Spec Ops: The Line:
Operation FUBAR Part 1 of 2

By Shamus Posted Wednesday Aug 22, 2012

Filed under: Game Reviews 210 comments

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.

Here we go folks, the long-awaited spoiler post… Which is probably going to turn into two or three posts by itself. Oh well. As a heads up, I implore you to pay special attention to that spoiler warning. I’m probably going to get into more detail than Shamus, covering not just the general outline of the story but specific events and details too. If you haven’t completed the game but you want to, think carefully before reading on.

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.

Part 1

“Man, this looks like another macho dude-bro shooter.”

Okay men, we’re here to kick ass and be smart. And we’re all out of smarts.

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.

Part 2

“Hm. This game is kind of dark sometimes.”

Spec Oops.

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.

I take issue with this description of events, and I’d like to take this oppurtunity to provde an alternate point of view. Shamus say, “the entire first section is basically a series of missed opportunities to do the right thing” and… Is it?

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.”

This Spec Ops screenshot is here to break up what would otherwise be all-encompassing WALL OF TEXT.

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.)

Also, it might be worth noting that this scene comes fairly quickly on the heels of actually witnessing the effects of a white phosphorous bombardment against civilians – you’ve seen firsthand just what this stuff does to people.

Spec Oops.

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.

Immediately afterwards is where this scene distinguishes itself from all of those gunship control scenes from Medal of Duty: Modern Battlefield 7. Instead of cutting to the loading screen and debriefing, you have to rappel down and witness what the blasted hellscape you are responsible for looks like, without the comforting detachment of a black & white computer screen standing between you and consequences.

Spec Oops.

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.

This point represents the absolute last hope of anything good coming of Walker’s actions. I’ve given the matter some thought, and there are two points in the games story where if Walker had done one thing differently, it all might have turned out for the better. Funnily enough, the fact that Walker DOESN’T do these things actually supports the narrative and makes it hold together better than if he had.

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.


From The Archives:

210 thoughts on “Spec Ops: The Line:
Operation FUBAR Part 1 of 2

  1. Zaxares says:

    Wow… I have to say, this is pretty fascinating stuff. I might have to put Spec Ops: The Line on my “to play” list, even though my gaming time is stretched pretty darn thin at the moment.

    I also had to Google “white phosphorus and its effects” as a result of this article. It’s… ugly. :(

    1. Nick Pitino says:

      Yeah, that is one of the less pleasant things I’ve put into Google image search as of late.

  2. Doctor Satan says:

    The white phosphorus scene is a gotcha moment if there is no way the player could have known what these bunch of 33rds were doing. Maybe if there was like a scene where you saw one of them kill a civilian and then you decided to kill these 33rds.
    But when you go through the place after the computer scene and see that the civilian was suffering from some disease or snake bite or something and the 33rd regiment soldier who killed him was actually performing a mercy kill, like I believe the player can in this game, then it would be less gotcha and more “you assumed wrong”. And better in my view.

    Basically what I’m saying is give the player some subtle hints so they would question their own actions before they question others’.

    1. Brandon says:

      It’s pretty realistic if that is what they were going for. Life is full of “gotcha” moments, but most of them aren’t nearly so harmful.

      In this case, I’d say this is a soldier who is a bit overzealous. He sees what he assumes to be an obstacle and he does what he thinks he has to in order to get past it. A bit of waiting, a bit of scouting, maybe they figure out that these guys aren’t The Enemy, but they didn’t wait. Those soldiers paid the price, the civilians paid the price, and the squad now has to live with that.. and eventually be judged for that.

      1. stratigo says:

        It isn’t realistic at all.

        It is only relatable to bro shooters, not real life.

        Using White Phosphorous on anyone is a war crime for one thing (and yes occasionally it does get used against targets, but never in a manner that a person could point to like this.)

        And a soldier, even special forces does chain of command. In real world, Walker would have turned around after encountering hostile american forces and informed the US military about it. Special forces are not, contrary to popular belief, just guys who go around killing things, one of their primary jobs is military intelligence. What happens if you find something vital (like say, an american regiment going rogue) and then die? Without telling someone, you are directly responsible for all the people who die because of a lack of that knowledge. It is your duty to go and inform command of a drastic change in the nature of the situation.

        1. Felblood says:

          I haven’t played the game myself, but from what I’m reading here, I’d say this is really meant to be the first clues that the rabbit hole goes deeper and Walker isn’t just lacking in diplomatic training, but actually quite mad.

          Walker goes around *behaving* like a video game character, and eventually someone has to call him out on the fact that life is not that simple, and you can’t really get away with this kind of thing.

          Remember that just about every modern Bro-shooter has this same black-and-white, finger-of-god shooting galley scene (often invoking the name of white phosphorus; war crime discussion not included). Often with any friendlies in the area having enough HP to survive multiple mistakes, on any but the highest difficulty levels.

          This would be the first one where a character might be expected to be put on trial (or even threatened with it) for roasting his fellow humans to death with illegal chemical attacks.

          1. decius says:

            Not discussed yet: The group of soldiers in question has WP mortars set up for immediate use- that’s how the player character has access to it. They are arguably the same mortars that made the prior WP attack.

    2. Sleeping Dragon says:

      I disagree. I’m not saying this would be a bad plot development but I think the way it is actually more deconstructive to the shooter genre, and probably to a wider gaming trope in general. It is customary to just follow the game’s objectives blindly without consideration to possible repercussions or unintended consequences. I don’t even care to count the number of times I was told to solve an obstacle problem (like a barricade or a wall) by exploding it without any consideration who or what may be on the other side.

      1. Abnaxis says:

        Following that same line of logic, you have to option to directly assault these guys, and they shoot back with overwhelming force. Accepted video game logic dictates that enemies try to kill you if and only if they are evil. These guys try to kill you if you let them see you -> they are evil, and should be blown up.

        1. Brandon says:

          Do they start shooting the instant they see you, or only fire back when you start shooting at them? Also, in a situation like this, it is somewhat appropriate to open fire on unknown armed men approaching with their weapons readied. It’s actually kind of a shame that games by their very nature make it a challenge to script multiple ways through a situation like this. Imagine if we had the flexibility to try and call down to them and talk things out, and only falling back on the white phosphorous if things went south.

          In this case though, flexibility and freedom don’t seem to be the point.. the point was more along the lines of “when you take actions without all of the information, you sometimes make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes are big. Just because we haven’t GIVEN you all of that information, and there is no possible way you could have obtained all of that information within the narrative that we constructed, doesn’t change that. That’s life sometimes.. no one ever has perfect information to make all of the perfect choices, unless it’s in a video game”

          1. Abnaxis says:

            I’m…not sure that’s really the point. I think the point is more like “don’t make split-second decisions to kill massive numbers of people without gathering information on them first.” Walker’s (and, by extension, the player’s) info wasn’t just imperfect, it was non-existent to the point of negligence.

            This doesn’t matter to the discussion at hand though, because I believe the OP was saying the writers hadn’t given enough justification for pulling out the WP. Walker was just calling it in because there’s a bunch of dudes in his way. This makes it seem less like a “twist” and more like “this game is making me do something stupid because the script calls for the character doing stupid”.

            My counter to that is that it isn’t just a bunch of dudes standing in Walker’s way, it’s a bunch of dudes who will shoot at you (gasp) if given the chance. Following video game logic, that means they are Evil and we shouldn’t feel bad if they burn (video game logic doesn’t concern itself with such details like whether they’re justified in firing on you or not).

            I think the whole reason they even made it possible to attempt assaulting that specific group of soldiers is specifically to make that subversion.

            1. Sleeping Dragon says:

              See, I can see how people are upset about the game first making you do something like the WP scene and then chastising you for it. The thing here is that, by shooter trope logic, the actions isn’t stupid because it’s rash, because the troopers don’t do proper scouting, it isn’t stupid because of the carefree use of WP. The reason it is stupid is because it has consequences.

              This goes beyond shooters and into many other genres but modern broshooters are notorious for it because they claim to simulate realistic military engagements: if an action is going to have horrible consequences it will be optional, there will be another path or there will be some party that easily can be blamed (for example you were lied to by the person who turns out to be the villain); If the game tells you to blow up a building amidst urban warfare you can be damn sure that there are no civies in it, not even hostages taken by the bad guys.

              The point isn’t so much about “don’t make split second decisions…”, it’s more about “all those times you made a split second decision it could have had consequences, in fact it often should have”. It is a bait and switch, the game lures you into thinking you’ll fire off the WP and it will be cool cause you’ve just destroyed a bunch of enemies in a way that hasn’t been done before in the game and possibly any game. There may even be a one liner like “we showed those SOBs” or a joke like some “burn baby, burn” then it suddenly pulls the whole “this was a really stupid thing to do” thing. A ton of broshooters have “the only way to progress is to do a very stupid thing”, just those stupid things either don’t have consequnces, are optional/avoidable or have an obvious guilty party who isn’t the player character. The Line calls you on it: “your stupid action had horrible consequences”, the reaction from many players is “but that’s not fair”, so the game says “well, it really wasn’t thought through, the consequences are perfectly logical”, and the only thing the player can call on is “but I didn’t have a choice.” Just ask yourself, how many players thought “dammit, this isn’t right, there may be something more to that place, and death by WP is a horrible thing, I really wish there was a way to avoid it” without any foreknowledge and before they learned the truth…

              1. anaphysik says:

                Which seems to me a way of saying that The Line is meant to be a “lesson” for broshooter fans. And while that may-(aw, who are we kidding) definitely does make it better than those broshooters, it doesn’t really make it good. I think a lot of the people in this thread are comparing the game not to broshooters, but to rpgs/tabletops/real life.

                (Disclaimer: Haven’t played the game. Don’t really like shooters in general. Also, it’s heavy new and therefore expensive. props for anyone getting that reference in the strike, which is now older than kids entering college -_-)

        2. Sleeping Dragon says:

          But yes, that is exactly the point the game makes, numerous times: these guys shoot at you so they are evil and shooting them is perfectly okay. Or rather it lets the player follow this gaming logic only to later bring up the point that these (and other) guys may actually be shooting for a cause or simply in, what they assume to be, a self defence, which is something games never do because hey, it’s supposed to be guilt free violence. Deconstructing the shooter tropes in this way is exactly what the game is about.

          1. WJS says:

            If you remove the “they are evil” step, “They’re shooting at me, so I can shoot at them”, that’s actually largely true. If someone is being shot at, it is not reasonable to expect them to worry about why they’re being shot at. You can second-guess yourself right up until the bullets start flying, but not after.

    3. bionicOnion says:

      There’s a scene, quite early on in the game, where you try to stop the 33rd from kidnapping a large group of refugees. The player character assumes that they’re rounding them up for execution, but the white phosphorous scene is where the game lets you know that they were actually getting them out of the line of fire and into their protection.

      Also, there’s nothing merciful about the executions that the player character enacts. They’re often brutally violent, and the victim would have died a few seconds later regardless. There’s only one place in the game that really lets you enact a mercy killing (you can either allow a man to be consumed by fire or shoot him yourself), but in that case, the only reason I chose to shoot him is because I wanted to kill him myself (have we mentioned that this is a really dark game?).

      1. pneuma08 says:

        There are actually plenty of times to mercy kill people in the game. Any time you have the opportunity to perform an execution, you can just drop a round or two in them instead. Actually, after the whole white phosphorous scene there’s tons of dying soldiers crying out in pain, and you can, if you want to, end their misery. I know I did, because that sure is better than burning to death.

