Let's Get Depression!
Spec Ops: The Line
I recently replayed Spec Ops: The Line and ya know, I just couldn't not write something about it.
I've been on this kick of replaying PS2 and PS3 games that I really enjoyed through my youth and young adulthood. I'm over 30 now and as a result my ability to keep that K/D ratio above a 1:1 versus the energy-drink addled teenage populace has diminished.
Mostly I'm on this little nostalgia trip because I'm tired of getting stomped on Battlefield by children, but also because I had been missing some really quality, dedicated single player adventures. Modern Warfare left me lacking. The episodic stories in Battlefield 1 were inspired for sure, but rather than being a several course meal it felt like tapas. I wanted a big, cohesive stew.
This one I remember being pretty great. At Gamestop, physical copies are still like $15 for a console that's two generations old. That should tell you something about the cult following this must have.
What the game is, if you didn't know, is a 2012 third person shooter revolving around a 3-man team that gets dropped in Dubai to investigate a unit lost in the midst of ravaging sandstorms. In a more meta sense, the game is a re-telling of the Joseph Conrad novel, "Heart of Darkness." The same material that the movie "Apocalypse Now" is based on.
It's a story I know pretty well, but there's an extra funk to this vidya version. Why? Well, I think it's because in the movie and book you're a passenger observing someone else's change. In The Line, you're driving the car. And the GPS is set to crazy town.
Enjoying the Spiral
If you didn't know, the whole arc here is about someone who embarks on a journey thinking they're the prototype righteous fairy-tale good guy. But then guess what? They ain't. Whoopsies.
The descent into the madness and the swirling confusion about morality is the hallmark of this story in any version it's told. Thus, the way it's handled is paramount to judging how well someone did a good job telling it.
First, the game makes it pretty easy to immerse. The environment absolutely feels otherworldly and yet believable. An opulent city with a skyline of pure skyscrapers has found the halfway point between a Lamborghini dealership and a scene from Dune. Storms roll through without warning, glass breaks under gunfire and the weight of tons of sand, the harsh sun creates hard contrasts between all it can touch and all it does not. This adds to the whole "what's real" motif the story adopts pretty immediately. If you are willing to embark on a city that's become an ocean of sand, what else are you willing to believe?
One of the initial methods of slow detachment is a major soundtrack break from other shoot-em' up games. One of the big gun battles has "Hush" by Deep Purple pushed really hard to the audio foreground to feel cinematic, and perhaps, a bit detached. As if it were an movie action sequence and you were unconsciously directing the murder. It's an old song that conjures Vietnam feelings. Likewise, "Rooster" by Alice in Chains included, along with the Hendrix version of the Star Spangled Banner. All songs with pretty heavy tilts towards just how fucked up things can get in the land of machine guns and hand grenades.
Then there are the choices you make. I won't delve too deep into them here, the game is cheap enough to find or easy enough to emulate that I'll simply tell you to spin through the game. The harsh thing about all these choices, though, is that you will make them. Not only because that's how the game was programmed, but because you'll wrestle with it. And what you'll wrestle with most is the idea that the problem cannot remain unresolved. You're driving this car to crazy town, and for some reason you never really consider the brakes, do you?
As you go through more fucked up scenarios, the encounters will change. The game itself will even start to taunt you. After a death, the loading screens will comment on your humanity, or lack thereof. It will start with little definitions and ideas, presented in a way that it was just an encyclopedia entry, perhaps:
But as you do more and more heinous shit under the thin guise of "doing the right thing" the game will openly mock you in your jaded killing malaise:
Nice job with the mindless bloodshed, Mr. Knight in Shining Armor.
My absolute favorite part of the game is when you're in this little shopping area full of manakins and some troopers barge in. You're gunning and gunning, but then the lights blink, and the heavy trooper has swapped places with where a manakin used to be. The lights blink again, and again, they swap. It took me a while to realize what the point was here. Yeah, it's trippy, yeah, it's cool, but it does mean something. And that something is that you've lost so much humanity that you can't tell a dummy from a real human anymore. Damn.
Notice how the light switch gets faster as things get more dire? How many games today would have the courage to just completely shut the screen black on their players? Man, I love that part.
Did You Catch That?
Sometimes the game almost feels like it's constantly elbowing you in the ribs to ensure you're picking up on the symbolism. The game is about a man who's constantly "crossing the line" with a crew who is constantly telling the player's character that he's "crossing the line, god damnit!"
Likewise, the main villain in the game is named after the author of the book they took the plot from. They don't hit you over the head with the symbolism as much as they sit you down in a chair and show you a power point presentation of exactly how you're about to get hit over the head and what to expect from your experience.
Then, suddenly, they get REALLY coy with things. There are minor items in this game that will change when you make certain decisions. As a specific example, there is a section where a questionable ally is stuck under a burning truck. There's nothing you can do to save them. He asks you to put a bullet in his head so he doesn't burn alive, suffering greatly. This is pretty much right after you realize he was a madman with an ulterior motive that would have sabotaged your mission.
After you make your choice as to spare him the suffering or not, you'll walk into a courtyard with a large statue. The statue will be melted or it will be whole but decapitated. How it presents depends on what you do.
There are almost many times in the game where billboards will have a message or a face that when you double take, they'll disappear. Making you say "did that really say what I thought it said?"
What the game does best of all, I think, is pace. Your descent into madness seems so gradual at first. Like you're just being handed a shit sandwich and your choices are where to take a bite from. Then, at some point, you realize that you're in too deep. You've passed the stage of realizing you're losing your marbles and you've just taken the shortcut right to acceptance.
The Guns, The Gameplay
Frankly, the gunplay is only okay. And the gun selection itself is subpar. This game is all about the story, it's not a simulator and there was never a PvP multiplayer mode intended. You're stuck with generic choices like "M4" or "AK47" throughout the game. Though, I do think it was odd that of all the pump shotguns to go with, the Winchester 1300 shorty got the pick. That's fun.
Unlike other shooters of the era, the time to kill does feel pretty decent. It's not like a Hardcore mode with a one-two shot on every guy, but it's not some super fantasy game with health bars. 3-5 shots will put anyone down depending on your placement, and as a result having some crisp aim is actually rewarded without making the game broken by the super skilled. It's well balanced, if uninspired.
This is definitely one of those Gears of War style cover-driven games. It's an experience you've had before, there won't be anything groundbreaking here. But again, the guns and military units here are more of a vehicle for the story. You can't become a remorseless man slaughterer without men to slaughter.
It's Heart of Darkness but with more guns. Guns you get to shoot. What's not to love? The presentation and attention to the story details is phenomenal. Something that leaves me starving for more of it in a sea of rushed AAA game releases.
The Line is simply just a must-play. And do it on easy mode, don't worry about the challenge. Just enjoy the ride. You won't like the destination, but you'll enjoy the trip.