The phrase, “pilgrim in an unholy land,” can best summarize my mental space as of this writing. 343 Industries have released Halo 4, where Master Chief boldly and triumphantly fights off against alien forces with some powerful guns. Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is around the corner which is guaranteed to include soldiers boldly and triumphantly fighting off against some nebulous terrorist organization with powerful guns. Medal of Honor: Warfighter has come out where some soldiers of military origin inspired by real-world events grit their teeth and fight off enemies with guns. Also, in an attempt to break the mold, CryTek’s Crysis 3 will come out where you play as a military man in a super suit of armor fighting aliens with cutting edge military hardware…and guns.
A new Gears of War has been announced, Far Cry 3 isn’t far behind, the Killzones have been repackaged into a trilogy compilation on Playstation 3, and those who bought Warfighter are invited to a beta for Battlefield 4. All of the games mentioned above have finally devolved into a haze of similarity in my eyes. No matter what the name, the platform, or the artstyle, you play as someone who somehow helps save the world because you killed half the population of a planet with guns and explosions and are heralded as a hero, or grunt and move on if the experience is “gritty.” And I’m sick of it. Not because I think all shooters are terrible, they’re popular for a reason after all. Also, it isn’t because I don’t enjoy a good power fantasy with a giant assault rifle drumming away every once in a while, because I do. It is because that is what all shooters I see have become, one-dimensional power fantasies, even the ones claiming to be realistic. It is while in this mental rut that I experienced a shooter that looked at the mold mentioned, broke it over its knee with a sickening crack, then proceeded to punch every single shooter protagonist in the face by proxy until their noses broke. A shooter that is the absolute antithesis of anything I’ve experienced on the market this year. An experience that left me emotionally drained, yet eager for more like a poor victim of Stockholm’s Syndrome. That shooter, that experience, was Spec Ops: The Line.
Chances are you have seen Spec Ops: The Line in your local game store, but ultimately ignored it. A savvy gamer usually concludes that a game whose box art depicts a soldier holding a gun and looking gruff that doesn’t have Call of Duty, Battlefield, or Medal of Honor for its title is a second-generation rip-off of the above mentioned brands, trying desperately to imitate but ultimately failing due to a lack of budget, time, or effort. In terms of box art, Spec Ops: The Line fits the bill perfectly. Even an average consumer will dismiss Spec Ops at a cursory glance just on a lack of brand recognition. No big surprise since the Spec Ops franchise has been effectively dead since 2002.
So what exactly does this unassuming masterpiece in mediocrity’s clothing do so radically different? First of all, its campaign and story-telling. You are Captain Walker, a soldier of Delta force, accompanied by his squadmates, Adams and Lugo. You have been sent on a mission to the opulent city of Dubai, which has been utterly destroyed by a massive sandstorm. The mission involves rescuing a US Colonel, John Konrad, who decided to defy orders from up the chain by taking an entire battalion of soldiers with him to evacuate the city. Konrad and his troops, by the way, are highly decorated war heroes of the highest esteem who have gone silent ever since their occupation of Dubai. What happened to Konrad? What became of his men? What stopped them from fulfilling their mission?
The campaign is less about nationalism, or the murky moral gray of the actions of polticians on the world stage. It is, at its heart, a mystery story. Compounding this is the fact that Walker has firsthand experience with Konrad, painting the man in his eyes as a bona fide hero. There is also something else that helps elevate the campaign: an unapologetic atmosphere of oppression, inflammatory subject matter, and fourth-wall bending double entendre that continuously puts into question Walker’s, and by extension the player’s, actions.
So it’s another gritty shooter about how war is hell? No, no it isn’t. If anything else, this game can be read as a condemnation of what constitutes gritty, realistic, and empowering in shooters. In any other modern military game, you and your squad, usually depicted as Americans, have a prolonged campaign against terrorists or Neo-Nazis or anything else unambiguously evil. In a lot of circles, that can easily be constituted as something campy. In Spec Ops: The Line, you and your squad end up having to fight and kill Konrad’s army of hero American soldiers, not because they attacked you but because Konrad may be morally compromised under the stress of keeping order in the destroyed city of Dubai. Matters get only worse when clues start bubbling to the surface that Captain Walker may be losing his mind, indicative of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
There is also a coherent character arc for Walker and his men as they begin following this dark path of bloodshed. The men start out as generally likeable men of duty; a coherent solid unit. But, as events start to spiral out of control, as Walker’s grip on sanity continues to slip, leading the men to do absolutely reprehensible things, they break down with him. Slowly, they turn from soldiers to monsters. Their uniforms are tattered and destroyed, sand and grit covers their bodies, and wear and tear starts to make them appear more primal, more savage. Even the barking of orders during gameplay become less detached military jargon like, “sniper at 2 o’ clock,” to a more barbaric, “I want him dead!”
