The enemy is holed up in front of you. It’s a suicide mission if you try and pass. It’s just you and your two squad mates against countless troops. Your partner notices something off to the side somewhat fortuitously; It’s white phosphorous. It’ll burn up everyone in its path. It’s an ugly solution but you’re in too deep now. You have to keep going.
You make the choice, or rather the game makes it for you. You have to press on. Turning off the game is always an option too, should you want to. You fire up the monitor and white dots on the screen represent your enemy. You point at them and fire. The white dots vanish in a monochromatic blaze. More dots. You point and fire. Point and fire. Point and fire.
It’s nothing new. One of the biggest selling game series of all time, Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare features such scenes. You take control of a chopper gunner as you pinpoint and fire upon the enemy. It’s detailed to be extremely lifelike, with your co-pilot issuing commands and banter. It’s meant to invoke a coolness, it’s meant to involve the player. It’s meant to entertain.
But you aren’t playing Modern Warfare this time, you’re playing Spec Ops: The Line and if there’s one thing to expect by this point in the game (even though it’s still fairly early on) it’s that the scene is going to go ugly. The soldiers you’re firing on? They’re American, just like you. But that’s not all. As the sequence ends and you push on you’re forced to pass through the damage you’ve caused and you discover something else; Civilians.
These are the people you’re supposed to help. They were huddled up in a trench and you’ve just burned them all to death in the most horrific of ways. Spec Ops wants you to feel the consequences of your actions. When you die early in the game the loading screen contains all sorts of helpful hints, but this time it reads:
Do you feel like a hero yet?
Spec Ops: The Line takes the mindless violence of a thousand other games and wonders what it would be like if the actions of your character had real-world effects.
Inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Hearts Of Darkness (Which in turn inspired Apocalypse Now), Spec Ops is about a small Delta Force recon team sent to a Dubai that’s been destroyed by a sand storm. Your mission is to find any signs of The Damned 33rd, a battalion that was sent to Dubai to help and then refused to leave when ordered to, instead staying behind to evacuate who they could. The last time anyone heard from them is a cryptic message saying their mission was a failure. But their leader, Colonel Konrad, is a good man and you think he’s still alive there somewhere.
You soon catch wind of a band of rebels that have taken some American soldiers hostage. So your recon mission becomes a rescue one and almost nothing goes to plan. Before you know it you’re deep in the bowels of Dubai (You never travel upward during the game, you constantly move down – for reasons that become obvious) and it’s become an ugly, ugly place.
I finished Spec Ops in one long, frustrating sitting and left it at the end entirely down about the experience. Not that it wasn’t worthwhile, but it was draining. It’s easy for games to take the Black Hawk Down approach of the nameless, faceless and different coloured enemy and distance you from what you’re doing. You aim and you shoot, enemies will shout something in their language or broken English as they threaten you. You mow them down. Wave after wave succumb to your dexterity with the trigger.
These aren’t the enemies of Spec Ops though. They’re you. They’re soldiers like you’re a soldier. They look like you, and like you they still believe they’re doing the right thing. They didn’t start off as bad people, but trying to do the right thing can bring out our worst tendencies sometimes.
Spec Ops is about the two C’s, Context and Consequences. The game doesn’t give you anything new to do by the end, you don’t get new skills or become better with the gun. What you can do at the start is what you can always do, but the game finds a new context for it. For instance there’s an ‘execute’ button. It’s pretty standard for this type of game and it’s up to the user as to whether they actually use it or not. Hitting it early on will earn the enemy a swift execution. But by the end of the game the executions are horrible, brutal things that last longer than is comfortable, the product of a character that has simply lost it. Same action, different context.
Even the voice acting changes. At the start your characters joke and banter in the downtime between set pieces, during which they spout off ‘realistic’ military jargon but by the end they’re ravaged, angry voices. Relationships have frayed. Calm has been replaced with urgency.
It’s a remarkable achievement for a genre that provides the same gung-ho, hoo-ha, simplicity that toy soldiers gave the generation before. These are good guys, these are bad guys. You shoot the bad guys, you win.
That’s not to say the game is perfect. There are moments where it feels like it goes out of its way to punish you, providing a gaming experience that’s more endured than enjoyed. But perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps the entire point of Spec Ops is to provide an experience, often an unpleasant one but an experience nonetheless. There are times where Spec Ops is less concerned about being a game that people can enjoy and is more concerned about being a treatise on the validity of these types of mindless games. Pretentious? Maybe. Obnoxious? Perhaps. But it’s different, it’s interesting and it’s unique. These are the adjectives that should matter. It challenges because it has to. Taken in that light Spec Ops seems to be a call for originality, a stepping stone into something better. It seems to be saying that re-enacting the real life assassination of Osama Bin Laden is bullshit, here’s something that will actually test you.
Of course it was a failure.
It was always going to be. In a world where games reviews are nothing but consumer advice and the only thing people really care about is how a game looks or how the controls feel it’s no surprise that Spec Ops was soundly rejected. But it was always going to be a gamble. You can’t be surprised that a game that uses the generic staples of the genre to explore larger issues would be soundly rejected by the buying public for seeming, well, generic.
It’s a shame but maybe it’s better that way. Maybe it’s the type of thing that people just need to discover for themselves the way I did and the way I’m sure countless others have. It’s perhaps best experienced blind, a journey that leaves you bruised and battered but all the better for it. Or perhaps I’m over thinking it too much. Art tends to do that to you.
You point, you shoot, you die. Another loading screen comes on. This time it simply reads:
This is all your fault.