Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Gaming Reflections: Spec Ops: The Line

Why does everything have colons in the titles these days?  I hate having multiple colons in these titles.

Anyway, I’m not much of a gamer.  I’d call myself an intermediate: definitely more than a casual, but I’m not well-versed in the ways of video games.  However, I do enjoy a good game on occasion, and due to a combination of building my own desktop computer (and consequently having a computer that would actually run games), a Steam Christmas sale, and actually having funds, I went to having a pretty big backlog of PC games I’d heard a lot about (as well as some Xbox and PS3 games, which generally don’t come to the Wii (i.e., the only console I own)).  In addition to that, though, I was sent a game called Spec Ops: The Line. 

Now, I am very much not a First Person Shooter guy.  Halo is about the only FPS I have any sort of experience with, and I think that military shooters are dumb.  Now, The Line is actually a Third Person Shooter, but it’s still a military shooter.  So I was a bit “ehhhhh” when I received it.  However, I had seen commercials for it while watching Hulu and was actually kind of intrigued.  It looked interesting.  And hey, free game.  That, along with a comment from a friend about how it changed his perception of military shooters (and a confirmation that it was a short game) prompted me to give it a try fairly early.

I don’t have much to go on in terms of military shooters, as I’ve never played any before.  I don’t know how they control, and I don’t know much about them beyond the fact that they tend to have a “MURICA, FUCK YEAH” attitude.  So the controls seemed fluid enough to me (though on my first playthrough (I’ve been playing through it again for the other achievements and because the plot is a bit complex and confusing the first time around) I forgot the key to switch weapons into their secondary mode).  Graphics seemed pretty solid, I guess?  Solid enough to be uncomfortable when they needed to be.  As a writer, I usually judge games on their story first, followed by things like implementation of graphics and gameplay.  And with The Line, the “other stuff” was solid enough for me, and the story was wonderful.

The Line is very much a deconstruction of military shooters.  It doesn’t glorify war; it reveals how brutal it is and how much stress and pain it can cause everyone involved.  The titular line is shown in the game to be the metaphorical line between doing what’s right and flat-out brutality.  And (spoilers follow but I can’t really talk about the game without them) in the game, the line is crossed when you blast an enemy camp with white phosphorous, a devastating chemical that leaves fiery destruction in its wake.  You’ve seen the effects of it earlier on in the game, but the game still forces you to use it to move on (which some take exception to—but from a narrative stance, I fully support.  How else is it going to get the point across and drive the plot?).  What’s more, after that, it forces you to walk through the camp to see how much destruction you’ve wrought—and then show that the people you assumed were your enemy were trying to protect civilians, and you’ve burned dozens of innocent men, women, and children alive.  What’s more, you later destroy the water that’s keeping everyone alive.  As the game goes on, you realize more and more that no, you are not the hero.

A large part of the game revolves around making difficult choices, all of which toe the metaphorical line.  It’s often hard to tell what’s the “right” choice, especially since there are multiple factions and the line blurs more and more as you go along.  There are achievements for all the possibilities, and as the protagonists start detaching themselves from reality, so do the players start detaching themselves from the game, making it even harder to make the choice.  Do you save a soldier who has vital information, or save the lives of innocent citizens?  Put a dying man out of his misery or let him die a slow, painful death for destroying the water?  Take revenge on a friend or fire on the crowd of civilians that lynched him?  Die to atone for the damage you’ve caused?  Return home a shell of your former self?  Become the villain you’ll eventually perceive yourself to be?  All fairly tough choices to make, and when you’re sliding down a slippery slope, it’s sometimes more tempting just to jump (in fact, now that I think about it, the protagonist literally slides down and falls off of a slippery slope around the time they start shooting American soldiers…symbolism?).

Basically, if you like military shooters, play this because it will change your perception of the genre and really make you think.  If you don’t like military shooters, play this because it’s everything that other military shooters aren’t.  It’s not a fun game, but it’s a game that says something, and it’s a message that I think a lot of people need to hear.

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