        The best part about this is that it’s completely optional, and the game doesn’t really go out of its way to highlight this at all. Hell, every single execution you do in the game is vicious, brutal, and 100% optional. Whether or not you engage in that sort of behavior is completely the domain of player choice – especially since the behavior is almost completely unincentivized.

        1. bionicOnion says:

          Actually, it is incentivized to do the executions–it gives you a bit of ammo for all of your weapons every time you do, which is the only reason I ever did any of them (feeling pretty uncomfortable about it the entire time, like the game wanted me to).

          I tried shooting the downed enemies instead of executing them a few times and nothing seemed to happen; maybe I just missed.

      2. decius says:

        I walked away from him, because I wanted him to burn, and I wanted to hear his screams.

        Yeah, it got dark real fast when I found out his intended plans.

  3. SoldierGeek says:

    So is this an example of “the only winning move is not to play”?

    Does the game provide options for the player to make real choices, or is this plot basically on rails and at the end, you’re screwed?

    In either case, besides being a send up of the genre, it doesn’t seem a very fair way to engage players.

    1. Aanok says:

      The game is ultimately on very straight rails. But it’s very subtle and dissimulates well, offering you to make a few choices along the way that you think might be of importance. In the end, all it lets you do is flesh out a little your personal interpretation and impersonation of Walker.

      The ending is the only exception to this but, while very emotional and moving, it feels a little like the buttons from Human Revolution.

    2. The Bard says:

      Having only seen a video of Spec Ops being played, I’m tempted to agree with you. The twist of the plot really doesn’t do much for me if there’s no way for the player to choose whether or not to go along with it. The player needs to buy in 100% for this to work, and railroad plots don’t even let the player pretend to choose whether to go along or not.

      There’s a very fine line between watching a stupid movie, and watching a stupid movie where the director winks at you knowingly in the end. Personally, I think Shamus has become a hipster and this is how he sidesteps into being able to enjoy a Gears of War clone with a slight lemony twist to the plot. ;P

      Spec Ops sounds like your parents grabbing you by the neck as a kid, throwing you against your will into a car and saying “let’s get ice cream!” You end up at the dentist and they laugh at how stupid you are for believing them.

      And the whole time you just sit there, knowing that you had no choice. You were going to end up at the dentist whether you wanted to or not. And now I want ice cream. 8′(

      1. Shamus says:

        “Personally, I think Shamus has become a hipster and this is how he sidesteps into being able to enjoy a Gears of War clone with a slight lemony twist to the plot. ;P”

        That is an offensive and unsupported assertion. You really shouldn’t try to characterize why I like a game, especially not in that creepy psycho-analysis sort of way.

        “I like vanilla ice cream.”

        “You like it because you’re a racist who hates brown things!”

        It’s not something you can defend against. You’re claiming that I’m enjoying a game for reasons other than ones I’ve given in this series of super-long posts I can’t prove to you what I’ve got in my heart. If you really believe that I’m that intellectually dishonest, then damn… why do you even read what I write?

        I like the game because it’s thought-provoking. Where would you stop? How would you handle this? Where did Walker go wrong? Isn’t it funny how other games have this exact same obviously reckless behavior, and it always works out fine?

        If you want to feel like a hero, this is not the game for you. If you want to consider little what-if scenarios and see the genre deconstructed, this is an amazing experience. Nothing “hipster” about that, assuming the word still means anything at all.

        1. The Bard says:

          Duuuude, we’re just two cool guys on an internet. Sometimes a snarky joke with a smiley face is just that.

          Nowhere did I call you intellectually dishonest. I’ll admit, I think you’re overly critical to the point of being unwatchable at times, sure. But you’re always honest about it.

          Anyway, it was intended as a joking nudge to the ribs, nothing more. Your comics make it seem like you have a good sense of humor, so I figured I could have some fun without you taking it personally. Muiy apologies.

        2. Michael says:

          “I like the game because it's thought-provoking. Where would you stop? How would you handle this? Where did Walker go wrong? Isn't it funny how other games have this exact same obviously reckless behavior, and it always works out fine?”

          I’m reading what you’re saying, and I must be understanding it on some surface level, but…

          You usually rail against games like this. The character acts stupid, the setting is stupid (you even mentioned sand isn’t created in a sandstorm), and the game tries to act clever when you are forced to do stupid things.

          What’s different here that you’re enjoying it?

          (Also, please note that I haven’t actually played the game, so if there’s a bit further in that got you to like it, I’m perfectly content waiting for that part of the review.)

          1. IFS says:

            I haven’t played the game but it seems like the key difference here is that instead of the player asking these questions and the game ignoring them it is the game presenting these questions to the player in such a way as to make them ask the same questions of other games.

          2. Klay F. says:

            The game is a deconstruction and criticism of of the bro-shooter. Examination of the retarded things that bro-shooters do must be done. Since this is a videogame, the best way to examine said things is to directly experience them yourself. I really don’t get what is so hard to understand about this.

            1. Michael says:

              That doesn’t explain why people found the game enjoyable.

              Are we willing to overlook the fact that both the setting and the characters are wacko simply because it says ‘Hurr hurr, I’m being ironic!’?

              Are we willing to overlook the fact that it calls you out on actions it forces you to take simply because it says ‘You did this elsewhere!’ and ‘You could have just stopped playing!’?

              Beyond that is the fact that the developers have gone on record saying that they created this game with the intent to anger players (both at the game and at the developers themselves). What I’m trying to understand here, is when people say ‘I liked Spec Ops.’, are they saying that they enjoyed the discussion around it, or that the game itself was good? Because it sounds like a terrible game so far. (With excellent, honed mechanics, if I’m interpreting the review correctly.)

              EDIT: Let me clarify: I am deeply enjoying the discussions this game is creating. These are things that both consumers and developers need to be talking about. In case I wasn’t clear enough.

              1. stratigo says:

                I personally could not play this game. I’d feel too evil, and resent the game for forcing me to kill otherwise good people.

                Albeit I dislike most BRO shooters anyways, but they do at least dehumanize the enemy enough that you never feel bad for killing them all.

                1. decius says:

                  >Albeit I dislike most BRO shooters anyways, but they do at least dehumanize the enemy enough that you never feel bad for killing them all.

                  That is one of the indictments that :The Line makes of them. Every single person with a gun will shoot at you and/or kill someone that you believe is on your side or a civilian first. There is no point where you are forced to perceive yourself as murdering people, because it is always self-defense or the defense of others. (It does get somewhat hazy when your goal is “Kill the 33rd so that everyone can walk out”)

                  1. WJS says:

                    “Aren’t you a horrible person for shooting the people who were trying to kill you” is kind of a shitty message for a game.

              2. Klay F. says:

                I can’t really say I enjoyed the game in the traditional sense. However, I still found the game compelling as all hell because the things that happen, and the messages the game sends are so unlike any other game ever made.

                So to boil it down to its simplest terms, I love the game because it is different from any other game I’ve ever played.

                The game is pointedly NOT fun. And if all you were looking for in videogames was happy fun-times, you would be excused for looking elsewhere. But then, not all games have to be fun to be engaging.

                Spec Ops offers me something that I don’t get in my normal day to day life. Amnesia does the same thing, just using a different method. It gives me the emotional high of primal terror, something which is impossible in my current life.

          3. Shamus says:

            Because it’s a deconstruction of the genre. For me, there’s a big difference between “this character is stupid on purpose, as part of the message of the game” and “this character is stupid because the writer has the memory of a goldfish and didn’t plan ahead”. L

            That doesn’t mean the game will work for you. I don’t disagree with someone saying, “This doesn’t sound like fun to play.” But the game has a message and, if you’re willing to go along for the ride, delivers it very well. That’s very different than a story where the writer is just stringing tropes and set pieces together without paying any attention to that the end result has to say.

            1. Michael says:

              I guess it’s something I’d have to play through the game to understand. Though I love the discussions brought up by it, I must be missing something since I haven’t played.

              As it sits, just reading reviews, it seems like scene after scene of being forced to do something stupid. And then the game mocks you for it.

              1. Sydney says:

                Did you ever read Rock Paper Shotgun’s breakdown of Pathologic? Sometimes the best way to engage a game is to hate the shit out of playing it, because that’s how you get its message best.

                1. StranaMente says:

                  I disagree with that.
                  Going in without knowing too much about it, it’s a slippery slope.
                  So you begin doing things that are not only reasonable, but are your exact mission. You’re there to investigate on survivors and the 33rd.
                  Only after a while things started to get real messy.
                  For example, I tried to save the CIA guy ’cause I thought he would have bring us near the chain of command, so we could have established a contact, but it didn’t work out, and most of the times (at the beginning at least) the things you end up doing are the most reasonable things.

                  About hating the game. I didn’t hate the game, I didn’t feel the mechanics were so bad, or the story so forced. It wasn’t a struggle with a game and its mechanics (like The void). It was at worse a bit clichà¨, but when you notice that even basic mechanics like executing enemies to get more ammo, have a deep meaning behind, everything starts falling to place.
                  Stealth sections let you appreciate your enemies as humans, the choices are not binary good versus evil, everything is more nuanced.

              2. Michael says:

                Honestly, at a glance, I’d say the difference, and I wouldn’t really want to speak for Shamus here, but the difference is the intent.

                Normally a game will force the character to engage in utterly idiotic behavior and then endorse that behavior, rewarding the player for whatever challenge they just overcame.

                Here the game is actually criticizing that kind of moronic behavior. Now, if this is really a criticism of the player, or of the character is more than a little subjective… and that’s where we get into Shamus’ optical illusion metaphor.

                If you wholesale endorse what Walker is doing, it becomes a bit of a criticism of you, and that’s how the WP scene is supposed to play out, you’re engaging in random bloodthirst because that’s how these games go, right?

                The other side of the illusion is a criticism of the railroading that’s epidemic in gaming.

                Take it another way, you can look at The Line as the next logical step from Bioshock’s commentary. It’s not just you’re on rails, you’re on rails doing things that (in any reasonable world) would have very catastrophic consequences.

                There’s actually another possible element here that’s probably worth pointing out, where because as a player, you’re used to having no choice in Modern Military Shooters like this, you’re used to being absolved of any responsibility for your actions, because it will all work out well in the end anyway. Here it becomes a criticism of the perceived military mindset of “follow orders, don’t think for yourself,” that’s saturated the genre.

                1. WJS says:

                  From what I understand, your orders were to pull out if you encountered any resistance. If you want to undermine the “following orders” message, wouldn’t it help to actually have you following orders first?

      2. Klay F. says:

        No, no, no, fucking no. Having the white phosphorus scene be avoidable would have completely ruined it. No sane person is going to accept the consequences of going through with it. Having it be avoidable would just mean that literally everyone will, upon seeing the results, instantly reload the checkpoint and avoid it. It would completely ruin the impact. These are gamers we are talking about. Gamers refuse to accept failure states.

        1. Sydney says:

          What’s wrong with that? If I’m a designer, watching the playerbase say “I did something so horrible I can’t accept it, I have to go back in time to fix my mistake” is more satisfying than watching them say “Aw, now look what you made me do. Jerk.”

