Spec Ops: The Line – Random Thoughts

Just finished Spec Ops: The Line.


I’ll try to avoid spoiler-ing anything here, because the game is indeed worth playing through for the atmosphere, the moral dilemmas set up in individual scenes, and some thoughtful thematic questions raised about war and what can possibly happen to soldiers and civilians in a situation where there are no clear-cut “good” choices.

Some of my screenshots are from later parts of the game, but I have tried to put them out of any kind of context whatsoever.

Just be warned that its overall theme is pretty much… War is hell.

Laying on the symbolism a bit thickly, are we?
Laying on the symbolism a bit thickly, are we?

And war, war never changes… (To quote another neat game.)

How to describe it then?

Narrative-wise, there’s a touch of Planescape: Torment with, unfortunately, a lot more plot holes and significantly more linear railroading. There’s some Heavy Rain flavor in one or two scenes, (no QTEs, don’t panic,) but I wish there was more.

It's not Heavy Rain. I swear. There's a certain eerie similarity of beard and likeness, perhaps.
It’s not Heavy Rain. I swear. There’s a certain eerie similarity of beard and likeness, perhaps.

One of my nitpicks is that in certain scenes, you are forced by the game into taking certain actions, or else the game simply doesn’t progress. I’m not so fond of that kind of narrative, it’s a bit of a lazy cop out. As gamers, we tend to do whatever the game requests us in order to see the end. Playing with moral and ethical questions regarding something the game railroaded us into doing… well, it’s a bit of a cheap trick in order to reap emotional impact – sorta like how horror game tropes are always play with lighting, play with pacing, play with scary sounds and flash something HORRIBLE onto the screen for a split second. Yeah, it gets a reaction out of us, but it’s been done.

It was interesting to observe my reactions as I played through the game. Knowing it was a game about morality, at first, I tried to be very careful about my actions. I never fired first. I waited for people to shoot at me before firing back in self-defence.

One of the nicer vignettes near the beginning with moral implications. They're not actively opposing you. Do you kill them in cold blood? Order your squad to do it for you, so your hands aren't personally dirty? Or do you give them a chance to fight back by alerting them then shoot them while they're holding a firearm pointed at you?
One of the nicer minor vignettes near the beginning with some moral implications. They’re not actively opposing you. Do you kill them in cold blood? Order your squad to do it for you, so your hands aren’t personally dirty? Or do you give them a chance to fight back by alerting them then shoot them while they’re holding a firearm pointed at you? Don’t think sneaking past peacefully is an option in this game though.

I even managed to avoid killing a civilian, who in one of those cheap-ish designer tricks does a sudden jack-in-the-box act in front of you, and you’re carrying a loaded gun in the midst of a firefight. (It was a near thing the first time though, I fired bullets into the floor near their feet from a combined sheer reaction of EEP and WAIT, NOT-TARGET, which was kind of fascinating to have happen.)

I like what they've done with this option game-wise. Sometimes when you shoot enemies, they don't die immediately, but are still alive and may shoot back. Or simply lie there groaning.You can choose to kill them. And opposite to Bioshock, you get an in-game reward of ammo for the guns you're currently carrying - as well as a violent execution animation sequence. There was also a neat touch where the executions got very brutal after certain plot points, as contrasted with the start of the game.
I like what they’ve done with this option game-wise. Sometimes when you shoot enemies, they don’t die immediately, but are still alive and may shoot back. Or simply lie there groaning.
You can choose to kill them. And opposite to Bioshock, where the goody-goody path is the obvious optimal choice in the long term, here, you get an in-game reward of ammo for the guns you’re currently carrying – as well as a violent execution animation sequence.
There was also a neat touch where the executions appeared to get more brutal after certain plot points, as contrasted with the start of the game, reflecting the state of mind the main character is in.

Unfortunately, after a couple railroading tricks where the main character acts in a way beyond my control, I started to sense that there was a narrative ride we were being sent on, like it or nay, and it began turning into a problem-solving exercise of getting to the next plot checkpoint, since I didn’t have any real options until I got to certain scripted scenes where I could choose stealth/shoot or one of two or three possible paths through a moral dilemma.

I would have much rather been faced with situations where there are no good choices, and you simply have to take one based on the available information you have, and deal with the consequences of your possibly failed intentions. (There were a few places in Spec Ops where they did appear to be trying for this, which was nice.)

The other nitpick is the story unravels a little at the end to become extremely ambiguous and open to multiple possible interpretations. Minor spoiler warning: It’s basically the ol’ unreliable narrator gimmick. Anything and everything might have been a dream after all. Oh, don’t get me wrong. The multiple endings end rather artistically. It’s not at all as bad as Indigo Prophecy where you end up going “da fuck?” after a certain point, but there’s a teensy degree of it where you’re still left trying to glue several story threads together attempting to have it make unified coherent sense. (I haven’t quite accomplished it, to be honest.)

That said, it’s a shooter that attempts to tell a very -different- kind of story about war.

If only for that, playing through the experience is worth it.

