Yager/2K's deceptively dull-named third-person shooter Spec Ops: The Line goes on sale in the UK today, having been out in the US since Tuesday. Alec crept into the heart of its ravaged Dubai, never to be heard from again - save for these blood-soaked notes.
I've been rolling my eyes during Spec Ops' promotional campaign. Name-checking Apocalypse Now, promising to debate the nature of war, having the player reflect on what it is they're doing when they go bang-bang-bang at all those digi-men? Come on. How stupid do you think we are? It's a game about American soldiers shooting people in the Middle East, and we know full well what that means. Even that outrageously bland name - 'Spec Ops', for heaven's sake - suggests it's tied firmly to the mast of the dudebro, crusades-mindset hollow heroics that characterise the current glut of military shooters.
Being as openly pop-cultural and action-orientated as it is, it'd be insane to file Spec Ops anywhere near Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness in terms of documentation of the darker parts of the human soul, but that it comes anywhere near meeting its grand promises has me saluting it in great respect. It is a game about playing a US soldier marauding through a desert setting and shooting almost anything that moves, but it genuinely made me feel awful about doing that. Importantly, this was deliberate on the game's part.
The Apocalypse Now overtones are overt - you're wading into a land of strife in search of a missing high-ranking military man ('John Konrad', none too subtly), and before too long it becomes apparent that something darker is going on. But never mind the plot itself, which ultimately comes across a little over-compressed and confused, Spec Ops' primary triumph is all about the overarching tone. That tone is doubt. Terrible, terrible doubt.
The game quickly moves on from having you shoot Middle-Eastern folk to battling US soldiers - 'the Damned 33rd' - apparently gone native, thus neatly avoiding the creeping jingoism of so many other modern combat games, but works hard to sow discomfort in other ways. From throwaway chummy lines ('I can't take your last gum, dude!') between guys you're creeping up on with murderous intent to the spoken anxieties of attacking erstwhile allies from your two near-constant AI companions, there's a spectral question mark hanging over every bullet you fire. That these soldiers will shoot you on sight provides a logical answer to that question mark, but I for one kept hoping for an opportunity to talk it out.
There's are two good reason that doesn't happen. One relates to a decision made by Konrad, the 33's commander. The other relates to an action taken by you, Delta Force captain Martin Walker, which I cannot in good conscience reveal but makes for a shocking moment which the game is chillingly unflinching in depicting the consequences thereof. The 33rd, and the few remaining civilian survivors of Dubai, react to it in understandable fashion: you are an enemy.
Ah, Dubai. It's Spec Ops' second trump card. What a setting it turned out to be - the closest humanity has come to building a real Rapture, a gleaming, desert-bounded, bastion of capitalism, pride, opulence and folly where morality is as gossamer as the sparkle of sunlight on sand. Spec Ops paints a Dubai where the feared financial and social collapse the real state is currently working hard to stave off has already happened, and at alarming speed. Ozymandias' hubris writ city-sized, as towering glass sculptures gleam incongruously from sand-strewn floors, shattered speed boats litter the desert, masked soldiers guard skyscraper-sized aquariums and huge posters advertise a perfect life of sunshine and consumerism in the midst of all this fire, blood and drought. The fierce wind and the dwindling water supplies have the few remaining survivors living on borrowed time - are you there to help, or something else?
Surprisingly little time in spent in the drab yellow-brown setting we've come to expect of modern combat shooters, and instead the game goes all-out to startle and unsettle, juxtaposing the crumbling glamour with open horror and freakish political graffiti. It is, unsurprisingly, a straightforwardly linear experience, though it tends to offer cover-strewn arenas rather than cramped corridors, but it works hard to make its settings distinctive, colourful and that affecting blend of grandeur and fragility. Again, it's BioShock's fallen utopia Rapture, but based on something like reality rather than a science-fiction fantasy. This is, essentially, a post-disaster setting, not a warzone. The warzone is you, and the hail of death you summon around you.