          1. Klay F. says:

            Because most gamers don’t think that way. Most think, “Oh, well that solution was less than optimal, I’m going to reload and get the best result.” There is no emotional recoil to your actions. Its meta-gaming at it worst. Also, this game is NOT trying to offer you satisfaction. Searching for it in Spec Ops is an exercise of utmost futility. You think, given the chance, the vast majority of players, wouldn’t reload a checkpoint EVERY time they did something morally questionable, maybe in order to get the best ending? How much impact would you think the story would have if every player just reloaded checkpoints until their character was some sort of rainbow farting, puppy nurturing paragon of goodness?

            1. Syal says:

              This is why you make consequences that are TWO checkpoints in. :)

            2. bionicOnion says:

              Exactly this. I think that this is why Spec Ops only has the autosave system–you can’t revert to earlier states very easily, and the game checkpoints immediately after every major decision so that you can’t just try for a better outcome next time.

              1. Klay F. says:

                I’m sad to say that even I’m not immune to the urge to meta-game things. Example: The first KOTOR. If I ever got dark-side points on a light-side playthrough or vice-versa, I would instantly reload. I started out doing the exact same thing in KOTOR 2, then Nar Shadaa happened…

              2. Sabrdance (MatthewH) says:

                This sounds like the most anal retentive GM ever born.

                “Ah, the dragon eats you!”

                “Would you mind waiting until I finish my turn before you switch to evil laughing?”

      3. Daemian Lucifer says:

        Actually the game lets you choose plenty of things,but in subtle ways.Its only by the end that you see the rails.And watching the game really doesnt convey everything about that.Its like reading a script for a movie,and then complaining how the visuals werent that immersive.

      4. Dave B says:

        Videogames as an interactive medium aside, this game’s plot appears to conform to the literary definition of a tragedy. One of the key features of a tragedy is that the protagonist’s downfall is caused by personal failings that he is powerless to overcome. Essentially, his destruction is inevitable, and that’s what gives the story its emotional weight.

        Disclaimer: I haven’t played this game, nor am I a literary expert. I’m just a guy who likes to read and have opinions. :)

        1. StashAugustine says:

          I didn’t resent the railroading for just that reason. I knew that while I, sitting in my chair, knowing I’m just playing a game, able to pause and reason it all out, unaffected by emotion, could come up with a better solution, it’s a hell of a lot to ask for a scarred, beat-up, desperate D-boy with latent PTSD. It kinda reminded me of Max Payne 3, another game people complained about the main character being stupid. I accepted Max’s stupidity as not my own, but rather the actions of a depressive alcoholic with a borderline death wish.

        2. Sabrdance (MatthewH) says:

          This is about the only argument or review I’ve seen to this point that encourages me to give the game a shot. I am happy to play out a tragedy. I’ll play evil characters just to see the bad ending. I will not, however, play an evil character just because the game expects me to.

          1. decius says:

            Walker isn’t evil at the beginning. It’s arguable whether he becomes evil when he tells Lugo (and the player) “No, there really isn’t [a choice about whether to use the WP mortar or not].”

    3. Wraith says:

      That’s the beauty of it. The average player of this genre isn’t looking for profound, significant moral dilemmas, he’s just looking to shoot some dudes. When anyone plays the Modern Warfare games, they want to be wowed by the spectacle. They don’t think about the consequences of their in-game actions because it’s a game – the mountains of people they’re killing aren’t real. Spec Ops: The Line makes these assumptions about its average player and sneaks up on them, trying to tell them that these fantasies they play really aren’t the way things should or do work.

    4. StashAugustine says:

      There are a few other sections where it seems like it railroads you but actually provides a way out. I would even argue that starting off with a choice you can’t avoid is a good thing, because it starts you thinking there’s no other way out. Example: I (spoiler alert) fired on the civilians at the end. Not because I wanted them to die, but because I thought there was no other way. Apparently you can shoot into the air or melee one and they’ll scatter.

      1. Tever says:

        Also, how do you do the orange spoiler text?

        I shot them because they had just lynched Lugo, and I wasn’t even thinking about looking for another way.

        1. anaphysik says:

          Use strike tags. See the handy tips that show up when you start a new reply, which also appear way down at the bottom of the comments section.

      2. Robyrt says:

        Yes – I hit one with a melee attack, my buddy fired into the air, the civilians panicked and ran cursing my name, and all was well. Or at least it didn’t get any worse. :(

    5. StranaMente says:

      I’d like to point you to “this article” that seems to be mostly ignored, even if it presents the view of the developers on the White Phosphorous scene itself (and other things as well).
      In it it’s said:
      “During the “˜White Phosphorus' scene, Walker buries his guilt and casts blame on Konrad and the 33rd, all in an attempt to keep going. Our hope was that the player would do the same “” cast the blame on us, the designers,” Williams said. “That [the player] would have to bury their feelings of guilt and disgust to keep playing. And at the end, when Konrad reminds Walker that he was never meant to come here, we wanted the player to realize the same was true for them””these things only happened because they chose to play the game and keep going.”

      This is a subtle thing to do on purpose.
      What they’re saying is that everyone blaming the designers for that scene is not different from Walker blaming Konrad for having no choice at all.

      1. Zukhramm says:

        I don’t know. Everything that happens is the designers’ fault, they control everything.

        If I tell a story, and you choose not to listen does not mean that the things in the story stop happening, it just means you won’t hear it.

        1. N/A says:

          And if enough people do that, the storyteller has no audience, rendering the tale meaningless. There’s an interesting psychological test that’s relevent here. Somebody sits in a crowd, and is presented with a series of pictures of lines of assorted lengths, and is asked to say whether the lines are the same lengths or not. The lines are never the same length. But everybody else in the room SAYS they are – because they are not test subjects, they are part of the test.

          The number of people who will buckle in the face of uniform peer pressure like that is startlingly high- 32%, in the Asch Conformity Experiments. However, if as little as one other person speaks up with the ‘right answer’, the amount of people who will buckle in the face of peer pressure drops to as little as 5%.

          Walking away DOES matter. You never know how many will follow you.

          1. Zukhramm says:

            Yes, but making something meaningless, and making something not happen are completely different things.

            I have no idea what peer pressure has to do with anything really.

            1. N/A says:

              Who cares what happens, if it has no capacity to impact the lives of others?

              1. Zukhramm says:

                I don’t who cares, but the developers said it, so ask them.

        2. StranaMente says:

          The fact is that this is not a “fault”, it’s made on purpose.
          The odd thing for me is the message that this seems to convey.

          “Don’t play shooters”? I don’t think that’s the case, even if it seems so at times.
          “Always question if what you’re doing is right”? Possibly.
          “Violence should be the last resort”?

          There are many ways one can interpret the story, and some may contradict the game itself. I think we can rule out those.

          1. decius says:

            It’s not telling you about life, it’s telling you about the genre that it deconstructs.

        3. Deadpool says:

          But this isn’t a story TOLD to you. This is a game, an interactive medium where you are a PART of the story.

          I must say, I think the game would have made a MUCH stronger point if it ACTUALLY had the choice to in the first level of the game, to just turn around and climb back up the wall and walk away and get a “happy ending”. Because I’ll bet good money not a single player would have done that on the first play through despite the game flat out telling you that’s your mission… And many wouldn’t even consider it until other told them it was possible.

          Actually, how many people who played the game even CONSIDERED it?

          1. Zukhramm says:

            I don’t think it’s relevant wether it’s a game, book or anything, interactive or not.

            The events of the game’s story are there, independently of whether we play the game or not. Playing the game does not cause it story to exist, it only displays it.

            1. Deadpool says:

              I get what you’re saying, but the difference here is that YOU are shooting the 33rd, YOU are dropping White Phosphorus on people, etc, etc… All because YOU want to feel like a hero.

              As the game gets progressively darker and your actions become more and more questionable YOU still choose to keep DOING THEM.

              It’s not quite like a book where you read about someone else doing horrific things.

              1. SoldierGeek says:

                So are you suggesting the game is some sort of psych experiment, a video game version of the Stanford prison guard scenario? That’s beyond a genre send up; it’s sick.

                Permit me a strawman for a moment. Imagine a new game that has some familiar, initially fun, repetitive gameplay. In this game: “Farmville 2: Industrialized Agriculture”, you play a worker in a food processing center. Your job is to move tranquilizer tablets, that spill from one part of a room, catch them before they fall to the ground and get contaminated, and dispense them in another part of the room. You’re told the tablets are used to anesthetize animals that will be processed for food in some humane way, though that aspect is not part of the game play. Which of the following game designs would you consider appropriate:

                (1) In arcade style, the play gets faster and faster, and you score increases as you move more objects. There’s the occasional animal-like noise from off screen, but that’s it. Upon beating the last level and gaining a high score, there’s a cutscene … to the Nuremburg trials, where you’re now the guy on trial for administering Xyklon B tablets at Auschwitz.

                (2) This has the same arcade style as (1), but as the game progresses clues become apparent that the game is not as it seems. Screams are heard, more and more human-like, then voices, and it becomes clear that something horrible is going on in time with your game play. Yet the game play doesn’t change; you have no option but to keep performing the tasks at hand and racking up points until … cutscene (same one).

                (3) This starts the same as (2) but as the clues become apparent it becomes possible to vary game play. You discover your icon can leave the room, take actions outside of it, and discover what is really going on, perhaps preventing it, or perhaps merely escaping from it. Depending on your choices the endings are various cutscenes, only one of which is the horrible ending from (1) and (2).

                I submit that most people would prefer to play game (3); they’d tolerate game (1) until the end, at which point they would vent well-deserved hate and venom at the developers for the “gotcha”.

                It sounds from the review and discussion thus far that Spec Ops is game (2).

                1. StranaMente says:

                  I get the frustration for the devs “gotcha”, but this story wouldn’t have been so powerful if it wasn’t for the failure state it puts the player in.
                  It’s the very centre of the story.
                  You making mistakes and killing people and assuming you’re doing it to help “is” the plot.
                  It’s not a tale about redemption, it’s about misery and failure, it’s about not taking the blame for horrible actions, post traumatic stress disorder.
                  In this story there would have been no winner any way. Even going away as soon as possible would have lead the opposing factions to war (including the two opposite CIA agents that were pulling different strings).

                  It may be a story you won’t like to hear or be part of, but having played the game (with as little spoilers as possible) I can assure you it worked.

                  EDIT: besides, in hindsight is easy to see all the strings the devs pulled, but playing the game is different than the autopsy in hindsight we’re doing here.

      2. N/A says:

        Thank you for linking this. I wanted to find it when posting about this article, but I couldn’t track it down in time. It’s good to see it again.

      3. LintMan says:

        “That [the player] would have to bury their feelings of guilt and disgust to keep playing. And at the end, when Konrad reminds Walker that he was never meant to come here, we wanted the player to realize the same was true for them””these things only happened because they chose to play the game and keep going.”

        Wow, what a smug self-righteous scumbag thing to say. The game misleads gamers about what the game is about, then railroads them through a series of awful moral bad choices. Then the dev points at them and says “Ha! You’re morally complicit in all this because you could have always quit playing the game instead of going along with it!” Really? Really? And is he going to send $60 refunds to any players who did quit playing?

        1. cerapa says:


          This is why its hard to make a deeper message in games. People always want to “win”, and to have a “right choice”. If you dont “win”, then its a bad game and the designer being a dick.

          Its interesting that games where just blindly following orders and railroading leads to victory are just okay, but if it leads to loss then its bad. Both are a direct result of you continuing to play, but one is bad and one is good, and I’m damn sure youve enjoyed the results of railroaded victory as your own, rather than the designers.

