Spec Ops: The Line

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Introduction

In 1994, an independent video game development company named Zombie Studios was founded in Seattle, Washington. Around this time, one genre in particular was rapidly gaining popularity: the first-person shooter. However, the developers at Zombie Studios sought to go in a slightly different direction by introducing a tactical, third-person element to their games. Rather than blazing through as a one-person army, the protagonist would have squadmates to whom the player could issue commands. The game which resulted from this line of thinking was Spec Ops: Rangers Lead the Way. Debuting in 1998, the Spec Ops franchise later saw several releases on platforms such as the PC, Dreamcast, and PlayStation before coming to an abrupt end in the early 2000s before it could truly find its audience.

Many years later, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was released, paving the way for a new subgenre of first-person shooters: the modern military shooter. These games differed from their predecessors in that they usually depicted entirely fictional conflicts between real nations. Due to a combination of superb marketing and critical acclaim from the press, the modern military shooter achieved a level of success and inspired several imitators much like 2D platformers did throughout the eighties and nineties. Many of the concepts introduced in Spec Ops were tailor-made for the modern military shooter such as the idea of working in a unit as opposed to being a lone wolf protagonist, but few predicted that the franchise would ever see a new installment nearly a decade after Airborne Division was cancelled. In 2012, another independent gaming company based in Berlin, Germany known as Yager Development rose to the challenge by releasing Spec Ops: The Line. By this point in history, modern military shooters reached a saturation point, with competing franchises featuring largely interchangeable gameplay despite having entirely different teams working on them. Despite the odds, Yager Development managed to stand out from the crowd, and achieve critical acclaim from various publications for its expertly written scenario. In a highly competitive market, being able to make your work distinct from that of your competition is no mean feat. How did Spec Ops: The Line manage to accomplish this?

Playing the Game

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Spec Ops: The Line is a third-person shooter. It is encouraged to fire from concealed areas because the protagonist can’t exactly absorb entire clips of ammo like in classic shooters. When he takes damage, drops of blood adorn the perimeter of the screen. To recover from this, one needs to find a safe place and wait. Once the drops of blood disappear from the screen, you can resume playing as normal. Like many other shooters at the time, you can only carry two firearms. Happening upon a new gun will give you the option to switch it with the one that is currently equipped. When standing over a wounded soldier, you press the appropriate button to execute them on the spot. The reason for doing this is because you can only collect weapons and fresh clips from dead enemies. It is inadvisable to fire your weapons unnecessarily because ammunition is rather scarce.

In addition to basic firearms, you can find three different types of explosive weapons to gain a tactical advantage over your enemies: fragmentation grenades, flashbangs, and sticky grenades. Frag grenades are the standard variety – it explodes after a few seconds, killing any nearby enemy. Flashbangs are not lethal, but they explode upon impact, stunning nearby enemies so that you take them out using other means. Lastly, as their name suggests, sticky grenades adhere to the enemies they land on, making it an effective method to get rid of heavily armored foes.

Throughout most of the game, the main character is accompanied by two squadmates. Depending on the situation, you can command them to snipe specific enemies or throw a flashbang when you’re completely pinned down. The only thing to keep in mind when doing this is that issuing these orders puts them in the line of fire. Should they sustain too much damage, they will be unable to move. When this happens, a bar appears on the screen with the squadmate’s name next to it. When the meter completely fills, the mission is a failure and you must restart from the last checkpoint. First aid must be applied to save their lives. You can opt to heal them yourself or, if one is uninjured, you can command him to do the job.

Spec Ops: The Line is set in a community on the Arabian Peninsula, and the arid climate of the region can be used to your advantage. For example, by throwing frag grenades into the ground, the explosion can kick up a cloud of sand, potentially blinding enemies or making it more difficult for them to spot you. On certain occasions, you can even shoot glass panes in underground buildings to bury enemies with sand. The setting is also periodically ravaged by sandstorms. When this happens, grenades become more effective and enemies will have a difficult time spotting you, but you cannot issue commands to your squadmates.

On the surface, this description would paint Spec Ops: The Line as a typical cover-based, third-person shooter that was ubiquitous in the early twenty-first century, following the success of Epic Games’ Gears of War franchise. This is because, from a gameplay standpoint, that’s exactly what it is. Other than occasionally using the environment to your advantage, it doesn’t provide any meaningful spins on the genre to really stand out from its contemporaries; anyone who has played Gears of War or Uncharted could take one look at the gameplay and have it completely figured out.

