Aside from the occasional exception, military shooters have become like grains of sand; seemingly infinite in number and almost indistinguishable to the naked eye. Their theme park ride tours of duty strap you to a rail and send you hurtling through expensive mock-ups of major conflicts propelled forwards by a perpetual supply of rogue nukes and nefarious nationalism.
As they glide with an almost supreme disregard for gravity from one carefully choreographed shootout to the next, they steer clear of the murky ethics lurking behind the scenes in the theatre of war. Exploring the no man’s land of morality in which these armed engagements are fought creates an uncomfortable friction that might slow the action or spoil the enjoyment. And like any well run military, these games prioritise the most important issues for any soldier: Are you having fun? Have you had a go on a mounted gun in the last five minutes? Would you like to buy a map pack?
Then again, perhaps the most pertinent question here is should we be expecting anything more from something whose sole purpose is to turn war into a game? Well, according to German-based developers Yager, we should. In transplanting Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness into modern day Dubai, Spec Ops: The Line has ambitions above its rank in the gaming chain of command. It’s a third-person shooter attempting something darker and more meaningful than the usual adolescent adrenaline kick, and the ways in which it succeeds and fails makes it one of the most thought-provoking games of the year.
Playing as Captain Martin Walker (with Nolan North redeploying his vocal chords from matinée idol Nathan Drake to moralistic infantryman), you lead a three-man Delta team into Dubai after the city has been cut off from the outside world by the kind of biblical sandstorms that would invalidate any holiday insurance. Your mission is to locate survivors including your idol, Colonel John Konrad, who went with his unit, the Damned 33rd, to try and lead a rescue mission out before all communications were lost.
Despite being a much more artificial and implausible setting than the jungles of Heart of Darkness or Apocalypse Now (which seems to serve as just an important an influence), Yager’s Dubai is an almost equally memorable location. Its Desert Storm meets The Day After Tomorrow feel managing to evoke a similar sense of a surreal place of ominous oppression, desperation and isolation.
Like the inside of a pharaoh’s pyramid or the valley of a lost civilisation, the city is littered with the relics and ruins of a hopelessly misplaced religion (not so much Christian as Christian Dior). Its skyscrapers are its marble-clad temples, its bejewelled statues the false idols who offered no salvation when judgement day arrived, and on the path you forge through the decomposing decadence, it becomes clear that the sandstorms have eroded away the civilised world both literally and figuratively.
It’s a setting you’ll continue to flash back to long after you and The Line have parted ways. Yager has managed, both deftly and bluntly, to realise the idea of having the environment around you tell the story. And while Dubai may not be Spec Ops central character, it‘s most definitely its narrator.
The ethereal brutality of your surroundings dovetails perfectly with the themes Yager attempt to explore in Spec Ops’ story. From the very beginning, when you find yourself forced to fight for survival against those you’re meant to be rescuing, the game effectively develops an intangible feel of queasy foreboding into a sickening sense of inevitability. The horrors you confront and contribute to lead to dramatic changes in your squad as the cracking of jokes is slowly replaced by the cracking of psyches and loyalties. And in its latter half, the game also unflinchingly forces you to make a number of increasingly desperate choices.
There are no paragon, no light side, no heroic options to swoop to your aid in these S.O.S. situations. Instead, they keenly capture the feeling of incredulity at the madness and warped morality war is able to justify. In fact, the most important and impressive thing about these Morton’s Fork moments is that they end up mattering much more to you personally than to the greater narrative, which is a distinguishing feat in a genre where the subtle approach often begins and ends with using a silencer rather than a rocket launcher.
Spec Ops is a game desperate for you to surrender your mind to its metaphors and philosophical musings. The questions it poses – Is there a connection between the storm gathering inside Walker and those raging around him? Can good be the crucible of evil? What’s left of a human after his humanity has been taken away? – are potentially powerful stuff, especially in an interactive medium. Despite all this, however, the most profound and problematic issue The Line raises is a purely unintentional one: Is it possible to combat the inherent dissonance between gameplay and narrative in this type of video game?
You see, away from its story, Spec Ops remains very much a game, and a nuts-and-bolts, cover-based shooter at that. Aside from a simple but effective squad command system and some highly scripted but overly restrained use of sand as an environmental antagonist and assistant, it’s a competent but rarely compelling shooter. One that focuses the mind, not with fancy set-pieces, but the fragility of Capt. Walker who can take only a couple of hits before you’re perusing a loading screen.
It’s a game that seems totally sincere in its efforts to be brave and virtuous, but in its desperation to attract an audience can’t resist selling a large portion of its soul to the kind of slow-mo head shots, waves of stock enemy types, bright red explosive barrels and disposable carnage it thinks both public and publishers want and expect. All of which it washes down with a blaring selection of Vietnam-era rock tracks – a cleverly knowing and blackly comic gag the first few times its used, but one the game repeats so often it becomes as worn and tired as Walker and his men.
As a result, there’s a central conflict in The Line which the game finds impossible to resolve convincingly or satisfactorily. It wants you to agonise over which of two men’s lives to spare when up until that point the only agony you’ve suffered is having to wade through a sea of enemies who won’t die fast enough. It wants you to be traumatised by the pile of corpses lying in front of you when the pile you’ve left in your wake is so big it could block out the Arabian sun. There are some extremely interesting ideas and intentions here, but too often they’re lost in a storm of bullets and under a mountain of bodies.
Spec Ops also includes a now almost obligatory multiplayer component, the omission of which currently seems to be regarded as the commission of a war crime. Featuring a levelling system, perks, a range of upgrades and match types with varying impetuses and objectives , it’s certainly not been cynically tossed in at the last moment, but neither is it going to encourage many deserters from Battlefield or Modern Warfare. It just serves to highlight that there’s not quite enough visual or mechanical finesse to Spec Ops standard shooting to make it compelling when cast adrift from the focal point of the game’s fiction.
So, where does all this leave us? Well, while there will be some who will dismiss The Line as nothing more than Gears of War with an English Literature GCSE, there will be others eager to claim it as a rallying point for their conviction that shooters have the potential to be more than mindless murder simulators.
Personally, despite all its literary and cinematic connections, the two things Spec Ops made me think most about were Homefront and Atomic Games’ dishonourably discharged Six Days in Fallujah, and that we all might be going a bit mad for thinking that all this killing without consequence isn’t without consequence. So for acts of narrative valour above and beyond the call of duty, we salute you Yager. Much more of a moral victory rather than a valiant mirage.
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