          1. LintMan says:

            This is why its hard to make a deeper message in games.

            The deeper message I see here from the developer is “Look how morally inferior you are because you chose to play through our game instead of quitting it and wasting your money.”

            Its interesting that games where just blindly following orders and railroading leads to victory are just okay, but if it leads to loss then its bad. … I'm damn sure youve enjoyed the results of railroaded victory as your own, rather than the designers.

            Given the limitations of developer time and technlogy, virtually every game is going to have some level of railroading, so it’s to be expected. It’s only problematic when the “rails” start forcing the player in a vastly different direction than the player wishes to go. The more the game deviates from my decision preferences, the more “in my face” the rails are and the less immersed I am into the game. Imaging playing Mass Effect, where instead of Paragon, Neutral and Renegade responses, all you have are “Asshole”, “Psychotic”, and “Slimeball” responses. I’d be pretty damn unhappy with that, even if all three paths led to “victory”.

            But my point here wasn’t about the railroading as much as the developer’s self-superior attitude saying players should have just quit and thrown their $60 away.

            1. AncientSpark says:

              That doesn’t feel like what the developer is saying. The developer OBVIOUSLY doesn’t want to mock you for buying the game. That would be counterproductive to the message. No one speaks a message and then says “Don’t listen to that message”.

              What I think what you’re saying (correct me if I’m wrong) is that the game railroads you into an action that you wouldn’t take. What I think the difference is that the game is entirely made to criticize this action. Thus, if you wouldn’t take that action in the first place (or at least see why you would take that action), then the game wasn’t meant for you to digest. You can take the game’s reprimands as mocking you for taking a morally bankrupt action, but the game is actually trying to SUPPORT the people who hate the bro-shooter mentality.

              In other words, the game IS “railroad you into an action, then mock you for that action”, but I think it’s fine because the lesson is entirely not intended for the people who would entirely consider any other actions without taking or being able to put their perspective in the “broshooter” mentality.

              1. LintMan says:

                Perhaps you’re right.

                It just comes across to me as an elaborate troll of fans of bro shooters. He made a bro shooter seemingly designed to make players feel shitty for palying and enjoying bro shooters. I’m not a fan of the genre, but it seems like a rather lousy thing to do.

                And then his argument saying players are culpable since they could just quit strikes me like where a bully grabs someone’s wrist, forces them to hit themselves in the face, and then says “I didn’t hit you – you hit yourself!”

          2. Sabrdance (MatthewH) says:

            There is usually an implicit agreement in listening to a story: no matter how bad it gets, there’s a payoff for bearing through it.

            That payoff may still be tragic (but even Shakespeare felt compelled to start Romeo and Juliet with the assurance that this story ends badly). Before I plop down money for this game, though, I want an assurance that it’s not a smug, nose-in-the-air, shaggy-dog-story. Actually, I’m finding Taliesen more convincing on the point. As I said up comment -I’ll play out a tragedy.

        2. decius says:

          During your first play, did you ever think “Okay, I’ve completed the recon, now the morally right thing to do is go back and report, never mind the fact that there’s a lot of good I could do by going a little bit further?”

          When did you first try to walk back out?

    6. Felblood says:

      So you can only play as a character who is just like yourself and does things that you would do?

      This attitude is the reason RPG protagonists aren’t allowed to have any personality and the story of such games always revolves around the supporting cast or some cliche destiny line.

      Please don’t make every game star Mario or Gordon Freeman! I love the guys, but I sometimes want a character with some narrative built in.

      When you start stepping into the shoes of a character with an established personality (or character), you have to accept that sometimes those shoes won’t fit you perfectly.

      In the case of Walker, you’re supposed to even be a little uncomfortable as the shoes become more tightly and narrowly defined.

    7. pneuma08 says:

      While the game does provide choices (both of the setpiece and ambient varieties), nothing you do really changes the outcomes at all. Well, until the ending choices, I guess. Still, the choices the game does present do make for good thought exercises, and occasionally the game won’t even tell you what all of your options are.

    8. watermark0n says:

      The game is a deconstruction of the bro shooter genre, it’s not an RPG, so it can hardly be criticized for not providing you with a rich plethora of options. The difference is that in Modern Warfare, you do a lot of stupid things on rails, and it’s handwaved and you’re giving a good ending in the end. In Spec Ops, you also do a lot of stupid things on rails, but it’s not handwaved and you get a tragic ending.

  4. Olly says:

    Well it is always possible to simulate Walker pulling out of the city at any point by switching off the game and assuming that he reported back to command and let someone else take over the mission. It seems that at that point of the game either you have to proceed straight through the 33rd (and unknown civilians) or give up and switch the game off.

    Besides, even assuming that the 33rd were instead an overtly hostile force that were not involved in civilian rescue, it would still be quite a monstrous act to bathe them all in white phosphorous. Bravo for the game in highlighting the horrible aftereffects of what in many other games would have been a celebrated victory moment (probably with a little audio fanfare accompaniment).

    1. StashAugustine says:

      I’d always kinda scoffed at the restrictions on WP use, but I have to say this game changed my mind.

      1. Ateius says:

        Given the horrific things we humans do to each other in warfare, if you can get a majority of nation-states to agree on restricting the use of a particular weapon, there’s a very good reason for it. It’s going to be the stuff of nightmares.

  5. Joshua says:

    Not a game that I would play, but very interesting none the less.

    On a different note, I’m glad to see an article again. For someone who has no interest in watching Spoiler Warning(or other videos more than a couple of minutes long), this site has been *very* dry on content recently.

  6. bubba0077 says:

    Interestingly, Extra Credits is also doing a Part 1 of 2 on The Line today: http://penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/spec-ops-the-line-part-1

    There’s not really much to it this week since they were trying to avoid spoilers, but given the insightfulness of previous topics, I’m looking forward to what they say next week.

    1. Zukhramm says:

      I’m not sure on the whole “looks like a boring shooter then surprises you” thing. Sure, for those just picking it up without knowing anything about it that might be true, but barley reading any gaming news I still heard so much about this game, long before the release, and they were nto at all hiding what direction they were going.

      1. StashAugustine says:

        I saw Yahtzee’s review first, so I knew more or less what to expect. It still helps to have the generic intro, because it helps you ease into the story before it starts messing with you.

        1. Zukhramm says:

          I’m not saying it’s bad, but if they wanted chock and surprise they shouldn’t have told us about it before releaseing the game. (Though if they hadn’t I wouldn’t have played it.)

  7. SoldierHawk says:

    I *am* an Army officer, and, while not a combat soldier, I can tell you that most soldiers, and other officers I know, would hae done the same. “Never leave a fallen comrade” is far too ingrained in us to follow an order to abandon our fellows, regardless of the consequences to our careers.

    Obviously I don’t speak for all soldiers or officers, but I don’t think the choice he made in staying is particularly out of character if you ascribe the kind of motivation to im that Talisen did.

    1. N/A says:

      I like to think it was both. Walker wanted to be a hero, but there’s lots of routes to heroism. Heck, classical heroism as defined by the ancient Greeks, had no moral component at all – heroes were people who were larger-than-life, whether their actions were righteous or ruinous.

      Walker wanted to be a hero, but he chose to make a try for heroism by trying to save lives. I find that admirable.

      1. StashAugustine says:

        First off, I agree with what you’re saying- that Walker’s impulse to save lives is admirable, and if it was another character doing the same thing and making the same mistakes I would have more sympathy. However, I would argue the game makes it clear that Walker’s motives are somewhat less admirable. There are several mentions of Walker’s obsession with Konrad, even before he starts hallucinating. At the end, too, Konrad tells him that he’s “wants to be a hero.” I would argue that the story works better with Walker as seriously flawed and hubristic (is that a word?) because it connects with what the game tries to say about the player.
        (Of course, there’s a whole other way of interpreting the player/player character relationship- as Yahtzee put it, the player is the last vestige of Walker’s sanity, watching horrified as he spirals down. I actually like this interpretation better, partly because I’m not a huge fan of the genre, but I think the other way works too.)

    2. LintMan says:

      I haven’t played the gameand don’t really understand the context here, but it sounds like Walker was going to have to fight and kill a lot of his fellow American soldiers from the 33rd along the way to “never leaving a fallen comrade behind”.

      Is “not leaving a fallen comrade” really higher on an American soldier’s priority scale than “don’t kill fellow American soldiers”?

      I’m not sure what “fallen comrades” Walker’s trying not to abandon, but it seems to me that his choices are clearly generating a hell of a lot more “fallen comrades” for him to leave behind than if he backed off.

      1. N/A says:

        It’s a “down the rabbit hole” setup. The game does a very good job of raising your incentive to stick around alongside the threat level. To begin with, you’re fighting armed refugees to rescue a fellow soldier – pushing on is easy to justify. By the time you’ve gunned down American troops, they’re presented in the context of rogue soldiers oppressing and abusing the civilian population. Fighting them is murky, yes, but from Walker’s perspective, you can see the argument for not turning back, even if you don’t AGREE with that argument.

      2. SoldierHawk says:

        True. The way I personally think about it (again, obviously not speaking for anyone but myself), preservation of innocent lives is at the top of the hierarchy there–above your comerades lives, and above your own. In the same way that saving your comrades is worth risking your own life.

        If I saw Americns doing to civilians what it sounds like they were doing in this game, absolutely I’d continue and try to stop them. If I found myself simply being fired on by friendly troops though…well, that’s the part where you withdraw, call higher, and try to figure out what the heck is going on.

        Of course, there was much more than simpily that going on here as we’ve all established; Walker’s obsession with Konrad, his desire to help *other* soliders besides the ones trying to kill him, etc. Greatame, and great open-ended character study.

  8. rayen says:

    i know some things aren’t feasible in productions such as this. but there really should be an option to turn around and leave. Like at any point you can hit start and call an extraction (i don’t know if that’s possible with the sandstorm of monstrous power blowing). If you ever do it it’s an instant game over. No cutscene, no text scroll, no closure, maybe roll credits return to main menu screen. but i feel like that would help make the game make more sense, and player after trying it a few times and especially after the twist just keep playing trying to salvage everything and become the big darn hero.

    1. N/A says:

      There is. It’s the button called ‘Quit’

      1. Zukhramm says:

        That’s only an option outside of the game.

        1. Wraith says:

          Every game has a Quit button in its menu.

          1. Zukhramm says:

            Yes, and that’s still not in the game. Sure, it’s in “the game”, the product, the executable program, but it’s not in the actual game.

            1. Jeff says:

              Did you read the original post?
              “If you ever do it it's an instant game over. No cutscene, no text scroll, no closure, maybe roll credits return to main menu screen.”

              Quit = no cutscene, no text scroll, no closure, no credits, return to main menu.

            2. Stranger says:

              Of course it’s not in the “game”. Every game from Poker to video games, to Basketball pick-up games at the gym . . . there’s always the option to just walk away from it. And, sure, walking away in real life means you can still stand outside the game and watch it play out to see how it ends.

              You can’t do that in video games. You just can’t, because it’s an interactive medium. Answer me this, if a game went through a “this is what eventually happened because you hit “quit game” at the menu’ . . . every time it was done, how annoying would that be? How immersion-breaking would that turn up?

              Even if it was determined simply to make it happen on the abandoning of a mission, or a level, how pissed off would people get to have to sit through it (or to have to skip it, if allowed) every time? (Note, for the impact you want, it would *HAVE* to be unskippable.) There’s a reason not to do this thing you’re describing – because it’s clunky and can backfire SO easily to making a game not fun.

