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Hotline Miami Review


The first time you fire up Hotline Miami, you’ll swear your PC has gone wrong. It’ll likely hang for what seems like an age, and then take you to a title screen burnished with blocky text in Russian against an eye-straining dayglow backdrop. It’s the 80’s. It’s Acid House all over again.

What happens next most assuredly isn’t. An ugly, bearded man will swear at you repeatedly as he teaches you the basic concepts of the game. Sneak up on people by using the building topology to keep out of sight, then eviscerate them or shoot them, or just punch them to the floor and then brain them by smashing their heads repeatedly against a door frame.

And that, essentially is Hotline Miami. Twenty-one levels of appalling top-down violence rendered in cheerful fluorescent tones and backed by a thumping techno soundtrack. Except that it’s very hard to describe quite how something so brutally primal can be one of the most intelligent and knowing games I’ve played in years.

The whole thing is a beguilingly circular, self-referential piece of design. The extreme gore passes silent judgement on the acceptance of violence in games. The unreliability of the narrator is a window into into the virtual worlds that games construct. Even the plot bends back in on itself, but to delve too far therein would being giving too much away.

It’s a hard game, but it never feels unfair, and any gamer could beat it with patience and practice. A single hit will end your murderous rampages, so you need to be careful, using stealth and silence where appropriate and making calls on the right time to go in, all guns blazing.

As a game, just like as a piece of social commentary, what’s really impressive about Hotline Miami is how such a small thing manages to fill so many different shoes. A beat ‘em up. A stealth game. A tactical shooter. A puzzler. It’s all these things and more.

But ultimately the game gets hijacked by its compact and bijou nature. For most of your first playthroughs new guns, new powers, different enemies and novel scenery to interact with will keep you going. Toward the end you’ll notice that all the guns are pretty much the same. So are all the enemies. Many of the powers aren’t really useful, or even fun.

Completists will enjoy finding the considerable quantity of hidden things, and theorists will enjoy replaying the plot for the intriguing ambiguity it provides. Otherwise you’ve got perhaps one or two play-throughs of a two to four hour game.

But who cares. It’s cheap. Play it for its glorious inventiveness. Play it for the violence. Play it for an abject lesson in how much one clever designer can cram, Chinese-doll like, into one small package and then consider how little huge corporations manage to fit into vast, spacious AAA games, echoing like howling ruins in the desert. Just play it.

No Violence Please, We’re Gamers

Red Dead Redemption violence

Turned my back and grabbed my gat
And guess what I told him before I shot it:
‘If you don’t quit, yeah, if you don’t stop, yeah, I’m lettin’ my gat pop’
Cause it’s 1-8-7 on an undercover cop

That chilling threat came over my headphones, backed up by a sinister bassline, while I was waiting queueing for some trivial purchase in a shop. Jarred by the disconnect between the prosaic setting and the shocking sentiments I was hearing I wondered: why did I find the rap unsettling, while the fact I killed twenty men in Red Dead Redemption the night before cause not a flicker of emotion?

This happened a while back, well before Michael wrote his Rethinking Mass Murder column on violence and gaming. But we’ve all reflected on these issues from time to time. Personally I disagree wholeheartedly with his assertion that there’s any link between media violence and social nihilism. These moral panics have accompanied every incremental media change since popular novels 200 years ago and never amount to anything. The gulf that separates thought and deed is too wide to step over without conscious choice. The evidence, such as it is, supports me.

No well constructed, wide ranging social science research has ever demonstrated a connection. Violent crime in US and Europe has been dropping for two decades. Respect and tolerance for other points of view and ways of life, as measure by polls, has been rising over the same period. The perception of an increasingly uncaring society has been fostered largely by a sensationalist media. But it’s a myth: we may be more scared of violence than ever, but we’re safer on the streets than we’ve been for years.

But that’s not what this column is supposed to be about. I just felt strongly enough about the issue to want to rebut that claim, and this seemed a good place to do it. Rather I wanted to look at why violent gaming feels qualitatively different from much of that presented elsewhere in the media, films and music in particular.


