Spec Ops is a third-person cover-based military shooter set in a ruined Dubai that has been isolated and largely destroyed by titanic sandstorms. It’s not usually the sort of game I’d go within a hundred miles of, but then there’s something rather unusual about Spec Ops. Something that prompted several people I know to repeatedly insist I buy it and play through it, even though they knew that I hate third-person cover-based shooters that don’t come with a space opera RPG attached, and that I especially hate third-person cover-based shooters about American soldiers stuck in the desert. Eventually I ran out of excuses (the problem with repeatedly saying “I’ll buy it when it drops below £5” is that eventually it will drop below £5) and caved, and you know what? I’m kind of glad I did.
At first glance Spec Ops appears to be a straight ripoff of Apocalypse Now/Heart of Darkness. The player character, Martin Walker, is the leader of a three-man Delta Force team sent into the ruins of Dubai to investigate a transmission from one Colonel Konrad, who went missing during the disaster along with an entire battalion of American soldiers. He discovers that Konrad and his troops have gone rogue, slaughtering both the civilian population in the name of maintaining order in the cut-off city as well as members of their own unit who had the temerity to object. The CIA also has a presence in Dubai, arming the civilians and egging them on in their resistance to further their own goals. Walker and his team blunder right into the middle of this shooting war, which increasingly spirals out-of-control as the body count rises and Walker and his compatriots become increasingly unhinged by the things they see and do while in the city.
That hews pretty closely to the plot of Apocalypse Now, and if that were all there were to Spec Ops it’d be a fairly average game. As things stand it still is a fairly average game, but it at least takes the opportunity to try and make some unusual points about the videogame wars we regularly experience from the comfort of our living rooms both in terms of the reality of the situation and the artificial rules of the constructed environments we find ourselves running and gunning through. However, I feel that attempting to make these points through the medium of a perfectly mediocre over-the-shoulder desert-based shooter is somewhat self-defeating, since while Spec Ops feels comfortable with critiquing military shooters like the Call of Duty franchise it never steps outside the mechanical conventions of the genre itself to show us how things could be done differently.
As an example, while the game does differ from the usual fare in that instead of fighting whatever the American baddie de jour is (I believe these days it’s either Russians, terrorists, or Russian terrorists) you’re instead fighting the Americans themselves, these highly trained US soldiers still mimic the behaviour of your average “insurgent” baddie from any shooter made in the last decade. They spawn from monster closets just out of your sight and run from there towards the nearest piece of cover, firing blindly at the player until either they die or you do. They don’t use their vastly superior numbers and high-tech weapons to instantly squash Walker’s tiny squad like a bug. Admittedly this would not make for a very entertaining game, but it’s weird to me that the game goes to great lengths to set American soldiers up as the bad guys and then treats them no differently from any other shooter baddie. Or maybe that was the point. I don’t know.
So Spec Ops is rather disappointing as a game. I’d find it hard to argue that its average and unadventurous gameplay isn’t a huge boon to its chosen method of criticism of the genre, though, which is via cutscenes. You do the same things in Spec Ops as you do in any other military shooter, but the outcomes you experience are very, very different. There’s a couple of bits where the game asks you to make a choice; one member of your squad argues in favour of saving a CIA operative with critical intel, while the other wants to save a pair of civilians who have been taken hostage, and this is all very conventional. However, the game then suckerpunches you by having things go horribly wrong no matter which option you choose, subverting the usual trope of saving the civilians for +2 to your civilian reputation (or whatever). Here, you don’t get a happy ending just because this is a game and that’s what you expect to happen within that context. Real life is messy and imprecise, and a chosen course of action will not necessarily result in an ideal outcome.1
The game is also very up-front about its portrayal of the horrors of war, and the effect it has on a civilian population. In particular is the recurring use of white phosphorous, an incendiary weapon that has similar qualities to napalm, and which is probably the most obviously objectionable weapon available to an American infantry battalion2. There’s one scene involving it that everyone who has played the game talks about, but which I thought was really forced and heavy-handed in a “No, it is YOU who is the monster!” kind of way. However, the first time you encounter it I thought was pretty well-done; a shell bursts in front of you, blinding you with white light, and soon you come across the writhing, burning bodies of the shell’s victims. This comes just after you walk through a trench filled with dozens of dead and dying insurgents, because the Americans aren’t concerned with little things like battlefield sanitation and disease prevention any more and don’t bother burying the corpses of the people they kill. Dubai six months after the sandstorms is a genuinely hellish place, and that’s something that the game manages to communicate very successfully.
