Spec Ops: The Line is a linear military-weapon modern-warfare style shooter inspired by Heart Of Darkness, which should immediately inform any reader who recognises the literary value of Joseph Conrad’s work that it’s fucking dark. It’s set in the middle east with two hardbitten badass all-American white boys and one appropriately unthreatening hardworking all-American black guy emerging through a sandstorm to Dubai, a state that was, at last you heard, on the verge of being quite thoroughly fucked. Hearing news of it being fucked, you and your buddies approach the city in the hopes of unfucking it, only to find your arrival unfortunately post-fuckening – but now you’re here, stay a while, enjoy being pulled into the vortices of this city of corrupt brown people’s brutal corporate fisting – or something like that.
There is no surprise for anyone who follows game media here: Spec Ops: The Line is the smartest, best game of its type to emerge in 2012, and is one of the five best games to emerge in 2012. There’s not a critical response that doesn’t thrum with praise for its deep storytelling, its intense characterisation and of course, its stark, stinging indictment of storytelling in a genre normally regarded as narratively impoverished. There’s nothing about my experience playing SO:TL that doesn’t perfectly dovetail into this praise, and whenever this game is available on Steam for cheap, it’s definitely one of the best cheap games you can possibly experience. Right now it’s thirty dollars – and while the game is a bit short, if you have the largesse to afford it, I’d recommend buy it at that rate purely for being good. Get those guys some money.
Nice and simple, no? Great game, atmospheric, stylish, brilliantly presented and smart all over, and answers the complaint that the modern military genre is destitute of storytelling and the stereotypes about the fans are wholly unjustified, right? Well…
It’s a nice fantasy, isn’t it?
I have a friend who likes this genre of games, and has said that the plot and narrative in the genre is pointless because it’s all whizz-bang-shooty-sploshun fun, and I don’t doubt him for a moment. I don’t think that liking these games make you a frothing lackwitted racist – but I do think that the past decade’s culture of modern warfare games has created a strong trend and an environment that fosters and aids that mindset in those people who already are. This makes talking about and advocating for SO:TL so very important, because more games should take its lessons, both large and small, and work with them. With that in mind, let’s talk about some things that SO:TL do!
SOTL is a series of linear corridor fights from a plodding marine with regenerating health who can only carry two guns. Your characters are all introduced as hardbitten mil’try men wi’ a heart of lead, with lovable Lugo and plain-talkin’ Adam along with serious veteran Martin who’s endured but made it through okay. This three man military operation turns up in Dubai ready to save the day with their throbbing, massive guns, to rescue Walker’s noble and embattled former commander, and this establishment takes about a minute of entirely natural dialogue. From this strong point it goes on to deliver an ironclad experience that keeps its experience varied and challenging without ever feeling repetitive or slow.
One of the complaints about wall romance simulators of this ilk is that you can hunker down in a wall which makes any battle of attrition fundamentally a matter of tedium. SO:TL avoids this with its tightly-scripted enemy encounters; enemies come in large numbers and if unharassed will escalate their fire to indirect methods that fuck you up. Your cover will also deteriorate. Not versed in the genre enough to say, but this prevents a problem I foresaw regenerating health as having – where the sense of urgency deflates and fights become longer and slower as the game continues to ramp up challenge. This speaks to excellent pacing – while I kept playing with a hankering that there be fewer fights between me and the end, it was only because the story had me hooked in like an over-enthusiastic nipple-piercing specialist that moonlit as an angler.
Another element is the effort they put into the visuals. Now, if you looked at the game’s box and advertising copy you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s a searingly sunny otherwise brown-grey-yellow world, because that’s the image it wanted to coney. Yet, in the same way that Thief could have had a silent protaganist but chose not to (in a way that created work but improved the game), SO:TL is pretty. For a game that has every license to be visually simple, SO:TL is riotously colourful. Fallen, green road signs stud the landscape. White planes, blue cars, red trucks and buses – and that’s just the outdoor environments. It’s a game designed around – and built to utilise! – a location that is essentially a single gigantically sandy arsehole, and yet it doesn’t look like it. Even the grey and brown areas are studded with brightly coloured graffiti, signs and designer flutings. Enemies, to contrast, are less colourful, which makes them stand out better against many environments, and makes them blur into areas their camouflage is MEANT to do that. This adds challenge but doesn’t just make the environment and enemies blur together into a giant, incomprehensible mess.
