discussion-style review, and this seemed like a fun thing to try.
Everyone is talking about the unexpected tone and thematic elements of Spec Ops: The Line. I thought I’d mix things up by talking about something that’s getting overlooked in the conversation. In the past, one of my major complaints about modern shooters is their pervasive brown-ness. After playing SWTOR some time ago, I’ve come to refine my views a bit, and I think this focus on brown is actually missing the point.
It’s not about color, it’s about contrast.
There are some games games that have muted colors, or only use a narrow range of colors. There are even some that have no color at all. The goal here is to provide coherent, visually appealing images, and there are a lot of ways of doing that. Unless not being able to see what you’re doing is a gameplay mechanic, then the player should be able to see what’s going on. The problem with “brown” games isn’t just brown. It’s that the saturation is uniform and there’s not much contrast. (Or the contrast appears in all the wrong places, drawing the eye to the wrong parts of the image.)
Note that I usually crop screenshots to remove HUD elements and focus the image on whatever it is I think is interesting. I’m not going to do that here. One, because I want to show you how the game really looks. Two, because the game doesn’t really need my help. I don’t need to zoom in to show you some scenery, because everything pops.
Spec Ops is a “brown shooter” designed by people with a firm grasp of visual art, and the result is a game that manages to be visually rich, even when it’s drawing from a narrow palette.
A lot of people have been complaining about the teal and orange fad that’s rampaging through Hollywood. That’s the technique of making images “pop” by amping up the saturation in the fleshtone part of the spectrum (orange) and then setting the characters against the opposing color on the color wheel. (Teal.) Now, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with teal and orange. It’s fine for a stylized look. The problem isn’t when one movie is teal and orange, the problem is when most movies are teal and orange, even stuff like Hot Tub Time Machine where it’s completely inappropriate for the genre and setting. (It would have been a great idea for them to shoot the modern-day segments of the movie in teal and orange, and shoot the retro-80’s stuff in a super-charged full-spectrum color palette. Re-writing the script wouldn’t have hurt either.)
This is pretty much a textbook orange & teal shot. Note the teal vehicle. I’m sure that was done on purpose.
If anything has an excuse to go teal and orange, I would think it should be a game set in Dubai. Orange sand. Orange clothes. Blue sky. It’s unavoidable. So, yeah, the game is a bit guilty, but I don’t think it’s a mistake. Heck, just compare the above image to some of the other games in the genre. You might disagree with artistic decisions made by Yager Development, but at least there was an artistic decision. This was done on purpose by someone trying to achieve an effect.
That’s your first look at Dubai, and it’s a beautiful sight. Creamy-gold sand set to a backdrop of gleaming skyscrapers, with blue sea off to one side and splashes of colour in palm trees and vehicles, dominated by the ruined highway. It’s an image that ties in well with the feel of something so grand brought so low, and it makes for sharp contrast to later visuals. Near the end of the game, after Things Have Gone Horribly Wrong, the grand skyline takes a back seat to ruins, and the sand takes on a pronounced reddish tinge that brings to mind a blood-soaked field.
Yes, there’s lots of orange in above shot. But note how the cover is pale, so the player stands out against it. Then there’s a light / dark contrast between the cover and the battlefield. Then there’s a color contrast between the battlefield stuff and the sky. There’s lots of “layers” to this image, giving it depth. When guys come out on the wing for shooting funtime, they are dark against that brilliant white background.
Compare this with so many other games which are completely rudderless artistically, where the artists just sort of slapped models and textures in place without regard to how things looked in the final scene. Does it look like crap? No problem. Add more dirt and dust particle effects. If worse comes to worse, throw a lens flare over the whole thing.
I’m not a huge fan of the “games as interactive movies” approach to game development, but if you ARE going to go down that road, then this is how it needs to be done. You need people on your team who understand the art of visual storytelling and who can make things that look at least as good as the movies they’re pretending to be. Too often we end up with the worst of both worlds: A thing with the stifling linearity of a movie but without the visual competence.
Note that the game isn’t all orange and teal. Despite being in the desert during a sandstorm, this game has more vibrant colors and changes in palette than any other shooter I’ve ever played. That includes BioShock. (I give BioShock credit for using vibrant colors, but Spec Ops has dazzling sunlight to work with.) The designers bent over backwards looking for ways to justify a change in hue and lighting. You’ll be in a blue office one minute, then a deep red restaurant, then a broad and colorful shopping mall.
Meanwhile, levels are frequently dotted with little splashes of colour. Outside sections are dominated by lots of creamy-gold sand, white marble, gleaming steel and the grey of ruined architecture, with billboards, faded but still colourful, and mangled cars scattered throughout. Inside sections vary by the locale, with refugee shanty towns, vending machines and rich furnishings all contributing to keep things lively.
Somehow Developer Yager figured out how to make the Unreal Engine render GREEN. I didn’t know it could do that. I kid. Once again, note the layers. My character stands out against the wall, which stands out against the center of the room, which stands out against the darkness on the right and the muted world beyond the windows.
This is the entrance to the room shown in Shamus’ picture, a stairwell guarded by two soldiers. If you prefer, you can kill them with normal gunfire, alerting the soldiers in the next room, maybe luring them out to you. Alternatively, you can put on your rifles suppressor and kill both guards with a sustained burst of silenced fire. This will not alert the next group of soldiers, and if you wait a few seconds, they’ll actually cluster up a bit, letting you do the same thing.
The group after THAT will be alerted whatever you do, so from there you can hang back in the doorway, maybe pick off one or two as they come up the stairs and settle in for a cover-to-cover fight, or you can storm ahead before they arrive, and try to find a firing position to let you mow them down as they get up the stairs.
The game only sometimes suggests these options to you. It usually provides the tools to do so; there’s a weapon with silencer capability lying around just before the stairwell, but it’s up to you to think on your feet and make it work.
The game is constantly shifting styles and environments to keep things fresh. Light areas. Dark areas. Filth and dust. Clean and clear. Cool and damp. Warm and dry. Intense colors. Pale colors. Wide open spaces. Tight spaces. Open ground. Cluttered space. Poverty ridden places. Places of posh decadence.
Each area has a unique feel, and very often the feel of the environment is reinforcing the message that the game is telling you at the moment. When you’re having a conversation about the horrors of war, you’re having it in a trench-like maze of bloodstained concrete. When people are talking about the civilian cost of the conflict, you’re standing in a shanty town. When you’re doing [spoiler] with water trucks, you’re in a place built around cool blue hues. The environments aren’t just arenas where you shoot guys. They’re part of the story.
This seems obvious, but so few games manage to get this right.
I’ve said in the past that from now on, the “graphics race” should forget about pixel shaders and focus on art. Yes, this game uses the Unreal Engine, which is completely top-of-the-line. But compare this game to Homefront, 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand, Bulletstorm, Gears of War 3, or Borderlands. Some of those games look better than others, but some of them look downright bland. All of them use the same engine as Spec Ops.
This is why we don’t need a new generation of even more expensive technology. Most developers haven’t even mastered the tools in front of them. There’s a real danger that throwing them a completely new console generation (which would necessitate a change in engine and art pipeline) would cause them to produce worse art, as the already struggling art team stops working on their craft to struggle with their tools.
I’d be perfectly happy if we could keep the engines we’re using now, but everyone could catch up with the artistry in this game.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.