One Step Back, Two Steps Forward

A lot of these fancy game journalists and bloggers like to start their pieces with a somewhat pretentious first person narrative. Perhaps to indulge their more creative side or to give them a brief respite from reality as a hero from whichever game they’ve just played. They like that stuff. I like that stuff, too. It sounds artsy.

I, mentally, can’t for this game. Due to my disbelief and disgust, I can’t place myself in the shoes of Spec Ops: The Line’s protagonist. This is not a bad thing, I think.

I checked my clip again. 6 bullets left for 8 men. I could hear them and their weapons snarling behind the barricade I was braced against. They sounded like lions and tigers just moments before their death. They we’re enjoying their last, glorious and savage fight for survival. I closed my eyes and breathed out slow, letting my hands place themselves around my rifle. I turned and placed a hand on the barricade and vaulted. Fire and death were in my lungs and heart.

Spec Ops is a game about responsibility, both of the games characters and of the player themselves. This is a game that, briefly, embraces one of gaming’s greatest assets; seamless playability. ‘Don’t tell us, and don’t show us. Give us control.’ Forget your ‘Press X to Harvest. Press Y to Save.’ Forget your stern sounding expositional dialogue and your beautifully choreographed cut-scenes. We’ll find our own way. Give us the gun and we’ll make the decisions. We’ll decide who to shoot and who to save.

As I felt my body lurch over the barricade, time slowed and memories rushed. My squad mates stood around me, looking for support and reassurance. They asked me what we should do next. I said we had a duty to save those hostages. That we had a duty to save the innocent from the evils of their fellow men. No questions asked. By any means necessary. They looked to me with shining eyes and determination. My mind surged to a later memory. To their bodies on the blackened ground.

For every tense moment of contemplation and deliberation, though, we’re also given an inane and pompous set-piece of startling mediocrity. For every anxious stand-off between you and a gang of furious civilians, we’re also given an implausible sequence of a miraculous luck. For every innovative way to show how the character’s demeanour has progressed, we’re given a vapid and generic set-piece. For every seed sown to hint towards a greater tone and interpretation, there is also an inane turret sequence. This is exciting without the excitement. These are the loud moments.

I started shooting. I used my six bullets on six men. Bullets spiralled around me. I was too fast and my reflexes were too sharp. I counted my shots and threw my empty pistol to the ground as I weaved towards the final two men. My bones were on fire and my heart was imploding and exploding. The whites of their eyes got larger and larger and larger. I took out my knife as they started to try to escape. The floor was hot with blood and sparks. I scavenged a rifle from one of the dead men. Guttural screams resonated around the walls until the echoing sounds of my footsteps overrode them.

This is a game about harsh realities and choices with self-righteous answers. Self-righteous, not through pretence, but through the necessity of the character and the setting of the tone. This is not a game where you get to fall in love by through picking someone from a list and persistently pressing the confirmation button. It is not an oversight or a technical problem that you can’t save everyone. This is not your story, its Martin Walkers’. In this game, things get worse.

I approached him. He was cowering behind one of the hostages, keeping his handgun trained on her at all times. I told him to put the gun down. He shouted at me in his foreign tongue. I knew enough of the words to recognise ‘soldier’, ‘America’ and ‘murder’. ‘Innocent’. He waved his gun to make a point I couldn’t comprehend, and I took my chance. I shot him with the rifle I stole and he reeled back against the wall. I shot him again. The hostage was in shock, slumped on the floor but unhurt. I threw my rifle on the floor. The sun shone through the window and illuminated everything.

You will never be the hero in this game. No matter how much of a perfectionist you are, no matter how many times you play it, no matter how hard you try. It’s your game, your controller, your screen; but it’s not your story. You shouldn’t be able to relate to the plot or the character. Just the theme and the tone. And the way it all plays out.

The hostage embraced me and started to frantically thank me. The other hostages started to celebrate as I released them. I took out my radio and asked for a transport home with the hostages. The operator told me my men had checked in, half-dead, and they were on a helicopter to the nearest hospital. I smiled and walked through a bullet spattered door and went outside. I stood and watched the sun set behind a rolling hill. The sky was a deep pink colour and the horizon was wide and inviting.

This is not a perfect game. The combat mechanics get tired, the achievements aren’t integrated well, the multiplayer shouldn’t even exist, it froze multiple times, the cover mechanic is tetchy and the overall story arch, in all fairness, is neither particularly original nor engaging. I can’t help but look past these faults, though.

This game is not the smartest, the most enjoyable or the best looking, but what it has is heart and a dedication to progress. A re-evolution of games. An invention of new craft techniques. We’ve achieved First-Person Shooter perfection of late; it’s never felt so damn good playing a shooter. We can make anything we want in games now and it all looks and plays fantastic, but would you rather have progression or perfection?

Do you want the punk kid with great ideas and bad grammar, or the kid who knows everything but never thinks for himself? Do you want something that attempts to make a story that a film can’t? Or do you just want something that looks good and plays well, and has a tolerable plot told like an action film?

They told me I had saved the day. That I would get all the medals that would fit on my chest. That I’ll be in for a hell of a reception for when I get home. I thanked them and put the receiver down. I carried on looking at the sunset, thinking about the events of the day. I felt proud. I clenched my scarred hands and waited for the next fight.

I always root for the underdog.