E3′s Biggest Surprises: Enter Sandman

Prior to my appointment to see 2K's Spec Ops revival, I had to go look up what sort of game it was. Yes, Spec Ops really is that memorable. Once the demo began, however, my vague notions that this would be yet another generic military shooter were swiftly dispelled.

Spec Ops: The Line surprised me for its sand.

I was surprised because I never thought I'd really care about sand in a videogame. Yet the guys at Yager have designed and coded sand in such a way that it contributes enormously to the game's mood and aesthetic and becomes a meaningful gameplay concern.

I saw a squad of soldiers exploring an opulent, almost BioShock-esque art gallery that was submerged in sand. Upon hearing gunfire from outside, the soldiers shot out a huge glass window and watch sand pour inside. Once it stopped they were able to clamber outside and survey the battlefield.

Later, during a tense shootout taking place amid a maze of trenches, one soldier was able to blow a hole in a retaining wall and bury an enemy in the resulting avalanche of sand.

Spec Ops: The Line is set in Dubai in the midst of a catastrophic sandstorm where huge swathes of the city are buried. Like Fallout, the parched tones bring an air of bleakness and desperation, reinforcing that this harsh place where the normal rules of society no longer apply.

Your Delta Force squad is on a rescue mission to find a US Army Colonel trapped in the city. Dubai has mostly been evacuated, but bands of local guerrillas and other enemies roam the streets, looting and killing. Is the Colonel still alive? What was his squad doing? Is there more of a US military presence in the city? Who is really tracking down who?

I saw a scene where you find another squad of US soldiers, each of them strung up and left to die hanging from streetlights. Another scene saw the player stumbling across a hostage situation where another group of US soldiers were seemingly terrorising civilians. One of your squad mates wanted to open fire and defuse the situation; the other advised caution.

This wasn't a "Press X to be Good; Press Y to be Evil" type of choice. The scene was unfolding before your eyes; it wasn't pausing to let you choose. You had to act fast: you could open fire on the soldiers or you could wait and let it play out. The implicit choice here is that there are no right ways to operate. Every decision you make has a cost and bad things will happen.

It was an incredibly tense moment that was distressing enough just to watch, let alone being the one charged with deciding a course of action.

Another high profile military shooter at E3 had you merrily piloting a helicopter through the jungles of Laos and blowing the indiscriminate crap out of anything that could've been a military target, as if such a war was all about who could cause the biggest, most colourful explosion.

Spec Ops: The Line stood in stark contrast, demonstrating a moral ambiguity and serious approach that I found refreshing. Well, as refreshing as all that sand could be, anyway.


Comments

    hmmm this one wasn't really on my radar.. although now i think i may certainly have to keep a bit of an eye on it - certainly sounds interesting

    I love it when the moral choice system in games isn’t just black and white. Usually the choices are so blatant and predictable that you can tell what the “good” option is a mile off. Just once I’d like a game where the lines in the sand are blurred and perhaps shooting the bad guys in the face may just have some repercussions besides getting an angry message in your earpiece or getting the “good guy” trophy.

      Too right, games need less right/wrong choices and moral alignments and more gray dilemmas with uncertain consequences.

      Hell id actually like to see a game where being the good guy is actually the hard road.
      Most of the time if you stick to it, being the good guy pays off more in the long run while being an asshole will get you a quick couple of bucks but you miss out on many opportunities.

      Horrible as it may sound but if in a game I find myself seriously considering murdering a family for their belongings or something, just to survive? Now THAT will make me ponder ethics and morality.

        You need to play Fallout 3. That game is full of choices and decisions that make you pause and think. You could be going for the bad karma option in a playthrough and actually be morally conflicted about some of the stuff you have to do to survive as a bad guy. Almost every choice is carefully explained, both bad and good choices have their pros and cons. And it’s up to you to decide, and believe me it’s not easy.

        I think you’re right about the good karma choices being the better option though. The perfect example is Dragon age origins. You can go for the stupid options in your conversation and your actions, but doing the bad options will cause your stats with other characters to go down. And these are important stats too, as long as people love you they stay high, but as soon as you do something they don’t like the stats just go down with no other benefit. Besides going for some funny dialogue DA has no real up side to being an evil character.

          Fallout's morality isn't that fantastic. In fact, it's quite inconsistent and flawed. Oh look, negative karma for killing Roy. That makes soOOoo much sense.

          I did not really find that in Fallout 3, but I did play it with the good karma path and not on a terribly hard difficulty, I just ran around having fun and enjoying the story.
          For me games of that size tend to get repetitive and turn into a grind if every fight is life or death,
          But maybe I'll give it another go.

            The first time I finished Fallout 3 it was on the normal mode on my mates 360, choosing to go for good karma. I pretty much breezed through the game, not dying a single time and stockpiling ammo and stimpaks.

            Well a while back I decided to finally pick up the GOTY edition for my PS3 (to finally see the DLC) and go through it again on Hard, playing with good karma again. And I found the experience was totally different. Everything now had a sense of impact and urgency behind it. I had noticed I was selling priceless pieces of history from the museum for a handful of caps. I was stealing a Childs toys and sleeping in the same bed as skeletons to survive. I found myself forced to drink radiated water and eat radroach meat because I had to sell all the good food I found for ammo.

            One particular set of choices that got me was in the “Andale” area. I won’t give anything away, but the people living in this place are doing what they must to survive, exactly the same thing as I’m doing. In order to be the good guy, I had to stop what they were doing, even when they weren’t hostile towards me. Putting a stop to it really made me think. Are these guys really the bad guys? They are just doing what they had to do.

