Spoiler Warning: There are minor spoilers for Spec Ops: The Line in this post as it pertains to the game’s tone and plot progression. No specific story points are mentioned.
You know, I never would’ve thought a shooter would be the source of one of the best storytelling experiences I’ve seen in a game. I thought Adventure games and RPGs had the best storytelling ability, what with the writers having potentially less interactivity from the player to work around but…I guess I was wrong.
But it seems fitting that a shooter would be used to show us the darker side of war, the side none of us thinks much about as we play them. After all, they’re just games, right? I’m only shooting bits of code designed to look like people, not actual people…right? I shouldn’t care about them…should I? These seem like odd questions to be asking, especially about a game that’s definitely a game…unless it isn’t. Perhaps it’s a riveting journey into the human psyche, showcasing the effects of combat on a soldier’s mind.
One soldier in particular. His name is Captain Walker. You are him. He is you. You’ll both see the war in different ways, him, through his own eyes and you…from just over his shoulder. This is Spec Ops: The Line. Be sure to enjoy yourself.
The game begins in Dubai, a center of decadence and conspicuous consumption the likes of which most of us could only dream of enjoying. Well, don’t worry, as it’s been hit by a cataclysmic sandstorm that has left the city in ruins. This is where Delta Squad, led by Captain Walker, comes into the picture, and where everything starts to unravel.
Before I get into my discussion of the storyline, I realize I should talk about the game itself…as a game. Spec Ops: The Line is a solid but unremarkable third person shooter, no more, no less. I took issue with the controls to the point that I felt that they could’ve used some streamlining as I was still wrestling with them at the end of the campaign. Overall, it was entertaining in that the gunplay was solid, firefights were fairly intense (also resulting in some big difficulty spikes) and, though short at only six hours or so, was fulfilling.
Now that the gameplay stuff is mostly out of the way, I can get to the reason why I’m writing this at all, the plot, specifically that it’s freaking fantastic. I don’t want to say too much about major plot points and the like but I will say that one shouldn’t expect the average shooter story out of this one. Instead, Spec Ops: The Line turns the standard American machismo and “heroic” bravado common to military shooters much like this on its head. This is not a tale of victory against a vaguely established terrorist threat. No, it’s much more than that.
Though the game is strongest in its cutscenes, some of the best moments are communicated through gameplay. Once during the campaign, I tagged a soldier with a sticky grenade, Halo-style, and he freaked out. Now this is a perfectly natural reaction and one you’ll see in similar games, but in a purely unscripted moment, the soldier ran to his squadmates for help in his panic…and they ran from him. As he approached, desperately begging them for help, one of them even knocked him to the ground with the butt of his rifle and ran, and the man with the sticky grenade attached to his leg died alone and scared, abandoned by his brothers in arms.
I was stunned. The entire exchange lasted mere seconds. It was totally organic and totally unscripted. Just…a random moment that encapsulated the horrors of war. I had to pause for a moment after I saw it; take my hands away from the keyboard. I’d never seen anything like that in a game before. On its own, it was relatively benign. I’d stuck soldiers with sticky grenades before. Heck, I’d enjoyed doing it, just like I enjoyed sticking people with plasma grenades in Halo. But for that brief moment, I wasn’t a gamer anymore. I was human.
And I felt like shit.
Sometimes during battle, the game will go into slow motion for a moment, perhaps to allow you to appreciate the gruesomeness of the kill. You get to watch the total cranial obliteration following a direct shot to the head from an AA12 shotgun, the visceral spray of blood and dismembered limbs following a well-placed frag grenade. Sometimes your enemies will go down without actually dying, and you can either allow them to die on their own or execute them yourself as you draw near, watching them writhe helpless on the ground, choking on their own blood.
Sound brutal enough for you? Does my description of the game sound a little…graphic? Maybe a tad unsettling? Like I relished these moments?
Well, and this is only for my fellow gamers out there, ask yourselves…
How many times have you celebrated a kill in a videogame?
The key to the efficacy of these moments is the self-awareness the game has. I’d rather not spoil anything because it’s best experienced in the game itself. Just keep your eyes and ears open, even on the loading screens.
The voice work is something I need to draw special attention to as it’s universally excellent. And I mean it. Not once throughout the experience did I hear a line of dialogue that I thought was forced or inauthentic. Nolan North, one of the most well-traveled voice actors in videogames delivers his best work as the protagonist, Captain Walker. I’m also going to give a well-deserved shout out to Christopher Reid and Omid Abtahi for their work as Walker’s squadmates Adams and Lugo, respectively.
And the radio DJ whose words blare over loudspeakers as you play the game? Brilliant. Just brilliant.
The descent into madness for Walker, Adams and Lugo is a gradual and exceptionally subtle process. The subtle changes in dialogue, tone of voice mirrors the rising frustrations among Delta squad as they struggle to come to terms with the atrocities they’ve seen. By the end of the game, the three Delta Squad members are hardly recognizable. Even on a purely visual level, their torn and tattered body armor, the flecks of blood dotting their clothing, the scars, scrapes and bruises they bear are evidence of the ravages of war. It’s an exceptionally brilliant move that I can’t believe hasn’t yet been adopted on a larger scale.
I can’t recommend Spec Ops: The Line highly enough. As a game, it’s inoffensive and generally fun to play but a bit rough around the edges. As I said before, I had some issues with the controls but these issues were minor enough to keep me playing what is still a functionally solid third person shooter. I didn’t play the multiplayer because quite frankly, I don’t care about it (and neither did the developers). This is a game best enjoyed in solitude so one can allow the story to sink in. I would talk more about story details but I don’t want to spoil it in the slightest for those who haven’t played it.
And really, that’s what this game is about. The third person shooty gameplay is merely a vehicle to carry the player through the storyline. If you strip that away, it’s still fun but that’s not why I’m recommending it. I’m recommending Spec Ops: The Line because it’s the most significant step forward for the legitimacy of games as storytelling devices and it does this in a big part due to its proper balance. It doesn’t sacrifice storytelling for the sake of the gameplay and doesn’t push gameplay to the margins just to get a point across. It works on every level from plot to pacing to character development and even handles the traditional moral choice system with aplomb, adding a layer of interactivity the way only games can, often without prompting you that there’s a choice to be made to begin with.
So, I’ve said all that I feel needs to be said. Play this game. I can’t stress enough how good it is at what it does. With any luck, this will inspire other developers to put real thought and effort into writing their stories. Hopefully. I sure as hell wouldn’t have expected it to happen in a military shooter so who knows? Maybe some other developer out there will surprise me.