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Saturday, 12 July 2014

Spec Ops: The Line


I nearly didn't get to review this game because it kept crashing at one spot.

Skipping the cutscene in question helped. Still. Alarming.

Spec Ops: The Line.


[Spoilers for the entire game.]

I actually meant to play Spec Ops: The Line when it came out. I heard very good things about it. As I recall, even Yahtzee Croshaw, who shares my hatred of all shooters and especially military shooters and compounds it with a general hatred of anything, had good things to say about it, especially the harrowing story of PTSD and equally harrowing story of a man who has gone beyond PTSD and into utter staggering murderous insanity and who is really only getting worse on both counts.

(Let's be entirely clear here, incidentally, the main character's PTSD and his hallucinations, delusions, and tendency towards extreme violence don't actually seem to be related – the PTSD seems to exacerbate the latter, which was dwelling in wait since long before the game started.)

It came out in 2012. The aforementioned hatred of shooters – Bioshock Infinite and Vanquish don't count, shut up – is one of the reasons I didn't. The fact that I'm not very good at shooters, which is why I played this on the easiest difficulty setting, is another. I'm glad of this blog really, because if it weren't for it and game rentals, I would never have gotten around to playing it, and it would be a gem of a game that I completely missed. 

Our intrepid heroes.

Spec Ops: The Line – I'm never completely sure how to punctuate or order that, and neither, it seems, are 2K games, as official material has it show up with hyphens, without hyphens, without colons, with the subtitle first – is the eleventh entry in the turgidly awful Spec Ops series. If you want to know what most of the series is like, imagine Call of Duty, only completely and utterly terri – imagine Call of Duty. This game was the first entry in the series in a decade, with its immediate predecessor, Spec Ops: Airborne Commando, having come out in 2002 for the Playstation (the first one). Rockstar Vancouver, best known for that one good game set in a private school and a bunch of mediocre games set in a sea of mediocrity and sorrow, was hired to make a sequel for the Playstation 2, but that project found itself quietly cancelled. Thus, ten years after the last release in the series and seven years after everyone gratefully forgot Spec Ops existed, this game came out.

The game is set in the usually beautiful and decadent Dubai, now buried and ruined after a series of terrible dust storms. All seems lost, but two weeks before the game starts, Colonel Konrad of the 33rd Infantry Battalion sends out a looped radio message saying that his evacuation of the city has ended in complete failure, and a team is sent in to confirm his status and check for survivors.

You play as Captain Martin Walker, a man whose main flaw initially seems to be a lack of a sense of humour but who it gradually becomes clear has a much deeper flaw in the form of being a one-man war crime factory who regularly has hallucinations of burning, horrifying towers, in between viciously slaughtering anyone in a one thousand five hundred and eighty eight mile radius of himself. 

Yes, 1588 sq miles is roughly how large Dubai is.

I realised something wasn't quite right with Marty when he cheerfully shot a flow of sand onto some frightened survivors. By the time I was about two hours through the game, it was fairly obvious that Marty was crazycakes. By the time he ordered a white phosphorus attack that burnt the faces off dozens of civilians and then shifted the blame to someone else, it was obviously that he was at the Crazycakes Village train station waiting for a train to take him to Lunacymuffin City. By the end of the game, reality had apparently become an optional extra that only occasionally poked its head through his delusions to check up on him before skittering away like a frightened rabbit.

I did like his fellow party members, Adams and Lugo. Especially Lugo. Lugo stole my heart in the first ten minutes by making jokes about holidays (he prefers a 3-1 ratio of beautiful women to dead bodies) and generally lightening the mood.

(Lugo dies. Lugo dies horribly and brutally. Everyone dies. Literally everyone dies.

And not even by falling into this massive chasm.

It's a very well-paced story. It's not a long one, I finished it in two days, it probably took me about six hours, all told, but anything more would have just involved adding filler into the story, and that wasn't necessary. Martin's descent into more and more overt madness is slow, but noticeable enough near the beginning that you can get that prickling feeling that maybe all is not right with him early before the realisation of how terribly far gone he is. It has an excellent twist at the end, if one that I saw coming. The plot is never self-indulgently overcomplicated, instead resting on relative simplicity. A few plot beats did pass me by, because I have the attention span of a four year old at a Barney the Dinosaur convention, but it was never difficult to pick up what they were from people's later conversations.

