The basic plot in Spec Ops is fairly straight-forward: Dubai is gone, destroyed in a sandstorm of literally biblical proportions. A US army division, the Damned 33rd, elects to stay behind and supervise the evacuation. Several months later a distress signal is discovered: the operation was a failure and the city is lost. Enter the player character Captain Martin Walker, a Delta Force commando sent to the ruined city to rescue survivors. But something is rotten in Dubai, and Walker is the one to root it out…blah blah blah. So far so dull.
Almost as soon as the game begins though, something feels off. Your first enemy encounter is ripped straight from international headlines: a standoff with a group of middle-eastern men in rags leads to a misunderstanding, which leads to a massacre. You don’t know who these people are or why they’re trying to kill you. Are they the refugees from the evacuation? Are you killing the people you were sent to save? The lines between right and wrong are immediately blurred and soon the distinction between moral absolutes fades entirely into non-relevance. This isn’t your grandmother’s third person shooter.
Soon enough there’s a constant itch at the back of your mind, a question of why this is happening. Doubt begins to creep in: are you supposed to be doing this? Did you accidentally make a decision that led here? Every foe you send sprawling to the floor adds his own weight to the growing sense of uncertainty, especially when the game forces you to gun down US troops. The set pieces only add to the growing paranoia: a mass grave of soldiers executed by their own, a crazed DJ setting the carnage to a backdrop of 60s rock, scores of bodies strung like gruesome piñatas. Like its cinematic precursor Apocalypse Now the surrealism builds slowly but soon overwhelms the entire narrative. Walker and his team are far from immune and before long you’re questioning the reliability of the game itself as a narrator.
Spec Ops is a deconstruction not only of the horror of war but of the games that glamorise it, games like Call of Duty and Gears of War. Although given control of Walker during combat, you aren’t presented with any real choices beyond who to kill first. The player is tasked more as a guide, pulling the Captain through the various hellish scenarios he encounters. The one decision you do make, to keep playing, makes you complicit in the actions happening on screen, and your reward is not a new gun or accessory but a close-up on the ramifications of these actions. It apes the consequence free gameplay of Call of Duty and its ilk and turns it on its head. What would happen, it asks, if a real, fallible human being was placed in a videogame environment?
Every step of the way the game presents you with reasons to put down the controller and stop. An event around the halfway mark was so unflinchingly brutal I considered doing just that. Even the loading screens mock the idea of casual mass murder: “Killing for yourself is murder. Killing for the government is heroic. Killing for entertainment is harmless.” But like Captain Walker you press on. The plot presents him with multiple opportunities to walk away from the horror but he can’t: he needs closure on the atrocities he has seen and committed. Like the player, he wants a conclusion. His madness begins to leak into the game mechanics: enemy troopers bear the likeness of his squad, he begins to realise his role as a videogame character and his dialogue becomes increasingly frantic. As the admittedly disappointing ending finally rolled into view I was almost relieved. Unlike Call of Duty war is not presented here as a kinetic means to an end, or an idealistic agent of change but is shown as a resort of the desperate, a confused, ambiguous mess where moral absolutes are discarded in favour of subjective opinion and no-one is free from blame. Guilt and doubt are all pervasive and every decision is borne from uncertainty.
As a modern wargame it is unique. It follows the examples set by games like BioShock and Deus Ex in fully embracing the tenets of the medium and exploiting them to push its central message as fiercely as possible. That this central message is adamantly anti-war is remarkable in itself, but it is the subtly inferenced criticism of its gung-ho brothers that really sets it apart from its brethren.