I took notes as I played this game, jotting down anything that stood out to me that merited mentioning later, and there’s this one line: “like little-” Without spoilering, at one point Adams and Lugo get into an argument, and Walker shuts them down by telling them they’re both grown men and should stop acting like little …
You thought he’d say ‘girls,’ right? I did. I assumed that it would say ‘little girls,’ because that’s a macho way to put down a manly man. No – he says ‘little kids.’ That is a really fine detail to split – yet even in a game that’s full of opportunities to slip up and be casually racist, homophobic, or sexist, the game isn’t. It even breaks the rules of passive cinematic racism. It could have quick-time events with ease in a number of places and it doesn’t, and it could use pre-rendered cinematics as a way to take the load off the game’s engine, but again, they don’t. There’s a lot you can do accidentally wrong in this kind of game – and they didn’t. Even the scenes of torture are remarkably chilling despite being alien.
Without going into excessive details that give away plot developments, another element that they work well is the verisimillitude of the setting. Really, really amazingly nice, the way that a rich city’s collapse into ruin is used to explore alternative and connected ideas. The use of interface shifts for key moments, to amplify that feeling of distance. You don’t see the setting change, but you do see your view of the setting changing, as you get deeper and deeper inside. You see the excesses of the setting broken down into desperation and surival. At another point, a scientific term is mentioned for a thing that I’m pretty sure doesn’t exist at all, and I immediately understood. Then came a short explanation, quick and natural in dialogue, which confirmed my suspicion – that’s astounding use of compressed narrative.
The disconnect between the game and the entities within the game is an important one that many reviewers I think conspicuously chose to ignore in the name of talking about the hypocritical juxtapositioning of trying to make someone else feel guilty for something you told them to do. I find this slightly disingenuous because the game isn’t the agent here; the game is telling you what happens when you continue to play. You always have an option to defy the game – you can close the program and leave, to jump to the same metatextual level. Despite this, the game is designed to make you feel, and to criticise it for when, within the game, a character speaking for themselves asks you to do something, there’s little option.
That’s one of the most fascinating things about this game. Barring for one situation, every single horrible thing that happens in it, you choose. You choose whatever you see as the least horrible of two situations – but horrible they are. Hell, this follows through to the end of the game, where there are basically three different conclusions, all of which are about as narratively satisfying as the others, each one being a brilliant, satisfying capstone to a story that very seriously talks about and involves human elements of warfare that conventional videogame narrative not only avoid talking about, but in some cases, deny exist at all. You don’t have shellshocked soldiers hallucinating on the Battlefields. You don’t have the Call of Duty ringing in the ears of its victims even in the most banal of social settings.
While we’re talking about the game’s positive points, the camera. I’ve seen a lot of metaphors used for camera controls in other games, in particular to make it seem colorfully bad. This camera? It reminds me of a female mechanic, in that it works, it works very hard, and it not once complains when something is beyond it. It limits your options but when it does it, it does it with the understanding that you need to work that way, and the rest of the time, it gives you all the freedom it can to get your job done. Why a female mechanic? Because there’s something undeniably appealing about something that is so utterly working-class and grubby, that works so well. I want it absolutely highlighted that the camera here in this game is good without being fancy. It does its job, and it never seems to falter, no matter how thankless I am to it most of the time. If I missed a guy coming at me over my shoulder, it’s my problem for not sweeping the camera around.
