That’s some picture, isn’t it?
Let’s have a talk about Spec Ops: The Line.
In case you didn’t see that picture, here we go again:
Probably the game’s most famous image, there.
Most reviews will tell you that it’s a game with an excellent story, hampered somewhat by terrible shooter mechanics deeply rooted in the Mass Effect style of squad-based third-person shooting with regenerating health.
I’d like to provide a somewhat different perspective.
I’m prepared to make the argument that Spec Ops: The Line has serviceable mechanics. They’re fine. As for the story? The story gets first place at the “You Tried™ 2012” awards. Too bad that effort isn’t everything.
Let’s break it down.
1) The Mechanics
Spec Ops: The Line has peftectly serviceable, if somewhat nonstandard controls. It uses squad interaction extensively, and encourages use of a medical command to instruct one of your squadmates to raise the other if they go down. That’s important, because Captain Walker – the player character – is instantaneously, irretrievably dead if incapacitated. There’s no opportunity for the AI to raise him, he simply keels over, mostly with an uninspiring “You Died!”. The game shows almost a startling lack of imagination in its mechanical and tactical simplicity, but perhaps that simply feeds into The Narrative.
2) The Tale
Spec Ops: The Line is trying very, very hard to be a grown-up story about how when bad things happen to people who think they’re good people, it reveals their true character as bad people who are simply wearing the veneer of goodness. It is a game that is self-defeating on a level that had not been seen since the ending of Singularity, in 2010.
The primary narrative tools deployed within Spec Ops: The Line are the mental state of Captain Martin Walker, the player’s control character, and the nature of operating with limited equipment and information in a hostile environment.
Martin Walker is a combat veteran. to the game’s developers, this means he’s already unstable. The developers give many clear indications through loading screens, plot points, and dialogue that they believe that all homicide is murder. This brings with it a lot of “culture bundling” – ideas that gather around this central conceit like “murderers are eternally burdened by the terrible things they have done” and “there is never a justification for taking the life of another person”. There’s another one, too, which is particularly salient due to an intent of the game’s lead writer, Walt Williams. “All murderers are forever stained by the souls they have dispatched to the afterlife.” Williams wrote the story with the intent that an event in the game kills Walker, and everything experienced thereafter is his journey through Purgatory.
This all bundles up, of course, and the result is Captain Martin Walker, Special Forces Operational Detachment Delta. Throughout the course of the game, Walker’s attitude and tone shift inexorably. He starts out as a consummate soldier – Professional, detached, doing his job in a place that has gone to the proverbial dogs and literal sand. He doesn’t particularly want to be here, but it is the life he signed up for and so he treats it resignedly. He sees that members of the 33rd Infantry Battalion, the unit he is here to offer support to, have been killed, and determines that he needs to offer support by finding their killers. Keep this in mind, it’s going to be important momentarily: The mission is to assist the 33rd with evacuating Dubai.
As the game progresses, Walker loses his grasp on his goal. It’s called “mission creep”, the tendency to lose track of the original objective in favor of localized or more recent issues. He slowly loses his cool, drops his objectivity. Abandons his mission and starts fighting the very people he was here to help, because some actual rando tells him that the 33rd is now murdering civilians. This is sight unseen, mind – Walker has seen no evidence of this to date. He simply decides that because he’s angry, what with being burdened by all his murders, that he should take that anger out on the biggest thing around. His fellow soldiers. Walker starts talking to himself. And what’s worse, someone’s answering back.
And now we get to the second narrative tool being used: the nature of operating with limited equipment and information. I’ll explain with perhaps the game’s most famous scene.
You have a tactical decision to make as Captain Walker. You’re tired, you’ve been shot at by a lot of men who don’t like you, and now you and your unit are facing down a regiment of the 33rd Infantry Battalion, US Army. You have three guys, an M4A1, an M249 with half a belt of ammo, and a Tavor TAR-21 that’s got a bent front sight. The three of you are in damaged Level III body armor and have enough food and water to survive twelve hours unassisted. The 33rd has been informed that you are ECs (enemy combatants) and has been issued WEAPONS TIGHT, which means that if they positively identify you they are going to shoot for “switch”, instantaneous permanent incapacitation. That is, to kill. The enemy is at strength, with over fifty soldiers and HMMWVs as well as some light armored vehicles. They have AT4 and RPG-7 rocket launchers, M249s that aren’t depleted, and more M4A1s than you can shake the proverbial stick at. You, however, have a single tactical advantage: A mortar launcher and a case of white phosphorus rounds. WP rounds are nasty, nasty shit – WP itself is highly toxic and spontaneously self-ignites on contact with air even at low temperatures with enough surface area. A WP round contains powdered white phosphorus and a small charge which detonates in midair, spraying burning powder everywhere. The toxic smoke is lethal, especially when combined with the chemistry that ignites flesh and melts bone. Now, here’s the thing the game asks you: Using nothing more than you see through a thermal imager mounted on a parachute launched from the mortar cannon, do you use WP or take the Army on by hand?
The answer is that you are playing Spec Ops: The Line. The concept of “correct” answer has not entered the possibility space. Both answers are “wrong”.
You see, the Army is herding civilians. You couldn’t have known that, of course. If you take the 33rd on in a direct assault, you’ll win. But not before the 33rd mercy-kill the civilians, thinking that you’re going to torture them because you’re ECs. If you use the WP mortar, the civvies make a nice, bright spot on the white-is-hot thermal camera you’re using. And of course, a tempting target. You cannot conclude the WP mortar sequence until there is zero target movement.
To progress in the game, the civilians must die. This is a demand of the tale the game is trying to tell, and moreover is a demand of The Narrative, the overarching attempt to convince civilization at large that violence is not a useful tool for interacting with the world. Except, of course, when your betters demand it and then only when executed properly, by trained but nonmilitary forces acting directly on behalf of a society which has your best interests in mind.
Spec Ops: The Line is best described by a metaphor. It is an AKM in the hands of a first-year philosophy student at UCLA. The shooting is serviceable and fine for what it is, but unpolished because no amount of polish will shine that particular turd up. The story hates itself for what it’s doing, hates you because you’re in this situation too, and hates the society that has made doing these things normal because if we all just put the gun down and talked none of this would be necessary.
“If we could all just stop being self-interested, stop being selfish and angry and thinking only about what we want,” says Spec Ops: The Line, “maybe the world would be a better place and you wouldn’t have to listen to me preach at you about ethics and how your choices don’t matter, you fucking murderer.”
Oh, uh. On the result/effort scale? The game developers wanted to crank out a Real Serious third-person action game that had Real Things to Say About Serious Issues. So I’m going to guess they were going for a 10. They succeeded in putting out an overly-serious mess that tries too hard to be cerebral.
3/10. And that’s only because they managed to not fuck up the regenerating health mechanic and there’s at least one environment that says “killbox” that isn’t in fact a killbox.