Spec Ops: The Line is the Most Interesting Generic Shooter Ever

My mind is flooded with conflicting thoughts on Spec Ops: The Line, so rather than let it coalesce into something editorial-worthy, I’m just going to barf it all out in what will probably be a very ramble-y blog post.

I really, really liked Spec Ops for making me think. It told a more interesting story than any Call of Duty, Battlefield, Medal of Honor, or Crysis. It tried things that very few games try to do: it tried to comment on its own genre and on the act of killing digital enemies. From a perspective of storytelling aspirations, world-building, and subtext, Spec Ops has way more in common with Bioshock than any military shooter.

That said, it also had a tendency to shoot itself in the foot repeatedly. Lacking polish in the places that matter most, Spec Ops has a really awful tendency to confuse the player, take them out of the moment, or diffuse the impact of its more powerful moments. In a lot of ways, it feels like a rough draft for one of the most incredible video games ever made.

Through much of the opening areas of the game I was very confused about why and who I was shooting. Bandits with guns, renegade factions of a US Battalion, those were enemies I understood. But after a while you run across US soldiers and the ensuing battle is chalked up to a very terrible instance of friendly fire. Then you keep shooting them. Then you start sneaking up on them and sniping their heads off, or knifing them from behind.

“Why don’t we check to see if they’re going to shoot at us first?” I asked. The act of killing people who were mistaking us for bad guys became a bit too casual. It went beyond clever commentary and into dissonance. I didn’t want my squad to murder anyone unless they shot first, but I had nothing but the barrel of a gun to speak with.

It turns out this is what the developer wanted. By the time I’d given up on diffusing the situation and just started popping heads and going for sick triple kills, the game had lined up its masterstroke. If you’ve played Spec Ops, I need little more than the words “white phosphorous” to indicate the scene I’m referring to. But to be somewhat vague (you should probably just go play the game), Spec Ops tricks you into doing something pretty damn horrific.

I felt tricked though. The game’s previous failings were the only reason I’d become so casual about killing everyone. The scene was still pretty damn powerful, but I felt they cheated to get that reaction out of me.

As the game progresses, most of these moments are framed in the context of moral choices. Compared to that first horrible mistake, though, most of the moral choices are pretty tame or have easy ways out. At one point you’re forced to choose between shooting two men. One stole water, the other was sent to apprehend him and subsequently murdered an entire family. Who do you choose? Conveniently, you can simply wash your hands of the whole thing and kill the snipers who are forcing your hand. In another instance, an opportunity to gun down a mob of angry civilians is easily diffused by shooting into the air and scaring them off. The game was trying to make me feel like a monster but kept giving me an easy alternative.

But then I think of the person who isn’t thinking outside of the box. The person who simply follows instructions because the linear shooter told them to is going to have a pretty tragic journey in Spec Ops. Maybe my experience wasn’t all that powerful, but when I consider that some people won’t even realize there are alternatives, it suddenly seems much more clever.

This isn’t Mass Effect, where decisions are made through clear cut dialogue trees and extreme red and blue moral choices. Spec Ops conveys almost all your decisions through the same gun you use to murder a bajillion bad dudes. It’s more organic, and thus a hell of a lot easier to trick the player into doing stupid stuff. Players following orders to murder tons of innocent people because they don’t even realize there’s another option? That’s fascinating and scary.

To put it simply, the way Spec Ops forms its powerful moments is both amazing and flawed, and I can’t quite decide which side I land on.

There are moments where developer Yager simply messed up. Polished visuals can go a long way, and animation glitches can do a lot to ruin a scene in which you’re forced to gun down screaming soldiers engulfed in flames. Then there’s the silly “bad-ass” moments—firing a grenade launcher from the back of a truck, blowing up a building with a helicopter minigun, sliding down ziplines bare-handed—that just contradict a lot of what Spec Ops is going for.

Spec Ops could have gotten a lot more mileage without those moments, the constant achievement pop-ups, and the video game-y enemies like armored brutes and knife psychos. It could have done without the fourth wall-breaking line, “Haven’t we done this before?” that plays when you revisit the helicopter scene from the beginning of the game. It didn’t need to go into slow-mo every time you get a head shot.

More than anything, it probably could have benefited from weightier gameplay. The hyper-generic cover shooter combat uses all the same boilerplate mechanics of every other cover shooter, but lacks any of the flavor that games like Gears of War bring to the table. It’s too stiff, it lacks impact, and the sound mix turns every firefight into a indecipherable mess of screaming and gunfire.

Despite all this, Spec Ops: The Line is still an ambitious and praise-worthy game. I could double the length of this piece just by discussing the ramifications of its multiple endings. I will bounce back and forth forever on the way it approaches moral choices. Despite its generic gameplay, the story and world build up something incredibly memorable. It’s pretty much required gaming for anyone that cares about where this medium is headed.

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