Spec Ops: The Line
Today’s edition of Let’s Do Some Crimes focuses on exploring the harrowing moral dimensions of war in Yager Development’s “Spec Ops: The Line.” Before reading any farther, you should know that, a) this article contains some major plot spoilers, and b) this shit gets pretty dark. There, now you can’t say I didn’t warn you. So, without further ado, let’s do some war crimes!
Spec Ops: The Line is a third-person shooter set in the ruins of Dubai after an enormous sandstorm. You command a pair of special forces operators in an effort to determine just what happened in Dubai after communications went down and an evacuation attempt failed. Graphically, the game looks great, and is occasionally surprising.
The primary selling point of Spec Ops: The Line is that it adds a moral dimension to the military shooter genre. Rather than an endless, consequence-free stream of headshots, the player will face the ramifications of his or her decisions. At first, though, this deviation from the norm isn’t particularly evident, and the game moves along like most of the others in the field. The lead up to the first big moral decision (and its consequences) reminded me a lot of the movie “Drive.” You’ve heard it’s pretty badass, but the bright pink handwritten title inspires little confidence, and Ryan Gosling’s quiet protestations that he doesn’t carry a gun don’t exactly kick the action into overdrive. Then, just as you’re lulled into a false sense of security, Gosling just starts brutally beating people to death left and right. You’re forced to reimagine his disclaimer speech as “I just drive…and harbor an enormous reservoir of violent rage.” Basically, if you can watch that movie without wincing, you’re a psychopath.
That’s what playing Spec Ops: The Line is like. The third-person shoot ‘em up action is uninspired (with the exception of the falling scenes; the main character is the Picasso of falling off of shit). This fairly pedestrian gameplay is followed by a series of decisions that carry truly horrifying consequences. And I don’t mean “Oh no, I have to reload my last save” horrifying. We’re talking some balls-out horrors of war cutscene action.
Although I appreciated the addition of moral depth as a story element, most (if not all) of these decisions seem to follow a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” pattern. Basically, imagine playing Bioshock, but your choices are either a) kill the little sisters to harvest more ADAM, or b) molest them first. I imagine that this is an intentional ploy to heighten pathos and showcase that no one gets out of this kind of conflict unscarred. However, once you realize what’s going on (i.e. that you’re going to do terrible things, no matter which buttons you press), the bloom is a bit off the rose. However, this is understandable, since having a real “good guy” option would undermine the story to some extent. The story behind these choices, however, was a lot harder to get my head around.
MAJOR SPOILER—FINAL WARNING
It turns out that the reason that all of your decisions cause so much pain is that you’ve been batshit insane the whole time. As a story device, this was a real disappointment for me for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, remember all of those heart-wrenching decisions and consequences that make up the core of the game? Well, don’t worry about them, because you were literally detached from reality when that stuff was going on. After an entire game spent slogging through the heart of darkness, it turns out you’re not guilty by reason of insanity. At one point, you’re so crazy that you don’t even realize you’re ripping off Peter Jackson.
Arguably the most disappointing aspect of the game, though, is that your tough-as-nails, hardened killer teammates seem pretty okay with the whole thing. Now, I’ve never been in the military, so I’m not sure how the chain of command works, but I feel pretty confident that if your commanding officer is clearly hallucinating and ordering you to break the Geneva Conventions, you get to write a strongly-worded letter or something.
Once the secret is out, the only reason to replay the game is to check out whichever gut-churning cutscenes you missed the first time around. Although I didn’t try out the multiplayer game, I imagine it involves a whole lot of hiding behind cover, like the world’s worst game of paintball.
Ultimately, Spec Ops: The Line gets really close to pulling off a darkly compelling take on the largely ignored subject of consequences in shooters. However, for some reason they hit the “it was all a dream” button, and the end result is pretty goofy. -BW