Spec Ops: The Line Favorite 

Date: 

Jun 26 2012

Location: 

Online

Often in military style video games we kill without much regard for the enemy. They are faceless or stereotypical, the Nazi or evil Cold War–era Russian. They are enemies that were fought on the battlefields of great wars, or they are aliens that have no resemblance to humans save for a general humanoid form. Often these games put us in first person view, and too often we don’t feel the emotional and mental trauma that war and especially killing that true warriors would feel. With Spec Ops: The Line, however, this trauma is front and center.

That’s not to say that games haven’t been trying. The intensity in the way-too-short campaigns of the latest Call of Duty franchise entries has been powerful. Though that intensity comes less from the impression of urgency or morality and more from the blood and sheer volume of enemies. Then there is the pure chaos in form delivered by over-the-shoulder shooters like Gears of War. There is no moral compass here; kill everything. As far as gameplay, Spec Ops: The Line is an over-the-shoulder third person shooter, but as far as in-war morality it tests a new dimension of decision making.

Unlike many games that have decision-based systems, most of them being RPGs such as Fable, there is no good or bad. There is only bad and worse. The game does not depend on the decisions to guide the gameplay either; that part won’t be affected. You’ll still be headed in the same general linear path. The decision system, accompanied by troubling imagery and constant moral compass bickering by your squad-mates, instead serves to deliver the horror of war to your conscious mind – hoping to make you feel as your character feels.
This reached a disturbing peak, when after dropping white phosphorus on rogue American soldiers, you discover a tent full of civilians that had been burned alive. Did you just do that? The game doesn’t really make that clear (as far as I could tell, they were inadvertent side effects of the mortars). What is clear is the skin burnt off, jawbones exposed, mother clutching her child to her breast, held in time as they were burnt to a crisp. The game doesn’t just flash this image. You focus on it. Your character, Captain Walker, is definitely disturbed by this. He goes blank for a moment as his squad-mates argue. This scene, coupled with a few others I’m about to describe, serve well to carry the emotional impact of the game.

The story of Spec Ops: The Line isn’t too heavy in itself. The game, developed by Yager Development and published by 2K Games, pulls heavily from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or – if you prefer – Apocalypse Now. The city of Dubai has been buried in sand and a Battalion commander has taken over in true jungle dictator style. As you progress through the game, you start to wonder if what you are doing – shooting American soldiers – is actually the right course of action. This isn’t casual; the game makes a point of twisting the plot in directions that are clear cut results of your actions.

To this point though, you have seen the wake of death and destruction that the rogue soldiers have left. Decaying bodies, commanding officers burnt alive, CIA agents tortured and more imagery of death to push Walker and by proxy, the player, to a point of moral indecision. If you haven’t figured it out by now, this is not a game for children. Unless you want severely desensitized children. You think that Call of Duty has done that and shrug at me, but the psychology of how this game presents death and war is something completely different.

Without giving away the ending of the game, there is a heavy emphasis on severe psychological trauma to the main character including hallucinations and dissociative disorder. This is never clear until the end of the game, but along the way you begin to realize something is terribly wrong with Walker’s moral compass, or should I say – your moral compass. There is a point where you are offered a choice, shoot the civilian stealing water or the soldier who killed the civilian’s entire family in retaliation. While neither choice stops the game cold, either one has its own moral caveats.

You can never leave Dubai in the game; obviously that would end the game prematurely, but this “option” is brought up numerous times by Walker’s team and the rogue Battalion commander. Leaving seems, in the end, the only rational and morally sane choice. The only choice that you cannot actually make. Pressing forward, into the darkness, is the only way.

The atrocities that you see are compounded by the atrocities committed by the CIA, trying to cover it all up, and then by you as you push forward believing that your moral compass is pointing in the right direction. Your two squad-mates continuously sit on your shoulders, piping in alternate decisions that have equally disturbing consequences. I mention this to reiterate that the designers of this game haven’t just thrown this stuff in there to make it “different.” This stuff is in there for effect.

The effect, to a child who is not desensitized enough, (sadly) can be detrimental. The way the game balances Walker’s continuing decline into the darkness of humanity and justifying his actions throughout the game is heavy stuff. Basically what I am saying, is this is not your run of the mill shooter. These psychological elements, this tortured pain of watching the destruction of society and humanity during a war, however minor the war, has turned Spec Ops: The Line into probably the best shooter I’ve ever played.

Rarely do I review a game that wasn’t sent to me by the manufacturer. Spec Ops: The Line (which I bought newly used at GameStop) prompted me to write this for the reasons stated above and as a warning to parents who blindly let their kids play violent video games without questioning what they are playing, or playing through them first. Before you call me Judgey McJudgerson, you do what you want with your kids. My bit has been said in that regard. I can just say because of the psychological elements, I won’t let my boys (who have played all the Call of Duty games) play this game.

Even I hesitated when it came to making some decisions, wondering if the outcome would ultimately be altered, pondering the torment of having to make such a decision. Not to mention the gameplay, a cover based system, is pretty smooth with environmental interactions. As the game progresses Captain Walker and his team physically show the effects of fighting while some harried ambushes add to the tension.

Spec Ops: The Line manages to pull off a great twist on a storied genre without being preachy or sacrificing gameplay. The horrific elements do make a statement about the morality of war and the atrocities that don’t make the front page. Meanwhile, the team commands and AI that isn’t quite as basic as in most games keep the action fresh in a linear game. There was this one great mission which had Captain Walker alone and ambushed in a sunken-in parking garage. There was cover, but no place to hide. It was crazy intense.

Maybe I’m over thinking the game, hell, I did give Duke Nukem a positive write-up. Regardless, Captain Walker in Spec Ops: The Line is a great vessel, in gameplay and proxy, to carry the human disaster of war. The game makes a statement: war is bad. But unlike other war games, this one makes you really feel that statement. I mean, I don’t feel like starting a peace rally, but at the same time – I can’t figure out which side of the line I’m on.

The Darkness of the Moral Compass Is Exposed in Spec Ops: The Line
Curtis Silver

(Note: For obvious reasons I could not present a game on this wiki; this is a review discussing the themes I found to be activist)

Posted by drm380 on

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