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Spec Ops: The Line

This has been a pretty great year for video games that challenge the term “video game.” After all, what does that mean, really? Doesn’t the term “game” indicate there must be winners and losers? That an experience must be fun? That it can’t be taken seriously? Spec Ops: The Line seems, at least at first, to be a typical macho shootfest, a third-person Call of Duty clone. But it quickly grows into something much more interesting than that, to the point where you might consider it a deconstruction of the genre and the medium.

Dubai has been hit by an enormous sandstorm, one that straight up destroyed the city. The U.S. Army’s 33rd Battalion, led by decorated hero Colonel John Konrad, volunteered to help evacuate all the city’s civillians who were abandoned by the United Arab Emirates government. They haven’t been heard from in months, so three delta operators are sent in to recon the situation. The deltas are led by Captain Martin Walker, who has a deep respect for Konrad since he saved his life. But when they get to the city, they find that the 33rd has defected and declared martial law, and things only get more FUBAR from there.

As Walker, you’ll have a few tough decisions to make. All the results are shitty. While this game plays like a typical cover-based, modern military third-person shooter, I would never really call what you have to do as fun. Almost every enemy in the game is someone you don’t want to kill, and the game makes you very aware of how ridiculous your kill count becomes. Remember that moment in Uncharted 2, the “we’re not so different” scene? This is almost like an entire game of that, especially since the Walker is also played by Nolan North. As the game progresses, the loadscreen tips shift from gameplay tips to questions like, “Do you feel like a hero yet” and “How many people have you killed today?”

More than dealing with just the ridiculousness of modern military shooters, Spec Ops also focuses on the mental damage of war. The characters deal with post-traumatic stress and insanity as the game goes on. There’s one sequence in which characters massacre civilians thinking they are enemy soldiers. In another, a character has such a horrific breakdown that the world appears to be on fire and the Burj Khalifa is shown silhouetted and as terrifying as Barad-dur in The Lord of the Rings movies.

All this is to say the game has a memorable, masterful campaign that challenges patriotism, the military-industrial complex, and the nature of modern video games. Which is why it’s weird that game included a multiplayer mode that feels exactly like the multiplayer in all the games Spec Ops is challenging. If you’re making me feel bad for shooting computer-controlled guys, why would you think I would enjoy shooting human-controlled guys? I guess it was a move to make the game sell better, but, looking at the sales numbers… Oops.

Spec Ops: The Line is on sale in Steam today, and I would recommend anyone interested in video games as an artform, or who generally plays a lot of games, pick it up. Especially while we have to deal with things like the media and the NRA blaming video games for a national tragedy, it’s important that people are exposed to games such as this one.