Tag Archives: Apocalypse Now

The Line In Spec Ops

Holy $#!&, this game is intense.

For those not in the know, I started Spec Ops: The Line last week.


Seriously, f*** this game. That’s the mental state you’re in after killing a battalion of U.S. soldiers and most of the people in Dubai. Don’t mistake that for me saying this isn’t a enjoyable game. It is (though more for the story than the game play) … but you feel uncomfortable for having enjoyed it. And there is a lot of stuff going on here. This game is busier than Amazon shipping a week before Christmas (WHERE’S MY STUFF?)!

So, what is happening here?

Mental Illness

Metaphor much?

Metaphor much?

This is a place I really didn’t expect to go. As you play the game, it becomes clear that most of the characters aren’t ok. It’s been argued that the game uses a lot of mechanics to to make the player experience  jumbled, hectic play that’s representative of PTSD. I have to agree. The disjointed cut-scenes and nonsensical behavior of all the chief players is purposefully designed to make the player uneasy.

At the beginning of the game, your mission objective was to locate survivors. If you find any, you were to call for evacuation and leave. That’s it.

But instead, Captain Walker (your character) insists on finding Konrad and bringing the rebellious 33rd battalion to justice. In the first two hours, you killed dozens of civilians and HUNDREDS of U.S. soldiers. Whenever anyone questions the results, Walker says that they don’t have a choice. It’s not his fault. And as the body count rises, his fixation on Konrad builds.

Things peak when Walker decides to use white phosphorus to kill an entire camp of the 33rd battalion. In the aftermath, they realize the camp was housing (or holding hostage) 50 civilians that were BURNED ALIVE. Walker’s team members freak out and start playing the blame game while Walker shrugs and says “we had no choice.” He’s more resolved than ever to take it out on Konrad; his actions (your actions) spiral out of control.

Something is wrong here. You can see it in the false choices you’re presented and the way wave after wave of U.S. soldiers rush into your line of fire without any change in tactics or concern for self-preservation. It’s apparent in the ever more morose music that plays during combat. Not to mention the hallucinations. Walker’s eroding personality is made physically manifest by changes in his appearance. At the end he barely looks human, which is appropriate as he barely acts human. Where once Walker might have said hostile eliminated he now yells f*** you! as he stabs a man in the neck.

Here, there be monsters.

You Don’t Win At War

There are no good guys here. Konrad, supposed rogue leader of the 33rd Battalion, turns out to be a non-player. His dialogue is basically pieced together memories of Walker’s previous experiences with him. Because, you know, Walker is crazy. So, a leaderless 33rd fights a turf war with the CIA.

Turns out we were FUBAR the whole time.

Turns out we were FUBAR the whole time.

Meanwhile, the CIA’s mission has been to wipe out the 33rd’s water supply to cover up war crimes Konrad may or may not have performed while he was trying to save the city. However, the 33rd is rationing that water to everyone in Dubai, which the CIA is fully aware of. No water = no survivors.

Meanwhile, Captain Walker isn’t supposed to be here. His squad devolves as Walker pushes them to go on a mission that results in an catastrophic body count. Both squad members eventually conclude that they are the real problem and that they don’t deserve to live. It isn’t ironic that a third of your squad is hanged by a mob of the civilians you were trying to avenge. It’s poetic.

All the key players have the best intentions.

Spec Ops: The Line isn’t a game about war as we’ve learned to play it. It’s about the distance between the good guys we play and the realities of killing people. Countries win wars, but soldiers survive them.

What Military Shooters Say About Us

Spec Ops: The Line begs and important question: Why do we play war shooters? The state of war is a brutal place. Why 50300_screenshots_2012-07-04_00004would anyone want to kill wave after wave of simulated soldiers, insurgents and civilians in high definition?

Because we want to be the hero. We could play a game where you shoot and fight and do things without a role or purpose, but it wouldn’t have the same sense of accomplishment. We demand narrative. Narratives demand purpose and a moral or they don’t have a point. And the point of playing as a soldier is to be heroic.

After all, we are playing.

And Spec Ops is an indictment of that play, a realistic military experience that demonstrates how fake military shooters are.

The bottom line in Spec Ops is that all you had to do was stop. During game play, it often feels like you’re trapped in a series of decisions that keep making the situation worse. Call the metaphor heavy-handed, but all you had to do was stop. In Walker’s case, he should have stayed on mission and called in support. But he’s hardly to blame. Walker is figuratively (he’s insane) and literally (you control him) unable to stop.

In our case, it’s suppose to make us question that urge to pull the trigger.

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Down The Rabbit Hole With Spec Ops: The Line

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.

First Impressions

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.

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