So about a month ago I saw some ads for a new video game coming out called Spec Ops: The Line. It looked like any other standard shooter: gritty bearded men carrying big guns and causing explosions, like the umpteen bazillion other shooters on the planet. I quickly dismissed it out of hand.
And that’s the danger of prejudice and preconceptions. Judging something based on its outward appearance is a horrible thing to do because the outside never tells us the whole story. I remember a couple of years ago I was at the gym, struggling to do some bench presses (using just the bar, I didn’t even have weights on it) and sweating like some kind of wild boar. Suddenly I saw this huge behemoth of a man stride into the weight room, bronze skin shimmering with sweat and with bulging muscles threatening to tear through his clothes like the god damn Hulk. He had a spiked mohawk and every inch of his body was covered in tribal tattoos, a swooping eagle depicted on the side of his face, its curved talons wrapping around his eye as if preparing to pluck it out. This guy was a god damn monster. And he was heading my way.
This is it. I thought. He’s going to rip me in half like a phone book.
He strode up to me, staring me right in the eyes, me staring back into those two black voids of emotionless death and destruction.
“Excuse me, sir, are you finished using this?” The man said in a voice so quiet and subdued it wouldn’t have sounded out of place coming out of a field mouse. Long story short, the guy was a friendly and downright awesome guy. But I almost never found that out because I was about three seconds from bolting like a frightened rabbit just because he looked like a demon made flesh.
So it was with Spec Ops: The Line, it looked and sounded like a dozen other shooter games I’ve played throughout the years. Every gameplay video, every promotional event, every internet banner screamed mundane, boring story that permeates every shooter in the business. I would have forgotten this game entirely were it not for whispers of something…more. Something…unheard of.
It had a good story.
No it couldn’t be, I told myself.
I bought Spec Ops: The Line solely so I could play it and then rip its narrative apart. Surely the gripping exploration of man’s dark nature wouldn’t come in the form of some samey-looking shooter. Not from a video game studio best known for making sports games and mediocre sequels.
Sometimes though, you find greatness where you least expect it…
Warning: I’m going to be spoiling this game. If your a fan of dark stories and video games, this game is a must buy. Playing through it blind is an absolutely remarkable experience, so buy it right now. For those not interested in dark stories or video games, I’ll also be going into detail about the disturbing, violent and downright horrific events that are depicted in-game. Might want to avoid this one if you’re squeamish.
Spec Ops: The Line
A Storyteller’s Review
So it begins in Dubai. A sandstorm of massive proportions have buried the city under mountains of sand, killing tens of thousands of people. The United States 33rd Infantry Battalion were sent in to help evacuate the city, but when the storm was about to hit the city, the 33rd bravely volunteered to stay behind and help save as many people as they could. The storm hit and six months of silence followed. Not a word from anyone inside the city. The 33rd were thought to be lost. Until a distress signal is detected within the city. Three members of Delta Force are sent in to locate and extract survivors.
They are led by Colonel John Konrad. (Ho ho, I see what you did there 2k!) Yes, this is a retelling of Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Much like Apocalypse Now brought the book into movie form, Spec Ops: The Line seeks to bring Heart of Darkness into the video game world. Of course that doesn’t mean they will succeed, after all Far Cry 2 was supposed to that as well but as I pointed out, it was a huge failure on that note. Lots of games try to explore the horrors of war, but many of them are so over the top that the violence just becomes goofy. As David Wong points out, video game violence is never about us indulging in our hidden desires to become serial killers, but more about empowerment or just enjoying the Loony Toons style comic violence. Specs Ops: The Line, however, is the first game I’ve played that truly showed the horrific nature of warfare. It had scenes that made me uncomfortable, that made me wince and shudder.
Let’s start at the beginning:
When I first met the main characters, three Delta Force soldiers named Walker, Lugo and Adams, I thought my original judgement was correct. Three archetypal soldiers: the strictly professional Walker (our player character), the wise-cracking smartass Lugo, and the big gruff heavy weapons specialist Adams. As we see them walking into the ruins of Dubai they’re acting like the chest-thumping, grizzled manly meat chunks that make up every character in every shooter ever. Great, this is going well.
My first surprise came a few minutes in, however. When a group of AK-47 armed refugees surround the soldiers, instead of immediately opening fire like I had expected them too, the soldiers actually tried talking to them! What’s this? Our characters trying a solution that doesn’t involve shooting first? Holy crap, is Lugo speaking Farsi? A bilingual character?