This isn’t to say the gameplay of Spec Ops: The Line is completely forgettable, but unfortunately, I would have to say it manages to be memorable for all the wrong reasons. As is the bane of many subpar games, the controls are decidedly less than satisfactory. Although there’s nothing terribly wrong with aiming or shooting, you need to press a button in order to take cover next to a wall or partition. There were many instances when I was hammering the correct button only for the protagonist to not carry out the desired action. I concede it’s entirely possible I wasn’t close enough to the walls, but I distinctly remember a few times when the prompt appeared onscreen only for nothing to happen when I pushed the button. It’s an especially big problem in this game because the main character is extremely fragile, and there were countless times when he got killed due to what would be considered a minor misstep in other shooters. It may not have been so bad except that the load times in console versions are unreasonably long – especially for such a linear experience.

Adding to this problem is the placement of the checkpoints themselves. There are several times where they are placed before a cutscene begins. Many of these cutscenes cannot be skipped, meaning that with the way Spec Ops: The Line is designed, you have to sit through a tedious load screen which is subsequently prolonged with a portion which involves no interaction on your part just to get another chance. It may seem like a minor issue, but it gets grating the longer you play, and I’m legitimately surprised that a big-budget studio could make such a basic error. After all, the reason most developers place checkpoints after the conclusion of a cutscene is because they know that players are going to want to jump right back into the action after dying.

Lastly, I found looking after the squadmates to be incredibly tedious. In the interest of fairness, they can actually save you in a pinch, and I wouldn’t call the entire game an escort mission, but there were quite a few times when they both got injured at the same time, meaning I couldn’t get them to heal each other. Because of their irritating propensity to get hurt in the middle of the battlefield, this meant exposing the protagonist to heavy gunfire. |This problem becomes even worse in the last chapters when you only have one squadmate; if he gets injured and there are several enemies present, you might as well restart to save time.|

Spec Ops: The Line, despite having been released in 2012, has significantly less polish than Resident Evil 4, a horror-themed third-person shooter from 2005. It isn’t merely a case of Resident Evil 4 being ahead of its time either; Metal Gear Solid 4 and Uncharted 2, released in 2008 and 2009 respectively, also feature smoother controls and more sensible design choices than those of Yager Development. Consequently, I would have to say Spec Ops: The Line plays more like an advanced beta than a finished product. The mistakes the programmers made would have been difficult to overlook when the genre first started to gain popularity, much less when it was several years into its golden age. Anyone completely unfamiliar with this game would openly wonder what the point is in playing it.

Analyzing the Story

WARNING: The remainder of this review will contain unmarked spoilers. Do not proceed if you are at all interested in playing this game.

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Six months ago, a series of brutal sandstorms – the worst in recorded history – ravaged the city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Politicians and the wealthy elite attempted to downplay the situation, but were eventually forced to evacuate themselves from the city. This action left countless Emiratis and foreign migrant workers behind with no means of escape. The 33rd Infantry Battalion of the United States Army was returning from an expedition in Afghanistan when the storms struck. Despite suffering from PTSD, Colonel John Konrad, the unit’s commander, volunteered the 33rd to help relief efforts. When the Army ordered him to abandon the city, he and his unit deserted. Shortly after he made this decision, the storms intensified, disrupting surveillance, air travel, and all but the strongest of radio broadcasts.

In an attempt to maintain order amid winds exceeding 120 kilometers per hour, riots, and rapidly dwindling resources, the 33rd declared martial law. Many of the soldiers within the unit were appalled, with some even staging a coup d’état against Konrad. The effort ended in failure, and they were ultimately exiled. The CIA then sent a black ops team to investigate. They in turn convinced the locals to attack the 33rd, the insurgency resulting in a ceasefire. The last communication picked up from Dubai was word that the 33rd would attempt to lead a caravan out of the city. It never arrived, and shortly thereafter, the United Arab Emirates declared Dubai a no man’s land, barring anyone from entering. As a response to this situation, Konrad’s battalion was publicly disavowed for treason.

Two weeks ago, a faint, looping radio signal finally penetrated the storm wall: “This is Colonel John Konrad, United States Army. Attempted evacuation of Dubai ended in complete failure. Death toll… too many.” The United States Military decided to covertly send an elite three-man Delta Force to carry out reconnaissance. The team, consisting of Captain Martin Walker, First Lieutenant Alphanso Adams, and Staff Sergeant John Lugo, have been ordered to confirm the presence of any survivors. Once finished, they are to immediately radio for extraction.

It may sound as though Spec Ops: The Line has a plot of a typical modern military shooter: it’s up to a small, yet highly skilled group of soldiers to defy the odds and restore order to a foreign region. Walker is a pretty typical example of a protagonist from the genre: a good person who is rough around the edges, yet always wants to do the right thing when push comes to shove. His teammates also embody familiar architypes with Lugo being the wisecracker and Adams serving as the more down-to-earth member who keeps him in check.

