on Aug 3, 2012
Some games are famous for their gameplay. Or their artwork. Or a big plot twist. This game might be the first one where the big selling point is the theme. Spec Ops asks the question: What would happen if your typical action-game badass lived in a world with consequences?
Think about it. Yes, the answer is obvious, but it’s still something to behold.
I would encourage you to go into the game cold, without reading this post. I can’t talk about how well this works without revealing some of the tricks it uses, and those are better if you’re surprised. Some people (Reader Krellen says this a lot) point out that spoiling stories can be good. However, I’m not talking about spoiling the story. I’m talking about the way the game uses the genre itself against you, something which is conveyed mostly in gameplay mechanics.
In this post I’m not doing story spoilers, but thematic and mechanical spoilers. From this point on. As before, white text is me. Text in gold boxes is Taliesin.
Actually, before I talk about the thematic stuff, I want to nitpick the way the story presents the storm. The game takes place in the city of Dubai, where a record-breaking sandstorm has buried the city up to the tops of buildings. The American 33rd infantry was sent in to help with the evacuation of the civilian populace, and they didn’t report back. Now the city is hosed and your three-man team is sent in to find out what happened.
Game designers: You guys understand that a sandstorm isn’t like a snowstorm, right? It doesn’t MAKE sand. This is like a wind storm causing snow drifts that bury buildings. I get that we need a crisis and a natural barrier around the city to make this story work, but I don’t think it needed to be quite this deep.
Minor point, but it kind of bugged me.
The opening credits welcome you to the game using your screen name, which can be really powerful once you know how things turn out.
Spec Ops pulls a trick on you. It gives you objectives that should be obviously stupid, morally questionable, or needlessly dangerous. Then when you complete the goal it reveals what an awful idea it was and shows how you’ve just made things worse. The player might cry, “That’s not fair!” In fact, they probably will. I did.
But assuming you’ve played more than one of these games, then this isn’t the first time you’ve committed a possible war crime. It’s just the first time it had any consequences. This isn’t the first time you’ve followed the on-screen prompts to do something blisteringly stupid. It’s just the first time you’ve done it where the writers aren’t helping you.
In this way Spec Ops: The Line is a critique of the entire genre.
This is critical. If the narrative calls for the players avatar to make a bad decision, and the player can, at the time, just say, “but why don’t I just do X instead? That would be a reasonable course of action, and it would avoid all these horrible consequences easily!” then immersion and narrative falls apart. That doesn’t happen here. The game presents you with an awful situation where there just isn’t a perfect solution. Somebody on the writing team really had their eye on the ball with this one.
I actually think the main character makes some pretty obviously dumb moves, but we’ll talk about that in the final post.
Early on, there’s even a bit where you get a context-sensitive prompt to kill someone who is wounded and out of the fight. The prompt even calls this action EXECUTE.
I was like, “Wait. Isn’t that a war crime? You don’t just go around shooting the wounded!”
Which is true. But the game never makes you kill these guys. It just offers the option. In passing, as it were. Oh by the way, this human being can be effortlessly murdered if you’re of a mind. I’m not here to judge, I’m just saying. I’m sure you know what you’re doing. I mean, you’d have to.
You DO know what you’re doing, don’t you?
The first time through, this feels like it’s just a generic attempt at badassery gone wrong. The second time through the game, you begin to see how this is just part of the setup.
The thing that makes the game smart and subversive is that these disastrous actions are lifted straight from the bro-shooter playbook. Unfortunately, you can’t get a sense of where the game is coming from just by playing the demo.
I’m very reluctant to say “the game gets better later”. I remember people telling me that about BioShock, and that didn’t end well. But I will say that I really didn’t think much of Spec Ops in the first hour. It looked like a big dumb shooter. By the end I was sold. This isn’t a case of a game having a weak first act. The first act needed to play out like a big dumb shooter in order for the payoff at the end to work. The game hides its true nature behind the tropes of the genre, so that you’re able to settle in to the role of the Big American Hero.
In the first act I disliked the main character and his tendency to shoot the locals, disobey orders, and make wild assumptions about what was going on. No, I actually wasn’t annoyed with the character, I was annoyed with the game for presenting this dumb course of action as a heroic one. The payoff came later when it turned out I was right, and the game agreed with me.
I can’t promise that the game will work for you, and I’ve never been one for consumer advice. And no matter how much I love this game, we’re talking about a five-hour shooter with a $50 to $60 price tag. That’s a tough sell. However, if you’re put off by the dumb-dumb behavior in the demo, then you might be exactly the sort of person to enjoy Spec Ops: I Hate Subtitles. I can’t promise that it will get better, but I can promise it will feel like a very different game later on. (Excepting the shooting mechanics.)
I’m going to have one more post that will be a little more spoiler-centric.
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.