Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Spec Ops: The Line review

    Violence in video games is something that I tend to go with the majority of gamers with. I.e. it's a harmless activity roughly akin to action movies. The people who are killed are fictional and there's no more danger to people playing them than reading Shakespeare. After all, plenty of people died in Hamlet, didn't they?

    Spec Ops: The Line has a different take on the subject. It's not that playing video games will make you violent, but it questions whether or not it's really a healthy past time or artistically worthwhile to slaughter thousands of artificial pixels.

    In short, it's sort of the shooter version of Watchman. The game's protagonists are living in a world governed by shooter rules like Call of Duty or Gears of War but react to the carnage around them in a believable manner.

    In other words, visceral horror and revulsion. Indeed, even when our "heroes" attempt to live by the rules of a shooter and relentlessly mow down hordes of enemies, it is something that proves to be a horrific mistake. The game lures into thinking things will be one way and routinely pulls the rug out from under you.

    The premise is that the city of Dubai has been hit by a sandstorm of Biblical proportions and the 33rd Battalion of the United States Army is sent in to help with the evacuation. The evacuation goes poorly and it is believed the 33rd Battalion is KIA. The sandstorm, being a Deus Ex Machina and all, lasts for six months and everyone writes off the 33rd as a loss. When a transmission is heard which indicate that members of the 33rd may still be alive, the US military sends in a three-man team to determine if there's anyone alive.

    The idea behind the story is ridiculous for a variety of reasons but it's like a hidden world of supernatural creatures running around in present time, you either put on your suspension of disbelief blinders or there's no story. In any case, our heroes head on in and immediately find signs that the 33rd is engaged in a low-level war with the survivors they've dubbed "insurgents." You know, despite the fact that Dubai is in the United Arab Emirates and they have no authority there.

    What's amazing is that the story actually doesn't attempt to make obvious commentary on the War on Terror or Iraq War. Quite the contrary, the game deliberately sets out to create a self-contained situation that functions by its own rules. The 33rd aren't invaders and the locals aren't terrorists. They use some of the War on Terror's language but even that is mostly replaced by real life military jargon.

    In a way, I think this makes better satire than directly making one-on-one correlations. Apocalypse Now wouldn't be nearly as good a critique of Vietnam if not for the oddball elements that come from Heart of Darkness' original Congo setting. Spec Ops: The Line draws liberally from both works, establishing itself as a work about the horrors of wartime very early on. Ironically, what you would THINK they crib from those two stories is a clever bit of misdirection.

    People who want to know what I'm talking about will just have to play the game.

    Spec Ops: The Line is filled with the game bringing home the fact that the people you're fighting and killing by the dozens are human beings. Not to spoil but, on at least one occasion, the people you think are the bad guys turn out to be regular people who now attack you because you've killed so many of them. Several times, the story calls into question why you're reacting with Call of Duty-esque violence before reminding the players that other options have disappeared because of it. In other words, in for a penny, in for a pound even when semi-innocent people will be killed.

    There's a bit of arrogance in this sort of game-making, saying, "Why are you playing this bloody murder simulator?" The answer, of course, is that "You, the developer, have chosen to devote thousands of hours to creating this bloody murder simulator. Worse, you've charged me sixty bucks for it so you better damn well deliver the goods."

    Just as the developers more or less ask, through in-game dialogue, what's preventing the player from turning the game off you have to ask them, "what prevented you from making a game where people aren't slain by the thousands?" Still, despite this, Spec Ops: The Line is a wonderful 'horrors of war' story.

    A note on the other elements of the game, the game play is average and the setting is pretty small. I finished the game in about six hours, so it's probably not worth paying the full price for. Still, much like Portal, I can't really imagine the game being expanded on in any meaningful way. It's good the way it is.



  1. I got my first opportunity to see this game in person at a co-worker’s house from Dish a few days ago and noticed that the only real gripe I had was that the ability the vault over cover was that the button doubled as your melee. Seriously, when a grenade landed at my feet and I needed to take evasive action I ended up more often rifle-butting the obstacle than gracefully leaping over it, but I’m sure I’ll get used to it in time. I decided I couldn’t go wrong by adding it to my Blockbuster@Home game queue. I don’t always have the option to buy all the great games out there I want due to lack of funds, so the most economical way for me to play games is by renting them.

    1. It's definitely something you either want to trade in old games for a used copy (so you can return it in seven days) or rent. Spec Ops: The Line is a great game but I don't see much replay value to it and I also think it's too short to really be worth sixty bucks.