Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Spec Ops: The Line (PS3)

Note: This review contains spoilers for Spec Ops: The Line.

While I have played shooter games before, such as some set in the Transformers universe, I don’t usually go for military shooters such as those in the Call of Duty series, so Spec Ops: The Line flew under my radar when it first came out in 2012. Sometime later, when I read more about it, I became more interested in checking it out upon learning that there was a lot more to it than it seemed. Though the gameplay is average, and a bit rough in places, the story alone is good enough to warrant a second playthrough, possibly more.

Dubai is in a cataclysmic state on account of numerous sandstorms. Some time after Captain John Konrad led the 33rd to try and help the citizens of Dubai against their orders, a faint radio message manages to get out, indicating Konrad might still be alive. To investigate, a three-man Delta Force squad consisting of Captain Martin Walker, First Lieutenant Alphonso Adams and Staff Sergeant John Lugo are sent in on a simple recon mission to confirm any survivors and then immediately radio for evac. However, things quickly take a turn for the worse.

The general gameplay is similar to many cover-based shooters, in which you can use a wide array of firearms and grenades while hiding behind cover to avoid enemy fire. You can also carry two weapons at once and can swap between them at any time, as well as hold three grenade types and choose which one you want to throw. For close-quarters encounters, a melee option is available along with the ability to execute a downed enemy.

There are, however, a few differences that make things interesting. As the city of Dubai is covered in sand, some sections of the game involve using sand from the environment to take down enemies rather than through gunfire. Other sections use the environment to great effect as well, such as a moment in Chapter 11 where you have to take down a Heavy while the lights are flickering, during which the Heavy changes positions and you turn out to be firing at mannequins most of the time in a state of panic.

Sand can be used to take out large groups of enemies.

In spite of being a PS3 game from 2012 with (at the time) realistic graphics, the visuals have somehow managed to age fairly decently, if a little rough around the edges. Things that stand out include the realistic rendering of sand and reflections, with some really good sand physics to boot. Even on multiple playthroughs, the level design always stands out to me, as it does an excellent job of capturing Dubai’s state of disrepair during the narrative and showcases environments that look very lived-in, as though whoever was already residing there had left in a hurry. This results in often haunting locales that make you want to know more about the lives of its former residents and what the city was like before Walker’s team arrived.

That said, some minor issues are still apparent even after my initial playthrough. I noticed some occasional framerate drops, especially when a great deal of enemies are onscreen, though thankfully not enough to render the game unplayable. There are, however, some bad instances of texture loading, as it can take several seconds for textures to fully pop in, even during cutscenes. This comes to a head in the opening cutscene to Chapter 6, which begins with an extreme close-up of Walker’s face, ruining whatever the intended effect was supposed to be.

Some details, in this case the abandoned vehicles, help the environments
feel more lived-in.

Though the sound design is generally great, one small detail I liked was its handling of sound sources. To clarify, there are points where you hear music over speakers or other distant sources and the game actually adjusts the volume depending on your current position in relation to it, even accounting for if you’re behind a wall or corner that would realistically muffle noise. This minor detail increases the sense of immersion to go along nicely with the aforementioned haunting environments.

Amongst the main characters, the voice acting is great at capturing Walker (Nolan North), Adams (Christopher Reid) and Lugo’s (Omid Abtahi) increasing exhaustion and deteriorating mental state over the course of the game. The three voice actors also sell their characters through great chemistry and snarky dialogue, especially in the early game, building a sense of comradery between them. Bruce Boxleitner was good choice for John Konrad, delivering a frank, yet calm demeanor as he communicates with Walker.

What makes the game truly fascinating, however, is its narrative themes and how it executes them. While the game does have an anti-war message, it’s delivered in a way that explores the consequences of one’s actions during war and what happens when you cross the line in a way that only makes things worse. One more contentious moment, though, is during Chapter 8 when you have to use white phosphorus, a particularly nasty weapon in real life, to clear out a group of enemy soldiers. While it is meant to drive home this theme and succeeds, it can feel confusing for the game to chastise you for doing what it told you to do in order to advance the story and could possibly have been handled better.

On a following playthrough, however, this scene can be viewed from a more analytical standpoint as it ties into the game’s larger themes of deconstructing the military shooter genre, and possibly other forms of media that heavily involve violence, in a thought-provoking manner. During the game, what was supposed to be a recon mission quickly devolves into a seemingly-mindless killing spree, with Martin Walker finding ways to justify his actions in order to feel like a hero. The white phosphorus scene is a turning point for Walker’s psyche, in that he starts trying desperately to blame Konrad for his actions even though it was he who pulled the trigger.

Walker's appearance also becomes increasingly battered and
disheveled as the game goes on.

Prior to this point, some clever bits of foreshadowing hint at bad omens and Walker’s increasing lunacy. Chapter 7 features one section where you have to shoot out glass to escape a building, after which some sand covers up a scale model of Dubai conveniently placed in front of the window, foretelling the aftermath of future events such as the destruction of Dubai’s water supply. One shocking bit that immediately precedes the white phosphorus scene, which I completely missed on my first playthrough before reading about it, involves a tree. Sitting between two sets of stairs leading up to the mortar is a lush tree with leaves growing out of it, contrasting with the state of Dubai. However, if you turn back around after passing the tree, you see that it was actually dead the whole time.

After this scene, Walker starts to hear Konrad over a radio, though the dialogue suggests he is the only one who can hear it. As Walker continues to blame Konrad for his actions, it’s possible to see billboards with Konrad’s face on them, enforcing how Walker exaggerates Konrad's importance in this situation. Once you get to the final chapter, however, things take on a different light once Konrad explains the true nature of everything that happened, making it worth a second or third playthrough just to try and analyze everything in hindsight.

Another layer to this is the way the game involves you, the player, into its narrative. At numerous points throughout the game, Walker is told that he has to stop what he’s doing and just radio evac like he was supposed to. However, he continues on regardless of the death and destruction in his wake, solely so he can see his own actions as heroic, much like what a first-time player of the game might go through. Outside of the white phosphorus incident, there are also multiple points in the game where you are given an unprompted choice on how to approach key moments. As an example, one moment in the late game gives the option to shoot a crowd of citizens for attacking Lugo, but you can also shoot above the crowd to make them run away and resolve the situation non-lethally.

What really gets into this side of the narrative, however, are the loading screens. In the latter half of the game, gameplay tips become interspersed with philosophical ideas about violence in entertainment, especially applicable to military shooters, and questions directed at the player about the experience and why they choose to keep fighting. Some can be missed on a lower difficulty, though even then, the ones that do show up can hit hard (ex. “Do you feel like a hero yet?”, “Can you even remember why you came here?”, “You are still a good person.”). On a first playthrough, it is entirely possible for these later loading screens to come across as the game attacking you for playing it, but on another playthrough, these same loading screens can also be interpreted in a more thought-provoking manner, at least within the vacuum of the game and the genre it criticizes.

Loading screens like this can hit you hard.

For fans and non-fans of military shooters, Spec Ops: The Line is well worth playing for its narrative design alone. While the game manages to hold up decently in spite of some technical faults, the gameplay itself isn’t too innovative outside of the sand mechanic present in a handful of instances. The story itself isn’t perfect either, such as the white phosphorus sequence railroading you for the sake of the narrative. Despite this, the rest of the story and its handling of heavy themes is executed well enough to warrant multiple playthroughs.

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