Here is our breakdown of the game. The next installment will come tomorrow. Just a reminder that the stuff in the gold boxes is Taliesin. You know, paragraphs like the one you’re about to read.
This game is not one of those deals where the whole story turns on a single plot-twist. Instead, it’s a reveal, done in stages, gradually changing your perception of the world, the characters, and eventually the genre. It’s smart, it’s properly paced, and it’s never heavy-handed.
The beautiful thing is how the game eases you into the bog-standard cover-based tactical shooter tropes before it starts messing with you. You begin with a really cliche trio of characters: There’s the main character, the wisecracking loose cannon, and the guy who begins with the character concept of Not A White Person. You’re all special forces type guys. You’re on a mission and the main character is some kind of nondescript war hero and an okay guy. The mechanics are standard. The cutscenes and pacing are standard. It’s all there, telling you this is a game you’ve played a dozen times before.
Relax. Shoot some dudes. Kill some time. No big deal.
This is how the game eases you down the death-spiral.
“Man, this looks like another macho dude-bro shooter.”
The first part of the game feels like a big dumb shooter. It’s the clean-cut, heroic Americans vs. the Foreigners that speak that jibber-jabber language they got over there.
You arrive in Dubai, which has been hit with sandstorms and is now a disaster area. We lost contact with the American 33rd infantry. Your orders are to look for survivors and then exit the city and radio for help. That’s it.
You drop into a disaster-struck city and gun down some locals, as you do in these games. You get past the initial outer coating of foreigners and you encounter the American soldiers. You end up fighting them. You’ve got the 33rd fighting locals. You don’t know why. You hear rumors that Konrad, the leader of the 33rd, entered the city against orders and declared martial law.
“Hm. This game is kind of dark sometimes.”
As you settle into the game, you begin to see it isn’t quite what it seemed at first.
Your character decides to find Konrad, because that’s how videogame characters think. Naturally in the real world you would disengage the moment you encountered hostile Americans and get new orders. Actually, there were a lot of really good points to disengage even before that. The entire first section is basically a series of missed opportunities to do the right thing and leave, and the only reason you don’t is because the protagonist has hubris coming out of his pores. And the only reason we accept it is because these games are always like this.
At some point someone told writers that Disobeying Orders Is Dramatic, and so every game and movie with a soldier in it now has a moment where the protagonist decides he knows better than his superiors and goes off on his own. It always turns out okay in the end. Everyone knows that as long as you’re the big hero and save the day that orders are kind of optional-ish.
First, let me point out that as a person, I value following ones conscience over following orders. For Walker to disengage would certainly have been the obedient thing to do, but that does not equate to ‘right’ in my mind. I like to think the civilised world agrees with me on that. The Nuremberg Trials, after all, judged quite conclusively that ‘I was only following orders’ is no justification for an act that is morally wrong. That in mind, consider what, in that early section of gameplay, it would have meant for Walker to disengage.
It would have meant turning his back on fellow soldiers, fellow human beings, who were under attack and yelling for help. It would have meant turning his back on civilians who were apparently being subject to the abuses of rogue soldiers. It would have meant looking at the plight of Dubai, turning his back on it and walking away.
Sure, it would also have meant alerting command and getting relief sent in. That’s going to do more good than anything three soldiers, no matter how badass they are, can do, but…
“When the lady with the swish coat and the expensive shoes doesn’t give the beggar a pound on the street, it’s because she’s giving ten to a charity and sure, that’s the greater good. Sure, of course it is. It’s giving more, probably to be used better. But it isn’t compassion. To look away from someone in pain because you know that your e-account is paying monthly contributions to the ‘greater good’; to walk on by while all those people suffer and die because you’ve got a cause and a big sense of perspective… says something about the soul.” – A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin.
It’s an interesting question. Obviously, I’ve got my answer to it, but I was curious what the military thought of it. I have a friend who’s a serving soldier, so I asked him to weigh in on the matter. Note that he’s an engineer, not an officer, so he may be in error, but I’ve no reason to assume he is.
