Thursday, August 23, 2012
Spec Ops: (Smokey's Over) The Line and Grimrock
I hope everyone out there in Internet-land has been having an exciting summer vacation.
Nothing terribly exciting about this summer's video games, unfortunately. Not for lack of trying, most of the new stuff hasn't really grabbed my attention. MMORPGs are dead, Diablo 3 was a miss, and the shooters are tired. Max Payne 3 looks interesting even if it breaks hard with the noir New York City setting. If I find a cheap copy I may give it a whirl.
However, I did come across a slightly used version of Spec Ops: The Line on the PC platform and it really wants to make an impression on me. I'll also give some time to Grimrock, a great little 3D dungeon crawler that caught my impulsive eye during a Steam sale.
Spec Ops: The Line
SpOps-Line (AKA "Heart of Darkness: The Game") is a proud member of those third person cover shooters that materialize during the summer months when the kids out of school want to spend their free hours playing video games instead of playing in the street or toddling down to the community pool to watch the lifeguards oil themselves.
The game begins as three serious-business soldiers on a recon mission are trudging through a sandstorm to luxury resort-city of Dubai in the UAE. The game tells us that the city was struck by a massive natural disaster which creates huge wind and sandstorms. The city is cut off from the outside world by a storm wall and proceeded to become mostly buried in the sand. Dubai's inhabitants are still eking out a living, surviving in many of the high rises of luxury apartments and business offices, scavenging for everything they need. The official response is to allow Dubai and the UAE to save its people without outside assistance, but their response is inadequate and results in a higher death toll and a containment protocol, or something. Against the odds and public opinion, the Damned 33rd Mobile Infantry volunteers to lead the evacuation attempt by the USA. The 33rd is led by Konrad, with whom your character, Walker, served in Afghanistan. In fact we're told he saved your life once. The 33rd evacuation plan fails and many more die.The last contact the outside world receives from Konrad is a cryptic messages along the lines of "I failed and I'm staying here. Don't send anyone for me or my men." Naturally, they send your man, Walker, and his two compadres, Lugo and Black Guy (Adams) to check out the situation and radio back for help. Without going into too much detail, things do not go to plan...
Walker's obsession with finding out what happened to Konrad leads to his downfall as the plot moves along. He sides with whoever will get him the information he needs to find Konrad, whether it be the CIA-led insurgents or fighting against peacekeeping 33rd soldiers. He realizes too late that everyone in his path winds up dead.
Not to my surprise, the game transparently tries to make you feel bad about your murder skills (the loading screens later tell you helpful things like "You're still a good person", "Are you proud of what you've done?"). At least, it wants the player to put conscious thought into their actions and repercussions, which I can respect. Somewhere around the middle of the game things start to get thick and Walker clearly sees he's done wrong. The player is then supposed to feel uncomfortable with their progress. "The Line" is blurred, and neither side of the confrontation look appealing. Yet the player has no control over the situation, much as Walker supposedly has no control over his. "There's always a choice," echoes a few times during the gameplay, but on a technical level, the player is never able to make them to any significant or game-altering effect. You, like Walker, can only go forward to find Konrad and solve the mystery of why you're both here.
All this psychobabble is well and good and I like that the game tries to do something somewhat new with a protagonist whose already hazy goals have been clouded by his own madness. The story is relatively complicated for a shooter today, though the story feels rushed, and the plot has more twists more than a Twizzler.
While I appreciate this new direction in a third person, brown-n-bloom, cover-based shooter, it still has the tired mechanics of one. The cover mechanic is sticky and unreliable, often keeping Walker from moving quickly into and out of cover to escape, say, a grenade or advancing enemies. On the Suicide Mission difficulty, this is painfully hard to cope with. The standard two weapon limit is in full effect, with the complementary three types of grenades. Luckily, you need to switch weapons fairly frequently, as ammunition for a favored weapon becomes scarce and new enemies drop more varieties.
Being a "realistic" shooter, all the weapons are based on real world firearms, killing any creative expression in design or mechanics. Bullets are bullets and I don't care which gun they come from. The addition of a rotary grenade launcher, RPG launcher, and probably the most badass assault shotgun varieties keep the gameplay lively, up close and personal.
I also like the technical touches of Walker and his team's appearance changing as the game's plot progresses through cinematic or scripted sequences. Their body armor becomes bullet-riddled and tattered, their wounds close and scab over, and their entire demeanor becomes more desperate and haggard. It lends more credibility to their changing outlook on a messed up situation. Their interactions with each other play heavily into the familiar tropes of a leader who must be the glue keeping two distinct individuals working together. Lugo is a sarcastic but capable joker paired with the more focused Adams. Gratefully, the game has taken a vow of abstinence from quicktime events (the closest thing is the 'execution' animation on downed/crippled enemies, but is entirely optional). Turret sequences and railshooting was also kept to a minimum and never felt forced. The turret sequence after the Radioman's final segment was gratuitous, but I feel like it was making an unsubtle point about Walker's mental (in)stability.
Were I to grade the game on its merits of gameplay I'd rank it an average C+, citing tired, familiar mechanics, with good notes on the addition of color to the environments and choice of setting the game in Dubai. I give the plot, story, and accompanying factors such as voice acting, script, etc, an A- for the above average attempt. Trying something outside the mold is commendable even if it was heavy-handed and not 100% successful. The overall game gets solid marks for a complete package that engages the player through familiar mechanics and (in today's market) unfamiliar emotional elements. Everything felt polished, without any of the bugginess that might come from a cheap moneymaker. The experience will leave you asking, "What was the point of this madness?" The answer is there if you think about it. And no it isn't that war is bad, goddammit, a three year-old could tell you that. If they'd asked me what could've been better, I'd have told them that the entire genre of cover-based shooting needs to go, with bonus points for taking third person perspective with it (or at least adding a first person option). The best thing SpOps-Line does is provide a cast of familiar characters in a familiar shooter with changing personalities and an interesting narrative.
Now I'd like to talk briefly about Grimrock:
Go buy it. Seriously. It's like five bucks. If you like role playing games, hit chances, armor classes, throwing weapons, puzzles, diverse monsters, potions, inventory management, spells, poison clouds, combat with a learning curve, pitfalls, traps, secrets, and rewarding treasures... go buy it. I recommend a walkthrough to make sure you find all the difficult secrets, but not to solve the puzzles. Unless you like checking every wall sconce and loose brick for hidden doors. If you are into that sort of thing, buddy, this is the game for you.