              1. harborpirate says:

                I couldn’t disagree more.

                He’s asking for an “I’m done, extract me” menu button that you can push and the game basically just says game over and rolls credits; I don’t see how that is “clunky” at all.

                There’s a huge difference between offering a choice In Game and offering a Meta Game (out of game) choice. One allows you to “win” by actually recognizing the in-game situation and you made the right call, the other makes you feel like a quitter.

                Preferably in this context, the “Extract me” choice would provide at least a small epilogue (even if it was just text) where you get held accountable for whatever war crimes you committed so far (if any).

                At least then you would have had a choice that the game actually acknowledges. “I recognize that you quit, and you made the right call. Congratulations.” Otherwise this game makes no distinction between someone that quit on purpose versus someone who just got bored, or too busy, or couldn’t get past a certain point and just never got back to it.

                How many people would have actually bothered using “Extract me”? I’m guessing it would be exceedingly rare to figure it out on the first play-through. The difference would come when, on a subsequent playthrough, the player used “Extract me” and found out that’s how you win.

                1. Stranger says:

                  It’s clunky if it was that simple, and that’s what I was interpreting. If it was a recurring possible action throughout levels . . . that’s different.

                  What I was seeing was “I want the game to make a ‘quit game’ selection do stuff”, which may not have been the correct interpretation . . . that’s what I answered. Oops? I dunno, still going to leave my post as is and not apologize.

                  Your solution, of course, is probably where I’d take it: there’s something like a secret in each leg of the mission to a point (sort of like hidden secrets in earlier FPS games) where you could call for an extraction like you outline.

                  Though . . . honestly, would it cheapen the game experience? I kinda think so but hey, to each their own. I don’t really play FPS games anymore due to their progression in control and play style leaving me behind :)

  9. Sydney says:

    Weirdly, I’m the only one of my friends who saw the death spiral before it started. I don’t know how, because I’m normally not very intuitive, but once I noticed Walker’s incredible entitlement and arrogance I flashed back to…another game…that used the “you buy the protagonist’s hubris because he’s the main character of the game” player-manipulation. (It wasn’t BioShock. It was the other one. It starts with J, and does this trick so well I spoiler-tagged the first initial.)

    1. Kian says:

      Jade Empire? My god, that twist was so awesome! I wish Bioware still made that kind of game.

      1. Sydney says:

        That’s the one. Ever since that, I get really suspicious whenever I notice my character making mistakes out of arrogance. My “are they setting me up?” sense goes off like mad. Usually they aren’t setting me up.

        1. Jeff says:

          The player character in that one massacred armies of foes, won the tourney, took over a school, and was literally the last of a special people. Then after he discovered his weak point, he pretty much instantly compensated. I’m not sure that’s hubris, he’s really that damn good.

          1. Sydney says:

            Hubris: He favoured me because I’m the awesomest! Everyone says I’m doing it wrong, but screw them, they just don’t Get It.

            1. Jeff says:

              I don’t remember anyone ever saying the PC wasn’t the best, I only recall two cases (a teacher and the former champion you defeated) who said there was something strange about your style.

              1. Lovecrafter says:

                Yes, they never say that something is wrong with your style. In fact, they sound more intrigued and even impressed with it.

  10. Lalaland says:

    Goddammit I haven’t played this yet and I really want to but I love serious game analysis so I’m utterly torn. So far I’ve not read the article but unless Steam has a sale soon I can’t see myself lasting past the final post in the series without cracking!

    P.S All hail the ‘End’ key and boo to those notebook makers who relegate it to ‘Fn +’ hell

    1. X2Eliah says:

      F’n right on that post scriptum.

      1. StashAugustine says:

        My laptop makes you hit fn for the function keys. Makes any game relying on multiple hotkeys hell.

        1. Lalaland says:

          That’s evil, this notebook does the same but at least the BIOS can be set to return them to normal behaviour.

  11. Zukhramm says:

    The game does not at all play fair with shooting McPhearson. I tried to shoot him but the game disabled my gun.

    1. Wraith says:

      I believe you get a chance to shoot him near/at the end of the conversation. Otherwise, I really don’t think Taliesin would have mentioned it.

      1. Zukhramm says:

        That’s when I tried shooting and he just ran off.

        1. Kian says:

          I’m playing the game straight, without reloading (except when I die and need to run a section again). I was curious actually about whether the game would let me shoot him or not. The moment I saw him edging to the rappel line there, I figured he was going to run away. Pissed at how often this kind of game lets enemies walk out on you during cutscenes,I gave the gun a try.

          I was very surprised to see the game let me shoot him. When you actually think about it, though, that’s also pretty messed up by real world standards. The guy wasn’t strictly speaking a POW, so I don’t know how the law works, but I don’t think you’re allowed to shoot people because they are trying to escape. And the sidekicks actually complain that you di, which was awesome.

        2. N/A says:

          Weird. I actually shot at him and missed, just to see if I could. Adams took him down. So… Maybe open fire a bit before he starts rappeling down?

          1. Zukhramm says:

            But the requires me knowing that the game will disable my gun for me beforehand.

            1. Jeff says:

              Renegade Interrupts are all about timing. =P

  12. Kian says:

    I bought Spec-Ops after seeing Zero Punctuation’s video and Shamus started his review. I think I’m starting the final act now, but decided to read the review figuring I’d avoid ending spoilers (although I read the list of achievements, so I have some idea of what the ending entails. Achievements spoil everything).

    Oh yeah, you should probably mention the achievements you can get, and how they reinforce some of the themes.

    I wanted to mention some aspects that I found as well. Take the execution mechanic. The first time it looked like the guy was going to pull a gun if you didn’t take him out, so it made sense. I generally avoided executions later because I didn’t feel like wasting time and they weren’t getting back up. However, in part because of the fact that the execution button is the same as the cover button, I accidentally executed a few people along the way. Doing it revealed another mechanic I hadn’t noticed: if you execute someone, you get ammo for your weapon and a grenade.

    This is important in light of how scarce ammo for your particular weapon might be. Enemies you kill outright, or that bleed out, will drop their own gun. If you fight a bunch of enemies who aren’t using the same gun as you, you might run out of ammo and need to pick up their weapons. This can be annoying if you had a decent weapon, but are running low on bullets.

    Suddenly, what is a pretty horrible act (and the animations are grim and disturbing at times) provides a strong gameplay advantage. It’s suddenly beneficial to look for people to execute. You’re going to be running through the bodies looking for ammo anyway, and executing guys is like a bonus.

    Another interesting ‘easter egg’ is the tips in the loading screen. If you die once or twice, you get the typical advice from regular shooters. Some description of the segment you’re on, how some mechanic works, generic stuff. After a few more however you start getting some more interesting messages. One in particular stood out for me: “To kill for yourself is murder. To kill for your government is heroic. To kill for entertainment is harmless.” The designers were clearly speaking to the player at every chance they got. Also you eventually get a prompt to lower the difficulty.

    1. StashAugustine says:

      I really didn’t have an instinctual objection to the executions at first. I would think, “Oh, I’m low on ammo, lets go melee somebody.” (I was in the middle of a Sentinel run in ME2, so I tended to be a little reckless.) It wasn’t until Walker started brutally killing the downed enemies that it got bad.

      1. Kian says:

        And as the game progresses, Walker’s lines also get more messed up. Screaming “Kill fucking confirmed!”, “DIE!”, “Stay fucking down!”, when at the beginning of the game he was just quiet about it.

        1. Klay F. says:

          This is easily the best performance Nolan North has ever given in my opinion. I used to dislike him, but after hearing his superb descent into madness in the last half of the game, my opinion of him did a complete one-eighty.

      2. Kian says:

        I think the turning point for me was when you get to the helicopter with the minigun, and Walker instructs Adams to circle around so he can keep shooting at guys instead of trying to go to their next objective. That seemed to me when he snapped. Which is also interesting because getting access to that kind of weaponry is a high point in traditional games. A chance to really unload on the baddies. Here it’s a disturbing act by a guy who is going crazy.

    2. N/A says:

      I think my favourite loading screen ‘hint’ was when the game flat-out told me, “This is all your fault.”

      1. StashAugustine says:

        “Do you feel like a hero yet?”

        1. Yar Kramer says:

          I’m sorry, I haven’t played the game, but all I could think of reading those two lines was GLaDOS saying “You’re not a good person. You know that, right? Good people don’t end up here.”

          1. StashAugustine says:

            You have now ruined the game for me. Congratulations.

            1. Yar Kramer says:

              So, “Nice job breaking it, hero”?

              Which could also easily be directed at Walker!

        2. Gahrer says:

          “The US army does now allow the killing of unarmed combatants, but this is just a game. Why should you care?” That one really jolted me.

        3. drkeiscool says:

          “Collateral damage can be justified, if the gain outweighs the cost. How much do you think Adams and Lugo are worth?

      2. Sean Riley says:

        I liked: “You are still a good person.” The others all felt ham-fisted to me; that one’s sly, backhanded reassurance came off as actually witty.

    3. Mephane says:

      Cover end Execute on the same key? Just… facepalm

      1. Zukhramm says:

        Better than cover and everything on the same button.

        1. Kian says:

          The only good thing that can be said about the control scheme is that at least cover and vault over cover weren’t the same button. But the Cover button is Cover, Sprint, Sprint into Cover, Sprint out of Cover (with a direction key), Execute, Drop/Zipline/Rappel (if in front of a hole in the ground, a zipline or a rappel line), and I think that’s it.

          1. StashAugustine says:

            The default keybinds are ridiculous, too. Shift is melee/vault, space is run/cover (when did space become the run button?), Q is grenade and E is swap weapon. They also have a key entirely devoted to switching the camera from left to right side of the character, but only when aiming outside of cover.

            1. Robyrt says:

              That’s just a lazy key mapping from the console version, which has the standard control scheme of A = run/cover, LB = grenades, Y = swap weapon, etc. It sounds like each of those buttons was mapped to exactly one other button.

              1. StashAugustine says:

                That’s bad, but understandable. It’s more that the defaults are mapped to unintuitive keys. I remapped to shift was run, space was melee/vault, Q was swap, and E or G was grenade (I don’t remember.)

          2. Gahrer says:

            I lost count on how many times I died because into cover, out of cover, to different cover and sprint were the same key. I guess nearly 1/3 of my deaths were because of that.

    4. SoldierGeek says:

      But if you can’t do anything about it other than quit the game, what good is it doing, other than the developers constantly thumbing their noses at you?

    5. Sean Riley says:

      “Also you eventually get a prompt to lower the difficulty.”

      I haaaaaaaaaaate games that do this. It feels patronizing as hell to me. Dude, let me choose my own experience. It’s irritating when a guy over your shoulder says, “Dude, you suck at this. Give me the controller.” And it’s irritating if the game does it too.

      1. Lovecrafter says:

        I actually like games that do this, because it helps to avoid states that are “unwinnable” because I don’t have the real-life skills to complete the section I’m on.
        For example: the game Catherine allows you to change the difficulty via the menu, but only at certain specific points. My first run through the game was on normal difficulty, but near the end I got to a level where (after a good forty attempts) my options were to either start the entire game over from scratch on easy, or look up a walkthrough. I chose the latter, but I would’ve felt a lot better if I could’ve solved an easier puzzle instead of having to look up the solution.