To cut to the quick the answer is presentation. Anyone who plans to portray a piece of violence has to make conscious decisions about the context in which it will be shown. Build up sympathy for the victim, linger on the suffering and the act will condemn itself. Glamourise the protagonist, anonymise the antagonist and focus on the fireworks and the violence will be thrilling. Lessons so obvious they were learned in early theatre, centuries before the first violent film.

The relationship between modern video game design and cinema is easily close enough for these points to be applicable to both. Gamers could easily be encouraged to reflect on the consequences of their violence rather than glory in it. So the question becomes a why question: why do game designers choose almost exclusively to present their violence in a glamorous way rather than a condemnatory one? Why do game players nearly always choose to eschew more thoughtful pieces in favour of the thrill?

There is of course a close connection between what gamers want and what designers deliver. But in the instance of violence, I’m beginning to think that it’s a rare case of a gap between the two, a disconnect between the perception of what’s wanted and the truth. Add a grain of laziness on the part of studios, or perhaps more charitably the valid concern over multi-million dollar titles experimenting and flopping in the marketplace and you’ve got a recipe for trouble.

Consider. One of the very few mainstream titles to actually present the player with a harrowing version of violence, Spec Ops: The Line, garnered a lot of interest and critical praise and seemed to sell reasonably even if it was below the publishers’ expectation. Another rare exception, the infamous “No Russian” level of CoD: Modern Warfare 2, again got a lot of coverage and was certainly no impediment to sales.

Spec Ops: The Line

Meanwhile non-violent games have been one of the great success stories of this hardware generation. Family games, casual games, puzzle games, dance games, sports games have risen and risen, fueled at first by the early success of the Wii, then later by mobile devices. There may only be a small overlap between this market and that which consumes more violent fare, but plenty of action gamers have found pause for thought in peaceful, reflective indie titles.

It seems to me there’s actually quite a considerable market for anti-violence action games like Spec Ops. All that’s required is for the package to be delivered correctly. Firstly, it must be remembered that while it’s a sizable segment, it’s still a minority. That should come as no surprise: pandering to the lowest common denominator has long been a recipe for sales success across all media. Games are no different.

So it was perhaps unwise to have commissioned Spec Ops: The Line with an AAA budget and the accompanying weight of sales expectation. But pitch it right and there’s a market there, providing you can design a game to suit. That’s where the accusation of laziness holds a little water. Designing an action game around violence is relatively straightforward, with so much history to draw on. Building one that either draws a player into violence and then has them dwell upon its repercussions, or which tows the protagonist along in the wake of violence committed by others is much harder. But still entirely possible.

The lack of negative portrayals of violence, relatively common in almost other art forms, is unfortunate in video games. It plays into the hands of those who seek to censor or ban games by manipulating public perceptions of a link between gaming and antisocial behaviour in the face of all available evidence. But it’s not as inevitable as some might have you think. Not so long ago gaming was an immature format, practised largely by minors. But as the audience grows up, so will the subject matter. It’s about time we learned to expect, and to demand, better.

On Boredom and Looking Ahead to 2013

This is the time of year when everybody and their brother coughs up a games they are looking forward to list. (Well, it was when I wrote the initial draft of this post.) We didn’t have much of that here, but certainly it’s come up on Jumping the Shark. The thing is, for me and video games, there’s not much I’m looking ahead to. I mean I’m sure there will be stuff I play and stuff that, as the year proceeds, I’ll get excited about playing, but I’m as bored to tears these days with the Video Game Preview Circus as I am with the rest of the industry. It’s been a recurring theme this past year that there’s plenty enough going on in the present that precludes me from having any desire to spend time getting amped up about gaming projects that I may or may not see in the next 6 to 12 months.

“Dear, Gaming Industry,” as the cliché goes, “It’s not you, it’s me.”

