Spec Ops: The Line has surprised us all. As our Twitter feeds continue to light up with awed, spoiler-free allusions to the plot, our minds play back over the choices we made, the things we witnessed, and the people we killed during our play throughs.
We can’t help but wonder if other developers have taken note of what Yager have achieved with Spec Ops. There are lessons to be taken away from a game like this, and we’re hoping that the developers behind Call of Duty, the gaming world’s biggest war franchise, are paying attention. As solid as the gameplay in those titles remains, the series is in need of a shake-up, and Spec Ops would be a great source of inspiration.
Try Giving The Protagonist A Soul
It’s awesome when a game subjects its avatar to a traumatic makeover. Some games prefer to have their protagonists kitted out with fancy new clothing and their trademark satisfied grin by the time the credits roll, but we’re seeing more games now that totally batter the player model. Arkham Asylum and City both did it to Batman, Max Payne 3 did it to Max, and Spec Ops sure as hell does it to Walker. But Walker’s physical transformation is also a visual representation of his mental anguish, which is fully accounted for once things start to go horribly wrong.
The character arcs in Spec Ops are fantastic – but could we ever say the same thing about a Call of Duty game? The silent protagonist shtick has been taken in a bizarre direction by the series (they’re only ever silent while you’re controlling them), and ultimately we’d be hard pressed to find a reason to care about, say, playing as the son of Black Ops’ protagonist in its sequel. Next time we’d like to occupy a protagonist who feels well and truly alive, one who is actually affected by their own actions.
Give Us A Journey
Spec Ops is basically Journey with a gun. That’s a bit reductive, but the sand isn’t the only thing the games have in common. While Call of Duty’s mission structure can be a bit fragmented, zipping you back and forth between characters and locations, Spec Ops often puts your next target in the background and then asks you to go there. It’s a very directed experience, and you always know what you’re heading towards.
Call of Duty has given us some great location and stand-out missions over the years, but little sense of a singular, cohesive struggle. It goes for the big picture at the expense of ever giving us a truly epic, game-spanning singular mission. This is something Far Cry 2 did particularly well, but Spec Ops would certainly be an easier example to follow for Call of Duty. It’s the sort of structure that really complements the first point, too.
Killing People Is Kind Of Horrible
Call of Duty 4 had the most interesting campaign out of any of the games in the series, partly because there are moments in it that really take death seriously. Think about the opening first-person execution, the nuke, the ending. But these are all moments where you and your allies are the ones being hurt.
It’s far rarer for Call of Duty to really make you stop and think about the people you’re shooting, aside from MW2’s tacky ‘No Russian’ mission, which is all too eager to make the distinction between shooting ‘good’ guys and shooting ‘bad’ guys. The subtitle for Spec Ops, ‘The Line’, makes reference to this distinction – what pushes someone over the line, and suddenly makes them worth killing? Is it alright to enjoy killing all these people, even if it’s just a game? These aren’t questions with easy answers, but as the biggest war shooter series in the world, it would be interesting to see Call of Duty try and tackle these issues again.
Your Choices Can Really Mean Something
There’s a section in Call of Duty: World at War where a superior asks you to slaughter a group of surrendered German troops. Ignore the order, and they’ll be Molotov’d anyway. It’s a rare, interesting moment in the series, and an example of the kind of thing Spec Ops does brilliantly over and over.
Meaningful choices in games aren’t always about getting a different ending or picking a different path. Black Ops II will reportedly have ‘choice’ moments, but so far all we’ve seen is ‘shoot these guys one way or find another way to shoot them’. In Spec Ops your choices matter, not because they change the entire game, but because they communicate very directly how well you (or Walker, depending on how intent you are on roleplaying) are handling the situation.
Even the choices that aren’t specifically outlined as choices are significant – if your enemy is in great suffering, do you show a little mercy and put a bullet in them, or let them go on writhing? This is the sort of thing more and more shooters are trying (and non-shooters too – The Walking Dead has some of the best ‘make a choice’ moments we’ve ever played through), but we’d like a Call of Duty that asked just how dirty we were willing to get our hands.
‘Evilness’ And ‘Madness’ Are Easy Excuses For Horrible Actions
Makarov, the main villain of Modern Warfare 2 and 3, would have made a good cartoon character. There’s no real human element to him, no real hint that he’s a victim of circumstance, or unbalanced because of everything he’s witnessed, or simply incredibly off-course – he’s an evil super villain, plain and simple, and must be stopped.
Wacky super villains can be fun, but they’re not always particularly interesting; to make your enemy evil is all too easy, and it makes you a ‘good guy’ by default. Now, look at Konrad and the other antagonists in Spec Ops. The game explicitly outlines the fact that none of them are inherently evil, and while the concept of insanity could perhaps be handled a little more elegantly, Spec Ops doesn’t try to pin behaviour entirely on chemical imbalances either; rather, the horrifying actions you are privy to throughout are brought about by the conditions people face, the desperation they experience when plans go awry.The incidental dialog you overhear from the soldiers you’re up against reveals that they’re really not that different from you – they’re not evil, they’re just fighting a different battle than you, for different reasons.
This is a fairly complex theme to get right, but Call of Duty 4’s characterisation of Price and Gaz seemed like an attempt to make steps in this direction. It would be great to see these complicated ideas tackled again.
Um…Keep Up The Good Work With Multiplayer?
Because the multiplayer in Spec Ops isn’t very good. Oh well.
By James O'Connor - Bio