So long travel hiatus from console-style games; planes are only conducive to things such as Super Hexagon and hotels are for web games mainly. But I’m back now and back on it. I will get back to Uncharted, but I decided to go for a shorter game first and picked up Spec Ops: The Line. I’ve heard nothing but positive things about the narrative in this military shooter, and that is a weird enough combination (see my comments on Modern Warfare) that I had to check it out. So my shorthand verdict: it’s a military game with a fascinatingly weird story. I mean both parts of that. It’s a pure military shooter, and the story is very weird in a so-far very good way. The story weaves strange disturbing stuff in between completely conventional gameplay. It’s disconcerting, and I like it. Spoilers within.
So I heard this game was both good and short, and as good as Uncharted surely is, it is NOT short, so it’s Spec Ops time. I’m playing it on my PS3, and as always, it’s a long game data update. Does any game ever ship nowadays without a giant update? Ten minutes later, the game starts. There’s a set of quick, unadorned logos that lead to the title, just black screens with uneven fonts. The title screen has a rough electric guitar national anthem, and it shows an upside down flag in front of view of destroyed buried city. I hit start to start. There’s the standard autosave warning and I get the opportunity to adjust the game’s size, vertically and horizontally, to fit my TV. I’ve never seen that before, and someone recently mentioned it may be a way to deal with a bunch of different TVs in the market now. I choose the campaign mode and take the normal (combat op) difficulty of my three choices although I am NOT good at shooters. It makes me nervous, but what the hell? I’ll try to play this for real.
We come in from black, and a helicopter flies in being chased by another heli. This is a helicopter dog fight. One chopper goes down and oh, I’m on the helicopter that shot it. There’s a couple of us soldiers on this bird. I get control at a minigun (although there’s no noticeable screen change to indicate it) to shoot down more enemy helicopters. It takes me forever to realize it’s left button to activate minigun and right to fire, although I’m sure that’s a totally standard control scheme. I do a pitiful job shooting at these things, but I don’t think I can die in this scene. I shoot down two helis with some nice set pieces, but there are a LOT of them, and this scene is full of beautiful shots of us flying through a destroyed city. After several minutes of shooting, a flailing helicopter hits us and we go down. As it descends, we cut to a grey screen with a little bit of light, and the game autosaves.
We cut to a card telling us it’s earlier, and pan down to a bonsai on a desk in a hotel. There’s a voiceover of a guy talking about Conrad (seriously, Conrad? You’re telling me this is Heart of Darkness already, game? Sigh.) as maybe the great soldier he ever worked with. The camera shows us photos around room, presumably of the speaker and Conrad along with medals and cut-out articles. The voiceover mentions of a sandstorm that buried Dubai. The US kept the 33rd infantry in the city to help. Conrad was leaving a caravan of survivors out of the city, but never made it out. Six months later, the US got a transmission from Conrad saying the evacuation was a failure. The final shot of the scene shows a character looking over the buried city from a tower.
We cut to three guys talking and walking through a mild sandstorm. Adams and a sergeant joking about the sand. They then look at Dubai which they describe as “still dead.” They are tracing a transmission 800 meters away. There’s good banter where Adams snarks about how the sergeant might know better than Intel about what’s going on, and the sergeant responds that if he wasn’t a hardened killing machine, he might have been hurt. It’s genuinely good dialogue. We cut to an upside down flag, and I get control behind the shoulder of one of the soldiers. I say (automatically — I have no control over the dialogue) that this was designated a no-man’s land. As we walk, I get some basic commands (X to sprint – don’t need to hold it, X for cover, O to jump, LT to aim) and we eventually find the remains of 33rd on a large rock outcropping. It’s an abandoned post with just jeeps and bodies. One of the guys find some ropes and we hit X to rappel down.
