Shooters are, by virtue of my gaming style, not my forte. My hand-eye coordination developed in the age of Mario, which means any given teen can grill me in multiplayer. And the setting is almost always gritty, realistic warfare. And, war being hell, I always find myself a little at odds with playing at it in so close a context.
Which is what has attracted me to Spec Ops: The Line. This isn’t a new title; it came out this past summer, but it’s one I’ve been meaning to get around to. Review after review says that this is THE shooter of the year for storytelling and, oddly enough, meta commentary on the genre.
I’m sorry, but a military shooter known for its compelling plot (like a supermodel known for their personality) is a rarity. A little research reveals that Spec Ops is based on Heart Of Darkness, which happens to be the same source material used for Apocalypse Now. That in and of itself is pretty rare for a shooter.
And, if rumors can be believed, it may offer something that gaming consumption doesn’t have in great supply: self awareness. Too often, I fear we spend more time figuring out what the next game is about, in lock step with the consumer cycle, than we do figuring out what our games say about us.
Which is a whole other terrible topic. The fetishism of realistic violence isn’t new in our day and age, but it is newly mass-produced. Never before has simulated murder been so easy or cheap. I’ll get into that next week.
Anywho, the game follows a Delta Force team in the ruins of Dubai after a terrible sandstorm has leveled the entire city. During the initial crisis, the U.S. Army’s 33rd Battalion (fake) was on a relay trip home from Afghanistan. That trip turns into a desperate evacuation attempt which leaves the 33rd and most of the would-be evacuees missing. So enters Captain Martin Walker as his Delta Force team searching for the missing 33rd and its commanding officer, Colonel John Konrad.
First Observations (Spoilers)
Almost immediately what sticks out to me is the character I’m “playing.” While nameless isn’t the standard, I’m used to faceless shooter protagonists. From what I recall of Modern Warfare 2 and everything I’ve learned playing Halo, faces are not a standard. Then again I remember shooting a mall full of civilians as part of a cover for the CIA before getting shot in the face.
So far the biggest, and weirdest, element of the game is how many Americans you kill. While the original mission called for investigation, it quickly becomes clear that the CIA and the 33rd are having some kind of turf war. Members of the 33rd, fearing you to be CIA, shoot first and ask questions never. After which you shoot galleries and galleries of U.S. soldiers.
So that’s what you do. And while your team seems reluctant to engage in war against U.S. personnel, it doesn’t really matter because you do it anyway. I’m still not clear on why no one is radioing anyone for help.
I also seem to spend a lot of time doing things while my squad screams that it’s probably wrong. We shouldn’t go in there. We should kill these guys. We need help.
But, it all seems to work out.
I can see why Spec Ops isn’t lauded for its game play. You go from one set of conveniently positioned barricades to the next, and shoot at bad guys who are, for no good reason, not behind equally convenient cover. And for some reason, shooting in this game feels like a real b****. It took a while to get to a place where I could hit anything, and it’s still a challenge.
But, as I’m coming to understand, none of that really matters. I keep coming back for the mystery, like Max Payne or the Animorphs books I read when I was a kid. And some have even suggested that the mechanics are supposed to feel wrong. I can’t say, yet.
What I can say is that I’ve never been more uncomfortable being comfortable with killing pixelated guys.