And the civilians? Well, they aren’t the supine, innocent bystanders usually encountered in other games and action movies. They are fucking pissed, and would happily murder Walker and his squad if they ever got the chance. Indeed, at one point they nearly do and the player is faced with another choice: how do you dissuade an angry mob of unarmed civilians from lynching you and your buddies? I actually really liked this one because the game didn’t tell me what to do or what my options were, it just dumped me into that situation and expected me to deal with it.
Being stuck in a ruined city where literally everyone wants to kill them has a rather predictable effect on Walker and his men: they start to go nuts, becoming ever more savage and brutal in their responses to the hell unfolding around them. When the game starts they’re consummate military professionals, spotting enemies with a brief “Target acquired,” and then sniping them with “Target neutralized.” They don’t just shoot everything that moves. They at least try to reason with enemies from time to time. As they fight more and more bad guys and stumble from one awful scenario into another, though, they start to disintegrate. As Walker gets repeatedly shot, burned and blown up he begins to show visible signs of wear and tear, both physically and mentally. Towards the end of the game he’s viciously bludgeoning enemies to death with the butt of his rifle while screaming “GOT YOU, MOTHERFUCKER!” at the top of his lungs. He starts to hallucinate, causing you to question just how much of what you’ve seen in the game is actually real. Even the loading screen tips get in on the act; at the start they’re all braindead advice like “Press space to take cover!”, and then in the last half of the game they gradually segue to jabs at both Walker and the player: “This is all your fault.” “Can you even remember why you came here?” “You are still a good person.”
That last one is particularly cutting. Walker came to Dubai to rescue the civilian population, and in his single-minded pursuit of this one goal he ends up inadvertently killing hundreds of them, not to mention single-handedly slaughtering an entire battalion of American troops3. And it’s never pretty, either. There are no good deaths in Spec Ops, only a hard-hitting depiction of war that we’re very much unused to in a game like this. In most games we are the good guys, and they are the bad guys, and that’s enough reason for them to die, and so we kill them unquestioningly. For Spec Ops this isn’t enough, though. Spec Ops asks us why we are killing. Who are we helping? Who are we saving? There’s no good answer, aside from that this is a videogame and that’s simply what we do. By setting up this juxtaposition of the absurd faux-reality of action shooters with something closer to the actual reality of a war, Spec Ops exposes just how shallow and meaningless those pretend conflicts really are.
As a game Spec Ops is strictly average, then, but as a statement about games it is valuable and – I think – necessary. I saw a photo once (and I highly recommend you don’t go looking for it) of a burned-out Iraqi truck after the first Gulf War in 1991. Sat in the driver’s seat was the horribly charred corpse of a soldier who hadn’t been able to get out of the vehicle in time — he probably never even got the chance – and scrawled beneath the photo was the caption: “If I don’t photograph this, people like my mom will think war is what they see on TV.” Spec Ops is hardly on the same stark level as that photograph, but it is at least motivated by the same sentiment: it wants to show that the cartoon versions of war we play in our CoDs and our MoHs are exactly that. It largely succeeds. So while I wouldn’t recommend playing Spec Ops if you want to have any fun with your entertainment products, I do recommend you play it. It’s definitely worth playing.
- Usually I would be extremely annoyed that the game rendered my choice meaningless here, since that’s rather unabashedly poor game design, but for Spec Ops the demonstration that your choice is meaningless is the point, and so I let it slide. ↩
- There’s a great quote from the Pentagon somewhere about how they only use white phosphorous sparingly to flush enemies out of cover so that they can blow them up with high explosive shells. So that’s alright then, I guess. ↩
- Spec Ops has no stat tracking, but by totting up the various achievements I got I worked out that I killed somewhere in the region of 600-700 baddies during the course of the game. So yeah, pretty much all of them. ↩