Except, well, it’s you…

How many times have I written in the past two years about how the direction of the industry, combined with where I sit at this particular crossroads in my life, has left me with waning interest in the hobby? At least twice that I can think of. I’m sure there’s more, and at this point I risk verging into broken record territory, but these were the two I could find in the archives that most stood out in my memory:

The Lull of 2011
Pushed Around by the Industry

There’s a money quote in the latter of these:

“Here’s something the 37-year old me can say to a game maker, without a hint of reservation, that the 22-year old me would never have said: I don’t need to play your games. I love games. I’ve always loved games. But my life, and my ability to find contentment in it, is not tied to this business…”

The bellwether for me was the recent Bioshock Infinite trailer.

YouTube video

Kudos to you if you watched that and thought, “Oh, hells yeah!” Seriously, nothing I’m about to say is meant to be judgmental of anyone who is still enthralled with modern mainstream gaming. This is purely personal, and personally? I shrugged. It could not have felt more “meh.” And let’s face it, if the thought of playing Bioshock Infinite contains not even a momentary thrill, even for someone who adored the first two games, then you’ve probably crossed a line somewhere.

I’ve been chewing hard on this over the past couple months and I’ve settled on the idea that the whole big guns, big explosions, big loot thing that pretty well defines the last decade of gaming has grown so stale and repetitive that even games from a franchise with terrific history, with a promising backdrop or story, don’t elicit much of a reaction from me anymore. Whether it’s blowing shit up or harvesting acres and acres of phat loot, nuance on the same exact thing I’ve been doing for forever can only carry me so far.

(What’s funny is I penned all this a couple weeks ago, before reading Mr. Barnes’ Rethinking Mass Murder post. I’ve been sitting on this because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to post it or not. Mike’s excellent post convinced me I should.)

Just so there is no misunderstanding my point, my complaints about RPGs who’s sole mechanic is the acquisition of loot via monster slayage, or shooters that glorify killing by the baker’s dozen, have absolutely nothing to do with personal ethics or moral judgment. This sense of malaise towards killing in games is a feeling that started long before Newtown and it’s not about shame or ethics or The Children. I feel no more shame in gunning down a polygonal representation of a soldier in Human Revolution than I do in putting waste food in my garbage disposal. (Which is to say, maybe a very tiny bit.) I think it’s mostly that I’ve been doing this for 30 years now and it’s just not interesting anymore. Hey, another Sword of Otto Octavious with 30% bonus damage to spiders that I’ll likely dump a couple hours from now when I get the Mace of Mysterio that bumps it up to 35%. Yay?

Hey, look! I’ve leveled for the third time in an hour and can now choose a new skill that I’ll care about for approximately the same amount of time it takes to grow bored watching Hunger Games! (For the record, that’s about six minutes.) And in another half hour I’ll get another another level-up “ding” and pick something new that’s approximately .65% better than the skill I just got. Hazaa?

I’m tired of paying handsomely for the privilege of feeling like a gerbil pacing around the feeder waiting for the next pellet to drop. There was certainly a time when I found all the mechanics at play in mainstream titles exciting, but there was also a time when mainstream titles were more at home innovating and risk-taking, something the gobs and gobs of money involved makes AAA developers nearly incapable of doing anymore. As time marches on, and these experiences grow simultaneously less varied and more rote, it’s all become a thrill of diminishing returns. Unlike the gerbil, however, I’m not going to starve to death if I start skipping these meals. There are no longer enough fancy kill-foozle skills and whacky grenade launchers out there to make it any kind of visceral thrill for me to blow up a bunch of polygons, no matter how cool the ragdoll physics. Frankly, I just don’t give a fuck about all that anymore.

No, these days if I’m going to take time away from everything else in life to play your game, you’re going to have to offer a little more than just another retread experience. You’re going to have to offer me good wine and exotic cheeses and not the same old empty calories. Is it any wonder that the games I’ve most enjoyed in the past year –XCOM, The Walking Dead (the TellTale game), FTL, Mark of the Ninja– are either highly derivative of what I’ve been playing for ages or offer genuine variation on existing mechanics? Mark of the Ninja doesn’t re-write the book for stealth nearly as much as its most ardent fans might want you to believe, but the combination of 2D side-scrolling with vision cones and sound bubbles along with a genuinely interesting story progression does offer something unique from playing yet another paint-by-numbers experience I get from a Dishonored or the latest Bioware opus. That it’s contained in a nicely animated, wholly digestible 10-hour experience doesn’t hurt either.