But I bought the game though. So I may as well play it to the bitter end, rather than choose not to play, eh?Still, in a sea full of shooters who don't even bother to reflect on deeper themes of war, a slightly incoherent, forced perspective commentary is better than none.
But I bought the game though. So I may as well play it to the bitter end, rather than choose not to play, eh?
Still, in a sea full of shooters who don’t even bother to reflect on deeper themes of war, a slightly incoherent, forced perspective commentary is better than none at all.

CoH: Where Do We Draw the Line on Selling Power?

I’m usually not a person that has issues with microtransactions and cash shops on a fundamental level. I’ll look carefully at the cash shop before I start playing a game, to make sure I’m comfortable with the stuff in it, and how the rationale for making the company a profit is derived, and if I’m okay with that, then I don’t mind playing the game.

But we’re seeing something dangerous happen in the cases of both Lord of the Rings Online and City of Heroes.

The gradual sneaky addition of items to the store to test player limits.

And I think what the devs are finding out is that if you introduce a distasteful substance in small amounts, people acclimatise to the taste and rationalize it off to the point that outsiders start raising an eyebrow at what they’re accepting.

Hell, I’m starting to feel a bit like a guinea pig here. It’s like the devs are saying, “LOL, let’s see how far some of these players will go, how much they are willing to pay for phenomenal cosmic power!”

Where exactly do we draw the line?

When is it the time to say “No, this is unacceptable, I won’t play this game as is” and walk away from the game, despite all the temptations of content and prior commitment to it?

From here on, I’ll be talking about City of Heroes as I have less in-depth experience with LOTRO’s store, and I’ll be talking about my personal reactions and feelings in an attempt to figure out where my personal line is. Your mileage may vary.

Things have reached a sort of crisis point in my head with the latest and sneakiest introduction to the Paragon Store, Power Amplifiers.

They come in three flavors: Offense Amplifier, Defense Amplifier and Survival Amplifier.

They last for 1, 4 or 8 hours depending on how much real world money you paid. I only looked at the cost for the 1 hour one, which is 80 paragon points, or $1 USD. I think you can extrapolate from there for the 4 or 8 hours, minus the odd buck or few cents for a discount.

They offer a decent, middling buff. I wouldn’t say it is outright breaking the game in terms of direct power given. But I wouldn’t say it is a negligible buff either.

The most controversial is possibly the defense amplifier, which also offers mag4 mez protection, the equivalent of mez resistance for squishy classes that can’t get it off a normal power toggle like the melee armored classes.

I’m trying to figure out why the introduction of these items to the store disturbs me so.

It doesn’t help that my line has been fogged up and disrupted by all the stuff like Super Packs, which I sorta kinda disapprove of on a moral basis, but confess to finding them addictively fun as long as taken non-seriously in moderation (which I -think- I am capable of budget limiting for myself, but I don’t really know. Isn’t that the slippery slope all gamblers go down?)

The common forums retort is, “Look, they’re optional. You don’t -have- to buy them. What do you care what other people do with their money? The presence of these items on the store shouldn’t affect the way you play, just don’t buy them, leave it as a choice for other people to give money to Paragon Studios so that they can continue development of this cool game we all enjoy.”

But somehow, the presence of the items on the store does affect the way I play.

I can understand EvilGeko’s point here about them cheapening the feeling of having “earnt” something in-game.

But that’s not exactly my beef with the items, it doesn’t quite resonate with me that way. It frankly disturbs me more that other players are so accepting of the items, that they think and feel that it won’t have any effect on the way they play whatsoever because they’re not in competition with other players.

Maybe it’ll help if I start with a story. My first ever encounter with “microtransactions” as it were. It was a MUD. Medievia MUD to be precise, back in the mists of time. I was bored with my regular MUD and had started a habit of MUD hopping (which is kinda like MMO juggling) to sample different innovative systems and maybe, just maybe, find a new MUD that I was interested in and could invest time in learning and playing.

Medievia MUD struck a lot of notes with me. It was big and in-depth. There were systems I had never encountered before, like trade running from place to place, dragon kills and eggs, even their questing system was all different and interesting. My trial alt was about waist-deep into the game and almost ready to commit, when I had the (mis)fortune? to talk frankly with a veteran on the ideal gear for each body location. He gave a lot of helpful suggestions and I was eagerly taking notes on stuff I had to collect, things I had to kill…

…Then matter-of-factly, he said. “Ok, for the two neck locations, the best are two ‘donation’ necklaces that you can buy by donating $50 to Medievia MUD.”

WHOA, friend. Hold your horses there.

I honestly forget if it was $25 for a necklace each and 50 bucks in total. Or if they were $50 each.

All I knew were two things. $50 to play a MUD was more money than I could ever conceive of spending on a MUD at the time – the huge chunk of investment was just inconceivable.

And I loathed with great emotion that the guy was so matter-of-fact about it. It was the standard. It was the baseline. If you want to be competitive, this here is what you’re going to have to do, what you’re going to have to pay.

The game exists. It was a payment model that was doing fine by them. But it wasn’t a game for me. At the time, I was not willing to pay that sum to merely to achieve baseline performance in order to explore the systems that MUD had. There were other free MUDs out there, and I would not be playing any “pay” MUDs.

