FUBAR – Spec Ops: The Line

Apologies for the gap between entries, I have thrown myself quite deeply into revision and it is leaving me pretty exhausted. My usual ability to stay up into the wee hours of the night has been massively diminished. Until the 17th this will probably keep happening, though I have several concepts floating around in my head.

The Modern Military Shooter genre is one of the biggest selling genres of the last few years. Call of Duty, Battlefield, and to a lesser part Medal of Honor have been huge hits, with Call of Duty itself having the title of ‘Largest Entertainment Launch of All Time’. That’s the largest entertainment launch of all time, beating out any film, TV, or musical launch. As an aside, this shows that gaming is now one of the biggest entertainment markets around.

If you ever play one of these games you will notice a few recurring themes. There is the wholesale massacre of thousands of soldiers, often from countries that are moderately developed. You mercilessly blast your way through the game, ending the lives of whole platoons. You possess, if only temporary, weaponry which turns ending lives into merely clicking at glowing white orbs. In my opinion though, the worst of all of these themes is that you are the good guy through and through, acting in the interests that prevent the world from being overrun by nuclear warhead wielding megalomaniacs.

Spec Ops: The Line takes a different view of this genre. Spec Ops is a Third Person, cover-based, Modern Military Shooter. You take the handle of the leader of a three-man Delta Force task force, sent to Dubai to help with the imminent evacuation. You wade into a Dubai torn apart by horrific sandstorms (sandstorms that bury small buildings and bring aircraft out of the sky with a brutal conclusion), a civil war between local Emiratis (armed by the CIA) and ‘The Damned’ 33rd Infantry of the United States Military. The 33rd were initially sent in to assist with the evacuation, but have since gone rogue.

The game initially starts with your squad being on the defence from various atack forces, before you learn of the 33rd’s actions and then go after the leader, Col. John Konrad, to seek ‘revenge’ for these grievances.  The game moves through the standard motions of third person game, utilising a solid and robust cover mechanics, but with the unique tough of being able to use sand to your advantage. You can shoot out glass to allow enemies to fall to their death, or allow them to drown in sand, as well as being able to destroy various walls to achieve the same ends.

But Spec Ops doesn’t really shine on its gameplay. While solid, its real redeeming feature is its storyline. In an attempt to reduce the number of spoilers I will talk in generalities here, but I will have to allude to certain events.

The enemy in this game are US Soldiers. They talk with American accents, they wear the Star Spangled Banner across their arms, they drive American vehicles, shoot American military weaponry, and they hoist the American Flag where ever they make base. You can even play the game with a moderate amount of stealth, during which you can hear the soldiers talking about their lives. They make comparisons to home, talk about their life in the States, they make jokes and, most importantly, they seem real. A lot of effort was put into reinforcing the idea that these guys, your bullet sponges, are American. These guys are meant to be the good guys.

Another effort with the story was to make you challenge who is good, and who is evil, and goes very much for the realities that it’s all a hazy shade of grey. Half way through the game you team up with the CIA lead Emiratis. The CIA made it clear that they were treating the 33rd as a rogue military force that needed quashing, and were using the Emiratis to fight their battle for them (a pretty common tactic for the CIA, and one they have used to install, and remove, dictatorships all over the world). While the 33rd most definitely appear evil (shooting at, and rounding up unarmed civilians, as well as brutally executing those who would not comply within their own ranks) you are constantly asked to rethink this.

There were two major events that were designed to truly force you to question whether you are really fighting ‘the good fight’. The first of these takes you into an aerial targeting system to eliminate the attacking forces of the 33rd with white phosphorus. White phosphorus is an aerial bomb that unleashes super-heated phosphorus from above, burning and igniting anything it touches. After leaving little but charred remnants of what stood before you are forced to walk through the decimated area to reach the next objective. As you walk through you see, and hear, American soldiers who didn’t die outright from the initial release. They lie there massively disfigured, covered in near full-body third degree burns, coughing up blood, crying for help, and crying for home. You walk up to one of the survivors who cries out ‘Why?’. Your protagonist, who is at this point in the game extremely pissed off and increasingly angry, responds with ‘You brought this upon yourselves’ which leaves the dying soldier in confusion. As far as he was concerned the 33rd were trying to help. At the point you are made aware of the true effects of your attack. While the 33rd may have been killing civilians earlier, you have just done the same to a greater scale.

The second example is the unravelling of the CIA’s narrative. It becomes known to you that the CIA aren’t really there to liberate, or assist with the liberation of, the Emiratis. American interests became concerned with what was going down in Dubai, and sent the CIA in to wipe as much evidence of it’s existence as possible. The going-ons of Dubai threatened a war between the Arab nations and the United States. The side you are fighting for has no moral high ground over the 33rd.

At this point the game becomes less about ‘the good fight’ or completing the objective and more about revenge. Your character is burned, and charred, with the right side of his body covered in scars, blisters and burns, and your right red with burst blood vessels. The sand is well and truly within every crevice, and your high-tech Delta Operator kit is now torn and charred. Vendetta screams from every word and action you perform. The executions (kills against already downed enemies) become brutal and unnecessarily violent. Your call-outs and commands go from the precision execution of the early game to being mere war cries for blood. Your character becomes blinded by anger, and it changes the whole mood of the game.

The whole game concludes with a very sour note. You are left confused. Confused about what has happened (not because of bad narrative, but because of the mental condition of the lead character), and confused about what you have just done. Were you acting in the greater good, your own interests, or the interests of a higher organisation within the US government.

The game’s narrative is fantastic, and when tied with the solid and enjoyable gameplay is definitely worth playing. The game is continually heavily discounted on Steam, and on various online distributors, and I recommend you purchase it.

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