Given all this, it’s probably not hard to see why my writing frequency has plummeted to approximately nil the past few months. Writing requires passion and, with me, if there’s no passion for the subject (not to mention no paycheck), it’s pretty damn hard to work up the will to write about it. My urge to write has always waxed and waned, but the truth is, I’ve had desire to write these past months, but I’ve had zero desire to write about games, even with some of the immensely pleasurable experiences I’ve had with some of the titles mentioned in the previous paragraph. There’s about a billion other hosers writing reviews for these exact same games, some far better at it than me and some not so much, but regardless of which case, I’ve lost interest in even tacitly competing with them. This isn’t to say I’m totally done writing about games, but that yet another review isn’t where my head is. I think that any game I write about going forward has to give me more to say than merely assessing its bonafides. I can do that on the podcast, which is a weekly quick-hitter that doesn’t involve endless hours of writing and re-writing.

So, I’ve had to ask myself, what is No High Scores going to be to me in 2013? Nothing of what I’ve written above should be interpreted as questioning how much I value NHS, and little would make me sadder than seeing tumbleweeds blow through here. I can’t praise Brandon, Michael, and Matt enough for continuing to keep content running through the front page while I ponder existence and Bill builds his cardboard empire. And, bottom line, I still want to be a part of producing content for this wonderful place, which is a direct reflection of how I feel about everyone here with whom I write and all of you who read. I feel genuinely bad that I can’t match the passion and enthusiasm you all maintain for this hobby. The counter to that is that I have a career that needs more focus than I’ve been giving it, two kids who may need their dad as much as ever this year, and a wonderful relationship (thanks eHarmony!) that I hope to continue building. Throw in a very real need for no less than eight hours of sleep a night and a growing desire to not only read more, but also dip my toe back into the creative writing pool (something I’ve not done consistently since college), and that doesn’t leave much room for feigning interest in a been there, done that industry that’s far more focused on AAA monetization than value for my dollar, not to mention my time. (Indies and small pubs, you are hereby exempted from the preceding generalization. You’re aces in my book.)

So where should that balance come from? Realistically, it probably means my output here will continue to be inconsistent at best, but potentially it means just writing broader. If a game grabs me (or doesn’t) and it gives me something to say, I’ll certainly write about it. But I hope to spend more time just writing about mass media consumption at large and how it has shaped and continues to shape my life and the world around it. I have ideas in mind for a handful of posts already that are, at best, only tangentially related to gaming. Whether that will interest you enough to click through to the full-length articles I can’t begin to guess, but it’s something I want to try and, for those of you willing to ride out that experiment with me, my appreciation is boundless. (Disclaimer: I will never engage in politics writing here nor would I hold you hostage to anything fictional I might lamely try to produce in the coming months. Even I have lines.) For those that aren’t, hey, I get it and hold no hard feelings over that. Presumably, you do come here to read about games, after all. And, hey, hopefully every so often I’ll be able to oblige by still pumping out some real guts level thoughts on those games that come this year that actually do capture and hold my interest.

Regardless of how it all shakes out, here’s to you all and making the most of 2013, whatever it brings!

Rethinking Mass Murder

The above panel is from issue #25 of Grant Morrison’s phenomenal run on DC Comics’ Animal Man. The pale guy is actually the author speaking directly to the character he’s written for two years at the point and the statement he is making is specifically about comic books and the state of the medium circa 1990. It’s a reflection on how grim, dark, gritty, and graphically violent comics had become in a rush toward feigned maturity and mainstream acceptance. It’s a statement about how the gee-whiz wonder and optimism of the Golden and Silver Age had been washed away by writers and artists over-eager to Frank Miller everything up, to darken the vibrant palette of comics to reflect the real world. I read this issue over the holidays, not long before the Connecticut school shooting.

