Bullets pop out of the sand in front of me. They’re going straight up. For a second I’m confused. I look up, thinking maybe I’m misinterpreting what I’m seeing, that someone is shooting down at me. Then the sand begins to shift and the ground I’m standing on gives way. We fall into a massive buried lobby, the glass from the skylight we were unknowingly standing on falling with us. We land, the three of us, in a firefight.
There is something there in the construct of Spec Ops: The Line’s basic elements. Something in the way it hopes to make morality as important as breaking glass and smothering sand, that makes me think this could be a great game. But I’m not completely convinced. Not yet.
I find it off-putting when a game ties itself to a great piece of literature. It’s as if combining the two will somehow allow the game to ride the coattails of something meaningful, culturally important, as a sort of shortcut to being perceived as smart. So I’m always wary.
When I first saw Spec Ops: The Line a year and a half ago it was unmistakably Joseph Conrad. This was Heart of Darkness told in a modern setting. Where there was jungle, now there is desert. Where there was the British Empire, there is America. Where there was the heart of darkness, there is Al Wasl.
But then the game disappeared, only to pop back up again last week in New York at a posh hotel in the Meatpacking District. There, in a top floor meeting room, I met with the team behind the game, and then walked to a small theatre in the next room and sat and played for about three hours.
Much has changed. The once obvious homage to Heart of Darkness (or Apocalypse Now) has been replaced with something a bit more complex, if not more subtle. The game packs in a lot of distinct elements drawn from other shooters. There is a cover system, squad commands, meaningful, story-changing decisions, an interactive environment of glass and sand. Most interesting, though, is that this is a moral shooter, a game designed not to reward or punish decisions, but to instead push a player to question their own choices and morality as they play.
The game opens in a helicopter, zipping through the buildings of Dubai. They jut out of massive dunes like a weathered rib cage of glass and steel. I’m manning a door gun, shooting down other copters as the wind picks up and the air begins to turn red and bumpy. Then we flash back.
Col John Konrad, commander of the Damned 33rd, volunteered to help evacuated Dubai when the first sand storms hit. As the storms worsened the Department of defence ordered him out, but he ignored the orders and organised one last caravan. They were five miles out when a massive storm hit and they disappeared. Six months later, the continuing storms have created a sort of shifting wall of wind and sand that have turned Dubai into an abandoned, buried city devoid of life. But you and two other members of a Delta Recon Team are sent in to investigate a radio signal picked up from inside.
The third-person shooter resumes, opening on an image of a man walking in a sand storm, his form silhouetted against a buffeting red sky. Passing through the circling storms, Capt. Marin Walker, Lt. Alphonso Adams and Sgt. John Lugo pull off sand headgear and walk into the outskirts of the sunken city. In control of Walker, I discover the remains of the caravan, an upside down American flag hanging nearby.
The game quickly drops us into a firefight, exchanging gunfire with a collection of refugees who have mistaken us for members of the 33rd. The controls are a little slippery, sliding around the screen making it hard for me to pinpoint my attacks. Scoping in with a left trigger pull, locks my weapon on the closest target. I’m surprised at how much autoaim is in the game. I also notice that near misses register as hits.
Later, Lulu LaMer, senior producer at 2K Games, tells me that I was playing the game on the easiest setting. As the difficulty increases the autoaim becomes much less pronounced, she tells me. The hit box also shrinks, making it harder to hit your intended targets.
I quickly work through the controls on the Xbox 360. The triggers aim and shoot. The left bumper allows me to toss a grenade, its trajectory marked with a line before I release the bumper. The right bumper issues commands to the squad. The squad command controls are a little light, but enough to make it a bit easier to fight your way through some of the engagements. To issue a command you essentially aim at a target or location and tap the bumper. You can use this to order an advance, an attack on a particular target or even to get one squad mate to heal the other. The face buttons are slightly different from what I’m used to, giving some buttons two uses, one triggered to a tap and the other to a hold. For instance, tapping the B button is a melee attack, holding it in allows you to vault. The bottom, A button, is used to enter cover, to run and sometimes to do context-sensitive actions. It takes a bit of getting used to, but I adjusted over my three-hour play session.
While the squad commands feel a little light, a little tacked on, the game’s use of glass and sand is satisfying and seemingly deeply incorporated into the gameplay. Early on in the game I get my first chance to check out this dynamic: pumping bullets into a glass canopy behind several armed men. The glass fractures and then breaks, unleashing a wave of sand that crushes and buries the men. You’re never forced to use the sand to take out enemies, but I find that it’s often there, in the background, waiting to be used like a context-appropriate exploding barrel.