        Back to Spec Ops: I had never played a cover-based shooter in my life, so even though I never used the option, I did like having it around just in case.

        1. Sean Riley says:

          Oh, definitely. I’m fine with games that let you alter the difficulty at any point. And I’m even (more or less) OK with a game asking once. But if I say no once, it should stop itself from ever asking again. I’ve clearly decided I do not want to.

          1. StashAugustine says:

            EDIT: Never mind, added nothing to the discussion.

  13. StashAugustine says:

    The funny thing is, I was always under the impression that the original “black and white bombardment” sequence (Death From Above in Call of Duty 4) was trying to make you uncomfortable. It played up the cold detachment of the pilots (“That’s gonna be one hell of a highlight reel.”) and was an eerily quiet break from the gritty close combat previously. Of course, everything that came after including the other CoD games totally missed all subtlety in the scene.

    1. Wraith says:

      IMO the original CoD4 WAS anti-war. The CoD series was only an average-selling WW2 franchise until Modern Warfare 1, and I doubt the devs expected it to take off quite like it did. It wasn’t until it became its own franchise, completely dedicated to spectacle over substance and MP over SP, that it became ridiculous, and everything else started ripping it off.

      I still love CoD4. There was still that ever-present jingoism under the surface but there were moments that made jabs at war and real-life foreign policy. The USA goes into the Middle East to topple a dictator, and all it ends up accomplishing is killing 20,000 Marines in nuclear fire. No moment in the series measures up to Sgt. Paul Jackson’s last few moments. The dialogue in the AC-130 level was meant to be disturbingly detached at times.

      Contrast the outcomes of the different plot threads in CoD4 and its successors. In CoD4, one PC ends up dead from a nuke, the other is nearly killed along with the entirety of his special forces team by the end of the game. In MW2, we have FUCK YER WE SERVED THE WHERT HERSE and a ridiculous, drawn out chase sequence that killed the villain. In MW3 we have FUCK YEA SAVED THE RUSSIAN PRESDENT’S DAUGHTER and a ridiculous all-out assault on the villain’s very public hideout and nation-sized private army.

      See the difference there?

      1. StashAugustine says:

        I wouldn’t quite call CoD4 anti-war, it’s more of a Saving Private Ryan-style “war is hell” message. The bad guys are still pretty irredeemably bad, and the protagonists, although flawed, are still generally on the right side.
        In fact, I didn’t pick up MW2 because I thought it was laughably disrespectful to both sides. On one hand, you’ve got the jingoism everyone’s ragging on about. On the other hand, you’ve got an American general turning traitor, shelling his own troops, and manipulating the CIA into causing a horrific terror attack. They tried to be anti-war with MW2, but it totally falls apart because they couldn’t keep the tone.

    2. Sean Riley says:

      Yeah, exactly! No, you’re dead on right. I read that piece as a bit of a ‘pretty scary how detached and removed the whole thing is, isn’t it’ moment. It’s easily CoD4’s best level.

  14. Kian says:

    About the ‘choices’ the game gives, and the twist with the White Phosphorous (which your team mates object to in the first place); I was annoyed about the decision immediately before that. You are trying to find Gould, a CIA operative that helped you a bit before, but he’s off making an assault on the position you will later use the WP on. When you catch up to him, you see the 33rd caught him and a bunch of civilians, and they’re clearly going to execute the civilians and Gould.

    So you have the choice to look after the civilians, and let them execute Gould, or ambush them to save Gould and abandon the civilians. Your team mates are split. One wants to save Gould, the other wants to go after the civilians. By this point things are still pretty confusing, and I made the decision to save Gould instead. I figured “here’s someone that can finally explain what is going on”, and maybe we could stop shooting people and start helping.

    So after a brutal firefight, Gould decides to up and die for no reason. Naturally, the 33rd killed the civilians I didn’t go to help. You find them later. So my attempt to get information failed, and the civilians died. That was a kick in the nuts.

    You then use the WP on the civilians, and I had mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I kind of expected it from the review I read, and on the screen I could clearly tell the last group was civilians. They were herded in, they weren’t moving like soldiers, you couldn’t see weapons on them. Clearly civvies. On the other, I was sure that if I didn’t fire one last time I’d lose the section. I don’t know what happens if you avoid the last shot, but at the time it was more of a game consideration than being duped and drunk on WP power that made me make the decision, which made me feel more detached from the effects when they show you what happened.

    Which is one of the issues I think Spec Ops has when trying to engage the player. It’s hard to let go of the detachment of “Yeah, I do horrible things, but they’re scripted, so it’s not my fault”. Then again, I’m not American, so shooting American soldiers is the same as shooting foreigners for me, and I don’t usually play shooters. I didn’t go in expecting the game to make me feel like a hero, so when it fails to do that I don’t feel betrayed exactly.

    Still, really like it and will try to finish it before Shamus’ next post.

    1. Sydney says:

      I get the same effect when a game has a morality system. Any morality system. “I did a terrible thing, but it’s part of the game’s framework so this says nothing about me. I’m just behaving in a foreseen way.”

      Doing something I find wrong in a game that has no morality system at all usually upsets me enough that I have to undo it by reloading.

      1. Wraith says:

        This is exactly the problem with how games work in connecting to their audience. Then again, I’m guessing most of the people complaining about the scripted nature and lack of choice in the narrative are going into this with the advantage of hindsight or a predetermined attitude.

        After all, when you play games you’re just roaming imaginary places and killing imaginary people. So why should you care?

      2. Jeff says:

        I reloaded several times in Skyrim to keep some random lady from dying her scripted death. Turns out the devs thought of that, and she thanked me and everything. :)

        1. StashAugustine says:

          If you played Deus Ex: Human Revolution, you know the scene I’m going to reference here.

        2. WJS says:

          That sounds uncharacteristically un-Skyrim-like. Most of what I’ve heard (never really got into it myself) implies that there’s typically only one way things play out.
          EDIT: On a whim, I just checked Steam. Apparently I’ve logged over 80 hours. Way more than I expected, given how little I remember of it. (And small compared to Oblivion or Morrowind)

  15. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Im with Shamus on this one.The very first time you meet someone,you get into a firefight,and can just leave.Your orders were to see if someone is alive.You saw that they are alive,and armed,so nothing is stopping you from calling back up.But no,walker scouts on,and then you find trapped soldiers,which you of course cannot leave,and then you hear about civilians,which you also cannot just leave,and down it goes.But that first firefight,that was your ticket out.

    1. Sydney says:

      Agreed in full. So many stories wouldn’t have happened if subjects were properly obedient. “See if anyone is alive” is a mission that’s over the moment the first NPC enters your field of view. “Run away, mission accomplished, story over” is the ‘Good Ending’ that didn’t make it into the game (for obvious, understandable reasons).

      1. StashAugustine says:

        Didn’t Yahtzee make fun of Killzone for this?
        /look up episode script
        “You know, it’s pretty clear to me why the Helghast have the edge in this war; it’s because the ISA is the most badly run military organization since the 47th Light-Armoured Cat-Herding Brigade. Their attitude seems to be “do whatever the fuck you want and it’d peachy if that happened to roughly coincide with your orders but don’t sweat it.” I lost count of how many times characters blatantly defied orders and earned nothing worse than a stern look. That’s how the entire plot kicks off, and no one seems to care. Towards the end, the impression I get is the main characters finally start following their immediate superior’s orders not out of fear of court-martial but because they suspect they might be hurting the guy’s feelings. “

      2. Hitch says:

        I haven’t played the game, so I’m just going on what’s been posted here in the articles and comments. If they didn’t, perhaps the designers should have provided the option to “abort the mission” by ending the game at any point. But given you a recap of your debriefing, in the early stages just revealing that you didn’t know enough for them to be concerned and that the final mission reports were classified. Then the farther you go in, you’ll be ordered not to speak of your involvement, but the final reports are still beyond your clearance. Then, probably starting the the white phosphorous incident, that you’re facing court-martial for your actions, but you still don’t know what it’s all about. Then see how far the player will dig themselves in thinking they can redeem themselves. You knew it was bad, but you kept going.

  16. cerapa says:

    I think a big problem why people feel forced is that they dont consider quitting as an actual thing you can do. Basically in the same way that saving doesnt affect a story.

    I think a good alternative would be a suicide button or somesuch(“retreat” before white phosporous?). It would just give a standard death screen, and technically be identical to just quitting. Obviously nobody would press the thing(except once, to see what happens), because they want to go through the game and save everyone and all that crap, but I think it would be quite a powerful thing if you were to internalize quitting in that way. The player could have stopped everything just by pushing a single button, but they continued on the path in front of them(just like your character).

    1. Guy says:

      Probably it should have dumped you to a simple text crawl or something saying Walker never learned what happened.

      It’s just… quitting is not an in-game thing. It does not represent Walker leaving, it represents the player walking away from the game to do something else for a while.

  17. Guy says:

    Walker should definitely have turned around for new orders once he got in a firefight with the 33rd. At that point, it’d be pretty clear his original orders are no longer really workable and he does not know what his superiors would want. Now, soldiers aren’t expected to mindlessly follow orders, so while out of contact breaking orders because the situation has changed from when they were given is perfectly fine. But if he had a way out and back he should have taken it on account of having no idea what is going on or who is on his side. Also, three people against a city full of people with guns is just not terribly wise.

  18. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Ok,this is a general response to everyone who didnt play the game(and some who did) and think that the option to go home should be in there:

    The option isnt there because you arent the protagonist,walker is.Yes you are guiding him,but you arent controlling him.You are experiencing a slice of his life and influencing some of his decisions,but ultimately walker is still his own character.And the game does distance you from him*,just as you see his companions doing the same.This isnt a game where you get an empty vessel to project your persona onto the game world,this is a game where the protagonist is very clearly characterized,and you are merely nudging him here and there while witnessing his descent into madness.

    *Of course,some people will feel connected with walker,and probably feel much worse for that later on,and thats why the game works a bit differently for them.But see,as any piece of art,the game will work differently for different people.

    1. Abnaxis says:

      Ah, but by the same token, games have an advantage in that the persona does not have to have a single, immutable characterization.

      So yes, Walker is the protagonist, not the player, and yes, he has his own character outside of the player. But that doesn’t mean his character can’t change based on player choice. Let the player choose to go home after the first volley, and he is treated to a non-rewarding ending. It can either be a boring “mission success” or a downer “the entire region went to hell” sort of ending. Either way, Walker and his squad move on to having nice uneventful lives and careers in the military.

      It would be like grandma’s house in The Path. In The Path, the game straight-out tells you to go to grandma’s house and not leave the Path, but the first time you do it’s boring and uneventful so you never do it again.

      Similarly, you can pick the dialog option to report back in at the start of the game (doesn’t really work if it’s a constant option), and maybe you’ll pick it once but never again. It’s boring. You’re here to shoot guys, not watch Walker play house (just like Walker is there to play hero, not run away). Then, when you get to the twists, they’ll have all that much more impact since both you, the player, and Walker, the soldier, are making the same decisions.

      The idea here isn’t to make the player the protagonist, but rather to make the player connect with the protagonist.

    2. Audacity says:

      But if this is the case then all the games supposed commentary and criticism of bro-shooter types is entirely invalid. You can’t prevent players from preforming an action (leaving in a game affecting manner) on the grounds that it’s not something their assigned persona would do, and then turn around and condemn them for the actions of said persona. Either the player is responsible for their avatar’s actions, or they aren’t. You can’t have it both ways.