Of course, neither that tragedy nor Animal Man have anything to do with violence in the real world, regardless of the pundits and opportunists that would have us believe that media is a causative factor in increasing the number of murders or violent crimes that we see on the news. People make choices, people have problems. Consumer media doesn’t make those or create those. Ironically, even the bloodiest, most brutal video games are less socially harmful than any given car commercial that promotes an illusion of American affluence or a reality show that celebrates crude, unbecoming behavior.

Between reading Morrison’s rather profound, simple statement against the darkening tone of the comics medium and thinking about twenty- twenty– children shot to death, I’ve been thinking heavily on violent video games content and in a way that I never really have before. Maybe it’s something to do with getting older, maybe it’s something to do with being a parent. Writing as someone who has never had an issue with violence in video games, movies, or any other kind of entertainment, I’m rather shocked to find that for the first time in my life I’m really kind of sick of being entertained by mass murder.

Brace for unpopular opinion. The anti-video games crowd isn’t entirely wrong about violence in video games. They’re wrong because they don’t understand that games aren’t non-stop slaughter-fests oozing with blood and rape. Most of the people that make comments about video game violence have barely played the games they’re talking about, if at all. It’s the exact same situation as with the Video Nasty, Satanic Panic, and Gangsta rap controversies in the 1980s The moral watchdogs don’t understand that video games have finer literary qualities like narrative context, signification, satire, and metaphor.  And that they are entertainment, and that it is OK to be entertained by darker, more questionable material. They don’t get that video games are an artistic medium that can- and in fact should- represent all aspects of human life including violence and death.

But what they are, at least in part, right about is that it has become too pervasive and there is a certain climate of brutality, nihilism, and devalued human life that games (along with other media) are promoting in the larger cultural spectrum. Witness any number of games released in 2012, where the primary action is killing somebody or something. Witness any number of games where the environments are broken, destroyed, or otherwise ruined. Witness any number of video game covers where the central figure is a “chin down, eyes up” killer of whatever stripe. Witness the aggressively macho, roughneck tone, sound, and visuals of many games. You cannot possibly claim with any degree of credibility that video games do not glorify, reward, and celebrate the taking of simulated life. Achievement unlocked, there’s pixelated blood on your hands.

Lionizing murder is one thing, but stripping death of all of its finality, meaning, and immense power is another. Video games are practically founded on frivolous representations of death without consequence or meaning, barring games such as Dark Souls that make dying an important mechanic in the game. But rare is the game that comes along saying to the player “hey, maybe killing all of these people was a bad idea”. Spec Ops: The Line did that in a particularly chilling way. The victims of a white phosphorous attack are revealed to be innocent civilians, not enemy combatants. I can’t think of another game that really shows the player what happens when they press a button and lots of people die. People that shouldn’t have died.

Video games have always been criticized for violent content. I recall reading a video games magazine sometime around 1983 or 1984 that had an article about what could happen if video games were made illegal because of their violent content. At that point, the most violent game you could play was the old Death Race arcade game. Decades on, and slaughter has become casual and in fact expected of the medium.

To some degree, it’s natural. Simulated violence is one of the key elements of any kind of play. When animals play, they mock fighting, competition, conflict, and aggression.  And people have always been entertained by violence from the gladiator arena to the Grand Guignol. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, and I do believe that there should be violence in video games because they, as art, should necessarily reflect who we are as a civilization. I’m still going to play shooters, because I love them. Violent video games are entertaining. But I do find that I am questioning why there are so many games that put the player in the role of a mass murderer- regardless of context, cause, or justification. Why is it always about killing?

Think about it. How many digital lives did you end last year, not including online multiplayer opponents whose on-screen personages map directly to a live human being? How many over the entire time you’ve played games? For my part, I can’t count that high. If the world of Tron were a reality, I would be a Hitlerian figure of evil. And so would you. Yet I’ve never once flinched at a headshot or a backstab. Have you? Why aren’t we shocked by decapitations, dismemberments, throat-cuttings, eyeball piercings, or evisceration? It’s all become so powerless, inert, without impact.

