Spec Ops: The Line – Critical Miss #19

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Lines Drawn in the Sand

I stated in my Vanquish review that I missed the years in the late 2000’s where cover based shooters were the hot new thing. Even today, it’s not a genre I gravitate into, along with the trend of modern day military shooters like the CoD games since Modern Warfare. They tend to be too slow and dry for me. So why is it then that when I purchased a Xbox 360, one of the first games I bought for the system was Spec Ops: The Line, a modern military cover based shooter? Extremely positive word of mouth is one thing, but the real reason I had to play it was because the game is lauded as one of the most interesting uses of narrative in video games. 

Set in Dubai during cataclysmic sandstorms, you play as Captain Walker, a US Delta Force operator and his two man crew of Lugo and Adams. They have come to the ruined city in response to a radio transmission from Colonel Konrad, a man Walker fought under in the past. Their mission is simple: locate survivors from the sandstorms and radio for evac. This gets immediately complicated as Walker’s team finds themselves under attack by two sides of battling for control of the city. Refugees attack the team thinking they are part of Konrad’s 33rd battalion, and the 33rd themselves mistake Walker’s team as CIA agents who have been supplying the refugees with arms to fight the 33rd.

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The setting of Dubai half buried in desert sand is one of my favorite things about the game. It effortlessly juxtaposes the opulent wealth of the glass shard skyscrapers and the clutter, squalor poverty of the holes where the refugees are hiding. The levels will take you throughout the sand filled streets, dark and buried-in ground floors, high up in gaudy condos, and zip-lining across rooftops. While the setting is great, art direction if often lacking, especially in terms of character design. There were times I laughed during a shoot out because I would see multiple of the same character model rushing through a doorway. This lack of strong character design tended to confuse the story for me too. Most of the major players in the plot, the characters with speaking lines and move the story forward, are the boilerplate white dude military type and I had the hardest time remembering who was who.

It’s a good thing that the setting was interesting because I found the gameplay to be only fine at best. The actual shooting mechanics are engaging in a fight, but everything around it—getting in and out of cover, sprinting across battlefields, waiting for enemies to pop out of cover to be shot like cans on wall—felt slow and tedious. This is no doubt influenced by my lack of enjoyment from cover based shooters in general and I will say that I didn’t find Spec Ops to be any more clunky than other games in the genre I’ve played. The game does have a few unique mechanics to it. Walker’s teammates, Lugo and Adams, can help snipe or grenade enemies at the player’s command. Sand can be used throughout the game by blowing out windows to bury enemies, grenades causing clouds of dust that the player can use for cover, and even occasional sand storms will blind both player and enemies, sending both in a mad dash for safety indoors. Sadly, these mechanics are never explored to their fullest potential and it is almost always faster to just kill enemies you have your sights on instead of fiddling with calling out to a NPC to shoot them. They very well be much more crucial tools on the harder difficulties, but on normal like I played, they seem no more back of the box selling points. But I didn’t expect the gameplay  to blow me away when I purchased Spec Ops. What I was there to see was the story.

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I beg anyone who hasn’t played Spec Ops: The Line to stop reading this review now. Go play the game if you have the means to or watch an unnarrated playthrough on YouTube. This is a game that needs to experienced without expectations and an open heart. I will not be spoiling everything in the story, but must discuss the turning point from a box standard military shooter to a repeated kick in the gut.

The game works as a deconstruction of other military shooters like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor that were on the rage during that time. It starts with the unflappable heroes, dripping with unwavering duty and machismo, as they saunter into Dubai, cocksure and cracking jokes. When they find themselves being attacked by refugees and the 33rd, Walker decides the best thing to do would be to locate Konrad. In the pursuit, they must pass through a heavily guarded section of the city and Walker decides to clear out the opposing forces using white phosphorus. This is where the shoe drops. Walker and his crew soon find that the 33rd had set up a camp for refugees there too and they had just wiped out 47 civilian lives.

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From there the chaos continues to spiral. Konrad commands Walker to choose between killing a water thief and soldier who murdered civilians, the team helps a CIA agent named Higgs raid and steal the water the 33rd was guarding only to crash the trunks and destroy it, and Walker opens fire on a group of civilians after they hang Lugo. The game actively forces the player to commit more atrocious acts of violence because this is a war and, like Walker says, there’s not always a choice, But Spec Ops does not celebrate these actions. Quickly the veneer of glory in the line of duty and ends justifying the means mentality is ripped away and there is only death caused by the characters, and the player.

Walker himself becomes noticeably more angry and violent after using the white phosphorus scene. His simple shouts of “Got one!” when you shoot an enemy during gameplay turns to “Got the motherfucker!” and “Fuck you!” as he ends countless lives. I will not spoil the ending because I had not had it spoiled for me before playing but it is a great capstone to everything the story and themes have been working towards. It completely recontextualized the 2nd half of the story and Walker’s complete psyche.

One of the most interesting aspects of the narrative is that it simply doesn’t make a lot of sense. I was having a little difficulty following it for a bit because it didn’t seem logically tied together, the events of a scene didn’t always understandably lead to decisions Walker makes on what to do next. But I think that’s the point. The whole story is built on assumptions and bad faith on Walker’s part. What made me realize this was the death of CIA agent Gould. It is discovered that he was planning on storming an area of Dubai named The Gate and Walker decides that’s where his team must head to next. When asked what’s important about The Gate, Walker just says “Gould thought it was important enough to die for, so it must be important.” This leads directly to the use of the white phosphorus to clean out the soldiers guarding The Gate. When agent Higgs ropes the Delta Force team into helping him steal water from the 33rd, Walker just goes along with it. He clearly does not trust Higgs, but he agrees to be a part of the plan with much second thought. 

