I check my heavy rifle one last time, slide the chamber back to make sure the motion’s smooth, as I know it will be. The guy in front of me works out the kink in his neck while the other two move their weight from foot to foot and watch the numbers light up on the elevator. Makarov looks back to me and reminds us all, “No Russian,” as the elevator chimes pleasantly, its doors glide open, and the five of us- matching suits, flak jackets, and serious firearms- calmly stroll into a packed Moscow airport terminal. The people mill about; eager to get where they’re going and bored with just another day in their lives, when slowly, one by one, they notice us behind them. Makarov waits just long enough for them to realize, let them know what’s going on, then opens fire on the lot. Instantly, his cronies do the same. The citizens are mowed down by a vicious spray of lead, and I don’t know what the hell I’m supposed to do.
Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 begins with the same junk you’d hear from any number of Michael Bay or Jerry Bruckheimer flicks; the tired, bloated, empty and (sometimes) fun popcorn pap flicks that stuff summer theaters. While General Shepherd puked one “patriotic” phrase after another out of his mouth and dribbled it into my ears, I quickly switched my brain to “off” and let the game go “Oscar Mike.” It’s good that I did, for there’s hardly a moment to think as you take the reins of an ATV mounted mini-gun through an Afghani town loaded with insurgents, rip buildings to shreds with 6,000 rounds per minute, and toss grenades through grade school class room windows. Modern Warfare 2, much like God of War before it, doesn’t exactly show you new things; it just looks and plays better than most everything else on the market. It’s a ’67 Chevy with a tricked out engine, slick coat of paint, and a debt to Rare’s Goldeneye much larger than Infinity Ward would probably care to admit. It’s a beautiful paint-by-numbers with a few interesting flourishes dabbed in here or there. That is, until “No Russian” comes along and shits all over the brush. “No Russian” is a straight sucker punch to the gut that lasted with me for days.
The set-up is bare bones at best. General Shepherd stressed the importance of my mission, hinted at the sacrifices that were made to get me in position, and generally bored me with shadowy details while no-doubt hideously expensive computer graphics zoomed around the world and displayed newspaper clippings of terrorist actions. But as soon as Makarov and his thugs opened fire on the helpless crowd, I was struck dumb with horror. Bodies dropped like sandbags, blood splattered over clean tile floors, people moaned and dragged themselves away only to be picked off, and metal detectors bleated as we walked through into the larger area of the terminal. The gun shots warned the rest, but their shock and panic caused them to flee in herds, slow each other down, get shot in the back. I followed slightly behind my cohorts, the terrorists, gun at the ready, unsure what to do. How could I slaughter innocent people, as they fled and screamed and cried and tried to save one another, like they were witless cattle? My mission was to infiltrate, get next to Makarov, fit in. I couldn’t possibly fit in if I didn’t open fire, but my conscience worked against my trigger finger. I was conflicted, but in the end, I had my orders. And so, reluctantly, I did my duty. I cut down the women, I fired back at the security guards, I picked off the stragglers; and as the scene escalated, as a grenade blasted an elevator full of guards off its bearings and all flights were delayed on the boards and the police sirens roared close and loud, I felt worse with every passing moment.
A game made me hate what I was doing.
“No Russian” is meticulously detailed massacre, an achievement of set piece, scripted events, and- this is what sells it- sound design. You don’t just see the carnage, you hear it. The spit and bark of the heavy rifles are right next to you, distant yet immediate when the group spreads out. The screams of panic and pain echo and ring long after the bloody work is done. The real triumph of videogames are when you experience an event you never can in real life. In the case of “No Russian,” it’s an experience I hope to never have.
Critical reception’s been across the board for the level, with the bulk of it summed up succinctly with Rock Paper Shotgun’s, “It’s bullshit, innit?” Infinity Ward’s been raked over the coals for attempting something daring, and, in their minds, failing to hit the mark, given that just minutes ago your character was zooming around the Russian landscape in a snowmobile like James Bond on a bender. I’d argue that it’s precisely the erratic “plot” and gameplay that makes “No Russian” work beautifully. I found it incredibly hard to follow what was going on in the story-based cut-scenes. Many times I carried out entire missions without a clue why I was doing so. I mean, why did that Washington VIP shoot himself in the face? And what made him a VIP in the first place? Did Shepherd really allow a nuclear strike on home soil just to foster his own revenge? Confusion like this works in “No Russian’s” favor, because you never see it coming. Like the Bays and the Bruckheimers I compared MW2 to, if you’re looking for character development beyond field-dressing a wound and a thematic arc to rival United 93, you never turn to the guys who make Independence Day. But imagine if Independence Day had been made today, and the alien’s first targets had been the World Trade Center. That would arouse emotions to make you want those space-crustaceans burn. “No Russian” does just that. You want to play our game? You want to shoot hundreds of AI like cattle to get to the big baddie?
Do you really want to?
Crispy Gamer’s first reaction to “No Russian” was that, given the size of the crowd, Infinity Ward must have really been pushing the poly count. Another commenter instantly saw how many body models repeated with swapped color palettes, and that took him out of the moment. I think these people missed the forest for the trees. Several pieces have commented that in “No Russian,” your actions have almost no meaning. You can kill Makarov, but you’ll get a game over screen. I ask, why would you shoot the terrorist you’re trying to get closer to? You can execute all the civilians yourself, but they’d have ended up dead anyway. Why would you, as a human being, gleefully cut down digitized, though no less innocent, lives? You can shoot no-one, and your fellow terrorists won’t bat an eye. But, why would you not shoot the civilians, when you’re supposed to fit in? What would be more jarring: the game granting amnesty because you chose not to kill, or a game over screen because you didn’t shoot enough people? When you decide to ignore the way the game asks you to play, does the fault lie with the game? If you ask me, “No Russian” and the larger game community’s reaction to it falls right in line with what Ebert was saying about authorial control, and might serve as a grungy beacon against Games as Art, though I would consider it as a shining example.
People seemed to have been jaded from the get-go, hung up on lofty promises and missed marks, but I tell you this: the revulsion I felt when I first pulled the trigger on a helpless man, trailing blood over the floor as he crawled away, is probably exactly what an undercover CIA agent would feel if forced to do the same.
For that, I applaud Infinity Ward on a magnificent job well done.