“In this case he was doing the right thing but still would be facing disciplinary action when he returned. Most likely it would be found while he did disobey a specifc order it was in the execution of the higher ideal; we do not leave our fellows behind, especially when under fire. If he could contact his command and pass on the intel about their being survivors he might have been able to get his orders admended in the field for the changed conditions. What makes this a bit trickier is that spec ops groups tend to function a bit differently then regular military units. They are expected to be more independent and flexible because they are often out there with little or no immediate backup from regular forces availble. So overall it’s reasonably realistic he would decide the higher ideal is saving other soldiers then getting the intel out, but he would do so knowing he’s going to be up in front of the brass explaining himself.”
I like that this key moment in the game gets so many different reactions. You see Tal’s take on it, and I think he’s got a good case. On the other hand, I thought it was well-intentioned but stupid. On the gripping hand, Chris thought it was borderline evil. (I hope I’m not mis-characterizing his opinion on it. I’ll talk about that later in the week, but I don’t want this to turn into a three-way review.) The point is: There’s lots of room for interpretation and discussion. This is not a case of good / bad, but a case of “where would you draw the line?” How far will you break from orders to do the right thing, and if it doesn’t pan out, how many more lives will you spend doubling down on that bet?
Pretty soon you run into the CIA, who is also fighting the 33rd. So now you’re looking at a situation where you’ve got three sides forming a two-pronged conflict. Locals vs. 33rd and CIA. vs. 33rd. (The CIA is instigating the locals to fight the 33rd, but even within the CIA there are disagreements over how far they should go to complete their orders. And the locals don’t know it, but the CIA is NOT their friend.) Two of the sides are Americans, and your team is quickly becoming a fourth side. You keep going. You keep fighting. Things keep getting worse for everyone.
Then you get to the famous twist of the game: You run into a bunch of the 33rd, massed together. They’re in your way. There really are too many to fight. The main character doesn’t consider looking for another approach or even halting forward progress. The “only choice” is to somehow kill all of these dudes.
Nearby is the 33rd’s cache of white phosphorous, which Walker decides to use on the 33rd. (You can try to beat them conventionally, but they have… crap, I dunno what all they had, but it was a lot. Tanks and other insurmountable death-machines. The game will let you try, but it really is un-winnable, even on easy. I DO like that the game lets you try anyway.)
You use a computer to guide the attack, which is a pretty standard trope of the genre. You get a grainy, black & white view and have to decide where to drop the bombs. A nice touch is that the computer is semi-reflective, so you kind of have to look yourself in the mirror while you’re doing this.
When it’s all over, it’s revealed that these particular members of the 33rd were actually helping the civilians. The civilians were hidden at the back of the camp, and they all burned to death in your attack.
How well this sequence works for you depends a great deal on what you think the game is trying to say here. Some people feel the game is condemning them personally. Others feel it’s condemning the main character. Others feel it’s condemning the genre. It’s like an optical illusion where everyone sees something different. Some people find this twist to be a cheap “gotcha” moment, and others find it a thought-provoking turn.
The first is, obviously, right at the start. Walker could have fought his way clear of the first few locals, turned right around and left the city. I already covered why he doesn’t do this, and so does the game. The second is a little later on, when Walker is trying to save a US soldier from the locals base.
This is First Lieutenant McPhearson. He doesn’t like you. As a matter of fact, he thinks you’re a CIA wetworks squad, and Walker is in the middle of failing to convince him otherwise (pointing a gun at him isn’t helping). McPhearson is about to rappel down a few floors and set up an ambush for you. It’s actually a bit of a chancy fight, even on Normal; they outnumber you (albeit not by much) and they have good lines of fire. (You can actually kill him if you’d prefer not to chance the fight – your squad will call you out on it. I actually felt bad about it after I realized it was possible, even though I KNEW what would have happened if I’d let him go).
Now, theoretically, if Walker could successfully convince McPhearson of Walker’s true allegiance, the whole story would change. Walker could get the full story of what the 33rd is doing to the civilians (it’s implied, in light of following events, that their intentions were fairly honourable considering the circumstances), recieve a fuller picture of the situation in Dubai, ride a helicopter out to the storm wall, hoof it on foot the rest of the way and pass it on to command.
So why doesn’t he? Simple. Walker is a soldier. He can lead a special ops team just fine, but don’t you think it might stretch credibility for him to have the people skills necessary to convince a distrustful, recently-tortured officier to back him? It would raise my eyebrows, at least.
As dark as this is, we’re not even halfway down the rabbit-hole at this point.