Spec Ops: The Fine Line Between Aspiration and Gameplay

First of all, a confession: Rabidgames does not like linear shooters. That’s why he does not like Call of Duty or Max Payne 3. To be fair, while Call of Duty is nothing but patriotic bullshit advertising the supremacy of American warfare, Max Payne 3 did at least not fail in this regard. However, the gameplay was stale.

And yes, Spec Ops: The Line does feature the stale gameplay known in military shooters: Corridor, shooting 20 enemies, round places, 20 new enemies, and so forth. Even worse, there are two big flaws in Yager’s shooter: The first one is the unbelievably awful team A.I. – even on normal, your two comrades do not behave like elite soldiers, but rather like insane ADHD crackheads. They simply run ahead whenever they feel like it, they don’t care for any kind of formation, and if they are flanked, they prefer not to get rid of the bigger threats for some weird reason. Second is the flawed tactical aspect: You cannot give your team orders to defend or follow you, oh no, you can only mark individual enemies. Coupled with the A.I., this means you mark an enemy they could easily shoot at from their position … and yet, they try to run across the battlefield, most likely getting killed in the process.

Now those two flaws can be combined with one devious tendency of Spec Ops: The Line; it is tough to unfair at times. Following the “haha, we make you lose all your equipment and comrades again and again” theme of many games, you end up defending yourself alone with crappy weapons and hardly any ammunition against 20 enemies at times. At one point, one of your mates is heavily injured and bound to defend you against attacks from flanking enemies. Yeah … another example of nice idea, flawed execution! If you wait for him to get rid of them, you’re dead already. Needless to say he’s back up to fight some more straight after this battle …

So why all the fuss about a subpar shooter then? Because Spec  Ops: The Line does take the well-known formula of military shooters and develops it into something different during the game: Ladies and gentlemen, witness the world’s first anti-war game! The stale gameplay is part of it, the boring and obvious “brave American soldiers fighting dark-skinned Arabs” story in the first couple of missions as well … the turning point in the game is the infamous “white phosphorous” mortar attack. Think you did something to be proud of, kid? Where Call of Duty makes you bomb little figures from up high, Spec Ops: The Line makes you wade through a sea of dead and burning bodies. It makes you see the consequences of your actions – and this is even more devious because of the same old gameplay mechanics. All of a sudden, the mood changes. And it keeps changing – from a heroic story, it’s a steep ride down hell full of violence, hallucinations and insanity. Spec Ops: The Line also manages to hit home the dark and twisted ending … Rabidgames did not see  THAT coming! Mind you, there are several endings, but thank fuck, there is not one real happy end in there – you can choose between hopeless and bleak.

After the credits, you want to play Spec Ops: The Line a second time to get to witness the downfall knowingly – where went it all wrong, what is real, who is real, who did we fight? But, and here’s the but: Is it worth it? Yes, it makes sense to lull and wrap us into well-known mechanics just to hit us harder, but it could have been done better. Somehow, by following genre conventions too closely, the game loses some of its impact. Why not making us look for one or two enemies who are well hidden? Why not adding more cinematic scenes in the beginning of the game, before the hallucinations set in? There is some wasted potential in the gameplay department, potential which could have enhanced the story side as well …

But make no mistake, Spec Ops: The Line is absolutely brilliant when you take one step back and look at the bigger picture. In fact, it manages to succeed where Far Cry 3 failed: It does not only portrays war as it really is, it also asks us gamers why we play military shooters – do we want so kill enemies, do we want to have fun doing so … and why. Fortunately, this is done subtly and not in a preachy way. There is a slow process of the line to become blurred, of us questioning what is going on, of another virtual adventure turning into a nightmare. And this is an accomplishment Yager can be proud of! We need more games which dare to ask uncomfortable questions – not only about the American dream, about war or about society, but also about the part video games play in our daily lives.

Rabidgames reloads: Spec Ops: The Line works on two different levels: The sublime story and the commendable intention of the game hide behind stale gameplay and worn-out paths. And yet, Spec Ops: The Line is not an enjoyable game – but for the wrong reasons. It is not the harsh and brutal reality of war, it is the boring and repetitive way to face this reality. And still, despite all bland gameplay, it is the narrative that shines through and will be remembered. Kudos to Yager for showcasing war in a video game as a nightmarish descent into hell, not as patriotic acts of honour and duty. Spec Ops: The Line is a step to enlightenment. And who knows, maybe it will be remembered as gaming’s Apocalypse Now.

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