specops

On paper, it almost seems
blasphemous to make an action game based on
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.
The two works are seminal commentaries on how war doesn’t create
victors, but rather bastard children who are forced to live with the
memories of conflict for the rest of their days. How could a tale with
such gravity be told through a genre of game that forces you to gun
down hundreds upon hundreds of faceless enemies? But sure enough, Yager
Development and 2K Games saw potential in telling this story through a
video game, and thus born Spec
Ops: The Line. Despite its
threateningly
bad title, the game delivers an anti-war experience that goes beyond
what the Metal
Gear Solid series has done and
truly treads new ground
for our medium. While it’s certainly not without its own share of
problems, the game stands proudly alongside its inspirations as a
fantastic commentary on the duality of man.

After a catastrophic sandstorm
cuts off Dubai from the rest of the world, your team is tasked with
entering the ruined city and piecing together what exactly happened
before the calamity. The moment-to-moment action of Spec Ops plays out
similarly to other stop and pop titles of the past generation. You’ll
hide behind cover and pick off enemies one-by-one, relay some minor
orders to your squad mates, and slowly press forward through the sandy
ruins of a once-luxurious Dubai. While perfectly playable, there are
some minor inconsistencies that will undoubtedly force you to retry a
handful of scenarios due to forces outside of your control. For
example, the hit detection can sometimes be just a bit off, resulting
in what should have been a head-shot turning into a phantom miss. It’s
also strange that your teammates can be revived after being downed à la
Gears
of War, but your character is
never afforded the opportunity to
be revived in the midst of a firefight. Again, nothing that breaks the
experience, but enough to frustrate you with a handful of unwarranted
deaths.

But the shooter mechanics
aren’t the reason to play Spec Ops. The thing that kept me going were
the consistent string of moments that left me questioning
whether or
not I was doing the right thing. To give away these moral, ethical, and
frankly human dilemmas would be doing you a disservice, so without
going too deep into the specifics of these moments, let me just say
that I had to walk away from my television on more than one occasion in
order to think about what I had just done. As you progress through the
game’s phenomenal final act, your hand will be moved to make decisions
that have no right or wrong answer. No matter how you choose, you’ll be
left with a sinking feeling in your gut that you could have done more.
But despite this desire to do the right thing, I never went back to see
how a scenario would play out if I made the opposite choice. These were
my consequences, and I would have to live with them.

The only problem with the story
in Spec Ops stems from a hurdle that most games have been unable to
leap over. In a moment of genuine catharsis, one of your squadmates
breaks down and admits that the atrocities experienced throughout the
game will haunt him for the rest of his life. There’s a sincerity in
his voice that is rarely seen in our medium — the moment left me
genuinely moved. Then, not five minutes later, that same character
sneaks behind an enemy soldier, slits his throat, and snarkily spits,
“Sweet dreams, bitch.” How is the player supposed to feel at this
moment? The legitimate pathos of the prior revelation was completely
squashed by this out of place moment of pure, “Oorah!” This has been a
problem with war games and shooters for quite a while — the story and
message of an anti-war title always seems to directly conflict with the
moment-to-moment actions of the shooter genre. Until someone comes up
with a way to have the medium and the message work together, we’re
going to be left with these sort of disconnected moments.

But despite this underlying
problem, Spec Ops really does deserve your attention. While the
situations that the game places you in and the unfathomably tough
choices it forces you to make are nearly unprecedented in our medium,
perhaps the most impressive element of the game’s storytelling is the
dialogue. What starts out as rather pithy, generic banter between your
squad quickly transforms as you delve deeper into Dubai’s circles of
hell. Your team will start to get short with one-another as they
realize that some of the blood on their hands will never wash off.
Physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion sets in about halfway
through the game, which is reflected by the way your characters will
become frustrated at things like having to reload their guns in the
middle of a firefight. These small yet poignant moments combine to make
Spec Ops an experience that won’t soon be forgotten.

There’s an iconic moment in Apocalypse Now
where Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz reflects on the atrocities that
he’s both witnessed and partaken in, the only words that he can muster
are, “The horror…the horror…” While not perfect, Spec Ops: The Line
is our medium’s most honest and effective attempt at capturing and
commenting on the monstrosities of war, and for that, it truly deserves
to be experienced.

By Marty Sliva