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There are no good guys in Spec Ops: The Line, but I’m not sure I would say there are any bad guys either. There are just people doing what they think they have to do no matter the cost. Walker has to find meaning to the madness happening in the city, Konrad was trying to protect the refugees even if it meant by force, Higgs felt the need to cover up Konrad’s crime out of fear of the world discovering them. There is no good or evil; there are only people fighting to stay alive, people insisting they are in the right, the messy gray morals of war and people fighting to the death. 

Art is not always pleasant. It’s not always comfortable. Look at the pain and grief portrayed in Picasso’s Guernica or the stomach turning scenes of assault in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Some art is designed to shine a light on the darkest parts of the human heart and challenge the viewer themselves with questions they may not want to answer. Spec Ops: The Line is one such piece of art. Throughout the game, it constantly asks: What are you doing? Is this right? Do you feel like a hero yet? But they just hang there. It does not offer any answers because it is not up to the game to decide. The only one who can answer those questions are yourself.

Vanquish – Critical Miss #17

Voom, Voom, Shoot, Shoot

I missed out on the scourge of cover based shooters in the 2010’s. My only real experience with the genre was a little bit of Gears of War with an ex in college, which I found pretty dull, and half of the first Uncharted game that came free with my PS4, which was fine but the combat seemed to rely too much on memorizing enemy spawns. To be honest, none of the games ever looked that interesting to me. That was until I saw Vanquish. Released in 2010, the game was directed by Shinji Mikami and developed by Platinum Games, a combination that seems made to appeal to myself specifically. The thing that truly caught my eye when I first saw it was the gameplay: the speed, movement, and hyperactive nature no cover based shooter has shown before or since.

The reason for this fast paced gameplay is because the main character, Sam, is equipped with a DARPA design power suit that lets him slide around with rocket jets. This allows the player to skid across the combat arena at obscene speeds to change cover and maneuver around enemies. The suit also allows Sam to activate a bullet time mechanic. This happens either by aiming down a gun’s sights while dodging or when critically low on health, which is useful because, like most things in the game, damage racks up fast and death comes quickly if not played carefully. 

The rocket boots and slo mo mechanic leads to one of the two things that Vanquish is built around: speed and movement. Speed is an obvious key aspect to a game with rocket boots as a main mechanic. However, the importance of speed is also emphasized in Vanquish because most enemies stay at the same speed. Very few enemies move particularly quick, prefer to sit behind cover and hardly ever rush you down, and because of this Sam’s speed gives him a direct advantage. The high speed of the rocket slide gives him the ability to change positions faster than the enemies can react and the low speed of the bullet time let’s him hold enemies in place to load bullets in them.

Movement is the other major aspect that the game excels in, but it’s not just Sam’s own movement abilities where this is shown. The best levels in the game are where parts of the level themselves are moving. There’s a level where the enemies are on conveyor belts slowing going down the middle of the room; another where Sam and the marines travelling by a freight transporter on rails and the enemies are attacking from another transport as the rails move them up above and to either side of the player. This allows the enemies to reposition without having to leave cover, making them harder to hit and much more interesting to fight.

I haven’t talked much about the story of Vanquish yet and that’s because there really isn’t much to say. The game starts with Russia invading a US space station and using a giant microwave beam to wreak havoc on San Francisco. Sam is sent into the station along with some marines launching an attack to stop them. Both Sam and the leader of the marines, Burns, have Shinji Mikami’s trademark over the top machismo to them, but it’s played too straight to be as deliciously ridiculous as Leon Kennedy in Resident Evil 4. Overall, I was left underwhelmed by the story. I was expecting absurd set pieces and tongue in cheek irony from Mikami and Platinum Games, but only found a bare bones story with little to keep me engaged.

This is why I started to resent the game slightly anytime it slowed to crawl to dumb exposition. The cut scenes were fun enough to watch, but it seemed like every new mission started with Sam walking through an empty room at a glacial pace while talking to his mission control Metal Gear Solid style. I was having fun with the gameplay and these moments makes the game feel extremely stilted. 

The stilted feeling bleeds into gameplay too because the game starts to feel repetitive by the end. With a lack of enemy designs and repeating bosses, the combat moments blur together, giving a feeling of déjà vu as you wonder ‘Haven’t I done this before?’ What would have helped was using more of a variety of weapons, but I didn’t see a use for the more unique weapons like the disc launcher, LFE gun, or laser cannon. This might be because I never bothered to use them enough to upgrade them, but I was having fun enough with just an assault rifle, boosted machine gun, and sniper rifle, occasionally a rocket launcher for a tough enemy. 

This isn’t to say Vanquish is not fun because it definitely is. Boosting around the battlefield with rocket boots, shooting up enemies and slowing time for better shots is a blast. A lackluster story and some pacing issues are not enough to take away from the solid core gameplay loop in the center of the game. The game is short, but it is the perfect length for a game of its type, spending just enough time to explore its unique mechanics and ending before the repetition got too tedious. Vanquish gets a recommendation from me, especially if you can find a cheap copy, which should be hard due to the game not selling well at release and falling into cult favorite stardom. Which is pretty perfect for a game as unique and fun, but also flawed as Vanquish.