This adherence to a standard of killing as core design element is one of the key things preventing, I think, games from progressing as a medium. We- the people that buy and play these games- have set a very, very low standard that appeals to the basest instincts and desires, valuing murder fantasy over creativity, exploration, and transcendental reflection. We got tired of killing living video game people so we started re-killing video game people that are already dead. It just goes on and on, and it’s sad that there’s no end in sight.

There are exceptions, and they are important. Games like Catherine, Journey, and Little Inferno. Games that are about other aspects of the human experience than killing other people. Over the holidays the game I played the most was Waking Mars, an IOS title about exploring Mars. It’s a science fiction game, but there isn’t a trace of the kind of xenocidal, Aliens-influenced bug hunting that characterizes an overwhelming percentage of all the science fiction games ever made. Instead of shooting the place up, you observe lifeforms and learn about the ecosphere.  Yet it’s compelling, fraught with danger, and offers challenges far beyond killing everything and then shooting a boss in its glowing bits. What if Mass Effect did away with all of the shooting and instead was a game about exploration, discovery, and the pioneer spirit? Did Bioshock really need to be a FPS to tell its story or convey its message?   Why can’t more video games follow the example of 2001: A Space Odyssey instead of fucking Pitch Black?

Think about an alternate reality where mass murder in video games wasn’t acceptable- or demanded- by the audience, where creators understood the power of depicting death economically and with meaning. Imagine Assassin’s Creed in this world. Instead of cutting down hundreds and hundreds of random enemies, your character would spend the entire game gathering intelligence, observing, and preparing for ONE murder in a 20 hour game.  How awesome- and more profoundly thrilling- would that assassination be? Imagine more games like the original Rainbow Six, where one shot kills, every bullet counts, and the goal is to complete a mission- not just kill everything in sight as you walk through a shooting gallery toward an “objective marker” to press X and flip a switch and trigger a cut scene that serves as a phony justification for the actual gameplay and actions depicted.

There’s a reason that casual gamers flock to games like Farmville, Angry Birds, and the like. They’re going to games that DO NOT reflect the real world, they aren’t escaping like “hardcore gamers” are into a world of persistent, continual, and endless violence. They aren’t using silly excuses about “blowing off steam” or “getting out some aggression” to participate in this kind of simulated mass murder. They just don’t want to see it, and I don’t think that’s wrong. I think that’s actually more normal than locking in for two hours of constant death and killing during a Call of Duty session. And I don’t want to hear developers whining that games without guns and shooting don’t sell. Because they most certainly do, as evidenced by any number of games that aren’t about shooting versus Body Count, Inversion, Homefront, Syndicate, et. al. It’s just that there are a very small number of killing-centric games that have dominated the AAA market.

But why, developers, do you keep shepherding us down this road where mass murder is the overarching theme of the video game medium? The irony is that these games are rated “M for Mature” when they’re more often than not anything but that. Is there even a possibility for us to have a Cannibal Holocaust moment in this medium where people say “OK, that is taking this kind of entertainment killing and death worship a little too far.” I don’t know that there is, and as much as I like games about fighting, shooting, stabbing, punching, and blowing things up I find myself asking if those things are actually entertaining anymore. Mass murder has lost its thrill, and I’m more excited by a game where I’m watching how water affects a subterranean organism on Mars than I am by a good K/D ratio.

The pale guy up there, one of the best writers that comics has ever seen, says it all but I’m going to quote with liberty.

“They’ll stop at nothing, you see. All the suffering and pain and death in the video game world is entertainment for us. They thought that by making the video game world more violent they would make it more “realistic”, more “adult”. God help us if that’s what it means. Maybe for once they should try being kind.”