That was when I knew that this wasn’t our ordinary shooter. This is still a video game though, and eventually we are forced to gun down the refugees as they open fire. We see the butchered remains of dead American soldiers and as we continue into the city we hear the desperate distress call of a patrol of US soldiers being overrun by armed insurgents. Slightly disappointed that once again our enemies were going to be a bunch of turban-wearing foreigners we manage to get to the last surviving soldier just before he dies of his wounds, with his last pained breaths he tells us that another soldier has been kidnapped and taken to a hotel that now serves as a refugee camp. This is where I really got a glimpse of what was to come. After a brief gunfight, we find out the truth of the situation. The 33rd aren’t heroes struggling against senselessly violent natives. In the power vacuum left in the abandoned city, the 33rd have turned into a gang of thugs, oppressing the local population in the name of stability and survival. They immediately start trying to kill us.
During a battle in a civilian area, I saw the top of someone’s head hovering just above a shelf. Thinking it was another rogue american soldier just waiting to ambush me, I carefully lined up a shot and put a single bullet through the top of the exposed skull. I run over to gather up any spare ammo only to find that it wasn’t a soldier…
It was a young woman. She’d been crouching behind the shelf to hide from the firefight raging around her.
Wait. No…No way. What the hell, game! You’re supposed to make civilians immortal! Or have a little red X float over the crosshairs when I aim at a civilian!
Any game that doesn’t feature that is usually a game like Grand Theft Auto, where haplessly slaughtering civilians is half the fun. In Grand Theft Auto accidentally piling through a group of pedestrians on your way to murder a hooker for stealing drug money is just so much white noise, a pleasant little distraction to break up the monotony of the long drives. This felt different, there was no giggling 12-year old style humor from seeing this woman dead on the floor. The game’s tone, art direction, character design…everything just made this seem way more realistic. Darker. Almost scary. Killing that woman was affected me more than a rolling over a dozen people with a bulldozer in Grand Theft Auto. Obviously deep down I know all I did was make of computer code follow a set formula to make a character model move, but emotionally, allowing myself to experience the story and giving myself over to it. I killed that woman. I didn’t mean to, but I did.
And that was positively bland compared to the relentless horror this game throws at you. It wasn’t until the 5th level of the game that I realized something: the people I was shooting weren’t instantly dying. Once again, its common in video games to shoot an enemy and for him to simply die. If he survives and is writhing on the floor it just means he’s going to grab another gun and start shooting at you from the prone position, like in Far Cry 2. This is the sight I was greeted with when I went to finish off a downed enemy, thinking he was reaching for a gun:
You can’t tell from the picture but the guy was still squirming around, moaning in agony and clutching a bleeding wound in his abdomen. The worst part were his eyes, as you can see there, they just stare at you. Even with the graphics as dodgy as they are, it still managed to evoke horror. This intensity continues to ramp up throughout the game and yet the story’s pacing is so pitch perfect that it never begins to feel overdone. At one point you’re split off from your squad and only armed with a pistol containing five rounds, a dozen soldiers closing in on your position. Instead of a cutscene or quick time event, you have to survive on your own. I had to take five of the soldiers down and rush the sixth, hitting him in the face with the butt end of my pistol and stealing his rifle. It almost felt like that scene in Saving Private Ryan where two men are struggling with a knife, it was visceral and real. Oh but it gets even worse.
You come across the rebelling local populace attacking a 33rd stronghold, a bunch of armed civilians attacking a highly trained and heavily armed professional army. It ends with predictable results, the insurgents lose. But as they’re withdrawing, beaten and wounded, the 33rd launches White Phosphorous rounds into the crowd. For those that don’t know White Phosphorous is a highly flammable and toxic chemical, it’s banned by the Geneva Convention as an incendiary armament, but a loophole allows it to be used to create smoke screens (and if there just so happens to be soldiers where you’re laying the smoke screen, so be it). It burns with such intensity that only a few seconds of exposure will produce third degree burns, and even if you survive the burning, you’ll absorb the phosphorous and end up dying of multiple organ failure anyway. You have to walk through the aftermath, as the people are burning and reaching out for help, but you can’t touch them without getting incinerated yourself. All you can do really, is put a merciful bullet into the head of the dying. So a little while later, nearly a hundred enemy soldiers lay between you and where you need to be. You can’t take them all on with conventional weapons. Luckily the white phosphorous mortars that the 33rd used on the insurgents is near at hand. It’s time for some poetic justice…unfortunately there are unintended consequences.
