There’s a bit of a problem with shooters. Gaming has a plethora of titles with lots of set-piece action and dramatic music, but no real plot. Sometimes all you want is the big action, and that’s just fine. But when’s the last time a shooter really floored you? When’s the last time you were really taken on a journey? I’m not talking about RPGs with shooting like Mass Effect or Fallout. I’m talking about games like Gears of War and Call of Duty, where the main game mechanic is shooting. While I have enjoyed the story of many of these games, only one has ever really affected me. The Last of Us notwithstanding (as it’s classified as survival horror), only one shooter has made me say “Wow, that really messed me up,” by its end. That game is Spec Ops: The Line.
Way back when in the first half of 2012, while the game was still being previewed and marketed, Spec Ops: The Line generated approximately zero buzz. It was seen (especially by yours truly) as just another generic cover-based shooter. After the popularity of Gears of War, there were plenty of games looking to get in the third-person shooter market. Spec Ops’s draw was supposed to be the sand mechanics. In the game, you can shoot through glass holding back sand, to make sand fall on your enemies or open up new pathways and the like. It’s a cool feature, but It doesn’t really stand out within the game. The sand isn’t what separates Spec Ops from your everyday shooter.
The real jewel of Spec Ops is it’s plot. Few games of any genre are as engrossing or heart wrenching. Prior to the beginning of the game, dust storms have ravaged Dubai, leaving the city in ruins. Colonel John Conrad and his unit, the “Damned 33rd” of the US Army, were returning home when Conrad decided to divert to assist with the Dubai relief efforts. When ordered to evacuate and abandon the city, Conrad and his unit elected to stay. All the while, a storm wall engulfs the city, disrupting communications and surveillance.Two weeks before the actual start of the game, a radio message has gotten through the storm wall, stating “This is Colonel John Konrad, United States Army. Attempted evacuation of Dubai ended in complete failure. Death toll: too many.” You play as Captain Martin Walker, leader of an elite 3-man Delta Force team. Under your command are Lietenant Alphnonse Adams and Staff Seargant John Lugo. You are charged with conducting recon, attempting to find any evidence of the 33rd, and reporting back. When the squad encounters a group of survivors with captives from the 33rd, Walker decides to disobey order and investigate. It is with this decision that your journey really begins.
From here, Spec Ops launches into an epic, each decision taking you deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole. As you advance, you will be forced to make hard decisions, as the game gets progressively darker. This game isn’t about a rescue mission. It’s not about being the good guy, and it’s not about saving the day. It’s about, to turn a phrase, the heart of darkness. It’s about what matters and what doesn’t, what’s real and what isn’t. Few games have emotionally shaken me, but only one has made me question whether I was controlling the main character, or he was controlling me. Many games feature indiscriminate violence, ut few force you to consider whether the ends justify the means. Few leave it up to you to decide who the real villains are. The game has a Bioshock-esque way of messing with your head, but in a much darker fashion. The journey it takes you on is truly something special.
I’ve played a lot of games, and enjoyed many great plots. Few of them were in shooters, however. But Spec Ops shows how things should be done. The combat is fun, nothing extravagant, but that isn’t the point. Spec Ops is a prime example of video games as an art form. It’s a shooter that makes you feel, that makes you think. Everyone knows about how special the Bioshock games are, but Spec Ops kind of flew under the radar despite its critical success. If more studios were to follow Spec ops’s lead, we could crawl out of this ditch of generic shooters. If more people were to buy games like Spec Ops, perhaps studios would be more willing to take risks.
Spec Ops is something special, something I never expected. If you want a game that shows you why video games are art, I highly suggest you pick it up. If video games are going to be elevated to the next level, we need more games like Spec Ops: The Line.