When we reach the bottom, the banter starts again. The sergeant’s name is Lugo and he’s making jokes, and they are good dirty ones. I tell him to stay focused. We’re walking through lots of broken down vehicles, and there’s a radio we’re picking up in the distance somewhere. We find the signal at a distress beacon, but it’s not military. It’s built out of spare parts and the group has no idea who made it. Adams finds a body in a jeep. The corpse was a member of the 33rd and he recently died. The camera pans back to show my group looking at the bodies as guerrilla-looking person rises up from the destroyed cars behind them. The game pans back to me (lots of nice camera movement in this) as I duck behind cover to reveal three guerrillas above. I announce that I’m Captain Walker and we’re here to find them. They ask me why, and one of the guerrillas speaks Farsi. Lugo speaks Farsi too and he start talking to them. It’s going badly and Adams suggests to me to shoot out the windows on a sand logged bus over them. I do so and then I’m in a fight. I hop from cover to cover shooting guys, and shockingly I’m not doing too bad at it. I get to a part where I’m supposed to give the team an order to throw a grenade. I miss that for a while because the interface for it is a very small font, but do it and take out some well-ensconced baddies. We keep moving to another encounter with a fighter shooting at us from a billboard, and I learn that Lugo can snipe people with some kind of explosive with r2. I fight my way through another wave of enemies and we enter an opening cargo trailer. As we exit, I take out final enemy with a melee attack (square), and I say that I thought this was going to be a rescue.
There’s an explosion in the distance (there is no separation between CS and play here – I just lose control sometimes – but it’s still pretty clean) and Lugo picks up a new distress call that says that Alpha patrol under attack by insurgents. Lugo says they are 100 yards away, and we start heading there. We run into another fight where the enemy has a shielded MG ahead, so I have to flank it to take them out. I sneak behind cover and do so, talking out the base from the side. Once those enemies are taken care of, there’s a shot of my group running into desert. Lugo is talking to Alpha, and learns that there are four of them there under attack. We’re almost there when we start to approach a downed plane. We fight our way on to the plane, and the walk up the plane to fight our way from seat to seat in to hostage situation. By this point, I’ve run out of ammo with my assault rifle (maybe I DO suck at this). As we sneak up to where the hostages are, we see one hostage killed, and we take out all the enemies in slow mo. We learn from remaining dying hostage that the rest of the Alpha patrol were taken somewhere called the nest. He dies before he can say anything about Conrad. As if the name didn’t give it away, I’m definitely getting a very big Heart of Darkness vibe here. Walker has Lugo tag the bodies while Adams checks outside. They find tracks to the north and follow them.
Walking back in desert, Adams mentions they are out of mission parameters. Walker says the mission has changed and they have to save people. We arrive at the nest and exactly as Lugo says it is: post-apocalyptic. It’s a destroyed building covered with junk and the remains of combat. I get control and we have to fight our way into the base. I may have blown cover early rather than stealth killing my way through — again, I suck at these games. I find grenades and throw them to move my group forward. There’s western music playing in the space as we fight our way in, which is clearly diagetic and thus weird. We run inside where a broadcast says that the 33rd is announcing that the ceasefire with the insurgents is officially over and that any insurgents should surrender. This is all in a creepily jokey voice. I fight outside where I man a turret and take down insurgents in a hail of machinegun fire. I lose my team after that fight, and it takes me a minute to catch up to them on this long flat road that leads to a ruined tower. I end up dying in that fight because I’m stuck behind far away cover from the rest of my team, and I’m shot as I try to approach. I respawn and stay close to my team. I hold out through the ambush this time, but as the enemies keep spilling out of the tower, a sandstorm kicks up and we collapse through the floor. I do kill two guys as I’m going down, so I feel badass.
