A few months ago, at PAX East, I got an opportunity to play a new military third-person shooter by Yager Development called Spec Ops: The Line. I enjoyed how deadly the gameplay was compared to most third-person shooters (which, aside from Max Payne 3, all feel like their firearms shoot bits of popcorn and hydrangea petals instead of sub-sonic motes of hot lead), but I didn’t think it was anything terribly special. Imagine my surprise, then, when I saw several gaming journos I respect extolling the praises for Spec Ops: The Line on Twitter. Most acquiesced that it had its share of problems, but they all went on to discuss its story, how the moral choice system actually affected their experience with the game, and recommending it in spite of (maybe even because of) it being a military shooter.
Well, hell, I thought. Here’s a new game from an unproven developer taking on a long-dormant franchise that petered out around 2001. I’ll see your interesting story and raise you $60.
I played it for about an hour and a half last night, retreading all of the sections that I demoed at PAX and delving much deeper into Spec Ops: The Line‘s man narrative. Just like at PAX, I still like how I need to actually use cover to survive and how Spec Ops punishes sloppy play, and I dig how I can issue orders to my teammates like targeting a specific enemy or throwing a flash grenade; minor league stuff compared to the Ghost Recons and ARMAs of the world, but it injects enough variety into a cover-based, spectacle-driven shooter that helps it stand out. But most of all, I’m becoming more and more excited for the story as I progress further and further. Suffice it to say, Spec Ops: The Line is a long way from the gung-ho, Oorah patriotism and heroism found in games like the Modern Warfare series, and the dark edges permeating nearly every story beat give me the feeling that events could go South for everyone in a hurry.
The largest spot of darkness I’ve encountered so far, one that gave me the most pause while playing, happens about an hour or so into Spec Ops: The Line‘s single-player campaign. Your team of crack commandos is ordered to enter the now-storm-ravaged city of Dubai in hopes of finding any survivors, either civilian or from the 33rd Army Division who were sent in to facilitate everyone’s exit. Players begin the game by rescuing several hostages from bands of insurgents (from where? Who cares?), looking and playing similar to tons of military shooters already in existence.
Then, in chapter four, everything changes.
After fighting through a luxurious hotel, Captain Walker and his squad realize an American is controlling the enclave of insurgent fighters. Walker discover a band of surviving American soldiers, remnants of the 33rd, but instead of welcoming Walker and co., they draw their guns and greet everyone with a hail of bullets.
If I can credit Yager with one thing, it’s subverting my expectations of engaging in combat. By opening Spec Ops: The Line with the chapters of shooting at anonymous insurgents, Spec Ops dulls you to the humanity of the enemy you’re fighting, making them feel like by-the-book extremists from any other military game from the past five years. Then, when you’re instead asked to shoot United States Army soldiers, Spec Ops eggs you into shooting at fellow American soldiers with the same glib heartlessness it did when the objective is killing faceless, nameless “insurgents.” Walker makes a comment about needing to defend themselves, but it’s strained at best.
Moreover, the sensation of firing on American soldiers, targets that don’t have the Other-ing fig leaf that Middle-Eastern terrorists do in other shooters, never feels less than icky. Your opponents shout between each other in English, calling for help, giving orders, or reporting on fellow downed soldiers. It’s unnerving, and I think it’s Yager’s way to get gamers to reexamine their take on in-game violence; to see how Spec Ops treats American soldiers, soldiers that have families, children, and dreams for when they get back home, like faceless grunts, and invite players to extend the same empathy to future assailants that look differently or speak a different language.
It reminds me of the Connecticut missions from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Back in 2009, I had never seen America repel a foreign invasion in a videogame; the sight of Russian troops taking cover in small-town shopping centers reminded me of how I would find cover in bombed-out shops in games like Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, and I found new identification with previous gaming environments by recognizing that people used to live there. Digital people, perhaps, but people nonetheless.
With Spec Ops: The Line, Yager is having a troll at the consequence-free violence perpetuated by the rest of the gaming industry, easing us into the idea that we’ll be shooting at “foreign enemies” for the remainder of the game and instead flipping expectations by making the enemies our own countrymen. In Dubai, people will die by your hand, and I hope that more gamers will give pause when gunning down waves of faceless grunts, recognizing that ultimately they’re just like them.