            I think the moral choices system in Fallout 3 is one of the best. Perhaps not the explicit choices it asks you to make. But if you take a step back and think about the subtext and how your smaller actions impact the world, then it gets interesting.

            I was about 50 hours in when my save game somehow corrupted and sent me back to the start.

              Bummer about your save game man.
              Same thing happened to me with Farcry 2.

              I think I will try that play style in New Vegas when it comes out and try to get more into the character and his situation, thanks.

            The morality on Fallout doesn't really occur unless you play on the hardest levels, then hard choices are forced on you by the environment and situations you are in. Makes it a *completely* different (and far better I reckon) game.

          And yeah I found that in DA:O too - there really was no benefit in being anything other than a nice guy.
          Quite the opposite of life really but that's another topic entirely.

        But would it really? The problem is the lack of consequence. You wouldn't think twice about murdering that family if it meant the difference between life and death for you. Because death means game over, and given the choice between game over and progressing, everybody will pick progress.

        If there's no benefit to the player for NOT killing them, and some benefit for killing them, it's not a tough decision in a game.

        More interesting dilemmas are to be found in something like Heavy Rain, where the game is going to progress regardless of what decision you make, even if it's one that results in the death of your character.

          True enough, I spose I mean having the choice of doing that but if you don't things will be very hard for you but you still can go on. And not just like in Bioshock where you just get a bit less Adam that you don't really need, instead something like they have the only heath pack before a boss fight. You can do it anyway, but it will be a bitch.
          Also not having some arbitrary morality score but just the knowledge that maybe someone will find out and you will suffer consequences for it, or maybe you wont.

          I guess also that is why I enjoy games like Dead Rising and Demon's Souls where you only have one save. It gives your actions weight when you can't just reload one of a dozen saves and undo your mistake: you have to live or die by your spur of the moment choices.

            True - Demon's Souls is a good example in the sense that even if you die, the game continues. You just play as a dead guy. But the issues there aren't really moral ones, they're more along the lines of "Do I use this Demon's Soul to acquire a new spell or a new miracle or to forge a really cool weapon?". But the fact that each decision is final - i.e. you can't just go back to your save and try the other options to see which one you like best - gives every decision weight.

            But yeah, it's not a moral dilemma, more an accounting question of opportunity cost i.e. what possible benefits am I giving up if I choose to invest my Demon's Soul in this spell instead of that weapon?

            Heavy Rain has probably come closer than any other game to really "getting" the moral dilemma, but there's certainly a lot of room left for improvement.

              As interesting as Heavy Rain sounds I think I would probably get bored of the gameplay before I got to the good bits unfortunately.

              For games like Fallout 3, Bioshock, Mass effect etc that have morality systems it does become a accounting question though.
              As soon as you attach a score and achievements to morality it becomes another stat that you work on and nurture along with skills and attribute points.
              I usually find I ask myself "How will this affect my score?" not "Is this right, should I be doing this?"
              But I guess that is just the nature of games though. Perhaps I should seek to find it in the subtle things like Andrew Burdusel.

                One game that has a good morality system is The Witcher. I still remember how surprised I was when an early decision I made that seemed fairly harmless and to be the good decision came back to bite me in the ass, making me really question my choices in the future. More games need to forget about having good and bad choices and just have choices, leave it up to me to decide if I think it's a good choice or not.

          What Brains said.
          Most games nowdays boast to have deep and meaningful moral choices which in the end just boil down to A) Save burning orphanage and refuse the reward or B) Add fuel to the fire and then go shoot a puppy.

          Heavy Rain, on the other hand, is the first game I've played in god knows how long to have actually made me think about the choices I need to make, and present me with choices that are difficult to make. At one point (which people who have played the game will probably know what I'm talking about) I ended up feeling physically ill just due to the severity of a choice that I made.
          It brings choices and moral ambiguity in games to a level no other game has really done.
          Not Fallout, not Mass Effect, not even Deus Ex.

            Yeah, I was surprised at just how uncomfortable I was with MW2's airport level, but that was because I hadn't read up on it before playing it and didn't know there were no consequences in any way. So, I found myself holding back on firing for the longest time, with the rationale, "Saving my bullets for the cops," and hoping the excuse would fly... But it was only a sort of mild discomfort compared to the very real and wrenching anxiety brought about by Heavy Rain.

            I actually found myself wondering just yesterday if there had been any players who'd got to that point and found themselves physically ill after having made their decision. Good to see it is so!

    im interested, but waiting for review on this one.

    I was very interested by the trailer that came out a few months back. Glad to hear it's turning into something worth watching.

    This preview has definitely piqued my interests. I have a real soft spot for physics and physics based puzzles. It's hard to tell whether that will have any impact on the game or will just be there to add to immersion/mood. But it sounds cool.

      Personally I prefer shooters which have devoted energies to physics but don't force you to exploit them... rather, in the middle of frenzied combat, a shot will go astray and have unexpectedly catastrophic effects for your enemies, leaving you saying, "Woah. Uh... Yeah, sure I, uh. Totally meant to do that."

      You can see the difference in design - like if you ever played Might and Magic Dark Messiah, there were loads of very big obvious, "We put this here so you could take out sentries with Physics(tm)!" set-ups. Or Fracture. Or some of Mass Effect 2's DLC. ("Look! Targetable environment! Don't shoot it just yet, though... $50 says enemies will spawn next to it later so you can fry them with it.") Those were a little less appealing to me.

    Nice to see the terrain playing an actual part in the gameI'll be checking this out.

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