Moreover, Spec Ops: The Line features a plot that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Call of Duty game; Walker was ordered to carry out a simple recon mission, but extenuating circumstances causes him along with his two squadmates to take up arms. The catalyst for this is a failed attempt at a peaceful intervention when the three happen upon a platoon of loyalist 33rd members rounding up refugees. The soldiers mistake them for CIA operatives, prompting a violent shootout. Lugo and Adams are understandably perturbed about killing off fellow Americans and urge Walker to pull themselves out. However, Walker has a great amount of respect for Colonel Konrad after he saved his life in Kabul. This motivates him to remain in Dubai in hopes of evacuating any survivors and finding Konrad so he can plead his case.

spec-ops-the-line-mortar

Already, there’s an interesting subversion in the subgenre’s formula: the antagonists are of the same nationality as the leads. It becomes even more apparent that the game isn’t what it seems later when Delta Force arrives at a fortification guarded by a full company of 33rd soldiers. Walker calculates that a head-on attack would result in certain death, but luckily for them, there is a mortar nearby stocked with white phosphorous munitions. Lugo’s protests are drowned out by his comrades, and the mortar strike completely obliterates the company. Shortly before succumbing to his mortal injuries, a soldier says that they were helping. To his horror, Walker notices the charred corpses of 47 civilians – both children and adults among them. The company was attempting to transport civilians out of the warzone and they were all caught in the blast radius.

This is when Spec Ops: The Line begins to show its true colors, as the story’s real goal was to brutally deconstruct the modern military shooter. To put this in context, the early 2010s saw a fierce rivalry between two publishers after the enormous success of Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare 2. Activision commissioned annual sequels to Call of Duty while Electronic Arts championed new entries in the Battlefield franchise. Both series had countless spinoffs and were guaranteed to dominate sales charts with each installment. The pervasiveness of these games gave rise to a cacophonic faction within the community: one whose members use the experiences as a way to validate their highly jingoistic outlook. It wasn’t a case of unstable fans reading too much into their favorite games either; the Modern Warfare trilogy went from condemning such a mentality as dangerous to embracing it with nary a trace of irony to be found. Things only got worse from there, culminating in the widely reviled Call of Duty: Ghosts in 2013.

Owing to a combination of promoting an unhealthy mindset and selling millions of units with each installment, it was a subgenre which deserved to be scrutinized – a mission Yager Development decided to undertake. To this end, the writers took inspiration from Joseph Conrad’s classic novel, Heart of Darkness, and Francis Ford Coppola’s epic film, Apocalypse Now. Captain Walker goes far beyond the scope of his mission in a misguided attempt to be a hero, and his actions make things substantially worse for everyone. The transformation he undergoes is haunting. At the beginning of the game, he’s calm, collected, and professional – even in combat. By the end of the game, he has devolved into a raving lunatic with a loose grip on reality; his face is barely recognizable from all of the injuries he sustained, he curses nearly every time a bullet hits him, he angrily barks out orders to his squadmates, and his animations when executing enemies become extremely violent, almost to the point of reveling in the carnage.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the plot is the driving conflict for the game’s second half. Shortly after the mortar strike, Walker finds a radio that provides a direct link to Konrad. In his soliloquies, the colonel comes across as a little more than a stereotypical video game antagonist with a megalomaniacal streak – a far cry from the honorable man he once was. The truth is revealed at the end of the game when Walker enters the tower Konrad and the remnants of the 33rd are occupying. The colonel had killed himself some time before Walker was sent on his mission. Walker couldn’t accept the enormity of his horrific actions following the white phosphorus incident, so he placed all of the blame on Konrad, feeding his delusions by making him the villain of his power fantasy. It’s a genuinely excellent twist that reinforces the narrative’s central message, and the acting performances are top notch for that scene.

So the conclusion that can be drawn from my assessment is that Spec Ops: The Line may not be blazing any trails with its gameplay, but the narrative is intelligently written and more than makes up for its shortcomings. It’s not terribly unusual; after all, I’ve played games such as Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors and Planescape: Torment, which weren’t exactly what I would call fun in the traditional sense, yet their creative stories completely drew me in, making for unforgettable experiences. After playing Spec Ops: The Line for myself, I can say that it is absolutely not in the same league as those aforementioned titles.

