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Spec Ops: The Line Review
Posted on Friday, August 2 2013 @ 16:13:45 Eastern

Worth its Weight in Leaden Pretension

This review is not late to the party.  It's a sifting of the ruins of the house after the party ended.  A real bender.  Everyone got drunk.  With the distance of time and a healthy appraisal of the shallowness of the effusive praise piled upon it the ultimate diagnosis is - depressing, with a chance of dyspepsia.  Just about the most shameful thing that could be said of the whole sordid affair was how the game's objective weaknesses were cited as strengths.  The usual art envy crowd were out in force defending barely interactive cutscenes as the height of the medium.

The Game - What of it There Is to Call a Game

"There is a simple test that can be used to identify bad videogames – simply load up a walkthrough of the videogame on YouTube and watch it.

Do you:

A – find yourself engaged in the videogame. Do you find differences in how you could’ve approached each situation? Are you curious to play it yourself and test the outcomes of your choices?

or

B – passively watch the player go through the motions, knowing that your playing experience will almost exactly correlate with what you’re seeing." --The Shillin' Field "Spec Ops: The Line is a Bad Videogame1


Spec Ops: The Line belongs to that species of game first inaugurated by Ninja Gaiden all the way back in 1988.  There's a straight-forward carrot and stick approach to storytelling.  Survive the thrashing of the carrot - beat a bit of linear game - and you can eat some stick - watch a badly shot cutscene - in a repeat fashion.  Ninja Gaiden has always been simple enough that the player could ignore the cut scenes entirely and stay on the game.  Intermediately Ninja Gaiden differs from Spec Ops: The Line by virtue of superior mechanics, level design, and genuinely engaging play that is some of the most fondly remembered and which still holds up all the positive aspects of its reputation even today.  Spec Ops: The Line is ultimately no different.  Nothing in the story segments is actually needed to proceed through the game segments.  Despite the attempt to deepen the connection between the two systems they remain fundamentally divided and the gulf is unbridged.  

Mechanically the game clearly apes Gears of War to the point that if it used a more blatantly science fictional setting and abused Specular Highlight more it could be confused for a knock-off.  That is to say, its pretentions to satire and commentary are all that set it apart.  Some minor change-ups to the expected formula are on display.  The ability to flip emplaced turrets2 if one can get close to them, an emphasis on environment-based warfare (use of conveniently placed explosive barrels and explosive barrels disguised as piles of sand) in the contexts where doled out and general behavior from the two AI squadmates in accord with their touted intelligence (they seem to love running headlong into automatic rifle fire all the same, however) all give the experience some measure of tactility and engagement.  However, much of the functionality is completely arbitrary.  At times the player will be starving for ammunition and at others be given infinite ammo.  Some times the player will only be able to shoot their way through and to provide a break in the monotony the player will be forced to commit a war crime and then be told off for it.  The controls are frustrating and badly implemented due to lazy key map setup3, sloppy movement controls and occasionally bad camera.  In contrast with Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which made radical player choice a core feature of its design, also featured much better cover controls and a much higher sense of optionality overall.

The Story

"Let's get this out of the way first: the entire premise is ludicrous." --Delta V, "Maginot"

Three men enter Dubai4 and comprise a Delta Force fire team5 sent to investigate the mysterious fate of the lost city, its thousands of remaining inhabitants, the 33rd Infantry Battalion and their commander Colonel John Konrad after their failed attempt6 to rescue the remaining civilians of Dubai from an oncoming wave of sandstorms7.  The story quickly takes a series of diversionary turns as Walker chases one increasingly desperate half-baked lead after another.  Clutching at vanishing straws and finally losing his mind he hallucinates John Konrad tormenting him and his men.  What follows is an increasingly surrealistic (and mindlessly brutal) rampage through the ruins of Dubai.  By the end of the game almost everyone is dead and all that is left is for Walker to chase phantoms.  The moment the psychotic break starts the story falls entirely apart.  The game treats mental illness as not even a plot device, which would be lazy and offensive enough, but as a plot-squashing device.  It allows them to plug the innumerable leaks in the plot by saying the reality of the situation is never clear8 after a certain point in the story.

Aesthetics

One theory stipulates any game with good art direction and high production values is bound to get high scores such that poor controls, dull gameplay, simplistic mechanics, harebrained writing and downright bad design will be overlooked.  This certainly helps to account for Spec Ops: The Line's critical success.  The game makes good use of Unreal 3.  It is a feast of high resolution visuals and very subtle attention to detail shines throughout.  The voice acting, which changes with the characters, is occasionally on tone but there are often slips.  One moment Walker sounds just like he looks - like a deranged madman who just survived a helicopter crash screaming in frustration and rage at getting shot in the middle of one more leg of a long psychotic killing spree, and the next he sounds like Nathan Drake.  The sudden switch isn't accounted for in any way and it helps to shatter the illusion that Yager's writers wanted to craft.  Further, it is one of the few Unreal 3 games where all the characters don't look like greasy plastic dolls.  This is apparently due to the poor application of ambient occlusion effects by developers but Yager's technical team managed to keep it under control.  The opulent ruins of Dubai are beautifully captured.  It's a shame, really, that such a fine art team was put to work on such a lousy game.