  19. Jeff R. says:

    There’s another point of return: the second Walker hears the name “Konrad” he should immediately recognize what novel he’s found himself in and turn around immediately…

  20. Malkara says:

    There’s actually a bit of foreshadowing before this, that the soldiers are trying to help. Immediately after you clear out the underground area that McPhearson was in, you launch a stealth assault on another building- and while waiting in the hallway outside of the office, you can hear the officer saying “Did we manage to evacuate the civilians?” The civilians that you assumed the soldiers were simply murdering, and hauling off to be executed (for good reason, admittedly).

    These are the very same civilians that you end up killing with willy pete.

    Edit: Also, someone else mentioned it, but some of the loading screen messages are REALLY twisted. I’d love to see a list of them compiled somewhere. Some gems I saw were, “You’re still a good person.” and “If Lugo were still alive he’d probably have PTSD, So really he’s the lucky one.”

    1. StashAugustine says:

      That Lugo one was really creepy. I also really liked the handful of times the objective text messed with you- when Konrad starts talking, it reads “Obey.” and at the end it reads “Run God Dammit!”

      1. Sabrdance (MatthewH) says:

        And now we’re back to having no desire to play the game. I will play out a tragedy. This disgusts me. There is a way to say “the dead are the lucky ones” and that isn’t it. That level of callousness is inhuman on the part of the developers, and no amount of irony saves it.

        1. StashAugustine says:

          To be fair, the loading screens are clearly messing with you. I highly doubt the developers meant it.

        2. Malkara says:

          The entire point of the game is to disgust you. The loading screens are meant to be just as unreliable as you ultimately find out the rest of the game was.

  21. Rick C says:

    Screenshots don’t show in IE. I think it’s because of the width=” on the embedded tables.

  22. Eruanno says:

    Another thing that comes up later: The loading screens give you some nice tips about the world around you, which is pretty standard. “Captain Walker was friends with Konrad once” “This thing once happened with X and Y” and similar sentences flash by. Nothing much.

    Towards the end they slowly transition to things like “You are a still a good person.” Creeped me the fuck out.

  23. Akheloios says:

    So far from your writeup, it’s sounding very much like Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now. A morally ambiguous character, given morally ambiguous instructions towards some future ‘good’ goal.

    That the character makes mistakes, is shown just how flawed human decision making can be, especially when faced with blind choices with unknown and even unknowable repercusions, is a trope that hasn’t been explored to any great extent in games.

    The Mass Effect series gave you the blind choices, but gave you a linear plot and made it obvious in the renegade/paragon system which outcome you chose. Spec Ops seems to do the converse and give you a linear plot with unknown consequences that give a serious emotion response in the player.

    I think that if the two could be merged, then you would finally have computer games as art. Driving into the heart of the Congo/Vietnam with a set of specific goals that you can either acomplish or ignore, and see the result, both good and bad for either/or, would lend the Aristotelean catharsis that games seem to be lacking to make them a true drama.

    1. SoldierGeek says:

      I think you’re right on both counts. It’s almost certainly a direct and intentional lift from Heart of Darkness.

      And I’d find the setup fascinating if a game had actual morally ambiguous choices, with meaningful, logical, and realistic second- and third-order effects from player decisions. Many games have tried, but either been too heavy-handed (ME, SW:TOR, etc) or else provided little rational difference between making differing decisions. I don’t blame designers too much for this — Doing this kind of design is a big game is hard.

      1. StashAugustine says:

        There’s also the massive issue that unintended consequences are a bit hard to work in anything that has replay value.

  24. newdarkcloud says:

    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 don't this to turn into a three-way review.)


  25. Keeshhound says:

    “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.”

    I haven’t played the game, and never really intended to (it’s just not a genre I enjoy) but everything I’ve heard (I’ve already spoiled myself) feels more to me like it’s that second option. Which leaves me wondering what causes other people to see it this way. The best explanation I can come up with is that some people strongly identified with Walker throughout the game, which strikes me as… odd, given what we know about his character.

    1. StashAugustine says:

      It breaks the fourth wall, rather a lot. There’s loading screens which address the player personally, Walker at one point explicitly refers to the in media res opening of the game, and Konrad address Walker in such a way that it’s pretty clear that he’s commenting on the player’s actions.

      1. Keeshhound says:

        I guess that’s where my opinion diverges then; maybe it’s different when you’re actually playing the game, but reading about those parts of the game put me more in the mind of MGS2. The fourth wall breaks there aren’t so much condemning you for what happened in the game itself, but rather for being able to so thoroughly enjoy simulated violence.

        1. StashAugustine says:

          Actually, the dominant thought in my mind throughout the latter half of the game was “Wow, this is like Metal Gear Solid 2, just good.”

  26. atomfullerene says:

    >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.

    I wonder what it means for our society that the second most commonly promoted piece of propaganda is “Don’t respect authority figures” (the first is “buy stuff to be happy”). That’s pretty much the opposite of the typical message of “respect authority.” Even the people _in_ authority promote this message and seem to halfway believe it–the right’s message is “powerful government is dangerous” while the left says “powerful private corporations are dangerous”

    1. Audacity says:

      Well said. Rebellion is the new conformity, has been for a long while. People are easier to control when they know what they’re against, but not what they are for. It’s the old “stand for something, or fall for anything” schtick.

  27. SoldierGeek says:

    I’m curious what reactions would be if the same scenario played out in a different genre: either a video game RPG, or a tabletop RPG, rather than a shooter.

    I’ll address my view using tabletop RPGs. I hate railroads: I want my choices as a player to matter (or, at least, to appear to matter; done properly I submit there’s no difference between real choice and the illusion of choice), and I want to know that I have some ability to steer the direction of the game. I don’t think railroad games are necessarily bad, provided the GM makes his plans and expectations relatively clear (“We’re going to have a story driven game over an epic, cinematic arc where you are the heroes”, frex), and the players agree to the concept. There’s a certain trust element in riding the railroad — that it’s going a direction you want to go and the journey is worth the ride.

    This appears to be the tabletop equivalent of the GM running a railroad where players make decisions that they think will cause an outcome they want, but things keep coming out different (however logically), and at the end, it’s the opposite of what was promised. I’d be unlikely to stay with that game, and even less likely to play under that GM again with that level of broken trust.

    Other points of view?

    1. Klay F. says:

      The difference here is that you are trusting the GM to give you ALL relevant information.

      In real life this almost never happens.

      In the bro-shooter genre you are given the tools to enact horrific violence, and are then pointed in the proper direction. You are expected to give a hurrah, and enact your orders with gusto with no thought given to the possible consequences because “You are the hero.” In Spec Ops you are put in the exact same situations, but you are shown just how absurd and horrific those situations actually are.

      In an RPG, it would kinda be like going into someone’s home to loot their belongings, because “Hey, its what RPG protagonists do right? They are the hero, they technically own everything that isn’t nailed down.” After you then leave town, you come back a few weeks later to find the person you had robbed is homeless and selling their body in order to feed their children.

      Now you have multiple avenues of blame here. You can blame yourself for meta-gaming and not roleplaying properly. You can blame the GM for not letting you know that robbing people is bad. Or you can blame the tropes and clichés themselves of the genre for being popular.

      1. WJS says:

        In what the hell kind of RPG (with a GM!) is it normal to go around looting houses? That’s not exactly common even in cRPGs! (Maybe one specific sub-genre? I dunno)

  28. The Hokey Pokey says:

    The moment Walker said to use the white phosphorus, I refused. I tried at least 10 times to get through another way. I actually managed to kill everyone on the ground, but then infinite spawning snipers showed up on the roof. I think I killed about twenty of them, all of which stood on the same spot. Right then I saw the rails and completely detached from the narrative. Things stopped being Walker’s or my fault, and started being the writer’s fault. The loading screen tip “Do you feel like a hero yet?” felt like Kai Leng taunting me after Thessia.

    Also, “Special Guest: The Hokey Pokey” kind of ruins the tone.

  29. Sean Riley says:

    “it's never heavy-handed.”

    I am absolutely flabbergasted at this comment. Spec Ops: The Line was the most unbelievably heavy handed game I think I’ve ever played. I spent most of my time playing it swearing at the screen telling it to shut up, because it had made its point, and kept on going making the same point, over and over and over again.

    What puzzles me is this: I know you’ve played Far Cry 2, Shamus. I know you have. And while Spec Ops is doing some interesting stuff in terms of discussing choice in video games that Far Cry 2 wasn’t, the two are otherwise staggeringly similar, using almost identical approaches to condemning video game violence and attempting to build rapport between the player and the foes he is killing. Both are adaptations of Heart of Darkness that use the tropes of action games and manipulations of stated objectives vs. the implicit objectives the gameplay sets for you. Both use an ‘execution’ action that forces you to look into the eyes of your enemy as you use brutal methods to end their life. Heck, both even have a much hyped but in the end fairly insubstantial environmental manipulation feature!

    I see what you’re getting at with its deliberate feigning of being ‘just another military shooter’ early on, and I admire the patience there. And what Errant Signal brought up about choice is dead on, and something I’ve never really seen before. But otherwise, Far Cry 2 did all this stuff before. And it did it without feeling the need to put up massive red arrows around ‘here is the bad thing you did!’

    In the end, I just wished I’d played the game all you guys seemed to have played, because all I got was an overwrought version of Far Cry 2, minus the open-world aspects.

    1. StashAugustine says:

      I do have to say, subtlety is not the first thing that comes to mind playing Spec Ops. (There are little touches you miss easily, but overall it’s kinda on-the-nose.) I think Far Cry 2 (Cry Farther)’s problem was being far too long and unfocused (in both story and gameplay.) Spec Ops is much shorter and more linear, which does allow for a tighter story. Also, in FC2 I felt like the Heart of Darkness stuff was more an undertone where in Spec Ops it’s the main thrust of the story. All in all, FC2 was a decent game, but I do think Spec Ops is a little better.

      1. Sean Riley says:

        I do agree with most of this. I’m far (cry) from saying that it was a perfect game, but holy crap it did something amazing in the midst of it all. And it did it without ever having to call attention to it! It just let it go. It gave you missions that directly undercut your own interests, and then asked you if you wanted to undercut them even more for the benefit of some ‘buddy’ who was a morally disgusting human being (which it had made perfectly clear) and then didn’t even laugh at you if you were surprised that these terrible, terrible people betray you later on. You should have known better, but the game remains silent. I admire the hell out of that silence.

        And the final area was actually called The Heart of Darkness! C’mon, it was just as blatant as Spec Ops is in calling out its source material.

        My favorite critique of Far Cry 2, BTW, is Anthony Burch’s brilliant “Heart of Dimness”, wherein he describes Far Cry 2 as a “A beautiful, clever, courageous failure. ”

        I think I’d describe Spec Ops that way, actually.

    2. Michael says:

      Where Far Cry 2 wandered off into different territory was that Far Cry 2 criticized you for choosing to do what you did, SOTL criticizes you for enjoying it.

      That is to say, Far Cry 2 actually let you choose what to do, and then set an additional bar further out, if you wanted to go further. I’m talking about the mission subversions here. You’re railroaded into doing some horrible things, but you can do even more horrible things for a reward if you want.

      Originally the game was really running with that theme, where the more horrible a person you were, the more the game would reward you, though, like so many things, that was cut during development.

