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Everyone seems to be talking about Spec Ops: The Line recently, discussing its portrayal of war and the way it is pushing videogames forward as a medium.

Well that’s lovely but I’ve played it and I’ve got to say I was underwhelmed in many ways.

My criticism is mostly based on the game elements rather than the clever stuff it does. As you may have read or heard the game portions of the experience (rather than the story) are not supposed to be fun – it’s supposed to feel like the game is a pain in the arse, apparently.

For me that wasn’t the case. It felt dull, certainly, annoying to a certain extent (let me remap the godsdamned controls…), but mostly it was just immersion shattering.

A few years ago I played Alpha Protocol and was amazed by many aspects of it – the story was more fun than the game but the gameplay itself wasn’t half bad. I could look past it and it didn’t drag me out of the moment.

Not so with SO:TL – I found myself losing track of what was going on in terms of the minutiae of the story. Who is Gould? Why is he important again? The reason being that I was too busy focusing on the fairly crap third person gameplay.

The Bad Thing That Happens in SO:TL was supposed to make me feel bad. I hear it made others feel awful. Instead I felt absolutely nothing.

Had it occurred in a film where I was immersed I have no doubt I’d react, but instead I found myself thinking “Yes, so what? They’re not real people. Real people have families, lives, homes. These people are digital mannequins put there to get an emotional response from me. I’ll happily slaughter them because they’re not real.”

When I played GTA IV I had a reaction to rescuing Roman when he’s kidnapped. Niko was so angry; that someone would even dare to harm his family. The voice acting, the search, it really got me to feel something. Sure, he was an annoying character, but he’d never done me any harm and time had been taken to establish the dopey git as a real person.

Conversely whilst playing SO:TL I found myself thinking “How many soldiers are there in this damned battalion?!”. The story set it in such a way that I expected there to be a small, tough force, grizzled and weary. To fight wave upon wave of essentially suicidal AI idiots just took me out of it. I don’t mind gunning them down but it tends to bore me and remind me of the basic game mechanics, totally disengaging me from the setting and the story.

On another note much is made of the loading screens later in the game. Despite going back to play through some parts again I don’t think I ever saw one. I had to take a look through screenshots to see if they were real.

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On the plus side the collectibles actually contributed to the setting and the graffiti found throughout the game is delightful (although one bit of daubed paint used a font I’m extremely familiar with…).

I admire what the game tried to do but I feel we’ve got a long way to go before it works. What I would prefer would be objectives in a game that I’m encouraged to follow but finding that I could actually do something else. There’s a couple of times in this game like that, but only a couple.

When the Bad Thing happens in the game I was disengaged from it partly for the reasons I mentioned above and partly because it was required to progress in the game. If I’d done it and found that there had actually been several other things I could have done to avoid it then I’d have done that. As it stands it was a case of “follow the objectives and keep playing the game I paid for” or “Stop playing and have that money go to waste”. I’m not bailing on a paid-for experience for something so clearly designed to tug at my emotions.2012-12-19_00011

When I stepped outside for a moment whilst watching Sunshine in the cinema I did so because the atmosphere was so powerfully crafted as to create this oppressive claustrophobic pressure on my psyche. I didn’t mind, I was actually impressed, but it got a reaction from me.

I should have felt something similar in SO:TL but I didn’t. The artificial, gamey nature of the experience just destroyed my immersion so frequently as to detach me from any sort of emotional engagement.

The only exception to this was when I wasn’t fighting in the run up to meeting the DJ. I went from sunny, arid Dubai, into a cool, dark, neon-lit area. Having been to Dubai myself I know how bizarre the transition from inside to outside can be – the air conditioning they run in most places makes indoors actively chilly.

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The quiet, the artwork, the whole thing made for a deliciously surreal moment. Therefore the game was capable of it, but messing it up by trying to be clever.

I don’t feel bad about my choices if they weren’t my choices.

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