I have no doubt some people reading this are a bit confused by my last assertion, so I shall explain myself. Although there are many legitimately good things one could say about the plot, it’s not as effective as my initial summary made it out to be. To make my case, we need to go back to the white phosphorus scene, for I believe it to be both the game’s turning point and evidence of its greatest weakness. I do admit that the aftermath of the mortar strike is one of the most horrific scenes in video game history, but at the same time, it feels cheap. Specifically, the authors tried too hard – not to be shocking, but to pin the blame on the player. The narrative holds nothing back in its attempts to make the player feel like dirt for the actions Walker commits throughout the game. During the opening credits, it even lists the player’s username as a “special guest,” further cementing their supposed culpability. Later on in the game, load screens display fewer hints and in their stead are passive-aggressive messages asking if you feel like a hero yet or how many Americans you’ve slaughtered. Walker is less a character in his own right and more of a stand-in for the player.

None of these ideas are bad in of themselves, but there’s one fatal flaw which makes the narrative unsalvageable: there is no effective way to prevent Walker from committing these atrocities. Sure, you have to input the button combinations that will result in these horrific scenarios, but at no point does the game ever offer an alternative to them. Trying to take on the company of soldiers without using the mortar will result in an unwinnable battle, as enemy snipers will respawn indefinitely until you relent or die. My rule when it comes to judging the player morally is that you cannot do so if you only give them one way to proceed. As a counterexample, the biggest reason why Planescape: Torment is downright brutal should you play as an evil character is the knowledge that the game never forces you to do awful things to the world’s inhabitants. Admonishment has much more impact when you have no one to blame but yourself. I’m amazed how many developers fail to grasp this basic concept as late as 2012 when Black Isle Studios, the team behind Planescape: Torment understood it perfectly in 1999. The narrative of Spec Ops: The Line even seems to go as far as insinuating that these events would not have come to pass if the player didn’t have the temerity to want to see things through to the end.

"None of this would have happened if you hadn't actually tried to play the game you paid $60 for. God! What is wrong with you?!"

“None of this would have happened if you hadn’t actually tried to play the game you paid $60 for. God! What is wrong with you?!”

This is a problem which seems endemic to the realm of video games because I have a difficult time imagining creators in any other medium pulling that off and getting away with it. There’s a reason you don’t see many directors stating that theatergoers’ inability to vacate the premises caused countless deaths within their own work. This is because most of them realize there’s a fine line between challenging your audience and outright belittling them. Certain musicians provide an exception to this rule, but even then, there’s usually a tongue-in-cheek quality to their scathing lyrics (or if nothing else, at least there are catchy riffs to go along with them).

Most damningly is that the people who shape these scenarios never seem to address the obvious implications of their rhetoric. I can see why, and it’s not for a sympathetic reason. If the player is so awful for the crime of wishing to complete a game where the only choices will result in death, destruction and despair, then by the narrative’s own logic, the developers are the biggest monsters of all for never giving the audience a method to avert that fate other than an inane suggestion to turn the game off, wouldn’t it? It sure is convenient how they suddenly become silent on this matter after demonstrating their belief that subtlety must be avoided at all costs. Maybe I had it wrong; Konrad is actually a representation of gaming fans while Walker is an avatar for development teams. It would explain the latter’s propensity to never take accountability for his actions.

Drawing a Conclusion

Pros:

  • Thorough deconstruction of popular genre of its time
  • Character transformation is remarkable
  • Great voice acting
Cons:

  • Monotonous gameplay
  • Completely fails at judging the player morally
  • Checkpoints are often placed before cutscenes
  • Unpolished controls
  • Protagonist is extremely fragile
  • Looking after squadmates is annoying

When it’s time to wrap up my reviews, I almost always know where I stand when it comes to the subject of recommending the work. In the case of Spec Ops: The Line, my stance goes far beyond a simple dissuasion because I’m left openly wondering who could possibly enjoy it. I’m aware that fans of this game exist, but whether or not someone will love the game appears to be on a purely case-by-case basis. Third-person shooter fans would likely pass it up for one of the countless, superior alternatives. Even those seeking a good story-heavy experience would have a difficult time overlooking the unpolished gameplay – assuming the condescending tone of the narrative doesn’t get to them first. Personally, I think the greatest indication of how much Spec Ops: The Line fails is that the people who desperately needed to hear the message it preached probably quit in frustration and returned the disc to their local retailer long before the signature scene. If that’s true, they were absolutely in the right for doing so. Ironically, the only people who appreciated what the narrative had to say were those already opposed to the modern military shooter in the first place.