Inside the base there is a group of refugees taken hostage by the 33rd, but you can’t tell when you’re firing the mortars. The mortar uses computers to calculate the trajectory, and a small floating camera allows you to pick targets. Unfortunately all the camera shows you are the heat signatures of the people below, and looking through a computer screen at a bunch of white blobs, its easy to forget that these are people. When you see the civilians, they look exactly the same as the soldiers and I lobbed that canister into that group with the same casual indifference that I did when I was killing the soldiers. It’s a great commentary on the nature of modern warfare, we’ve separated ourselves from the horrors of killing by putting a monitor between us and the people we’re killing. The AC-130 gunship level from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare brought up the same issue, but this level takes it to its furthest extreme by showing us the results face to face, and the consequences of not being able to visually verify targets.
This is the pivotal moment of the game and where Captain Walker’s downward slide into madness begins. The game does a brilliant job showing you the slow, gradual descent of Captain Walker, turning him from a strictly professional soldier into an armed psychopath driven into an animalistic rage. Remember in my Mass Effect 3 review, I said that the indoctrination theory would have been the video game equivalent of the unreliable narrator? Well that’s exactly what happens here. As Captain Walker’s both physical and mental health begins to deteriorate, everything in the game begins to change, to the point that you begin to question what’s real. Some are obvious, like when the lights begin flashing and a heavy soldier begins appearing and disappearing. Others though…well its up to you to interpret what’s real.
For instance, headshots in the game sometimes result in the person’s entire skull exploding, leaving only a neck stump. If you’ll recall earlier, that didn’t happen when I shot that lady in the head on accident. So is this happening because the character has access to higher caliber weaponry? Or is it merely a figment of Walker’s increasingly unstable mind? Even the most basic of functions in the game begins to change.
There is a mechanic in the game that allows you to finish off enemies that you knock over in melee combat and, before this moment, these were fast and efficient. A simple bullet to the head, a rifle butt to the face or a punch in the head was all that was required. After this, however, they become more brutal and you can see Captain Walker start to take sadistic glee in his killing. He begins shooting people in the knee and shoving the barrel of his gun into their screaming mouths. He’ll get down on his hands and knees, killing a downed soldier by using the barrel of his gun to snap their neck. Likewise the dialogue between the characters becomes increasingly hostile and aggressive. Suddenly the standard military jargon of “Tango Down” is replaced with “Got the fucker!” “I took down the son of a bitch!” and other gleeful exclamations of victory. They’re no longer just killing because it’s necessary, or for self-defense, they begin to kill because they enjoy it. They start to revel in the violence.
The difficulty begins to ramp up at this stage as well, resulting in you dying frequently. As the game loads the next level you get a standard loading screen: a picture, some text and a circular indicator. The text in the beginning of the game are just standard tips (sniper rifles have scopes to help with long range fights, etc) or story recaps (you’ve entered this level, and here’s a rundown of what’s happened so far.) Even this starts to change though.
“Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you” is the text I was greeted to upon one death. Um, okay, that’s a bit weird. I thought.
“How much are Adams and Lugo worth to you?” Okay, now the game was officially weirding me out.
“Do you feel like a hero yet?” Is there a psychiatrist in the room? Please?
It all creates this overwhelming sense of madness and horror, taking us inside the mind of a man driven to the point of insanity by unrelenting violence and stress. It also creates a totally new interaction between player and character. In most games, we the players, are nothing more than puppeteers, pulling strings to make the guy on screen do what we want. Occasionally we operate as their conscience in games with moral choice systems. In RPGs we’re guiding our character through the story. In Spec Ops: The Line, however, what are we?
Do we represent the last vestiges of humanity left in Captain Walker? Are we desperately trying to keep him from losing himself entirely?
Buy this game right now!
I can’t even begin to describe how involving this story was. The game isn’t very long, maybe 6-7 hours. That’s usually a problem I have with games, but only because that usually means the story sucks. In this case though, the game lasts exactly as long as it needed to. It told the story it wanted to. It succeeded where so many have failed.
I’m not going to go into the ending because already this post has gotten a bit too long, and it may even be a bit rambling, but that’s only because there’s is just so much going on in this game that its difficult to put down into words. You have to truly experience this game in order to understand really. I hope I’ve at least let you know why I enjoyed it, and given you a glimpse of this excellent story. Maybe in a few weeks when I’ve had more time to play and absorb this game I’ll be able to break it down in more detail. But I was just so excited by this excellent story, in a video game no less, that I had to write about it.
I crossed The Line, and I hope you will too.