The Flawed Genius Of Spec Ops: The Line

Thanks to the Xbox One’s backward compatibility feature, we are able to play the games we may have missed first time around. For me, Spec Ops: The Line is one of those titles. I had heard a lot about it despite never actually playing the game myself until recently. I finished the game and was left speechless while the end credits rolled…but the overall impression the game left on me was a very mixed bag for two very distinct reasons, one a gameplay issue, the other a story and design one.

Right here I’m going to look at why Spec Ops: The Line left me feeling both unsatisfied and utterly enthralled at the same time.

The Gameplay

Okay so the gameplay for Spec Ops: The Line left me very bored – so much so that I really don’t have that much to say about it. I was less than halfway through the game when I started to feel that fatigue set in and its not a very big game either, I’d say a fairly competent player could get through the whole thing in around five or six hours on normal difficulty. Its one of those cover/shooter games akin to Gears of War – you know the kind where you control a hero and a team of two other squad members.

Spec Ops Squad 1

Enter an area where a mass of enemies come at you all guns blazing and you and your team hide behind the nearest cover as you gun down the bad guys, move on and repeat throughout the entirety of the game. You have some very slight influence on your two teammates with basic ‘kill this guy’ orders and that’s about it for the whole game. Its a gameplay style and mechanic I just find all too dull rather soon. There are a few segments where they try to inject some variety with a scene where you hijack some tankers or split the team up a little, but overall, its a very ‘rinse and repeat’ experience that quickly grates.

Yet despite the lackluster and repetitive gameplay that bored me…something kept me playing until the end.

The Story And Design

So this is the part of Spec Ops: The Line that had me hooked even if during my first play-through I didn’t realize why at the time. Yes I did say “first play-through” about a game I felt was lacking in terms of gameplay as after I finished it, I instantly started a new game just so I could experience the story again.

At this point I’d just like to point out that I’m about to reveal major plot points and spoilers for this game. As I feel the story is something worth experiencing, I’d urge you to stop reading now and go play Spec Ops: The Line as not to ruin the best aspect of the game.

Spec Ops Action 1

Quick synopsis: You play as Captain Martin Walker on a recon mission in a post-catastrophe Dubai following a serious sandstorm that has cut off any surveillance, air travel, and most radio broadcasts. Walker is accompanied by his elite Delta Force team of First Lieutenant Alphanso Adams and Staff Sergeant John Lugo. The trio come across a continually looping radio message from Colonel John Konrad stating “Attempted evacuation of Dubai ended in complete failure. Death toll…too many.” Colonel Konrad volunteered his 33rd Infantry Battalion to stay and offer relief to any civilians defying orders by the Army to abandon the city two weeks before most communication was cut off.

Walker has one simple mission, to confirm the presence of any survivors, then immediately radio for extraction. But when Walker and his team come across some refugees being rounded up by the 33rd, he defies his orders and sets out to learn what happened to his mentor Colonel John Konrad and his 33rd Infantry Battalion led by shortwave radio communication from Colonel Konrad himself.

So I’ve not hit any major spoilers yet…but I will soon. From the synopsis, this sounds like a bog-standard military shooter and its this subterfuge that helps make playing the game so enjoyable. This is not just a ‘bog-standard military shooter’ at all, at least not from a storytelling perspective. Okay so in order to highlight why the story and design of Spec Ops: The Line is so damn good…I need to spoil the ending – so here it goes. Final warning for SPOILERS.

Spec Ops Squad 2

There are actually four different endings to the game, I’m not going to cover all four as I think part of the experience of the game is finding them yourself. But the four endings all rely on one simple fact that slowly builds through the game. The character you play as, Walker, is suffering from a form of PTSD and has been hallucinating throughout the course of the story – basically he’s batshit insane. Colonel Konrad is dead and has been for some time and all Walker has done is lead his team to their deaths.

Its the hallucination aspect that makes the game so great, some of it is so damn subtle you won’t even realize its happening and some of it is so in your face that you just brush it off as nonsense…until the ending is revealed. This is exactly why I instantly started a new game after finishing my first play-through as I wanted to (now knowing what was going on) pick up on all the little and not so little clues. You know how the movie Fight Club is much more fun watching a second, third or forth time because knowing the twist enables you to go back through and enjoy the clues? Well Spec Ops: The Line works the same way.

