Spoiler Alert - Spec Ops: The Line
Spoiler Alert - Spec Ops: The Line
Spec Ops The Line wasn't a bad game, but it wasn't a good game either. Still, I think with one small change (not including doing something about the wonky cover system) the game could have been out-of-this-world - and once again I'm going to use Spoiler Alert, our retrospective column for games we have reviewed (mostly) spoiler-free, to examine the game and where it went wrong. If you haven't played Spec Ops The Line and you want to leave it unspoiled - don't read anything after the next screenshot.
Poe’s Law which - I'm paraphrasing - states that a good enough satire will be indistinguishable from the real thing. Before I finished writing my review of SOTL I was paralysed thinking about this - but in the end I decided the emperor was wearing nothing at all.
Ok, we'll take a second here to explain my process - before I put a review up I make a point to not see anything by anyone else about a game. I try my best to not see any scores, any conclusions... any tweets about a title if I can help it, because I don't want anyone to influence my thoughts on a game.
So when I decided Spec Ops The Line was not a thrilling satire of the modern day shooter - that it was instead simply another modern day shooter - I thought I was probably going to be the only one coming to this conclusion. Having now read the reviews of my peers... nobody even appears to have entertained the idea that it was a parody of the Call of Dutys and the Battlefields.
I'm pretty sure I didn't imagine what I thought were these massive hints at the satirical nature of the game though. Let's run through them.
There are two elements to a good protagonist in a video game - there is the player and the player character. Typically these two are separate - JC Denton's actions and world might be shaped by the player, but he is still his own character (if he were a total reflection of me he wouldn't be wearing sunglasses at night).
Captain Martin Walker might not be a reflection of me, but the player character is a reflection of the player. He plays out like a caricature of your stereotypical Call of Duty player - he screams obscenities at people he kills, he seems completely detached from the things going on in the game.
This could be used to satirise the way games take an overly serious approach to their often ludicrously over-the-top stories - while players are simply running towards the end. This concept is even referenced a few times as you move through Dubai - and you just keep moving towards your end goal like an out-of-control train.
Then take the inclusion of Nolan North as the voice of Captain Walker. North's voice - when he's not putting on an accent as he did in Batman: Arkham City - is so ubiquitous that the choice would be lunacy outside of the context of parody. It's almost generic, if a person's voice might be described that way, and what that means is that when he talks it might be nobody talking at all.
It has the same effect as what Valve has tried to achieve by having Gordon Freeman remain mute his entire career without the limitation of zero dialogue - which is utterly brilliant if you are attempting to blur the lines between the player and the player character.
There is definitely a sense of this idea - of making the player feel responsible for the actions of the player character by blurring the lines between the two. The game gives you choices and puts you in confronting situations as the plot makes its way forward, and you're supposed to reflect on how your actions as a player impact the game world.
Unfortunately there's only an illusion of choice at play here - in my repeated playthroughs of these moments the results were always roughly the same... only the dialogue changed.
A critical point in the game occurs at "The Gate" when Walker uses a White Phosphorus mortar. The player directs the mortar bombing as they play, only able to see the white outline of their enemies (victims) - similar to the viewpoint players gained during the AC-130 missions in Call of Duty... another clear nod to the major modern shooter series.
As you rain fire upon everyone - your objective being to kill all the soldiers in the area - I found it plainly obvious that there was a group of huddled people crouching terrified to the rear. They weren't people I'd need to kill to get to the next section. They weren't firing on me - bullets were clearly visible via the heat sensitive camera.
In my first encounter with this mission I knew it was obvious that I shouldn't kill these non-combatants. But I had to kill them anyway. I tried this scene a few times later in an effort to see if I could not kill everyone - it's not an option. If you don't kill every combat on the screen you will die when your camera hits the ground, and as soon as you kill the last enemy the civilians all die, as if that enemy had napalm filling its insides.
The failure of this illusion was when I first twigged to the "parody" idea, actually. There's so much phony gravitas in the scene following as you wander around the charred corpses of your 'Willy Pete' victims that it seemed darkly comical.
After this, the game takes a full blown run at showing us how serious war can be - all while continuing to portray Walker as the sort of person you'd mute in an online game of Call of Duty. "Got one!" he screams out, as if his enemies aren't actual people - while the game reminds you over and over that you're killing so many people.
Pretty clever, right? The player character Martin Walker, the surrogate FPS gamer in this 'real world' situation - he's completely disconnected from the reality of what he is seeing! It's such a clever commentary on everything from the seriousness of war games to the nature of your stereotypical gamer. ****. ****. That's good satire.