(Besides, I've read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and right around the time a man named 'Konrad' – a reference to both Conrad and the antagonist of that book, Kurtz - was mentioned as being in town, it became fairly obvious that the game was one big homage to said book, and I wasn't let down in that regard. It's a really good homage to it. They did well there.) 

They did do well there.

The game presents you with a few choices over the course of it, which are maybe meant to be harrowing? One choice is whether to execute a man who stole water – a thing in short supply – or the soldier sent to arrest him, who murdered his family in the process. If this is supposed to be a difficult choice, it failed. Kill the civilian who stole out of desperation, or the trained and presumably disciplined soldier who chose to commit multiple acts of murder for no good reason? I waited all of about two seconds before making that choice. Another choice was whether to kill Lugo's killers or just scare them off: That was more difficult, because I had already picked out the suit I would wear to my wedding to Lugo, but even then it was more or less a no-brainer. Of course you just scare them off. It's what Lugo would have wanted. Lugo.

(L-lugo is the most popular boy in school.)

:/

The only really difficult choice was the one at the very end, when Martin, having finally climbed Lunaticmuffins City's Criminally-Insane-Pastries Tower, finally gets to confront Konrad, and is given the choice to either shoot him or let himself be shot. At this point, Martin has done so many awful things for so little reason that there's a part of me that did almost think he should be shot, and only the knowledge that he's severely mentally ill in at least two different ways really let me take the path that spared him. I hope firmly that after the game is over he a) gets the psychiatric care he so desperately needs, and b) is sentenced for having committed so many war crimes that he probably can't even touch the Geneva Convention without melting.

It's a lovely game to look at, too, with the beautiful, mirrored, curved architecture of Dubai standing stark against the sands that have flooded it. The whole game is stunning. It's banned in the United Arab Emirates, incidentally, for said depiction of Dubai: Not because the depiction is necessarily negative or offensive, but because it depicts Dubai in a state of destruction. Make of that what you will. 

It also depicts Dubai as a hallucinated hellscape.

The gameplay is … Well, I don't want to say it could use work, it's actually very well-balanced. It's a cover-based shooter, and you do as cover-based shooters would have you do, and everything you do do is set up very well so that the difficulty curve is even and you never face an insurmountable challenge. But I've not played many third-person cover-based shooters – Vanquish and the combat sections of Mass Effect, really, and both of those had other things going on. Mass Effect had a bevy of special abilities. Vanquish had a super-suit that could skid along the ground and go slow motion in mid-air.

They also both had more variety as far as enemies go. Spec Ops: The Line has about five enemies: Dudes with guns and grenades, snipers, dudes on turrets, armoured dudes with guns, fast dudes with knives. For an entire game, that's not a lot, especially when, say, Vanquish has over a dozen different enemy types. But maybe that's not a fair comparison: Vanquish is about a man in power armour fighting robots on a space station, while Spec Ops: The Line is set firmly in the real world, and kind of has to be set in the real world for the storyline to have any punch. 

It would not have been as effective if you weren't in the ruins
of a real, prosperous city.

It's been two years since Spec Ops: The Line came out, and there's yet no hint of a twelfth Spec Ops. Maybe there shouldn't be. This has been a game series marked by mediocrity at best and offensively poor design at worst, with bland storylines, and Spec Ops: The Line is a single shimmering point at the end of ten abject failures. Maybe it's better to end it there, on a high note, rather than trying to reproduce that high point. I'm not certain you could reproduce this game without just copying it wholesale. It's a very special piece of storytelling.

Besides, 2k Games seems to mostly be doing Borderlands stuff now. Which is fine. Borderlands is fine. Not my thing, but, you know. Fine.

Probably the kind of game Lugo would play. Please excuse me while I cry for three hours.  

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