Really, what sets SO:TL apart is the feeling of intelligence. When you rappel down a building at one point, your back to Dubai’s landscape, I tried to swing the camera around and check behind me – and couldn’t. The camera was limited to Walker’s field of vision, a fairly wide cone in front of him. In the context that was pretty interesting, meaning I started to examine the wall before me carefully, looking for details and being prepared me when shooters came into view. Yet, I couldn’t kid myself: There’s a strong chance that that sequence played out the way it did because the games’ designers wanted to reduce the load. Because it felt like a smart game, it made that sequence feel smart – meaning that instead of rolling my eyes and assuming ‘well, they didn’t do this,’ I wanted to find what they did.
Now, central to this story, if you know anything about the story it’s based on, or even if you have heard anything about it in the past few months, is that at some point, Very Bad Things happen. Actual war crimes are treated as war crimes, and the one-man war scenario is treated very realistically. There’s no denying that Martin Walker is an astoundingly impressive badass, yet I don’t find him gagworthy the way I normally do this style of character. Normally, a character needs a spark of satirical wit or emotional depth to breathe life into him, and in Walker’s case, the two great points that server Walker are his flawed nature, and that you’re not meant to like him. There were points in the story where I hated him, and when presented with the endings, and while I sought to make as moral an outing as I could of his descent into Konrad’s madness, that the game didn’t expect me to like Walker made the whole experience ring truer for me. There’s no sure fire way to make a bad impression on me than telling me I should like a thing, it seems.
Hang on, his expressions – let’s talk about that for a second. This game is a third-person perspective cover-based shooter. The vast majority of the time in combat, you are either seeing a crosshair with someone else’s face in it, or you’re seeing Walker hunkering in cover, usually the latter when he’s been hurt. You know what’s really remarkable about that? His expression. You know his face, you know his expressions. He looks distressed when he’s distressed, he looks frustrated when he’s frustrated, and by the ending arc of the game, he looks depressed and empty. I cannot think this is accidental. You see him so often, you see his face so often, that surely this gave the game’s developers some notion as to use this time as a way to deepen his emotional palate.
Not to say my time with SO:TL was all sunshine (of death) and gumdrops (of self loathing). The difficulty curve was tuned, perhaps, a little awkwardly for my experience. I’m used to the latter half of a game being about having advanced past pedestrian and normal enemies and therefore the challenge comes from more exotic things, while the challenge in the ending is just More Guys with Worse Cover options – with no commensurate improvement in player ability. Indeed, at several points the game strips you of your weaponry, leaving you to make do with much worse arms than normal, amping the difficulty further. Another, it leaves you out in the open, meaning your only way to save yourself is to kill before you’re noticed. For the most part I handled these swerves in formula decently enough, but I did eventually crack in one of the final chapters, turning the difficulty down during a section of the game where ammunition was scarce and you’re called upon to fight off a broad mix of bad guys. The thing is, the sequence beforehand where I’d been offered to turn the difficulty down was, in all technicality, much harder, but I was just sick and tired of retrying it, and wanted more plot, rather than to get stagnated down leaning a skillset that was going to be useful for maybe one more hour of my life.
The game experience relies on deprivation a bit too much, making ammunition scarce and time compressed. This is clearly to amplify the challenge, but it has a byproduct of making weapon selection a little meaningless. I clearly am quite good at getting headshots by the game’s standards, having the head-shot achievment before halfway through the plot, yet the later parts of the game were desperate scrabbles for ammunition, even after scoring multiple headshots on everyone on the field. I assume this is because you’re meant to use the right weapon for the right job, but the way the ammunition system works, I left every battlefield with the guns for which I had the most ammunition, and their utility could go to hell.
There are four basic enemies – normal, heavy, melee, and shotgun. The heavy and melee stand out and let you make tactical decisions based on how they fight, but the other two are just filler, and it can make combat a bit churny. Also, there’s almost no way to end a scenario but by killing everyone, which can make combat a bit of a checklist.
The game is obviously not perfect. It’s merely absolutely fantastic.