There’s another, less-obvious problem with recommending Spec Ops: The Line. It’s a deconstruction of a subgenre that had an immense, yet short-lived popularity. One could say it’s meant to be a critical look at shooters in general, but it’s clear the mold used to craft this game was based on the modern-military template. This means that the motifs present are very dated, making it difficult for anyone without the proper context to appreciate this game’s nuances. The reason Planescape: Torment and other games of its ilk are successful is because they deconstruct timeless genres – the conventions of which are easily grasped even by those who wouldn’t call themselves experts.

Spec Ops: The Line also showcases one of the most embarrassing habits developers had in the early 2010s. For some inexplicable reason, it was not uncommon for game developers to treat their audience, whose money sustains their employment, with hardly any respect – sometimes bordering on contempt. Do they have a genuine problem with egotism? Is it a mistake that can be attributed to poor communication skills? It’s easy for outsiders to believe that the gaming community is full of weird, antisocial people, and these shameful tendencies exhibited by the artists themselves do little to assuage this perception. After all, when the professionals aren’t acting responsibly, would that really encourage their fans to pick up the slack?

At the end of the day, Spec Ops: The Line goes out of its way to make the player feel as bad as possible for playing it. Feeling shame for wanting to play a game is just as ludicrous as the idea of feeling shame for wanting to read a book, watch a movie, or listen to music. As such, I find it fitting to say this: I apologize for nothing. I have no regrets, and in the event that you pick this game up for yourself, neither should you.

Final Score: 3/10

And if you were a better game I would have given you a higher score. Go figure!

And if you were a better game, I would have given you a higher score. Go figure!

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16 thoughts on “Spec Ops: The Line

  1. I really enjoyed this game if I’m honest. The gameplay is fairly generic and not as tight as others in the genre, but it gets the job done to my mind. The story is absolutely brilliant in my opinion, but I believe it only works once. And that’s because of the issue you raise with the white phosphorus scene.

    Once you know what happens, you look to see if there’s an alternative, but the first time through you just press the buttons because it’s a video game. The onus is still on the player because “It’s just a game and I was doing what you’re meant to in games”. You’re right that there’s no other option, but almost every player wouldn’t have even thought to look for one on their first play through.

    In this way, I again believe this scene to be a further deconstruction of the genre. As gamers we’re so automatic in our pursuit of “press the button kill the baddies” that we do it without thinking. This scene plays on that well. “Do you feel like a hero yet?” on the loading screen cemented that for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I definitely agree that the story shows a degree of introspection sorely lacking in most AAA titles (especially from that era). The modern military shooter needed that deconstruction badly. Unfortunately, while the story is pretty good, it doesn’t redeem the subpar gameplay. Generally speaking, I’ve found that good gameplay can make up for a weak story, but the opposite doesn’t hold true – at least not to the same extent. The game has to be at least decent before you start putting a majority of your focus on the story.

      It would certainly appear as though the onus is on the player. After all, the white phosphorus scene needs the player’s input to play out. But it’s an illusion; if there’s only one way to proceed in a game, the person playing it is no more responsible for the horrific events than if they played out in a cutscene. Calling players out for following video game logic is something you can only get away with that if you offer them a meaningful alternative. It doesn’t have to be obvious, but you have to play fair. One game from 2015 implemented this idea perfectly, rendering Spec Ops: The Line obsolete. The only reason I didn’t mention it in my review was because I try not to spoil other games unless I can give a fair warning, and the nature of that title meant I had no easy way of doing that.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t necessarily think the game is saying the player is a monster for carrying out the action, but perhaps that the player has become so used to carrying out actions like that in games that they would do so without a second thought anyway. I do agree that perhaps on a second play though, there being an alternative route put in place could be a clever way of extending the game, but I think that the initial impact is needed.
        The only game that had terrible gameplay but a story I enjoyed so much that I could overlook is was Deadly Premonition. That game played like absolute tosh but the story and characters really kept me interested. I can’t think of any other game that’s quite like it.

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        • Neither do I, but the subtlety-free nature of the narrative has the potential to leave a very sour taste in one’s mouth. I can’t recommend a game like that because when you challenge basic gaming conventions, you have to think more than one step ahead. I don’t think the writers of this game were successful in that regard; all they did was point out that the idea of mindlessly gunning down enemies may be problematic, but didn’t really offer an effective solution within their own work. It’s a problem that has plagued many social satires in recent times, I’ve found.

          I can’t say I’ve ever played a bad game with a story good enough to make up for it. I’ve played story-heavy games where the gameplay was minimalistic, but it was still good – just not the forefront.