The screen goes black, and the group comes to on the ground. We’re in a hotel covered in sand, in a big lobby area with lots of above the ground corridors. Everyone’s ok. We find exit but it’s locked and enemies begin to drop into the lobby from the ceiling down to the floor. It’s a huge ambush. We take cover on the corridor we’re on and start fighting. I die from a grenade I think in the middle of the wave and respawn. I die again from grenades for sure this time. I am just not reading this grenade interface properly. The third time, I finally get through the ambush by watching for grenades and popping enemies coming up the stairs at me. I’m willing to admit there might have been some dynamic difficulty adjustment here. The enemies drop C4 into the room and so Adams breaks the lock on the exit he found and we run. Heading down the corridor, we go deeper into the hotel and we hide as two insurgents come in talking about dropping C4. They say that the soldier is downstairs. One of the insurgents is an American ordering the locals around. They spot us, which triggers more fighting, easy this time. We fight our way to an exit dealing with enemies as we keep moving. The exit leads outside into a sandstorm. We have to go through sandstorm to get away, which leads to a powerful scene fighting through the truly blinding storm. It’s a really powerful moment of confusion. We re-enter the hotel after a few minutes, reload and rappel down an elevator to a basement. People have been living down here in a crude camp set-up. There’s a creepy figure painted in blood (like a western desperado) on the wall, and an equally creepy chime coming from swinging pipes. We go down further to a bigger camp area with tons of candles. Lugo mentions seeing silk curtains and a piano here. There’s another creepy picture of children on the wall with eyes blacked out, and a set of bodies show that a bunch of soldiers have been executed at that same wall.
We come down the hall and see a 33rd guy being tortured by another man as we creep up (I’m not in control). The torturer wants to know where the 33rd are. The 33rd guy blames the insurgents for stirring up the locals. The torturer says that he stirred up the locals on purpose and that the 33rd went rogue, explaining that the CIA doesn’t start what it can’t finish. My group makes ourselves known and the tortured guy grabs the pistol from the CIA guy and shoots him. My group and the now freed 33rd player threaten each other and then the guy says his name is McPherson. After some vaguely threatening discussion, McPherson runs and we don’t shoot — but it looked like I could have. I wonder if that was a choice I had. When Lugo asks what we should do, I say that we’ll follow him back to the 33rd. We rappel down on of this platform and find that this is a CIA base. The intel we find here says that there’s no way to radio from inside the storm wall, so all these groups were completely isolated. A bunch of guys ambush us. Adams goes down and I have to run over and heal him. I do so, but I stop paying attention when I’m done and die. In the replay, we realize that these guys shooting us were our own guys, American soldiers. Adams points this out but I say it was self-defense, that those guys were trying to kill us. Adams says that doesn’t make him feel any better and I say it’s not supposed to. This dialogue is just not flagging.
We keep moving and through a window, we see 33rd chasing down civilians but shooting in the air. I’m uncomfortable about this — the 33rd wasn’t killing those people, and I’m not sure how to read it. Those two notice us, and we kill them and jump out window to fight more. The 33rd see us and assume we’re CIA. I say to shoot them because they are trying to kill us. While we’re ducking from cover to cover and popping soldiers, my team shouts that we’re not CIA and that this is friendly fire. They don’t listen. I die once because it’s a madhouse of gunfire with one of my guys down. I die again because I never seem to know how far away to get from a grenade. I finally fight my way through by dodging grenades. I enter an area that says no arms in the camp on a sign. We go down to a deeper part of the hotel. As we continue into the camp, I say the 33rd are rogue but that Conrad is going to be loyal. We come upon the 33rd rounding up civilians aggressively and assume that they are going to execute them. I don’t know – the guy shot in the air before. The group aren’t going to let that happen. As we approach, an announcement says that the 33rd offered peace and it was broken and now everyone has to die. We fight our way down a long flight of spiral stairs. This is a giant open room with a huge open central column and lots of elevated platforms on which many enemies are perched. I die while moving from a bad cover choice, and then we fight further into the level. It basically a slog from one platform to another with enemies popping from cover above and below us. I die a lot more times getting through this part,until I finally go down another flight of stairs to a new level. This battle is going to be just as hard, so I decide to call it a night.