Summary

"I like the game though.  I like that it exists.  Shooters are at a standstill right now.  They're ****.  They're **** thematically, they're **** mechanically.  They're **** in just about every way you could think of." --Michael Tsarouhas, Spec Ops Criticism: An Emotional Cheap Shot

Spec Ops: The Line is a predatory and manipulative trap designed to snare ignorant minds into believing they understand something.  Only the truly ignorant could fall for it.  It works on no level whatsoever.  As a deconstruction of the Modern Warfare-like shooters to which it is a reaction it fails by being mechanically weaker than them and not embracing enough of their assumptions to essay responses to them.  As a deconstruction of escapism it fails by robbing the player of agency.  As a general attack on shooters it fails because a series of trends which came and went entirely on the PC escape its evaluation and reaction.  As an attack on video game violence and what it is presumed to say about players of such games it fails by vice of an immature understanding of why people play shooters at all.  As a criticism of aggressive foreign policy or military adventurism it fails by virtue of its unrealistic assumptions about the nature of warfare, soldiering, human psychology, combat, meteorology, history, strategic theory and political philosophy.  As an intertextual retelling of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness it fails so completely a smart and unambitious student could write a decent thesis paper on it.  The amount of research the game needed to get right, but clearly didn't even bother, to have even a serious chance of boating across its main points without falling apart at the seams is astounding.

Verdict

There is no price low enough to justify the purchase.  At any price the game is an even more pretentious insult to the player's intelligence than Mass Effect 3 and Bioshock Infinite.  The game is endlessly, insufferably, insultingly pretentious.  This culminates in a vain attempt to frame everything that the player has done as primarily the player's responsibility rather than the developer's.  As the author of the game's universe the developers and writers at Yager have taken on the metaphysical role of God.  All that is possible is so by their dispensation.  All that is not, all choices which cannot be undertaken due to existential impossibility, are also that way because the developers will it.  Their inability to take responsibility for this in numerous press outings is fathomless in its irony.


1:Every linked article or video is a destructive criticism of the game.  For purposes of highlight I won't be linking to sources which heaped praise on it.  In addition to having no sympathy for them their positions are straightforward and (horrifyingly) monolithic to the extent that it is actually unecessary.
2:The lack of freedom to swivel the turrets is thus without justification; it is an independent iteration of the very sort of makeshift contrived design the game is apparently deconstructing.
3:it is impossible to divest the Sprint function from the slip out of cover function, it is also impossible to divest the contextual action key from them.  That's right.  Contextual action, sprint, and slip out of cover are all bound to the same key, no matter what, and short of scripts or macros there's no way to fix that.  This is definitely a console game - there is literally a different key ready to hand for each of those functions right next to the move keys and yet it is not possible to change the setup into something more keyboard friendly.
4: How, we cannot be sure.  There is no clear indication how Walker or his two subordinates got to Dubai.  We only ever see them walking through a sandstorm along a highway toward the city.
5: The fire team is nine men short.  They typically deploy in two groups of six.  Neither Walker nor his cohorts ever remark on this unusual deployment situation.  If the nine missing men were ever part of the team they are never mentioned.  It's just as likely that Yager's writers didn't bother to research how special forces groups deploy or didn't care about justifying the problem in view that the three man squad setup was mandated prior to the writing of the game's story.  It is not a plot hole. It is a research failure.  However, it is of such basic priority and of such overall significance that the numerous other problems in the game seem to reflect that cavalier attitude.
6: Nothing about the original rescue attempt makes any sense whatsoever.  There's no way Konrad could have even gotten his men, or himself, to Dubai from Afghanistan on his own authority.  Nor, by the same token, could his men have facilitated any kind of evacuation.  Further, the chosen method is itself nonsensical - they attempted to drive out by the highway though Dubai is a coastal city and naval evacuation would have been far more expedient.  Further, Walker's mission is nonsensical from the first.
7: There is no precedent for such a storm or system of storms.  Whether this is a reference to Tanis or just a completely incompetent setup is hard to say.
8: As Michael Tsarouhas asks in his review, 'if you're insane, how come you're so damn functional?'  Walker's madness is completely convenient.  It only shows up when the writers need it to and then it quickly vanishes.  There are no lingering mechanical consequences of Walker's increasingly deranged mental state.  Further, if one insists on asserting the reality of the nature of psychosis, it becomes clear that Walker must have been mentally ill long before going to Dubai, but that only raises more questions and tears more holes in the plot.

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