It is amazing how this is done because, without giving too much away, all of these moments of characterization are done by subverting common set pieces seen in modern military shooters. The darkest and most powerful of all of these moments is the infamous White Phosphorus Sequence. Fair warning, it isn’t for the faint of heart if you decide to find a video of it. Still, all of these elements manage to not only characterize Walker and his unit, but also point out just how ridiculous and psychopathic player controlled protagonists can be in modern military shooters. Instead of hand-waving these actions with a shot of adrenaline and strawmen-designed justification like everywhere else, Spec Ops: The Line looks you right in the eye and says, “congratulations, you murdered your fellow man. He had kids, and you blasted him point blank in the face with a shotgun. One of hundreds you’ve killed today alone. Feel like a hero yet?”
That last sentence isn’t my own either. The loading screens of Spec Ops: The Line, after a certain point, start dropping messages that might as well be straight from the writer to the player. Haunting messages such as, “How many Americans have you killed today?” “The US Military doesn’t condone attacking unarmed combatants. But this isn’t real so why should you care?” and, a personal favorite, “Cognitive Dissonance is the unsettling feeling caused by holding two conflicting beliefs simultaneously.” If there was any indication to the brilliance of a holistic experience where the gameplay informs the mental space of a protagonist and the subject matter of a campaign, the presence of Cognitive Dissonance says it all.
I’m not going to promise that if you wind up playing Spec Ops: The Line that you’ll instantly love it. As a matter of fact, I’m expecting most of you reading this will immediately hate it or dismiss it within the first ten minutes of the demo; immediately writing it off as exactly what its uninspired box art advertised. In some ways, this is true. The controls are a little sticky, the aim assist is non-existent, and the enemy AI and variety feels like something from six years ago. Red explosive barrels, heavy armored opponents lumbering towards you with giant weapons, even instances where you can’t continue until everyone in the area is dead. All of these moments happen more than once and give the experience, from a level design perspective, a bit of staleness. Also, the single-player Campaign is the lion’s show of the experience, with a Multiplayer mode tacked on, so those just looking for something to play with friends will be disappointed. But above all, the game is an emotionally draining punch in the gut that doesn’t let up until the credits roll, with nothing that can really be called “fun” in the traditional sense throughout its campaign. In spite of all of this, it is an experience that will stay in your mind, for good or for ill. This is an experience that looks at what is considered realistic and grim by other games’ standards, then raises the bar by six feet.
Going back to my, “pilgrim in unholy land,” turn of phrase while in that game store. It was a week after finishing the campaign of Spec Ops: The Line. Halo 4 was coming out, Black Ops 2 is being advertised, and Battlefield 3 Premium Edition was on sale. I couldn’t muster the strength to even look at the box art. The trailers being shown on loop on the monitors showed what amounted to frat boys in army camo shooting eachother in high-definition paintball matches in my eyes. All I could keep thinking about were the horrible actions I as a player was witness to by the hands of Captain Walker and his squad in Dubai. The actual nausea and stress felt by shooting at facsimiles of US armed soldiers of whom I have the highest respect for. I recall seeing Walker near the end of the story, not as some grizzled hero being showered with medals, but as a beaten broken man with cold distant eyes clutching his rifle not in assurance but in PTSD fueled fear, all because he wanted to do the right thing. But ultimately, I kept thinking, “why aren’t there more games like Spec Ops: The Line?”
This game, warts and all, is the shooter we need right now. There are too many shooters that glorify and justify the acts of armed conflict but never once do they dive into anything truly contemplative about the acts committed on screen, to say nothing about why such conflicts even begin. On a stage full of spectacle fueled interactive Hollywood experiences, Spec Ops: The Line is gaming’s Apocalypse Now. It deconstructs and destroys shooter tropes with glee and disdain. It destroys expectations, and like a Drill Sergeant, breaks your spirit to build you up again with a new point-of-view. But most of all, it is something different, a true to form human drama with no shallow spectacle to dilute its message. If you have gotten tired of shooters that seemed to have run together into a familiar mess, track down a copy of Yager’s opus and enjoy some perspective. But, when The Line is presented, will you choose to cross it?