So then and there (after thanking the veteran naturally and parting ways,) I logged out of the MUD and never came back.

In contrast, nowadays, I’m paying for two subscriptions to A Tale in the Desert. That’s $28 a month. I can afford it now. I’m paying that sum to achieve, how do I put it, “solo” baseline performance in order to explore the systems this MMO has.

You can get by with one character if you are sociable, join groups, are part of a guild, that sort of thing. I’m willing to pay a higher premium for the convenience of not having to wait on another person for a number of things.

They sell vanity cash items like cat pets with no substantial in-game effect or bonuses. I don’t begrudge if people buy them. It doesn’t change the overall baseline of player power, and it gives money to the devs to keep the niche game alive – which it is seriously struggling with these past few years, to be really honest.

Nor do I mind the items sold by Realm of the Mad God in their store. Most of the stuff sold for real money are vanity items. Clothing colors. And you lose them if you die, so it is temporary. You can buy a permanent pet (as long as you store the item that gives you the pet in the vault) but the pet is just for looks. I have no issue with cosmetic stuff in stores.

They have keys that unlock dungeons, but at the cost they’re selling for, it’ll have to be someone with lots of spare cash and little patience buying them. Again, I have no issue with these, mostly because there is an alternate in-game way to get the keys, just kill things and hope for a random drop. In essence, though the keys unlock the possibility of killing a big bad boss for loot, they are a time convenience item to speed up the same thing you can already achieve in game.

They have items that give a temporary boost to stats. The closest to selling power, as it were. But they are seriously temporary. Like 30 seconds temporary or less. Which would make them only valuable on very rare occasions, like killing a big boss and trying to do enough damage to qualify for loot…

…Okay, I’m finding it hard to just say that I’m perfectly okay with these. Let’s put it this way. At my current baseline, I do not see the importance of buying these buffs for real money yet. As such, it is not affecting my gameplay or playstyle and I’m okay with continuing to play the game… up to the point where I discover they are a -necessary- part of the game. If, let’s say, I get all statted up and join some hardcore guild that does lots of dungeons per day, and they tell me, hey, all the pros buy these buffs so they can guarantee their loot dropping, it’s the normal thing to do. That’s probably the point where I will get really squicked out and log off and never come back.

So, here we are, back to City of Heroes, a little bit clearer on where my personal line is.

I think specifically, I have issues with two things. In-store exclusivity and player power baseline normalizing to store-bought items.

I think what disturbs me about other players being so accepting of store items is that it contributes to the normalizing of the baseline up to the level of store bought items.

(I played the Summer Blockbuster event the other day. It was quite fun and I might do a post about it soon. But I was a bit taken aback when we encountered a bug – the mission didn’t teleport us back as normal – and one of the players said, “Oh, it’s a bug. Just self-destruct, hospital and come back.” Totally matter of fact.

Except, self-destruct is a power that comes with the optional costume packs they were selling back in the day. And no doubt, it’s a cash shop power now. I don’t -HAVE- self-destruct, thank you. I didn’t see the need for the costumes or the power at the time, and I still don’t see the need now. But it raises my eyebrows when I see a player assuming that everyone has the same baseline he has.

Conveniently, I was in a part of the map where I could suicide to mobs. If not, I presume I would have to log out and back in and hope the twitchy buggy LFG turnstile system didn’t kick me out of game.)

Take Invention sets. Strictly speaking, it’s optional. You can play up to level 50 in SOs. But if you look around, especially at people doing Incarnate level content, chances are the baseline is that people are kitted out in IOs and the rare person in SOs is just that, a rarity, who isn’t numerically capable of contributing as much as someone in IOs and with set bonuses can. Even Samuel_Tow from the board forums has given in and started to figure out how to use Inventions, because the baseline of Incarnate content is set at a level that assumes you’re in them.

There’s technically optional, and there’s where the normal player baseline is. I think what I’m really not comfortable with, is the lack of choice or alternate option for achieving this baseline.

If the same amplifiers can be bought in-game with an in-game currency, or crafted out of rare items in-game, then the store option is just a time-saving shortcut for lazy people with money they don’t mind throwing away.

If the same amplifiers can be traded on the auction house, then economy takes over, and it is possible to either pay insane X amount of in-game currency or Y amount of real world currency to get them, I probably wouldn’t feel as worried. There would at least be a theoretical way to attain the amplifiers without money, even if most people are not willing to do so. I’m not 100% sure on this last point, I think I’ll have to qualify it by examining the level of buff the power awards before it meets my acceptability criteria.

As of right now though, I don’t think those Power Amplifiers meet any of my criteria.

Sadly, the game doesn’t think I’m running a subscription, I’ve just paid for a month of VIP each month from April to June, so I can’t fill out a subscription canceled survey form and explain the reasons why I’m stopping.

But the VIP access expires in the first week of July, and I’ll be stopping there for the time being.

I hope to be able to finish Night Ward and the other content I haven’t played before then.

I’m also still curious about the Battalion story and such things. Maybe I’ll renew for a month out of curiosity when content hits, despite the better part of my morals and sense.

But for now, a guy’s got to draw the line somewhere.