How Gaming Almost Peaks In “Spec Ops: The Line” (Pt. 2)

spec ops 2

The following is part two in an ongoing series about recent video game release Spec Ops: The Line, and how/why it comes frustratingly close to perfection, only to fall short. You can read part one over here.

So where were we? If I recall, I was bemoaning the fact that Spec Ops: The Line (or SO:TL to save my oh-so-delicate typing hands) should be one of the best games of all time, and would be were it not for its hair-pullingly stupid flaws. Hey, that does sound familiar. Looks like I recalled right after all. Playing SO:TL is like ordering a fancy steak dinner only for it to come with with a turd log steaming on top. It’s enraging to an extent that a turd-covered PB&J couldn’t hope to match. Sure, it’s the same amount of turd in both dishes, but wouldn’t you be so much more pissed that your juicy, perfectly cooked steak got ruined? If there’s one thing you take away from this article, let it be that SO:TL is like a turd-covered steak (n.b. please do not let this be the one thing you take away from this article).

To be fair, most of this isn’t even developer Yager Development’s fault. SO:TL is hamstrung right out of the gate by the childish money-first philosophy of the games industry. SO:TL, in a perfect world, would be in no easily quantifiable genre. The gameplay would not be the centerpiece, but a tool for enhancing the player’s experience of the story. But no, this is not a perfect world, and no company has the balls to sell a game about army dudes unless it is primarily a shooting game. And let me tell you, you spend a shit-ton of time in SO:TL shooting exactly the same guys in exactly the same way.

In a world where Gears of War and Call of Duty exist, a game company simply cannot ignore the chance to market a third-person over-the-shoulder or first-person shooter. This is good news for fans of those genres, but it’s especially disappointing for this game. Since SO:TL is more concerned with the emotional and mental degradation of its protagonist than how much of a gun-totin’ badass he is, I would posit that this game is the best possible candidate for a war game that doesn’t need to be shackled to one of these macho, hyper-aggressive genres. Surprise, surprise, the shackles are as tight as ever.

Now, I don’t mean that there should be no shooting. There does need to be a sense of opposition, and shooting segments provide that. And the aforementioned mortaring of enemies is so much more attractive when you’ve just spent what seems like forever gunning them down one by one. But do you note how my examples here show third-person-shooting as a tool for generating a feeling? Almost as if its value isn’t in the shooting itself but the shooting’s utility in enhancing the game’s artistic and emotional effect on the player? Yeah. That’s on purpose. If only the game could realize that, too. I spent a vast majority of my playtime ducked behind a chest-high wall lining up my crosshairs with an enemy head, popping out to shoot it, ducking down to regenerate health, and repeating. Aside from standard faceless grunt enemies, there are snipers, heavies (whose ability to withstand several shotgun blasts to the head gets adorable after a while), turret guys, RPG guys, and knife guys. And that’s it. That’s the game. Imagine popping out of cover and shooting those guys. Now imagine it enough times that you’d rather read a book about history’s least important land purchases. You’re about halfway to SO:TL.

It’s like they feel they have to balance out every cool, interesting thing in the game with equal amounts of gaming cliché. Let’s take a look: there’s enough talent on this team to revitalize even a concept as trivial as achievements. When achievement notifications pop up on screen rewarding you and Walker for your latest atrocity, it takes gaming’s most lizard-brain gratifying trope and transforms it to a messenger of stomach-churning dread as the game mockingly congratulates you for the ruined shit you leave in your wake. Fuck you, game! you might say, don’t reward me for that! That’s awesome! Innovation, yo!

And then, of course, comes the suck. There are endless achievements for killing x amount of enemies in x amount of special ways, emphasizing the stupid shooting galleries that make up so much screen time. It turns murder into a fun challenge in a game that treats the same subject with such surprising weight elsewhere. It cheapens your actions during the combat segments by treating deaths as a statistic, rather than anything meaningful. You don’t think about why you’re shooting these people or what that means, but rather huh, five more headshots until I get an achievement. It’s like a carnie telling you what a good job you did shooting the metal ducks with the little BB gun. It’s grotesquely gamey, and it’s especially grating in a game that should know better. SO:TL isn’t about goddamn headshots.

So how do we break the chains holding SO:TL back, and make it the masterpiece it wants to be? There are three easy steps.

1. Cut the campaign’s runtime in half. Trim the fat from the bloated, uninspired action and get to what matters. Strip out the third-person-shooter conventions and make the game in a genre of its own. This brings new problems, however. No one is happy paying top dollar for a 3-4 hour game. Which brings me to…

2. Significantly lower the game’s price. $50-60 for a game is always a little ridiculous, especially on PC (I got it in the Steam summer sale, which despite the discount was still too much). If the extraneous shooty-shoot parts were cut down, the game would be about the length of a movie. So why not make it cost as much as a movie? It will likely drop to that price on Steam in a year or so, and if the bland gunplay was deemphasized it’d have even stronger word of mouth among the gaming cognoscenti than it does already, pushing sales higher.

Check back with us on Monday, for part three of Tom’s improvement plan, and more thoughts on Spec Ops: The Line.