By writing something against the grain, you’re always sure to provoke the ire of the internet. People are quick to throw “flame bait” and “trolling” around when an established point is butted back. Discussing in detail why Spec Ops: The Line, a game heralded for its story last year, may in fact not be amazing in narrative will be such a write-up that will not be accepted, but needs to be written.
Since I’ll need to defend my position, I’d like to remind everyone that I did complete Spec Ops: The Line. In fact, I made it my project to record every second of it, so you can see what I thought firsthand. Additionally, should it be said, what is written from this point on will contain major spoilers. Key points of the story will be revealed and so on. One of the main selling points of this third person shooter is the surprise element of its plot, so if you still need to play Spec Ops: The Line and you ever plan on doing so, reading into it might be a bad idea. You were warned.
One thing should be clear: 2K’s game is not terrible in any sense, nor is the intention of its story “bad” for lack of a cruder term. Exploring the darker tendencies of warfare and how it affects the human psyche is a welcome reality to an otherwise power tour of guns, headshots and high fives that is the shooter genre. Still, this somber tone is commendable, mostly due to being the odd shooter out. Does that mean Spec Ops is exemplary or simply that others treat destruction as a commodity? The answer is a little of both, but it doesn’t defer the fact that Captain Walker and the bunch simply take the road less traveled, not so much the one of a stellar vision.
In other media, such as film, atrocities of war are far more common and just pointing out that warfare is bad won’t cut it. While the men in Dubai do dabble in traumatizing events, it’s hardly fully explored. There is still cinematic and gaudy action. It helps to present how morbidly grotesque the darker parts can be, but it does not step away from instant gratification to comment on it in full, like shows such as The Walking Dead would do, for instance.
You’d be a fool to think that game developers don’t use pinpointed psychology to affect our memory. For instance, in the music industry the accepted rule is that an album needs to contain the best or most catchy tune on the first two tracks, as these will be the ones that are checked first. Here, there are 2 distinct areas where memory grabbing is applied. While the game starts off slow to purposely present a normal shooter, it quickly devolves in more atrocious things. The culmination of that is when the team is forced to use white phosphor on an underlying army camp to burn them and civilians to shreds. It’s also the pinnacle turning point of the game. While a close-up sticks to charred corpses, the game makes sure you understand how despicable you just were in this moment.
The second and most important point is the ending, which wraps up inconsistencies in the story and leaves the right amount of intrigue to create a pensive state with players. It’s this powerful end, along with players’ thoughts afterwards that seal the deal. You leave the game with a positive feeling, which colors over broad strokes through the rest of the experience. Mission accomplished: You’ve now made a good game, because that last emotion is how you conclude your thoughts.
Looking back at previous points, both seem to hold up in essence. They do, to some extent. Further dissection of both create an emptiness, as the game has few moments with that same degree of intensity and the end is used to mask these points. Less than 2 minutes after the white phosphor incident, Walker and company are back to killing hundreds of men indiscriminately. Without any growth, the killings and commentary turn to a bestial state where the team now kills just for the sake of killing. It doesn’t add up to the previous emotion and is left untouched from then on.
While some of this can be attributed to shock, the radical shift in tone just doesn’t sync with how the game previously pitted the topic of tough decisions. Now dozens of executions are done without second thoughts and with more obscenities than needed. Gone is that realism factor; Spec Ops became just another shooter. Making heads pop now prompts slightly cheerful, cynical comments. That’s without the idiosyncrasy where Walker declares the unpreventable massacre of the game’s antagonist figure for the death of 1 of his men; knowing full well that hundreds of enemies have met their fate at your hands.
A final point of dissonance is the difference between story and game content. While the plot lures players in, poor game design makes it impossible to stay invested. Players are required to stay in a certain psychological state. Without the immersion of being enveloped in an atrocious war, despicable events that follow don’t have the same impact. I witnessed one point where a civilian woman gets shot in the face 5 times in a row, which takes away from the brutal penalty when it occurred for the first time.
Each time, scripted events lose fragments of their original power, because designs might force you to retry a certain point, which isn’t the same as regular failure. When you’re forced to reload because of poor game design, annoyance and anticipation of repetition strikes harder than before. Teammates run into the line of fire or stay stuck in endless loops, failing to recognize enemies or the dreadful cover system sticks and unsticks at random, exposing you at critical times. Being mad at the game for failing you makes it more obvious that it is indeed just an interactive feature outside of its story element, which gets smaller in size each time it happens.
Let’s reiterate that Spec Ops: The Line isn’t terrible in any sense; rather that some aspects are magnified due to manipulation. It just isn’t commendable to simply be above par, when there are many choices each year that cash all their chips into advancing storylines. Even Warhammer 40K: Space Marine did an excellent job to portray narrative, yet no one there was even paying attention to the game. It’s all about how you market it and in that aspect 2K Games has performed a stroke of genius. As long as the public isn’t used to seeing things done well, something adequate might seem much more pristine than it actually is. Spec Ops: The Line has a decent story, but nowhere near one that deserves an award. It does too many things wrong for that. Such errors wouldn’t be downsized in other genres; it shouldn’t get disqualified here just because none of its immediate peers do it better.
I’d have a hard time to recommend playing this game for the few high points, which are indeed excellent. If you have some time to invest, you can live through the story vicariously on a video playthrough. I wouldn’t recommend my aforementioned playthrough. I lose my temper quite often in it.