          Liked by 1 person

          • A lot of walking simulators are guilty of minimal gameplay, maximum story,l. There are a few of those that I’ve enjoyed though. The Stanley Parable and Firewatch I enjoyed immensely, but Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture was tedious. The latter had a comparatively uninteresting story though.
            In terms of challenging conventions and not following through, the original Bioshock is very much guilty of that, with a great commentary on gaming structure, including a way of explaining your actions. However once that cycle was broken the game just carried on as before without offering a new way of interacting. It would be interesting to see any forthcoming games that manage to handle something like this, I’m not holding my breath though!

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            • I would describe the gameplay of The Stanley Parable and other walking simulators as nonexistent rather than just minimalistic. And to be honest, if that game is any indication, then I have to say the walking simulator isn’t a genre I enjoy. I’ve described The Stanley Parable as paradoxically one-dimensional, and it’s guilty of the same mistake as Spec Ops: The Line with its shot at gaming fans at the beginning. That whole thing about Stanley pushing buttons for certain durations and others finding it soul-crushingly boring being a metaphor for gaming isn’t any more insightful than saying that he watches images flash on a screen in a sequential order or perceives words on sheets of paper glued together. Most people know that’s what gaming, watching movies, and reading books entails; the best works are usually the ones that make you forget you’re doing that. Considering that the person who made The Stanley Parable clearly knows a lot about games and plays many himself, I found the cognitive dissonance too great to ignore. When it comes to indie games, Papers, Please, Shovel Knight, and Undertale rank much higher because their creators remembered to make them fun. The first is especially notable because it turned an unlikely concept into a fun experience, and it was much more of a profound artistic statement because of it, not in spite of it.

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              • I can accept The Stanley Parable far more due to them injecting it with a sense of fun through the narrator’s interactions with the players choices. It’s no more complex than a choose your own adventure book with a light story, but at least it’s a humourous one.
                Ive constantly put off Undertale, due to the amount I’ve read of it I think I’ve spoiled too much of it! Shovel Knight on the other hand was tremendous fun in all regards. But then, I’m a huge Mega Man fan.

                Liked by 1 person

              • I suppose so, but at that point, you’re just doing whatever you can to uncover all the funny dialogue. Once you’ve heard it all, there’s no reason to continue. In other words, you don’t really beat that game as much as you decide to stop playing, which lacks the same satisfaction as watching actual characters interact and seeing a story through to the end. There isn’t anything The Stanley Parable does that wasn’t executed just as well – and often better – nearly a decade earlier in Metal Gear Solid 2.

                Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank goodness! Someone else who hasn’t fallen over in adoration of this game!!! And apologies for the wall of text.

    I actually just finished playing Spec Ops: The Line for the first time a few days ago (and somehow managed to stay spoiler free by the grace of a few miracles). My preferred game is one with a good story (RPGs and adventures, mostly), and that was the reason I picked up Spec Ops: The Line to begin with: I was told it had an excellent story. I actually really don’t like first-person or military shooters much, but I’d play one for the story!

    Yikes, this was not the game to introduce myself to shooters with. I’ve never actually been in danger of breaking a controller because of the game’s unresponsiveness until this game. I even knocked down the difficulty to see if that made a difference. Nope. Even at the easiest setting Walker doesn’t always feel the need to hide from the onslaught of bullets. Or run. Or do anything else that requires the “X” button… sigh.

    In regards to the story, it was a good concept to challenge the gamer for “following orders” and only playing the game because they wanted to feel like a hero, but I thought it was a little mishandled… I think it would have been more powerful if Walker had shown more overt signs of his hallucinations/PTSD earlier on and the player had been getting dragged along for the ride (like his companions were).

    For instance, with the two hanged prisoners, after Walker chooses whatever he’s going to do, maybe his companions could have commented to each other about why Walker was so obsessed with the men hanging there, since they “weren’t moving.” But wait… I/Walker just saw them moving… hm…

    The player could have been put in the position of thinking that the PC was insane but was being forced/having to play along because “it’s just a game,” therefore having to either rationalize their actions or throw up their hands and say something to the effect of “screw it, let’s just do XYZ” (cue public service announcement on doing things you didn’t want to do because it’s “only” a game) OR the players could have been put in the position of trying to transform Walker into an undeniable hero, instead of him being seen as an unstable mess (cue: you only played because you wanted to be a hero).

    When Konrad revealed that Walker was hallucinating, I remember wondering why that hadn’t been more overtly in the game, because the devs really could have used that to their advantage in the story they wanted to tell. That reveal was done well, I just wanted more of it – THAT was the story, but it hadn’t been part of the… well, story. At all. Not even a hint until the very end (which was AFTER you had dropped white phosphorus and gunned down most of the 33rd. Read: much too late for the player to suspect something is fishy about Walker).

