I decided I’m going to give Spec Ops: The Line a try on my PS3 this week. Sort of left field, I guess, but during IGN’s spate of personal “top ten” lists a couple weeks ago, one of the editors listed Spec Ops and it got me intrigued. It was an interesting look into the game, bereft of the usual grandstanding found in a review. Just a person talking about a video game that had a personal impact on them.
I remember when Spec Ops came out, a big controversy that sprang from it was how online multiplayer was shoehorned in against the developers’ wishes. Lead designer Cory Davis went so far as to decry the addition as a “cancerous growth”. Ouch. Honest, though, which is something that just about any medium of entertainment could stand to see a little bit more of, these days.
In this maddening “me too” era of desperate Call of Duty wannabes, Spec Ops was a victim of not being ambitious enough in terms of head shots and leaderboards. Where Spec Ops did push the envelope was its brutal narrative. It’s disappointing that any developer should try to say something more in a shooter and be ignored, and worse still that the message be buried by its own publisher. Of course, if the game isn’t fun, I guess there’s no point in defending Spec Ops as much as I am, but I think the principle here is more important than the gameplay.
Don’t get me wrong, though; it’s important (paramount, even) that a game is as playable as it is inventive or trend setting. Going in a different direction for a moment, given Spec Ops storyline, and its overall message about the permanence and consequences of a soldier’s actions in battle, it’s tough to determine how much fun a player was even supposed to be having. The mechanics of a video game are supposed to impart some sort of satisfaction, after all, so if Spec Ops wants the player to feel every shot, it seems contradictory to make shooting fun.
Games like Modern Warfare 2 found a decent balance between engaging gameplay and communicating a deeper message. The “No Russian” mission was very hot-button when the game launched, but having played it myself, I thought it was a potent and surreal moment of gameplay. Suddenly, all the fun I’d been having taking out enemy troops was replaced with feelings of guilt as the crowd of innocent people and cops crumpled before my eyes. It was a small part of MW2, as opposed to an entire campaign like Spec Ops, but it demonstrates how the message can be communicated if done right.
So, Spec Ops, here I come, and whether you rock or suck, I hope that more devs can take a page from your playbook and try something different. Shooters should be able to do something more than amass a digital body count, after all. Video games in general should be able to play against stereotype more often than they do, too.