Spec Ops: The Line

No pictures in this one, folks - replaying the game was enough of a chore, taking screenshots was just too much.

No pictures in this one, folks – replaying the game was enough of a chore, taking screenshots was just too much.

Some of my favorite works, in any medium, are those that deconstruct, examine, and lampshade their chosen forms of art: People like Jasper Fforde, Terry Pratchett, Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino have based their entire careers on works like this, and deserve every bit of acclaim they get for it.

Spec Ops: The Line, Yager Games’ landmark opus, may seem like one of those on the surface, but it’s another animal entirely. There are dozens of differences between it and the creations of the other artists I mentioned, but there’s one that overshadows the rest, and it leads to most of the game’s successes and failures:

Pratchett, Tarantino, and so on – they love books and movies, and the ones they make themselves are playfully satirical, but still affectionate. Spec Ops, though, hates video games. It hates video games with a passion, one that is comparable to the likes of a vengeful computer hates the hapless human scientists it invariably turns against. And since, by necessity, you’re a player of video games if you’re playing Spec Ops, the game hates you.

I was dreading having to replay the game for this review, because though the game is filled with a palpable sense of devotion to its military shooter genre, the hate means that you won’t have much fun as you play or experience it. This, my friends, is a work of True Art – capital letter True Art – which means that it has the disposition and temperament of a sixteen-year-old girl in leather and too much eye shadow.

This is going to be much more of a straight-up recap that a real review, because it’s pretty much flawless on its own terms – the only criticism I can really give is regarding what they were trying to do in the first place. And, in all honesty, any discussion would be a drop in the bucket – this is already one of the most-discussed games out there, which I feel is always a good thing as it goes toward legitimizing the medium.

The game starts with a short rail shooter section. As you fly through a color-washed, skyscraper filled city, people shout at you variations on the theme of “Protect this helicopter by shooting at the other helicopters”, though usually they were far less coherent. As an experiment, I never fired a shot – and of course, aside from the requisite mild tinnitus and blood-bordered screen, there was no change whatsoever. This was probably one of the few concessions to the military shooter genre that wasn’t meant to be a dark parody – and I feel it was a missed opportunity on Yager’s part. It would have been great to hear our player character to shout something something along the lines of “DO I NEED TO SHOOT? DOES IT EVEN MAKE A DIFFERENCE?”

After the helicopter heads into a sandstorm and hits something. We hear narration from our hero, Captain Martin Walker. He’s heading a three-man team into the decadent and super-high-tech city of near-future Dubai, which has been ravaged by natural disasters for some sort of poignancy world record attempt. He’s supposed to just go on a recon mission and report back to his superiors, but he really wants to rescue his hero and old war buddy Col. John Konrad, who was lost in the city along with his battalion, as he tried to rescue survivors of the disaster. Konrad’s name is one of our few clues that the game is very loosely based on Joseph Konrad’s Heart of Darkness, which inspired the seminal 1979 movie Apocalypse Now. I haven’t seen the movie in years, but the game definitely diverges from it, while remaining faithful to the themes of the book and movie.

Wait, did I say “Remaining faithful to the themes”? I meant “Turning it into the usual paper-thin excuse to shoot foreigners in a breathtaking, cluttered environment.” But, y’know, it’s in the name of deconstruction and parody, so I guess it’s okay.

Anyway, we open on Cpt. Walker with his squad (basically, his two best friends in the whole wide world), trading sarcastic quips and buddy-movie antics as they’re tracked by a color saturated, shaky camera – ain’t it so real, folks? They walk through a wonderfully-rendered desert road, surrounded by gutted cars and crashed buses, until a few guys in masks burst out of the metaphorical woodwork and start shooting at you, with barely a pause to remind you that these people speak in Foreign, and are therefore deserving of the scripted set piece genocide we proceed to rain down upon them.

The actual gameplay is pretty straightforward, considering: You run, you shoot, you take cover, you mark targets for your two buddies to take out. Yager didn’t put all that much thought into it, and so neither will I. Back to the plot!

The three intercept a message from a member of Konrad’s battalion: Corporal Al Mostdead, who’s been taken hostage by the foreigners surprisingly quickly, considering said foreigners just learned of Walker’s existence a literal minute ago. After you save him by going into slow motion, Matrix-style (again, it’s sad that they don’t call themselves out on this), Cpl. Mostdead says the rest of his squad was taken into the city.

Here it’s established that going into the city is a violation of orders, since they’re just recon and a rescue mission would be much better equipped for this sort of thing. This, naturally, will be important later.

