I recently finished playing Yager Games Studio‘s 2012 3rd person shooter Spec Ops: The Line. In a few words, this is the best shooter I’ve ever played. I have never played a game with such a deep and well developed story so well integrated into a high action shooter with decent balance and mechanics. The Mass Effect series is magnificent, but is an RPG and those are supposed to have a deep story with developed characters and insightful writing. This is a shooter. You kill countless people in this game and, if you aren’t smart, patient, or good enough, you die…a lot. When people play shooters, they don’t usually expect a story that makes them think about war, life, death, right, wrong, and everything in between. This game does that while also keeping all the elements of an action packed shooter.
The moral lesson of the game is so well written into the game that there is a book about it. I haven’t bought this e-book yet, but I am planning on it.
Warning: I am going to spoil this game. This isn’t a small spoiler like “Darth Vadar is Luke Skywalker’s father” This is some serious game story spoiling. Buy the game, play it, then read if you don’t like spoilers.
The game raises a lot of questions about reality, war, violence in media, right and wrong, ends and means, among other things. I highly recommend people pick this game up and play it.
OK. Here goes….
This game, Spec Ops: The Line, takes the premise “war is hell” and makes you the main character of this drama. There are key points in the game where you have to choose between two evils, between the death of innocents and the death of innocents. (Or, as the case may be, the “death” of a soldier doing his duty and the “death” of a civilian trying to survive) But the choices, as hard as they are, are just a few people, so we, the players desensitized to violence and unaware of the extremely difficult decisions and consequences of war, are able to shrug it off. The point where I was unable to shrug it off, and the point I hope many people were not able to shrug off, is when we have no choice and the consequence is the death of “47 innocent civilians” burned to death by white phosphorous mortars you used to kill soldiers protecting and trying to help them. The whole time, Captain Walker (you) justifies these actions as means to an end, a good end: evacuating these people and stopping Colonel Konrad who apparently has gone rogue. The white phosphorous scene, as it is called, is the crux of the game. At this point, everything begins to spiral and escalate. Your squad is no longer sure that they are doing “the right thing” doing what is “necessary” or even completing “your mission” but they keep going on because orders are orders, no matter how screwed up.
At the end of the game, when you finally reach the tower where Konrad has been holding up, after your entire squad is dead and Konrad’s “Damned 33rd” is wiped out, you discover a dark truth that makes the whole thing pointless: Colonel Konrad is dead, it was all in your head the whole time. your murder of civilians and US soldiers throughout the game comes to this climax: it wasn’t for some greater good, there was no reason behind it, there is no end to justify the means by which you achieved it. War is hell.
Spec Ops: The Line can be ranked up there with the 2010 Best Picture The Hurtlocker as an entertainment experience that brings the reality of violence and war, and the decisions our brave men and women all too often have to make, too close to home for some people to handle. The effects of violence, the effects of war on Captain Martin Walker were too much (at Kabul which is mentioned a few times in the game) and he created a scenario in his mind, a scenario with deadly effects when played out by his squad, and by you.
At the end of the game, you have learned the awful truth: it was you all along killing these people. At this point, you have 2 opportunities to choose between death and life. In the tower, your image of Konrad says he’s counting to 5 before pulling the trigger. I waited until 4 because I wasn’t sure what would happen at 5. I chose to kill “Konrad” but others may have chosen suicide at that point in the game. What happens next is equally unnerving. You call for that evacuation you had been talking about the whole game. A group of soldiers come to pick you up outside the tower. You are sitting there wearing Konrad’s jacket, a dessert eagle in your holster, and an assault riffle in your hands. The cinematic blends into the game as the soldiers tell you to put your weapon down, “Look at his eyes” “He’s shell shocked.” Here, again, you have the choice: do I put down the gun and “go home” or do I die but not before killing more American soldiers in the process? Here, again, I chose life, but others may not have. This was a chilling game.
Two lines of dialog stand out to me as I reached the end of the game.1) “Konrad” says to you “It takes a strong man to deny what is right in front of him” at the top of the tower where you see a painting of the civilians burning to death and, then, Konrad’s corpse sitting in a chair looking out at the city (with a gun in his hand, presumably from suicide). The whole game Walker denies what is right in front of him and it doesn’t end there. But, here is the rub, we the player also deny what is right in front of us. So many (military) shooters only take shallow attempts at showing the horrors of war and the reality of violence, the real life effects violence has on not only the victim but also the perpetrator. Here in the US, we are “safe” from war so we don’t – CAN’T – understand what it is like in a war zone.
2) If you choose to surrender an “go home” a final cinematic plays where you are in the Humvee with some soldiers. One comments about “seeing some things” in the city and asks “How did you survive this?” Walker’s answer is not only appropriate, but a deep comment on the horrors of war: “Who said I did?”
There is a lot more to be said about this game, but I only have so much writing energy, and I’ve written way too much already. The game raises a lot of questions about reality, war, violence in media, right and wrong, ends and means, among other things. I highly recommend people pick this game up and play it.
For further reading, I recommend checking out Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s interview with the writers of the game. Part one is available here.
Title: SpecOps: The Line
Time Played: 6 Hours (Single Player)
We did not receive a review copy of this game.