I am not a fan of the “bro-shooter” genre. I mean, obviously. I’m sure I’ve belabored this idea in the past. Rather than just raging against each game as it comes out, I generally ignore them, unless I hear that a title is trying something different or unexpected.
I’m using the broad version of the genre, one that includes games like Call of Duty, Gears of War, Killzone, Kane & Lynch, Homefront, and Far Cry 2. Some are cover-based, some aren’t. Some are real-world, some aren’t. Some are third-person, some are first-person. The term “bro shooter” isn’t a hard-and-fast category, but a sort of generic pejorative we throw at a game once it accumulates too many symptoms of the genre. We can argue about edge cases like Mass Effect or haggle over why Half-Life doesn’t wind up in this category, but let’s just set that aside for right now and agree that some games meet these criteria and that I don’t enjoy them.
Spec Ops: The Line is a cover-based modern military shooter starring a white thirty-something American man with brown hair. For bonus points, he’s even voiced by Nolan North1. You’ve got a “ripped from the headlines as skimmed on Reddit” backdrop for the conflict. You’ve got characters that are pickled in their own machismo. You’ve got the obligatory selection of real-world weapons. You’ve got your mandatory vehicle section, turret section, and sniping section. It’s the very embodiment of the genre.
And yet. I liked it.
But before I review the game I need to make it clear what I dislike about the genre and why. There is a possibility that some will see this as “trolling”. I mean, I don’t like cooking games, or find-the-item games. Or shmups. So I ignore them. It’s pretty hard to review a genre without the whole thing coming off like, “This genre is invalid and shouldn’t exist and the people who like it are bad!”
But in order to talk about why I like Spec Ops: The line, I have to talk about why I would normally hate Spec Ops: The Line.
For the record, the screenshots in this post are from OTHER bro shooters. None of these are from Spec Ops.
Games set in the modern military world generally leave me cold. It’s always the same bunch of hyper-masculine man-ape archetypes, hooting and grunting as they fight their way to the top of the corpse pile.
Cover-based gameplay is monotonous to me. I like moving around in a fight. I feel like I need something more than just spraying bullets at the brown-colored foes. Give me a gravity gun. Or Space magic. Invisibility. Some laser-type guns. The ability to bash through walls. Super jumping. Mind-controlling your foes. Cybernetic implants. Stealth gameplay. Bullet time. Whatever.
People dismiss this kind of thing as a “gimmick”, but that’s like saying barbecue is “just a condiment”. Okay, fine. But when the alternative is eating a piece of meat that tastes exactly like every other piece of meat, condiments start sounding pretty good. Particularly since the “meat” of these games tastes like tofu already.
Also, sorry for that previous paragraph. That metaphor kind of got away from me.
I don’t like how bossy and verbose the games are, to the point where there’s always someone shouting at you or shooting at you.
I don’t like how so much of the gameplay is mandated. You don’t have a jump button, you have a button that will let you vault over something if you’re in one of the designated vault-over-things zones. You don’t have a set of general tools for stealth for when you’re in the mood to be sneaky, you have stealth sections where the game allows (or forces!) you to sneak. Battlefields aren’t dynamic, branching environments where you can flank, seek the high ground, ambush, or go frontal-assault. No, battlefields are a chain of chest-high walls where sometimes you can choose if you want to hide behind the wall on the right or the wall on the left. You flank when you’re told to flank and go frontal-assault in most other cases. There’s no reward for being clever because you’re never given the choice of being dumb.
This “mandated gameplay” ends up being tyrannical and one-dimensional. It’s like going to the playground with a drill sergeant.
Get up on those swings and give me two minutes! Higher! That’s enough. Now go down the slide five times! Come on, it’s time for hopscotch, and then I want you doing 50 revolutions on the merry-go-round. Come on kid, I can’t hear you giggle! I want frolicing. I want merriment. I want to hear some goddamn youthful exuberance! Go go go!
I think the hyper-realistic setting gets in the way of the gameplay. Okay, we’re supposedly Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, CIA Operatives, or some other breed of rarefied hardass. We’re supposedly in the real world, fighting in real locations, using real weapons, but at the end of the game you’ve somehow killed a thousand people single-handed and absorbed ten thousand bullets. That sort of thing is a little easier to swallow once the world has a few units of science fiction or fantasy in its bloodstream. There’s this odd disconnect between the backdrop and the action taking place in front of it. Some games mask this by surrounding you with mortal allies, just so you can feel like you’re part of a larger force. But in other games you and your NPC buddy can clear out an entire battalion of entrenched foes without either one of you saying, “This was the most statistically unlikely victory in the history of our species. Was anyone recording that?”
I dislike the ALL MAN gameplay. It’s just… it’s boring. The white middle-class all-American patriot who is tough and fearless and honorable and smart and good-looking. There’s nothing wrong with the character per se. But we’ve met him. A long time ago. I’m sick of him. Give me someone else. And no, giving him a tortured past to overcome or a dead wife does not make him “someone else”. Please.
I don’t like the weapons. One lump of black gunmetal at the bottom of the screen looks like any other, and one machine gun sounds pretty much like another. Sure, some sound deeper or faster or louder, but overall we’re talking about the sound of grenades, mortars, machine guns, tanks and helicopters, all singing together in a grand chorus of white noise.
Obviously I’m not suggesting that Modern Warfare games should have the Half-Life 2 Tau Cannon and Quake III railgun. I’m just saying that this is why I don’t play these games. My ears get tired and I get bored.
So that’s why I don’t like the genre. And this is to say nothing of these games in their online form.
So… how is it I just played an entire game cut from this template, got to the end, and began a new game?
I’ll tell you. Next time.
Quakecon 2011 Keynote Annotated
An interesting but technically dense talk about gaming technology. I translate it for the non-coders.
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Would you have survived in the middle ages?
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