      SOTL on the other hand, is more of a direct adaptation of Heart of Darkness. You don’t get to choose what you’re doing (most of the time), but it’s more about the descent, and chewing you out for enjoying the chaos, than FC2’s do horrible things for fun and profit.

      1. Sean Riley says:

        Yeah, I kind of am sad the different enemy types and the reputation system got cut. It would have been much more focused on its point. That said, it still made it. No game has ever shocked me so much as that one did when I finally realised what on Earth I was doing.)

    3. Shamus says:

      “I am absolutely flabbergasted at this comment. Spec Ops: The Line was the most unbelievably heavy handed game I think I've ever played. I spent most of my time playing it swearing at the screen telling it to shut up, because it had made its point, and kept on going making the same point, over and over and over again.”

      Disclosure: I played on easy, so I saw the loading screen a LOT less than most people. The “You are still a good person” is one of the few oddball loading screens I saw. Maybe that’s why I was less frustrated with the game. Just after death is probably not the optimal time to start hitting the player with questions about what they’re doing and why, because they’re mentally ejected from the game. It feels less like “game is criticizing genre” and more like “writer is criticizing player”.

      That’s just my guess.

      I didn’t get that far in Far Cry 2. The game was boring to me. FC2 was ugly and I didn’t want to play it. SOTL took a similar message and packed it into a much tighter package. The FC2 thing of clearing and re-clearing checkpoints… gah. THAT is belaboring the point to me.

      Also, I think the SOTL message is much more focused, simply because it’s so much closer to the games it’s deconstructing. You’ve got your computer bombardment, your turret section, your chopper shoot, your sniper section, the moment where you disobey orders, etc. You’re not some freelance merc, you’re a soldier, just like Soap et al. It hits all the notes of the games, presenting each one and letting you think about it.

      If Spec Ops was twenty hours long and required me to clean out the same nest of guys 10 times before I “got the message”, I probably wouldn’t have finished it either.

      tl;dr: FC2 is probably mechanically a much more interesting game, while SPTL is a better critique of the warshooter.

      1. kanodin says:

        Huh because you played on easy you saw less of the games confrontational aspects. I played on hard and as a result probably saw all of those screens and a lot of them several times. That’s a fascinating gameplay idea where difficulty not only makes bullets deadlier but adds to things like that, I wonder if it was intentional.

        1. anaphysik says:

          I guess on the one hand the players that need the “lesson” of Spec Ops are liable overlap strongly with the players who broshoot for the high-difficulty achievements and e-peen and whatever. On the other hand, tying any sort of narrative thread to difficulty level is stupid and I hate the very concept of it. On the gripping hand I’m not a Motie, so I don’t have a gripping hand.

          Anyway, probably loading screens would’ve been a better place to put those parts?

      2. Sean Riley says:

        “Just after death is probably not the optimal time to start hitting the player with questions about what they're doing and why, because they're mentally ejected from the game. It feels less like “game is criticizing genre” and more like “writer is criticizing player”.”

        That is absolutely a big part of it; I said elsewhere that the game offers a brutal trifecta of sins: It throws down those lines when you’re ejected from the game, it offers to drop the difficulty down if you die a lot (and believe me, I died a TON) which I don’t mind once but it keeps on doing it every sequence, and it had checkpoints far too far apart and thus forced you to repeat lengthy sequences upon each death. And y’know, if you’re going to do all that, maybe don’t give us an achievement for finishing it on each difficulty level? It’s a rare game I’m prepared to drop to Easy on, and this one ain’t that game. (Dragon Age: Origins is that game, by contrast.)

        “Also, I think the SOTL message is much more focused, simply because it's so much closer to the games it's deconstructing… It hits all the notes of the games, presenting each one and letting you think about it.”

        Again, a fair point, and I see that. As someone who generally doesn’t play these sorts of games (I played FC2 mainly because Clint Hocking was involved; and after Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, he’d earned a ‘sure, I’ll trust you’ on that.) But in a way, I kind of also like that more about Far Cry 2. It is a subtly different point it’s making as a result, I suppose, but both are fundamentally about videogame violence, asking us why we enjoy it, why we want to do this. The difference, to me, is two-fold. You actually do have a choice to avoid violence in FC2… not all of it, obviously, but sneaking past checkpoints is totally viable in many if not all cases. You can complete many objectives with a single bullet. This made me reel when I realised how often I was choosing NOT to do so. How much violence I, as a player, had chosen to engage in.

        Now, OK, you can avoid violence in Spec Ops as well, I suppose. You can hit the ‘off’ button. But that’s the Funny Games logic; the ‘Well, why did you show up at all?’ logic. I’m not fond of that logic, and I prefer a work that’s willing to actually ponder the second question there, which is ‘Well, why did I make this thing for you to see/play?’ (There’s a recent film which does a great job of asking that second question, actually, but I’m afraid to name it because that’s a spoiler!)

        Also, oddly enough, I was the other way around. I find Far Cry 2 much more interesting to play; mainly because of the up and down pacing. (“Doo de doo, driving through jungle, dum de dum OH CRAP OH CRAP OH CRAP JEEP WITH GUN.”) I found myself just constantly shooting in Spec Ops, which I became bored with after a while. And I really do prefer the silent, non-judgmental approach of Far Cry 2, which (as Tom Bissell put it,) “stares back at you with lidless, reptilian eyes. It doesn’t care how you feel.” It just waits for you to realise what you’re doing. No cut-scene is needed. No moment needs to stand out above another. It just creates a scenario in which you will be subtly encouraged by game mechanics to do horrible things, and then wait for you to wonder why you did them. And it worked like gangbusters on me.

        That said, thanks for explaining that a bit more, Shamus. I’m getting a bit more sense, with Errant Signal’s explanation (which did illuminate some of the thematic aspects of the game I did miss) and your own (which explains some of the mechanical issues that are at play) of why people are loving this game so much more. Maybe with Extra Credits doing one next week, I’ll finally understand! :D

        1. anaphysik says:

          “(There's a recent film which does a great job of asking that second question, actually, but I'm afraid to name it because that's a spoiler!)”
          Obvious solution: use -strike- tags.

      3. Michael says:

        Honestly, I don’t think Far Cry 2 was a more mechanically interesting game. I do think that Far Cry 2 did a good job of tying it’s philosophy to it’s mechanics.

        Off hand; the first thing that comes to mind was the game’s currency and collectibles. You’d get paid in conflict diamonds. Diamonds in turn were used as currency to buy (or upgrade) guns, and nothing else.

        Philosophically that’s a pretty cynical (and accurate) commentary on the effects of diamonds in Africa…

        …but, that’s not what’s wrong with the game. What’s wrong with the game is: that the checkpoints respawn almost instantly. (For those who’ve never played them, they take about 10-15m (real time) to respawn)

        Now, the checkpoints are ALWAYS hostile to the player, and the game does a pretty decent job of making the APR and the UFLL equally evil. And on the whole it’s a pretty good analysis of what these revolutionary uprisings in Africa really tend to be about. While there are rare exceptions, the vast majority are really simply in it for themselves at the expense of the civilian population.

        What’s wrong with this is: it means you have to fight your way through numerous guard points going both ways to do any mission. And the interchangeability of the factions gives the game’s enemies a homogenous quality that really makes it feel like there’s no variety in the gameplay.

        Anyway… I’m getting off topic, at it’s core Far Cry 2 was a pretty straightforward paint by numbers shooter. It tied it’s mechanics to what it wanted to say, but the mechanics themselves weren’t really that well executed, or that unique (outside of the Malaria infection).

  30. Michael says:

    So, the Spec Ops: The Line stuff, has actually reminded me of another game… one that I didn’t really get the message of at the time.

    When I originally played Kane and Lynch 2, it really didn’t appeal, but going back and looking at it now, in context with Spec Ops, I kind of suspect it was also intended to be a subversion of the genre.

    On one hand, looking at the game it’s really easy to assume the intent was just to create a dirty gritty crime game, which ultimately utterly failed to create even remotely likable characters…

    But, now I’m left with the weird suspicion that the entire point was to criticize video game violence by making it as unpalatable as possible.

    1. StashAugustine says:

      I think the developers said something along those lines, in fact. Trying to make a video game which criticizes video game violence has been done before, just not very well. Examples include the aforementioned Far Cry 2, Metal Gear Solid 2, Haze, probably Kane and Lynch, and several others. It’s just that Spec Ops succeeds in not being boring, confusing, stupid, or unlikable (respectively.)

  31. bigben1985 says:

    I would play this game, it really is very interesting from what i heard and read, not only here. BUT… I never ever played broshooters. I rarely play shooters at all. So i fear that all the “hey, you know how you did stuff in games like this?” moments are lost on me. (Also, 50 bucks.)

    Good to see there are games like this, though

  32. Sean Riley says:

    But I have no way of letting people know what the spoiler is FOR.

  33. CalebAJE says:

    I thought I’d throw in what I, as a soldier, saw going on in front of me in play-by-play. I couldn’t bring myself to finish it, so this won’t be long.
    You land in Dubai with orders to find out what’s going on and report back. There’s no reason for your character to suspect anything will happen except “Find survivors, rescue them, be hero.” Wholesome stuff. You get a radio signal directing you to the stranded survivors. On your way there, some locals attack you for, as far as you know, no good reason. They’re a clear and present danger to him and his subordinates, he’s Delta, there’s only one way for this to end and I say he made the right call. There are still soldiers and presumably not stupid civilians who need rescuing. About a hundred dead locals later you find out there’s some sort of thing going on between the army and the locals. I feel a twinge of guilt for the locals because I know from first hand experience that soldiers make terrible diplomats and I can imagine all too easily how things might get out of hand. Especially since this “heroic” Col. has volentold them to stick around when they could be safe with their families. Still, soldiers in need, it’s ultimately better for everyone that I get reinforcements in here and let them deal with it. Move forward with the mission. Then I find out the CIA is somehow inciting the locals to attack the army for unknown reasons. You could go either way here. Rescue the guys now or try to radio to find out what the hell is going on? The main guy chooses the immediate rescue and I’m fine with that. You meet an Lt who thinks you work for the CIA and sets up an ambush for you. The exact moment this game became unplayable to me was when you were in a comparatively safe area with a lot of hostile but more importantly misinformed soldiers one way and the option of leaving out the other. The guy decides the only option is to charge in guns-a blazing and kill dozens of Americans. He doesn’t bother to even shout something like “I’m not the CIA!” first. They start shouting afterwards, but I don’t think I’d much listen to the guys who were shooting at me and neither do these soldiers.
    I found the main character’s actions so repulsive I never even finished the firefight. I certainly could have missed some vital intel that made this ok, but assuming I didn’t he crossed the line way before he ever got to any bombs.

    1. Arparso says:

      During that whole first engagement with the 33rd (not counting in the ambush before), your team is actually yelling at the soldiers that they’re not CIA and that they should cease fire. Of course, noone believes you and listens to you and employs a shoot-first-ask-later policy… somewhat understandable considering what the 33rd must have had experienced during their stay in Dubai up until this point, with all the infighting, the insurgents and CIA operators trying to sabotage them.

      In that situation, the shooting was justified, I think. There also was no easy way out… they just dropped down that hole and would have had to climb back up, also leaving behind all the civilians the soldiers were killing down there.

  34. DavidJCobb says:

    Hey, Shamus, one of Taliesin’s boxes in this article has broken formatting from the recent site move.

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