SK 2012 GOTY – Aaron Phokal

Time to drop a Hyperbole bomb: Spec Ops – The Line is an advancement of storytelling in videogames. Telltale’s The Walking Dead may have had great characters and dialog, but Spec Ops delivered solidly and expertly on all fronts: characters, plot, pacing, and a unique use of gameplay to propel these points. You play as Captain Martin Walker, joined by Lt Adams and Staff Sergeant Lugo, to investigate the heart of a Dubai destroyed and then surrounded by a massive sandstorm. Let’s get to the point.

Spec Ops – The Line isn’t fun. This isn’t to say you cannot have fun taking cover in an apocalyptic desert wasteland. You’ll be shooting at enemies that are satisfyingly *not* bullet sponges, which means blindfire actually has a use, yet ammo is scarce enough you will not abuse it. The game itself is very competent, but it doesn’t initially appear to do anything special: it’s just another 3rd person, cover-based, iron-sights shooter set in the desert where you kill foreigners. It’ll feel like a dozen video games you’ve already played.

And that’s the entire point.

Maybe you hate to hear “it doesn’t get good for a couple of hours,” but Spec Ops couldn’t start any other way. Unfortunately, going in with low expectations is both the perfect experience and the perfect way to get players to never try your game. Slogging through the doldrum of yet another wave of enemy soldiers spawning from monster closets may not be fun, but it is the experience you are meant to be having at that point.

If you haven’t played it yet, I fear you’ll miss out if I don’t spoil it a little. You may think you know what’s going on here. However, neither the “generic soldier with a gun” box art, nor the obsession with discussing this Apocalypse Now Konrad is spelled with a “K”, are adequate information. In fact, I’ve only heard one podcast with the writer where he revealed some key details that can change the entire view of the game: most other articles, summaries, or reviews have entirely missed the point.

If you would like to avoid spoilers entirely, feel free to look away, but if you haven’t played it yet you likely weren’t going to. You might never know what this game is about if I don’t convince you. I’ll try to be vague but give just enough detail to draw you in and make my point.

Have you noticed how I ended every paragraph with “point?” Did that bother you? Did you brush it off as bad writing or did you not notice it? Did something just feel… off?

Spec Ops feels off. The juxtaposition between telling a serious account of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and battlefield fatigue using a game that feels gamey is purposeful. Three Delta Force Operatives taking on an entire army? Ridiculous. Watching an entire squad of a dozen trained soldiers breach a room only to be mowed down effortlessly as you unload with an infinite-ammo machine-gun turret? Stupid.

How does a game that purports to say so much make such stupid mistakes? They haven’t: they are making a point.

Spec Ops is about emotion, and those emotions are not always pleasant. If you feel anxious, bored, stressed, sad, or angry while playing Spec Ops, question why. Embrace it. Continue.

There are many binary moral choices presented in the game. Surprisingly, there are often additional solutions that provide depth to the experience, yet each has an achievement unlocked to provide the counter gamification. However, there is a key plot point and moral choice that must be made in the game that differs from the rest. You’ve probably heard of it if you’ve followed any gaming news articles or heard any discussion on the game. While the rest of your choices provide multiple paths to continue, this one does not. Some picked the successful action on their first try, then feel terrible for not trying the alternative. Others write angry comments that the developers cheated, providing a choice where only one path could be successful, forcing the player down a specific road. They are angry at the developers, blaming them for bad game design and for tricking them into an uncompromising and terrible decision. They and Lugo scream “There’s always a choice!”

And Walker responds: “No, there’s really not.”

“Gentlemen, welcome to Spec Ops.”

Here’s the recipe to make a great game:
1. Hire writers and place them in a bowl.
2. Task them with creating a comedic adventure game every month. Repeat until jokes become stale or run out.
3. Continue until company has a mediocre reputation.
4. Let one of them have a child but then deny them access to seeing it.
5. Once sufficiently depressed, acquire the rights for The Walking Dead, “a continuing tale of survival horror.”
6. Work the writers with a wooden spoon until ready to serve.

I’ve decided to begin calling this Telltale’s Walking Dead instead of “The Walking Dead game”. You certainly can’t just call it “Walking Dead” as that branches from the original comics, to a hit TV show, another iOS game, and soon another console shooter. Frankly, Telltale deserves to have their name in the title. When they launched their company with the promise to deliver episodic content, people laughed. The idea of episodic content had been tried, and failed repeatedly. When they announced the property would be Bone, a couple of people thought “that’s cool!” while the rest of us were too culturally ignorant to understand. When they announced they would do it for Sam and Max, we didn’t care that the episodic nature didn’t really fit the narrative; we just wanted more Lucasarts adventure games. Time after time they tried to make something for fans, and while their heart was always in the right place their metacritic scores were not. But that’s all changed. They’ve changed things. They found that episodic content works, completely, when given a strong dramatic theme and terrific writing that resonates with the audience.

Telltale’s Walking Dead is this year’s hit TV show, earning a place next to Battlestar Galactica, Lost, Game of Thrones, and the like. After each episode, I thought “That was GREAT! I can’t wait to see what happens next!” I also thought “Oh well, I’ll be sad when they screw up the next one” due to the company’s history.

They never did. The season finale ended astonishingly well (which is more than can be said for some of these other pop shows). Telltale’s Walking Dead was nearly my personal pick for GOTY, won at the VGA’s, and will likely be at the top of many other lists this year. Taken on it’s own, season 1 of Telltale’s Walking Dead is a complete game, a complete experience, and a complete story. It could end here, but in true Walking Dead fashion, it is also a continuing tale of survival horror.

And I’m looking forward to it.

They better not screw it up.

Best Stealth game of the year. Maybe the best stealth game ever. And quite possibly the best game that makes you feel like an ultimate Ninja warrior. With every mechanic exposed, you’ll know if a guard can see you, if he can hear you shatter a light, and if he would notice you grapple up to the ceiling above him. Presented in 2D, you explore the large levels of Mark of the Ninja either avoiding or killing your prey. All of the guards have their vision cones present at all times, so you can easily tell where to move and when to hide. You can pause the action at any time with pull of the trigger, to queue “orders” to throw traps, darts or grapple away. Let go of the trigger and you’ll perform your array of ninja actions instantly. You are a master ninja, and your abilities will never be the cause of your demise. Carelessness can be your end, or a team of guards that manages to flank and surround you, but you will always see how you failed. You’ll always see your defeat coming like an approaching train in a tunnel. In Mark of the Ninja, death is never confusing or mysterious, unless it is by your hand as you strike from the shadows, driving nearby witnesses so mad with fear that they stumble off rooftops and to their doom. You are the Ninja.

About Aaron Phokal

Aaron is a staff writer for Splitkick.
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