And the sand isn’t just used by you, enemies will use the sifting ground and piled up dunes against you as well. There was a moment, relatively deep into the game, when I was walking with my men across what I thought was solid ground. Suddenly bullets begin zipping straight up out of the sand. It confused me enough that when the ground started giving way I just sort of stood there. We fell, the three of us, with the sand and the shattered glass dome we had been unknowingly standing on. We landed in a lobby, light shining in from the buried glass dome we had been walking on. The refugees who had spotted us and fired into the glass beneath our feet, attacked. It was amazing.
There are times when gunfights are interrupted by the city’s regular sandstorms, when the crisp blue sky turns red and soon all you can see are shapes, shadows and the flash from the muzzle of a firing gun. This completely flips the dynamic of the cover-based battles into a run-and-gun, blind firefight.
The game wasn’t this 18 months ago when it went through a beta. The team and 2K weren’t happy where it was so they stepped back and worked on fleshing out what made this game different.
“From the very, very get go we wanted to make sure the single-player campaign was very sold,” Davis said. “We saw where we were compared to other games back then, on delivering on the themes we cared about. We were happy with the demo level, but we had a lot to do.”
Since then the team has been working on particle effects, focus testing “the hell out of the game,” tweaking the controls. The sand gameplay has been made much more dynamic, Davis tells me. You can use grenades to kick sand into peoples’ faces and stun them, for instance. The game has also become visually more impressive.
That Spec Ops is set in Dubai helps.
“Dubai is interesting for a lot of reasons,” LaMer said. “It is so extreme as a city. It is ripe for metaphor. There are parallels in the setting to the story in terms of this hubristic idea that you can build a city out of nothing in the middle of the desert and turn it into a worldwide magnet for business, for pleasure travel, all out of bare sand.”
Davis calls the city architecture porn.
“This is a crazy, awesome level design location,” he said. “We can make you explore unsure ground, walk within unique spaces, in areas filled with sand. And there is a lot of vertical opportunity for gameplay.
Not all of the game’s memorable moments are the ones filled with this new interaction with sand. Dubai is a stunning city made more stunning by the fictional apocalyptic sand storms. Spec Ops: The Line is a journey down, working from the upper, outer edges of the buried city, into its own heart of darkness. The story, the excerpted bits I played through, is a compelling modern morality play. One of the things I find most fascinating about it is how the game pushes you to make decisions that feel more organic that what most gamers are used to.
There was a moment in the game when I was asked to decide the fate of two men. I had to kill one to save one. There were no pop-up dialog cues, or button pushes. It was just me, my men and a gun. I had to aim and fire. But instead of targeting one of the two helpless men, I opened fire on the people asking me to make the decision. I broke the rules of the game, and it didn’t punish me. It expected that might happen and it reacted and it continued.
I stopped playing for a minute and asked what would have happened had I decided to comply and kill one of the men. It would have reacted differently and still continued. There was not wrong decision. More importantly though, there was no specific reward or punishment for the choice you make, not built into the game at least. It’s a powerful moment.
“The unspoken choice here is ‘Are you going to obey the video game?'” said Walt Williams, lead writer for 2K Games. “Are you going to do what you’re told to do.”
Some players actually turn to the developers and ask what they’re supposed to do when they reach that point in the game, Cory Davis, the game’s lead designer at Yager Development, told me.
“Our goal is to invite you to have a deeper emotional reaction,” he said.
As you command your men you will see them change in the way they interact with you. The deciding moments and what you do with them will shape their opinion of you. It will also, the designers hope, perhaps get you as player to reflect on those decisions as well. The game doesn’t reward or punish a player’s decisions, instead those rewards or punishments are internalized by the player.
Lead writer Williams says that they’ve looked at the stories told in other military shooters. They all fall within a certain mould, he says, kindly.
“We don’t feel like we’re going up against those games,” he said. “We were intrigued at the idea of having a player play a war game and feel the emotional resonance of being in combat.”
So when playing, the story is meant to deliver two journeys: One the journey of the player-controlled character following in the footsteps of a U.S. Army colonel forced to make desperate decisions to survive. The other is your journey as a person forced to confront their own morality within the safe confines of a video game.
And that’s where the game could work best. The gunplay is brisk, the setting is tremendous. I love the sand and glass interaction and like that Spec Ops includes elements from other shooters. But what will separate this game from the others is its focus on the narrative and its desire to turn a military shooter into a metaphoric journey into oneself.