The weekend is the best time to play a classic game, hence it’s the perfect time to play Spec Ops: The Line. I’ve had the game for the PC but my insert was reignited when it was added to PlayStation Now.
Spec Ops: The Line is an unusual title as on the surface it looks like a generic shooter but its story is to video games what The Wire is to television drama, a masterpiece that was ahead of its time. Read any article or watch any YouTube series regarding “Best Video Game Stores” and Spec Ops: The Line will always be sharing a spot next to Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater and The Last of Us.
This reflection looks back at how this simple shooter for an obscure series raised the bar for story telling in video games. The experience is based on playing both the PlayStation 3 and PC version of the game.
SPOILER ALERT: This reflection will have spoilers, please play the game first before reading any more.
A devastating sandstorm has demolished Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), resulting in the city to be declared a No Man’s Land and closed off from the outside world. The 33rd Infantry Battalion of the United States Army under the command of Colonel John Konrad stayed behind to help with the evacuation but all contact with them was lost.
Six months later, a looped radio signal was detected as it broadcasted, “This is Colonel John Konrad, United States Army. Attempted evacuation of Dubai ended in complete failure. Death toll: too many.” In response, a three-man Delta Force team consisting of Captain Martin Walker, Lieutenant Alphanso Adams, and Staff Sergeant John Lugo are deployed on a covert reconnaissance mission to learn what happened to the 33rd.
They arrive to a city being torn apart by CIA backed militias fighting the 33rd (which has gone rouge) while civilians are getting killed in the crossfire. It’s a horror that nobody was expecting but if Captain Walker wants to figure out what has happen, he needs to find Colonel Konrad.
At first glance; many would have dismissed Spec Ops: The Line for two reasons (and they may be why the game sold so poorly).
1). It Looked Generic – On the surface it looks like a generic military shooter. While the story has been hailed as a masterpiece, the gameplay was not that memorable. The gameplay was a standard squad based cover shooter (as seen in titles like Gears of War and Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Vegas) with some elements borrowed from Call of Duty. It also had nothing unique about its gameplay that would make it stand out from other titles, hence it did not wow gamers.
2). It’s a Spec Ops game – Being part of the Spec Ops series made many gamers skeptic of getting it. It’s hard to understand but Spec Ops is a game series from the late 90’s that has been forgotten for good reasons. The series was best known for being a very bad Rainbow Six knock-off with each title going straight to the bargain bin. So when Spec Ops: The Line was announced, everyone’s first reaction was “Why bother!” Looking back now, the game could have sold better if it was simply titled The Line instead of being part of the Spec Ops series.
Even though Spec Ops: The Line failed to impress gamers upon its release, critics were quick to recognize its brilliance. The game was highly praised by critics for its story and it was nominated for many awards in the screen writing category.
Having been released alongside The Last of Us and BioShock: Infinite, it had a plot so well crafted that it raised the bar and redefined storytelling for gaming.
The plot is a modern retelling of Hearts of Darkness only the criticism of colonialism have been replaced with America’s foreign policy in the Middle East. Enter a battlefield dominated by the 33rd fighting local militias backed by the CIA and players are left to ask what is the difference between the two cultures (the West and the Middle East) or how a party engages in warfare.
Dubai makes the perfect setting for this clash of cultures as it’s a modern city in a region were traditional cultures and tribal loyalty are dominate. The sandstorm has shattered the foundation of the society and now the concept of civility is being tested. The result are the city elitists have fled, the Emirate government has abandoned the city, and the United States (represented by Colonel Konrad) is trying to do the right thing but have failed.
The concept of how parties engage in warfare is examined through the conflict between the CIA back militias against the Dammed 33rd who are also fighting the Exiled 33rd. Neither group is innocent as the CIA is having others fight it battle while using questionable tactics. Meanwhile the Dammed 33rd has been brutalizing the civilian population through torture and mass killings. However the Exiled 33rd are not so innocent as they did have white phosphorus munitions in their arsenal.
Unique for the genre is the role that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) along with the consequences of the characters action play in their personal development. Walker begins the story as a Patriot trying to rescue a fellow solider and ends up emotional damaged by the horror he witnessed and the actions he did that got innocent people killed.
This is best seen during the infamous “White phosphorus attack”. Walker orders his team to attack the 33rd’s camp using a mortar that was armed with white phosphorus munitions. The attack is a success, to the horror of the team, however everything takes a turn for the worse when they learn that they attacked the Exiles camp. As a result of Walkers action, 47 civilians are also killed in the attack.
Walker just stares into the empty eyes of a mother trying to protect her daughter while Adams and Lugo are horrified by what they did. This becomes the turning point for Walker as his questionable actions have mentally broke him as a solider. It’s from this moment that his journey into madness begins as mistake haunts him mentally while subconsciously questioning his own leadership.
Very few games have tried to break from the heroic bravado that is common in military titles but Spec Ops: The Line does a masterful job at making players question their moral choices while transforming them from hero to unwilling villain.
Despite the low sales number and no possibility of a sequel (which is a good thing), Spec Ops: The Line has established itself as the measuring stick for future storytelling in video games. The game is available in PlayStation Now or for purchase at the Steam Store.
Weekend Replay is a column were we play an old school game over the weekend and share our nostalgic thoughts about it.
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