As they journey on, stopped by the occasional firefight, our heroes find an abandoned TV studio, where Deep Purple starts blaring as they shoot up the place. After they murder everyone it’s revealed that the music is coming from jury-rigged speakers, which are controlled by a flippant and Sixties-loving DJ, who Cpt. Walker decides to investigate. Now, this is the sort of thing I wish the entire game would have been like: You take the omnipresent shooter cliche of a soundtrack, you give a realistic reason for it, and you use that reason to advance the story while using the opportunity for some jokes. Most of the aspects of parody in the game have the first point down and not the second, and the few jokes that due result are, in the words of lyrical visionary Nathan Explosion, “Blacker than the blackest black, times infinity.”

As our crew goes to rescue the captured squad, we find out that the CIA had been trying to capture the military battalion, who have grown paranoid and trigger-happy as a result. And so, we start shooting American soldiers, with Captain Walker giving a grumbling nod in the direction of self-defense before proceeding on the usual shooter game killing spree.

The crew find that Konrad’s battalion has gone completely rogue, taking orders from the DJ (who is referred to, unimaginatively, as “The Radio Man”), and rounding up Emirati civilians to execute them en masse. Captain Walker slaughters the soldiers and moves on. Almost immediately, a plot convenient transmission exposits that the CIA’s forces have been captured and tortured for information by the battalion, and are now the good guys, since they can help find Col. Konrad. In the eyes of Captain Walker, Konrad is the key to the whole thing – Walker knows that he wouldn’t go rogue like the rest of his battalion.

After a few more firefights with the battalion set to classic rock standards, Captain Walker slips in one of Dubai’s innumerable skyscrapers, and takes a frankly cartoonish fall. He survives by tying off a rope to a convenient handhold, which stops his fall instantly and painlessly – which even Spider-Man famously demonstrated was impossible.

This diversion lasts less than a minute, though, and only serves to quickly bring our crew to the source of source of the captured CIA agents’ transmission – which turns out to be a trap by the Radio Man, who is only stopped from killing our heroes by CIA Agent Gould, who quite literally pops up out of nowhere to save the day. Captain Walker immediately accepts Gould as the good guy, saying that he’d rather trust the wild card CIA than the definitely evil rogue soldiers.

Later, as the crew discovers another mass grave of native civilians, we see the battalion is using foreshadowing – napalm, I’m sorry, I meant napalm – on innocent people. In Apocalypse Now tradition, of course, it’s first introduced by someone smelling it, which falls even flatter than it did in the movie.

Agent Gould is then found dead, tortured by the soldiers for information about his partner Agent Riggs, and his plan to evacuate Dubai by storming the heavily guarded storm wall gate. This discovery sends your two squadmates into a heated argument, where one angrily shouts that they shouldn’t have gone this far, and the other responding that there isn’t any choice.

Of course, you immediately find that the gate is overlooked by a convenient foreshadowing payoff – I’m sorry about that, I meant, of course, napalm cannon. The first guy from before shouts that killing all these people isn’t right, saying “There’s always a choice!” Walker responds “No…there really isn’t.” This is the less enjoyable sort of parody: It calls out the over-reliance on railroading and forcing you to sit back and watch things explode, but then instead of using it for humor, it calls you an evil and horrible person for committing the heinous crime of, you know, doing what it tells you to.

Case in point: After Walker uses the napalm cannon, he then has to see the full results of his decision as horribly burned and mutilated soldiers desperately crawl with what remaining limbs they have left, before one reveals that the soldiers were in fact trying to do the right thing, and evacuate civilians… only you just burned up every single one of those civilians, including a mother holding her child for maximum emotional weight.

The squad is devastated, but Walker becomes more withdrawn and angry – he starts shouting at his men to soldier on, saying that they had no choice – and the repetition officially becomes ham-fisted. Soon, he finds even more horribly burned people – but not by his hand, but by Col. Konrad. Konrad, who contacts Walker through his radio, starts twirling his mustache, reveals he’s been in control the whole time, gives you a sadistic choice or two, and calls an ambush on you. Here we see the gameplay and story working together: Walker’s fighting has become more uncontrolled, his shouts more animalistic and unhinged.

Later, the squad locates Agent Gould’s partner: Ron Perlman dead ringer Agent Riggs. He plans to capture Dubai’s main water supply, to give it to the civilians and cripple Konrad’s battalion. Walker’s squad (along with Konrad, who’s apparently constantly monitoring you) says he isn’t trustworthy, and they’re right – Riggs’ plan all along was to blow up the water supplies, which Konrad berates you over, somehow appearing to you in person as you pass out among the wreckage of the water plant. This doesn’t actually add much to the  overarching story, other than to add one more step on the conga line of bad decisions Walker makes over the course of the game.