    The fourth-wall breaking was a bit unexpected when Konrad mentioned that Walker/the player could have walked away. Two emotions went through me: offense that the game developers blamed me for playing their game, and fury that I HADN’T quit because the controls had been so bad. Intellectually I thought it was an interesting twist, but emotionally I was too angry to really get the full impact. This seems like a big failure on the part of the presentation.

    I thought this idea was actually handled better in Metal Gear Solid: Sons of Liberty, in which the Colonel/AI starts challenging Raiden to put the game down and telling him he has/had no choice when it came to killing. The story was built subtly, and the punch was delicately readied before smashing into the player’s face. I really felt trapped in that end fight with Solidus: I didn’t want to kill him, but I really had no choice. And at least that fourth-wall breaking made sense in that context and in the way the story had been presented.

    I’ll actually be writing up something on this game in the coming weeks. Would it be alright if I linked to your review?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Those people do indeed exist, and I’m certainly one of them. I’m pretty sure Aether is another, so you’re not in short company.

      I decided to play through Spec Ops: The Line on a whim because I figured it would be short enough and give me plenty to talk about. I was playing it under the impression that the gameplay was merely average, and that the story would carry the experience. Boy, was I not expecting it to be that bad. I hadn’t been this frustrated at a game since Metal Morph, an unbelievably awful 2D platforming game from the nineties that I played for the sole purpose of bashing. By the end, I frequently followed up my deaths with an angry mantra of “Hate this game, hate this game, hate this game,” and I openly wondered how fans could overlook such glaring flaws. I was also wondering if I was just that bad at the game or if it was the controls, so it’s reassuring knowing that I wasn’t the only one who had problems with them. It doesn’t help that the “X” button was also the run button; I’m used to holding down L3 in games like this. Even then, it didn’t seem to work half the time.

      I think that’s what it ultimately boils down to: a good concept ruined by terrible execution. I enjoyed the twist that Walker was hallucinating throughout the second half of the game, but looking back, it seemed to be a case where the characters know a fact that we don’t, they have no reason to keep it a secret, and yet they do anyway – not because it makes sense in universe, but so the audience doesn’t catch on too quickly. I do give the writers credit for taking a stance on their protagonist’s morality, as I’ve seen at least one case where it was painfully obvious they couldn’t, but it still resulted in a thematic mess.

      The breaking of the fourth wall just rubbed salt on the wound; it wasn’t enough that the developers insulted you with cheap death after cheap death, they had to go full throttle and use the narrative to do it as well. Makes the offer to lower the difficulty seem rather two-faced in hindsight, doesn’t it? It’s as though they were saying, “It wasn’t enough that you’re a bad person, you have to suck at the game too?”

      I find it interesting because Metal Gear Solid 2 pulled off many of the same stunts as Spec Ops: The Line, yet I think much more highly of it – an incredible feat considering it was released eleven years prior. I think it’s a combination of being a much better game while not being as malicious about getting the player involved. It’s also a tragicomedy of sorts because Mr. Kojima did all that with the intent of ending his series and killing interest in it, yet it sold millions of copies, has fared well in hindsight, and spawned no fewer than four sequels, so he ended up being the butt of his own joke despite his best efforts.

      You want to link to my review? Go right ahead. Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed reading it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m glad I read this review, and I agree with some of the other comments here. While I can appreciate what this game was going for, it ultimately failed to really captivate me.

    I had heard that the game was suppose to really turn the genre on its head and have some life changing twist that would make you question everything. While it does effectively convey some sense of the terrible things that are happening, and does it in the form of the genre it attempts to exploit, it really failed to hit home with me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Spec Ops: The Line sort of strikes me as a shallow deconstruction. The modern military shooter definitely deserved this close examination, but at the same time, it’s functionally identical to a straight example. Take out all the dialogue and cutscenes, and it would be virtually indistinguishable from an average Call of Duty installment. I admit that’s not necessarily bad in of itself, but it’s hard to turn a genre on its head when your gameplay doesn’t offer any unique spins. It would have been more effective if there was some way to get through the game without resorting to violence and playing it as a typical third-person shooter was the wrong choice. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy the Metal Gear series so much; the non-lethal weaponry allows you to keep causalities to a minimum, and the games often punish you in some way for taking the easy (lethal) way out.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I definitely agree here. I know there is some point to be made about how the lack of choice is part of the commentary, but making the choice would add significant impact. It doesn’t help, as you mention, that the gameplay doesn’t really amaze even in the genre it emulates, and doesn’t add a gameplay factor to drive home it’s point

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I am really glad they made this game. I am glad that they had this idea, I am glad they challenged the genre du jour, and I am glad that they took the storytelling route rather than simply making a subpar gunsablazing game when faced with the challenge of making a military shooter that was never going to have the budget of the big boys. I played it. Didn’t enjoy it enough and wasn’t engaged enough to finish, but I’m glad for the time I spent with it, and I’m glad it’s still there for me, and I am glad for the discussion it spawned.