Spec Ops Squad 3

Writer of the game, Walt Williams pulled off an amazing piece of storytelling using the common standards of video games to fool the player into thinking they are making a difference. For instance, when you play a game like this – you tend to know right from the off that you are playing a hero, someone you the player can trust. In gaming tradition, you do as you are told, as the game directs you to do. You ‘trust’ what the game is telling you to do, you ‘trust’ the hero. Spec Ops: The Line breaks that tradition and has you playing as a delusional anti-hero you simply can not trust. And even better, you won’t realize any of this until you get to the end.

There are several moments in the game that stick into my mind for various reasons. Probably top of the list is the white phosphorus attack. While it was happening, I felt like a god as I rained down hellfire onto unsuspecting enemies. That scene is brilliantly designed as you can see the reflection of Walker’s face in the screen he is using while dozens and dozens of people die painful deaths due to your actions. But then the game does something that made me nauseous – it forces you to slowly walk through the aftermath of your destruction. Soldiers lie on the ground dead from the injuries they’ve sustained, some of them are still alive chocking to death on the smoke or stumbling/crawling asking for help before dying before your very eyes covered in severe burns. Its really quite disturbing to think that YOU caused all of this death and just when you think you’ve seen the worst…

Spec Ops WP

Its revealed that you killed soldiers trying to save civilians and even the civilians themselves including women and children. I’ve never done this with any game before – but after that scene, I had to stop playing for a while as the realization of what I just did washed over me. I needed a break. I went from god-like power to complete disgust in myself.

The white phosphorus attack is one of the biggest instances of how this game misleads and fools you into thinking you are a hero when you are really playing a psychopath. But there are much more subtle things that I didn’t notice until the end was revealed and I played through the game again. In the very first chapter of the game Colonel Konrad’s face appears on a billboard. At this point in the game, you the player have not seen his face before so don’t know who he is…but Walker the character you are playing has – yet he does not mention anything about why Konrad’s face would be on a billboard at all…because it shouldn’t be there and the image is in Walker’s mind. None of his team see it, only Walker and you the player. This is an indication that Walker is delusional right from the very start. Then later in the game and Konrad’s face appears on yet another billboard, this one is much bigger and harder to miss. But something really subtle occurs as you walk around a corner and the face changes into…I’ll let you discover that for yourselves.

There are loads of subtle hints to spot as you play – such as murals on walls of people with blacked-out eyes that are there during scenes where something horrific occurred – this is metaphorically being blind to the violence in front of them – kind of like you the player being blind to the death Walker causes. There is also a scene where you walk past a healthy and lush green tree…but turn around after you walk past and you’ll see the truth. One of my favorite subtleties is at the end of the game when Konrad is ‘talking’ but its Walker’s lips that are moving.

Spec Ops Action 2

Spec Ops: The Line forces you to ask yourself a valid question, “Do you enjoy this, are you having fun, is killing all these people really enjoyable?” Its something that plays on the mind and in writer Walt Williams’ own words…

“We wanted the player to be where Walker was and be angry at us, the people who made them do this. We hoped we would piss people off. We wanted people to be angry because we felt like that was a real emotional response.”

And he managed just that. I was pissed off playing this game, I did question why I was playing and if I was enjoying myself. The story and design of this is sublime, something that lingers at the back of your head, an itch you can’t reach and not sure if you really want to anyway.

There are so many other great subtle moments I’ve not yet covered like the fading to black or white depending on whether Walker is hallucinating or not. If it fades/cuts to black then its a perfectly normal transition – but if its white, then that’s an indication of Walker’s insanity and it is either an hallucination or Walker is outright lying.

And perhaps one of my favorite things that I didn’t even notice until the second play-through was the loading screens. You know how games tend to give you hints and tips during the loading screens? Well  Spec Ops: The Line does just that for the most part but when you get to the last chapter, after you have killed hundreds of innocent people – things change and the tips are replaced with other messages such as: “This is all your fault.”, Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two conflicting ideas simultaneously.”, “You are still a good person.”, “To kill for yourself is murder. To kill for your government is heroic. To kill for entertainment is harmless.”, plus several others. But my favorite one is this…

Spec Ops Loading Screen

This is why I call Spec Ops: The Line ‘flawed genius’ as the gameplay itself is rather stale and can get old very fast – but is writing is top tier stuff. It made me question myself and why we gamers play overtly violent games like this. I don’t really want to play the game anymore due to its stagnant game mechanics but I can’t wait to play-though again for the third time to enjoy the story once more and hopefully spot some more of that genius writing and design as I’m convinced that there is more to Walt Williams’ amazing story that I’ve missed.

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