Spec Ops: The Line in Review

You might have heard some critics comparing Spec Ops: The Line to Francis Ford Coppola’s surrealist war-horror masterpiece, Apocalypse Now. It’s not an invalid or misguided comparison and the game is at least loosely homage to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the inspirational material for both that film and this game. There’s been a lot of talk about the game’s more sophisticated, psychological depiction of wartime violence and the moral toll of conflict. That too is not invalid or misguided, because it’s definitely there by intent. There are some genuinely chilling and truly horrific beats throughout the game’s six hour linear story progression as well as some compelling subtexts and an amazing setting that itself questions what gains are to be made in fighting for democracy and capitalism in the Middle East.

Nolan North- who I’m convinced is actually the name of every character he voices other the Penguin- and a pair of fellow Delta Force operatives are sent into a post-catastrophe Dubai to look for survivors of a massive, apocalyptic sandstorm that has literally buried the city’s incredible- and incredibly ostentatious- architecture. It’s fascinating, even in a video game environment, to wander the wreckage of this oil money-funded metropolitan monument to mercantilism. Abandoned supercars litter the streets. Signage for jewelry stores and designer boutiques clash with threatening graffiti and charred corpses. There is a surrealist bent that is well-appreciated. Walk over a sand dune and suddenly you’re on the ledge of a skyscraper overlooking ruins. It’s a paradise of profit laid waste by the red wrath of God.

Like the Kurtz character in Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness, there’s also a military hero that’s gone rogue and has holed up in the city’s tallest building. Apparently the American 33rd division has done so with him, practically taking over the ruined city. The CIA is involved. Civilians that have not been evacuated are in the crossfire. It’s a surprisingly complicated, detailed story that almost makes you forget that the game is a by-the-numbers, completely uninteresting third person shooter that induces headshot fatigue less than halfway through its runtime.

There’s no need to enumerate mechanics, control methods, AI and whether or not the graphics look good. You’ve played this game, from the pop-and-shoot gunplay to the rudimentary turret sequence where you’ve got to defend a guy doing something. It’s a competently made, completely uninspired and un-innovative example of its genre once you peer past the exceptional writing and attention to context. Regardless of its high-minded framing, it’s just as much a machine gun massacre as a Serious Sam game is.

While I was playing the game, wondering why it took so many shots to fell the bullet-sponge bad guys (which are more often American white people than the normal Evil Brown People that antagonize these kinds of games), I found myself questioning the validity and earnestness of the game’s message more than anything regarding war or morality. It’s edgy. But it’s not as if the intended message is a particularly profound one. I’m pretty sure that by now we all know that war, yeah, it’s real bad man. It makes people do some pretty crazy stuff. No new thematic ground is broken here.

But what’s more damning are the limitations that participation imposes on conveying anti-war, anti-violence messaging in a video game. The medium itself forecloses on the creators’ authority to communicate the “war, yeah, it’s real bad man” message. You still get a friendly “ding” when you earn achievements and trophies for shooting people, and you’re rewarded with story progression for killing the bad guys. And of course there’s a full multiplayer suite that undoes any pretense or intention of not glorifying war and killing.

It’s hard to take the game seriously once you step back from some of its more effective moments, like the aftermath of a white phosphorous attack that should effectively end the “awesomeness” of impersonal slaughter-sequences like the ubiquitous AC130 gunship trope, and realize that it is just another middle-of-the-road shooter. This could have been a dramatically subversive, incredibly progressive game that puts the player in the physical and psychological aftermath of modern warfare and the mistakes that are often made in defense of freedom or other agendas masquerading as freedom. But it isn’t. It’s a mediocre action game that just happens to have had a better-than-average writing staff that thought they could elevate the subject matter to something closer to Coppola’s film or Conrad’s novel. But participation- the key differentiator in the spectatorship of games versus films or novels- undermines what they were trying to accomplish.

Regardless of the handful of binary moral decisions, bodies hanging from street lamps and the PTSD nightmare that closes the game, this is still one where a meter tracks your headshots and there’s plenty of cool, Michael Bay-class set-pieces and machismo on display. While some may walk away from this game haunted by some of the grisly imagery and questions of morality, I’m walking away from it haunted by the question if the medium of video games is incapable of effectively carrying messages about violence and war while rewarding players for playing along.