Bottom Line: Yager Development accomplishes nothing with this limp middle finger to the shooter genre.
I bought Spec Ops: The Line at a used game store for $18 the other day, and now I’ve gotten around to sitting down and playing it. People have been telling me that it’s the next evolutionary step in game narrative, and I don’t think I’ve seen a single negative review, although I realize it’s mixed. God help us if this is supposed to be an example of a good game.
Here’s a quick list of the problems I encountered, and please don’t think I’m being snarky and exaggerating — each one of these stood out to me uniquely as unacceptable, to my surprise:
- The movement system
- The buddy system
- The cover system
- The health system
- The shooting system
- The graphics
- The level design
- The story
- The characters
- The pacing
- The loading times
- The AI
Yes, I’m saying that nothing about this game is good or interesting. I didn’t have high expectations, but this? This was shit. Being dragged around by a couple of typical loudmouth US soldiers through predictable corridors while waves of grunts shuffle into our gunfire, is boring. And while the story is usually supposed to propel the action forward, giving it a sense of importance, the plot here is just a combination of Black Hawk Down and Apocalypse Now, minus the interesting characters or relevance.
The biggest issue, perhaps, is the idiotic buddy system, which is nothing more than an excuse for lazy game design, just like buddy systems always are. Listening to these fools shouting every five seconds grows old quickly. “God damn! Jesus Christ! Mother fucker! This is insane! They just keep coming! Watch out! Holy shit! Take cover! Be scared! Get excited! Have fun playing this shitty repetitive game!” Ohhh. Thanks for verbally telling me what I should be naturally feeling inside. Without your incessant remarks, how would I know whether the stream of dummies I just haphazardly mowed down was “epic” and “so intense” or just more of the same boring shooter action I’ve played for a decade?
Say what you want about the buddy system, but here’s why it exists:
- So that they don’t have to balance combat. With the buddy system, winning and losing a gunfight doesn’t depend on your personal skill anymore, but the luck of your friends and the effectiveness of the AI system. If you die, you can always blame your digital buddies for not having your back, and if you win, you can take as much or as little credit as you wish. Bullets are flying everywhere constantly, so just make sure to chip in and follow the commands given to you by your buddies.
- They don’t have to be creative about storytelling. The never-ending banter between the boring protagonist and his boring friends automatically handles stuff like narrative, mood, and pacing of the story. “What is this place?” asks one of them with awe and wonder. “I don’t know,” replies the other hesitantly, “but it’s really creepy and atmospheric, isn’t it, Player 1?” “It sure is, Computer Controlled Sidekick,” says the protagonist, “it’s very creepy and atmospheric indeed. I am declaring that this place is interesting and important, because the game does not convey these things organically.” You’re never given the chance to have a natural reaction, which means you’re never given the chance to think about how dull and non-interactive it all is.
- It takes away freedom. Game designers hate giving players freedom because it’s a lot of work. It means you have to actually design real areas with interesting choices to make. Nightmare! They’d much rather create the linear roller-coaster “experience” that we’re all too familiar with. Having a few buddies chauffeur you around creates an artificial sense of pacing since your friends will always be eager to move on to the next checkpoint, instead of, you know, hanging out in an area, maybe even exploring the possibilities — of which there are none.
Enemies have unlimited ammunition and no issue blasting away at you forever, but picking up their weapons only gives you a few spare rounds. Even grenade launchers and rockets are infinite when being held in the enemy hands, but mysteriously empty when you grab them. This is balanced by the fact that enemies all have suicidal tendencies, walking out of cover and closing in on you. Ugh, you know what? Nevermind, it’s not even worth talking about the shitty combat in this game. Just look up the words “generic” and you’ll find everything. Regenerating health, arbitrary two-weapon limit, and a woefully inconsistent pathing and cover logic. Sometimes you can leap over airplane seats, but if those same seats are slightly askew? Fuck you, go the long way around. Hitting somebody with your fist knocks them to the ground like a small child perched on a fence post, but shooting the same person at the same range with an automatic rifle? They’ll shrug it off.
The protagonist tends to slide along steel cables with his gloved hands for twenty second stretches at a time and not even make a comment about it. I was under the impression this game was gritty, but after watching him also slide down a 300 ft. crumbling building, free fall for another four seconds, then grab effortlessly onto a beam sticking out of the wall, hook up a carabiner with the other hand, and then drop like Bruce Wayne in Dark Knight Rises for another second or two until his back was snapped, only to have the beam above break off, causing him to smack the jagged concrete rubble below, and wake up a few seconds later with no injuries, I knew I was wrong.
The themes, tone, and concepts of the story are executed badly as well. The whole idea of being a “deconstruction” or “commentary” on violent mindless killing games doesn’t make it clever, interesting, or better at all: it’s another excuse for being lazy, but it’s got a postmodern “meta” excuse. I hate Call of Duty and its degrading effect on the industry as much as anyone, so shouldn’t I be the type of person who gets a kick out of this? Were they hoping Call of Duty players would buy Spec Ops, play it, and then become enlightened about the senseless violence? Of course not. Nobody is that stupid. They just wanted to cash in on the phenomenon, earn some cheap artistic credibility, and get away with it because they know critics are forced to play so many identical games that their minds will be blown when one of them winks and nudges at how identical they all are.
The designers apparently claim the game is supposed to make you want to turn it off, as well as make you sick of all the killing — but guess what? It only makes me sick of your game’s killing, not the trends of the industry or anything bigger. You made it boring, so it’s boring. If you made it interesting and thematically powerful, it would be interesting and thematically powerful. Unless you have some kind of solution, why are you poking fun at the problem?
The graphics are remarkably lousy. At several points I was confused about what I was looking at, because the textures took more than 4 seconds to load properly. It’s not a bland brown shooter, but come on. Such blatant glitches reek of amateur hour, killing the mood and making me wish I’d played the PC version instead.
Lastly, I may as well comment on the supposedly unique command system, which takes a page out of Mass Effect‘s book and allows you to tell your dumbass buddies to do work for you. It sucks, because your dumbass buddies don’t listen properly most of the time and make me wish they’d just be smarter to begin with.
I’m not going to finish the game. I played until Chapter Six on normal difficulty, and if that’s not long enough to “get” the game or discover the magical delights hidden within, then I don’t care. Like I always say, games are not like movies, despite how badly publishers are trying to change that. They require effort, and it’s not worth my effort to tediously hop from waist-high cover to waist-high cover, shooting generic nobodies. I resent the pretense of art, and I will forget this game ever existed within the week.
Wlecome to the -/+ rating system, where games begin at zero and work their in one direction or the other! +1 represents being satisfactory, worth the time, money, and energy required to experience it properly, and for developers to create the thing in the first place. 0 represents a failure to justify its own existence and/or requirements. -1 represents an unpleasant experience that should be avoided.
Spec Ops: The Line sits quite forgettably at –0.6 due to its incompetent design and mediocre attempt at higher commentary. Good postmodern art needs to first prove that it could meet or even exceed your expectations — if it wanted to — before proceeding to disregard them; this game does not meet expectations, and couldn’t if it tried. Therefore it feels weak and tepid. Exploiting a popular trend in order to mock it is a classic punk move, but when you’re supposed to pay $40 and spend a whole day bored out of your mind to enjoy that mockery, the joke is just on you.