As you walk, alone, limping and guilty, the Radio Man even stops being his usual New-Age Retro Hippie self for a moment to call you out on what you’ve done – only for a moment, though, as he quickly descends back into incoherent singing and bad jokes. It’s a powerful moment, and it makes Walker mark the Radio Man as his next target.

The gameplay of Spec Ops is comparatively piecemeal, but it’s all in service to the story. We have now reached the climax of the “You suck for playing this game” message, and this is obvious at every turn: When you fight through a mall, where the lights start strobing, the music cuts out, and enemies turn out to be mannequins when you kill them. Enemies turn into visions of your partners and dead allies, shouting at you not to do what you’re doing. The Radio Man starts reminiscing about how well he knew the people you just killed, and guffawing as he realizes how comically large the number of people you’ve killed. “Aw, where’s all this violence coming from, man? Is it the video games? I bet it’s the video games.”

Naturally, when you burst into the Radio Man’s office, he surrenders, but one of Walker’s squad immediately kills him. Konrad chastises Walker for this, who immediately takes revenge by shooting down a huge skyscraper from a helicopter. This leads into that rail-shooter sequence from the very beginning – to which Walker shouts “Hey, this is wrong! We did this already!” – which is the last gasp of the humorous deconstruction this game could have been.

It’s been said by the writers that the entire game up to this point can be interpreted as Walker reliving the events that lead up to their helicopter crashing in a near-death experience, which I guess is suppose to explain the periodic achievements being awarded, heads-up display, viewing himself from his own back, and so on.

It definitely explains the next sequence, though, where Walker is cast into the pit of hell, in front of a flaming tower, and Konrad lectures him on how much damage he’s done. Said tower turns out to be real, and as you come to it’s revealed that it is (naturally) Konrad’s base of operations – even in the unflinching deconstruction of the video game, we have to have the super imposing tower where the main bad guy lives at the very top.

As Walker reunite with one of his squad members, it’s revealed that the other one has been taken hostage with a serious injury. Surprisingly, it’s not the black one -which earns the deconstructive aspect a couple of points back. He still dies, though, lynched by angry civilians who know exactly what the team did.

The remaining, and black, member of your squad is furious at Walker, even more so than at Konrad, for letting this happen. As you the foot of the Evil Tower, he just barely continues working with you, and finally refuses to surrender to the overwhelming forces (including your recently dead former squad member) and is cut down. Walker, meanwhile, surrenders, and limps up the tower with the last reserves of his strength.

Upstairs, Konrad talks to Walker through his radio as Walker sees Konrad’s palatial residence – then finds him painting a mural of the napalm-burned mother and child from before. Smiling benignly, he explains once again – as if we hadn’t heard it enough – that everything is your fault. No, not Walker’s fault – you, the player. “Do you feel like a hero yet?” He asks.

And, as it turns out, Walker has been crazy the whole time, as he sees Konrad has taken his own life weeks ago, devastated by the failure of his evacuation efforts. He was a giant hallucination by Walker, who just wanted to do what was right the whole time, his mind denying him the truth by giving him the auditory figure of Konrad on which to project his suspicions and hate –  which led to all the other hallucinations.

Considering this, as I said before, also accounts for the whole kill counter, gaming service overlay and so on, that’s one damned convenient mental illness.

But we’re right back to the Torment-a-thon, and the hallucinatory Konrad looks at the real one before forcing Walker to either shoot himself or Konrad – a classic multiple ending setup that makes no sense if you think about it. Pretty much any way you slice it, though, Captain Walker doesn’t come home. He’s believed to be missing with a number of men, and don’t expect to see him again.

As a side note, one of the drawbacks to this review format is that I had to wait an entire year before making that last joke.

There’s not much else I can really say about the game. Even though you might not enjoy it, you definitely should purchase and play it, because it’s not often that the gaming scene experiences a work of Art like this. Spec Ops: The Line is an extremely positive thing, though that might not be much consolation as it berates you and emotionally breaks you down.

Two thumbs up: The concept of a “post-modern video game”, the story and execution thereof

Thumbs upMost of the gameplay, the visual style, the humor

Thumbs down: The barely-realized tactical gameplay

Two thumbs down: The emotional torment

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2 Comments

  1. Martha Hollander

     /  July 3, 2013

    Nice one. Thanks for shout-out to Fforde, Pratchett et al.

    Reply
  2. Re: “shoutout,” click here.

    Reply

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