A call to discuss the role of the video game shooter
The US 33rd Infantry Battalion, led by Colonel John Konrad arrives in Dubai to assist in the evacuation effort before giant sand storms can bury the city whole. In defiance of orders from his superiors to leave the city, Konrad and the 33rd remain behind to lead a caravan of refugees out of Dubai. The evacuation is a failure. In the storm’s aftermath, Dubai is declared a no-man's-land and the 33rd are branded as traitors.
In Spec Ops: The Line, you assume the role of Captain Walker, who is sent into Dubai on a reconnaissance mission six months after the devastating sand storms. Your mission is simple: confirm the status of Konrad and any survivors, then radio for extraction. However, shortly after arriving you discover the bodies of a group of American soldiers and decide to expand your mission’s parameters, pushing further into the ruined city on a search for survivors and answers to the mystery of what happened after Konrad’s failed evacuation.
What begins as a simple recon mission quickly devolves into a complex struggle between the insurgents, CIA operatives, the US 33rd and a group of desperate civilians caught in-between.
Gameplay-wise, Spec Ops plays like your standard third-person cover based shooter. There are some nice environmental effects that you can use to your advantage such as shooting out windows and barriers, releasing mountains (dunes, probably should be dunes) of sand upon unsuspecting enemies, but aside from destroying sand castles, there isn't much to differentiate Spec Ops from Gears or other third-person shooters, at least from a gameplay perspective. Spec Ops adherence to the standard shooter troupes is not a negative, but part of an orchestrated opinion piece on the genre as whole. Specifically, the game’s narrative and the way it is presented to the player is what make Spec Ops worth your time and money.
I played the game on normal difficulty which I felt presented a sufficient challenge. It allowed me to experience the story at a comfortable pace without turning the enemy encounters into cake walks. While I could often rely on turtling behind a wall to slowly pick off enemies, I did experience some AI flanking maneuvers and the enemy was not shy about using grenades to push me out of cover.
I don’t play many shooters and if I hadn't heard about some of the game's twists I probably would have passed on the game, writing it off as another generic shooter. While knowing some of these twists lessened the overall emotional impact, I’m glad I got to experience the story for myself. To avoid potentially spoiling the ending for others I will forgo a more in-depth analysis on what Spec Ops has to say about the shooter genre and killing in video games in general. All I will say is that the game makes great use of subtle auditory and visual cues to engage the player and when you look back at the game’s conclusion you may be surprised about how you interpreted these cues, or if you even noticed them at all.
Spec Ops has a message to get across and even though the game may at times appear heavy handed in the delivery of this message, I think its chief objective is not to force you to accept one particular viewpoint but to open up a dialogue about the subject matter and make the player, and hopefully the gaming industry as a whole, think more about the choices we make in games. And in that respect, I think the game succeeds.