    That said, this is the perfect example of a game that has a lot of great ideas competently done, but marred by a few major flaws that end up holding it back. Chief among them, exactly as you point out, is that the game tries to call out the player for simply experiencing the story. Again, there are ways of calling out the player for being an asshole, treating them like dirt, and it being a totally valid thing to do. Undertale did that. Ogre Battle did that. But when they were calling you out, you earned it. And that’s what made it valid. Spec ops doesn’t have that. When you make your choices, and that’s what the game is judging you for, fine. That’s fair. Spec Ops, with its linear plot, is more along the line of a book featuring an anti-hero protagonist and at the end of it calling you a dirtbag for reading through all the ratty things they did.

    You don’t even have to make the good/evil choices easy or apparent. I didn’t like Amnesia much, so I didn’t play all too much of it, but the beginning of its Justine DLC really left a profound impact on me. You’re in a situation where, in order to progress past a locked door, you’re going to have to flip a switch that kills a dude. The character who put you in that situation tells you up front that there’s a way out without killing him, but I couldn’t find one, so I figured it was a case just like this, where it had one route and was just forcing you to take the worst choices. Turns out, no, there was a way around that, it just took some lateral thinking and I couldn’t figure it out. Upon realizing that, that’s where I really started to feel the weight of making the choice to kill that character. I had ended up just taking the easy way through, and even though I wasn’t really aware of the choice, the fact that it was there and I hadn’t uncovered it had more impact on me than all of Spec Ops.

    I think it really drags down Spec Ops’ story, too. If they had left the player out of it, they could have focused it all on Walker, brought him more into the limelight, and used him as a more powerful vehicle for the message they were wanting to get across. I always felt that the lead up to the White Phosphorous scene was lacking, because it was just begging to explore the conflict between Walker, who just wants to be the classical hero, and the way he resorts to using White Phosphorous as a weapon, which is a major war crime, way more than it actually did. Walker just starts to fade into the background in the face of all that the game wants to heap on the player, when he’d really serve as a far better foci for it.

    In any case, I’m not going to feel personally guilty because a bunch of simulated people had a simulated bad time. Got enough real things to feel bad about. Nice try, Spec Ops.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It really is a game that needed to be made, as the modern military shooter deserved to be challenged for all of the unfortunate implications it bore.

      I, and many others, have noticed several parallels between Undertale and Spec Ops: The Line. That is, by being evil, Undertale practically becomes Spec Ops: The Line both in regards to its tone and hostility toward the player. That there’s a way to be good in Undertale, and it’s deceptively easier than being evil, is what make the narrative’s harsh words have an actual impact. It would be okay if the narrative of Spec Ops: The Line didn’t involve the player, but by doing so, the writers comprised the integrity of their own message. As I said, considering the message was aimed a very specific subset of gaming fans, to those who aren’t a part of that collective, which is most people who would actually see this game through to the end, it’s like getting framed for a crime you didn’t commit.

      I went through something similar to your Amnesia situation with Undertale. During the first boss fight, I thought she would surrender if her health was lowered enough because NPC dialogue suggested that would be the case, but after four or five attacks, I thought to myself, “This isn’t what I’m supposed to be doing.” Then, I remembered the next NPC telling me that sometimes you’ll have to choose “spare” when the monster’s name isn’t highlighted. So when I did that and noticed the dialogue began to change, I knew I had stumbled upon the right answer. That left a profound impact on me because I realized that it wasn’t completely obvious, yet I managed to drum up the correct solution and avoid committing an evil act organically. It’s a linear experience, yet the will of the player shapes the narrative, which is something you just don’t get with games such as Spec Ops: The Line or any other game with such a static story.

      I do give it some credit because it’s not too eager to deconstruct the genre. Indeed, I was surprised how long it took for things to go downhill. That said, once it reached the white phosphorous scene, all pretenses were dropped, and Walker became a strawman character representing shooter fans. Again, that’s not an intrinsically bad idea, but forcing player culpability in a situation where it couldn’t be firmly established was.

      In the end, I’m going to join you in not feeling guilty. By contrast, I don’t think I could ever bring myself to play an evil character in Undertale or Planescape: Torment.

      Liked by 1 person

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