When you finally make it to the Burj Khalifa - your target and the Citadel-esque home of antagonist Colonel John Konrad - the game throws in another obvious tell - the world starts burning and Walker drags himself down a narrow path in an empty world.
Then the ghosts of those Walker killed start walking at him, like the Sorrow fight in Metal Gear Solid 3. "Holy ****. This is it, this is the knowing wink to gamers to tell us the whole game is satire," I think. "A deliberate reference to the cleverly satirical Snake Eater. Hideo Kojima would be so proud."
Then one of the ghosts says "Deep down you knew we all had to die." Anyone who plays Call of Duty as a genre of games knows that ultimately the only way to progress is to kill everyone. They cleverly subverted this concept with the No Russian mission (where you didn't have to shoot anyone) - but ultimately "run-and-gun" isn't just a tactic, it's a mission statement for the series (since Modern Warfare).
That's why the civilians had to die. That's why I didn't really get to choose. Because you don't get to choose in these games. Everyone has to die. I wanted to fistbump the Yager guys, but I felt like they would have laughed at me. Derisively.
The mission following this is where it all falls apart.
Lugo, your smart-mouthed Sniper with a heart of gold, dies - hung by civilians because of... I actually never worked out why they killed Lugo. He was of Middle Eastern descent, he spoke Arabic and Farsi, he had a broken arm, he didn't try to shoot them and he'd just been in a pretty bad helicopter accident, making him pretty much a victim. Anyway, they hang him because the game is super serious - and Walker and Adams - your stern-mouthed support gunner with a heart of gold - arrive just in time for him to stay dead.
Then you're given a choice - you can either shoot the civilians, who start throwing rocks at you - or you can shoot above them and scare them away.
Suddenly, they don't all have to die. This was the beginning of the end for me. It all only gets worse from here. You shoot them, or don't shoot them, but the game doesn't change because of it. Adams actively wants to shoot them for killing his friend - I guess a decent picture of american exceptionalism as presented in the Middle East - but nobody actually has to die.
They should have had to die.
The next mission is pretty simplistic - it's about you finally reaching your goal, the monolithic building on the horizon. You fight wave after wave of 33rd (the army of "bad guys" lead by Konrad) as you make your last push, dozens more die as you move towards the end.
Lugo - who is still dead, mind you - steps out dressed as a heavy soldier (another jarring addition to a game ostensibly about realism) to take you down. Walker and his dead friend Lugo have a full-blown conversation where Walker apologises profusely for letting him die, and it was here that I knew what was coming (though I finished the game anyway).
Yeah, Walker is crazy town banana pants.
In the end it turns out Konrad is a figment of Martin's imagination, talking to him over a broken radio. After everything I'd been through, this revelation felt like a bait and switch. Not a lot of the rest of the game makes sense once you throw this in there.
At one point during the game "Konrad" presents you with two men hanging from ropes - "he" makes you choose which of these men will die and which will live. At the end of the game this choice is proven pointless as the two men hanging from the ropes are already dead.
When it replays the scene with the two men dead, Lugo and Adams see Walker standing near these dead bodies, saying "Oh, I see - he wants us to choose." Despite one of them being "fluent" in like six different languages and the other one being a super bad arse death dealer, neither of them manage to work out that Captain Walker has lost his freaking mind? Or, if they do, neither of them incapacitates him and calls for a medevac?
Just how many dead bodies does Captain Walker riddle with bodies, anyway? We never find out because we're never supposed to - there's always supposed to be some doubt in the player's mind about what was real and what wasn't. This made me feel like the entire endeavour was pointless - I fought for a long time to get some answers, and I never got any.
The four different endings for the game were something of a redemption - they were cleverly written and all pretty different. Still, the game could have been so very much more. For a glorious few hours I was whole-heartedly convinced that Spec Ops The Line was a satire the likes of which we'd never seen in a game before. Then it turned out it was simply another game in the genre I thought it was parodying - and this one had storytelling cheats disguised as pathos.
I'm reminded again of the MGS3-esque moment - another line thrown at you while you march down the bloody walkway. "There's always a choice. You just fucked it up." You fucked it up Yager.
And with all that said, I guess we've broken the first rule of fight club.
Comments on this Article
Wed 11 Jul 12, 5:53pmFrisco
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Wed 11 Jul 12, 6:35pmJoaby
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