As a combat game, Spec Ops is less successful. It's a cover shooter which posits you as a relatively fragile creature rather than the walking bullet-soak of Call of Duty, but frankly its cover system isn't anywhere near refined enough. It's too easy to pop out, too hard to roll between walls and all too regularly you'll suddenly find yourself standing in the open as half a dozen assorted snipers, shotgunners and machinegun turrets swivel to look at you. Enemy numbers are high, battles long and checkpoints often far apart, which means some frustrated repeats of the same skirmishes, especially in the late game.
It does ask if you'd like to drop the difficulty down the notch after a few successive failures, which always makes me feel faintly insulted. 'No, I can do this, dammit!' It needs slightly better cover systems to justify its waves of foes, but caution and patience will tend to win out eventually. The trouble there is that, in the latter of the game, there's such a desperation to find out what's going on and what's going to happen that I wanted to rush through many of the fights, which inevitably spells doom.
The actual shooting - the sense of feedback and fragility - ain't half bad, and that the odds seemed so heavily and stressfully stacked against even added to the sense of spiralling chaos, of being in an overwhelming and awful situation rather than a heroic one. It is, on a superficial level, a generic cover-based military shooter, and that's going to understandably turn a lot of people off. It is, at least, pointedly aware of the bloodthirsty absurdity of what a shooter is, offering acid mockery on the loading screen, escalating Walker's actions and mid-combat barks to crazed, crack-voiced blood-hunger as the situation unravels and forcing the player to witness the gruesome aftermath of violence.
It does this to a possibly counter-productive extent, where joy or satisfaction in the triggerhappy activity of action videogaming is hard to come by. Someone involved in this game was having a spell of disgusted self-reflection as they made it, I suspect. I felt troubled as I played. Spec Ops wanted me to feel troubled. That is a mighty strange thing to pay for and to want to keep playing. Yet I did, and I am glad I did. This is not, though, a game played for pleasure as such.
It should perhaps be seen through the prism of Modern Warfare 2's notorious No Russian level, which was a smug and poisonous display of developer power, but this has far more finesse. Spec Ops wants to lay horror at the player's door, and is very careful about the choices it offers you in terms of how you treat the occasional civilian survivors you encounter. Never sadistic indulgences, they're a disturbing test of what kind of player you want to be and of how much you've been paying attention. Despite the often overt linearity, Spec Ops has also managed to brew the special sauce of appearing to offer choice where there really is none.
With much of the narrative flowed into the game proper rather than partitioned into cutscenes (though there are nonetheless a fair few of these), there are key moments where I felt I had taken actions which led to certain consequences, rather than having those consequences forced onto me. They were, of course, but between the sustained uncertainty of why I/Cpt Walker was even in Dubai at all and the increasingly horrified backchatter of my two squadmates, I felt the crushing weight of responsibility and blame on my shoulders.
It is a sharply-written game. The narrative itself feels choppy and the main reveal perhaps has a few too many plotholes, plus it certainly uses ratatat swearing as a crutch, but coupled with strong performances the tight, unpatronising dialogue realises the fear, confusion and desperation that the tone and situation of the game depends on.
Most of all, Spec Ops' uncompromising gaze into the heart of darkness left me feeling abjectly awful, as though I'd been somewhere intrinsically rotten and done worse things in it. I almost can't believe this got made, let alone released by a major publisher. That's exactly why it impressed me so much.
This is a game where the man you're shooting at might shout 'murderer!' at you with clear distress, and that makes for a sobering look at yourself in the mirror of the mind's eye. I do wonder with some discomfort whether repeatedly placing a cursor over pretend men's heads and pressing fire is truly an appropriate medium for the questions Spec Ops poses (and only poses - it does not lower itself to answering them), but perhaps doing, rather than merely watching, is a necessary evil on the path to understanding. One thing's for sure: I feel sick at the idea of playing another shooter any time soon.