Wot I Think: About That Level

By Kieron Gillen on November 19th, 2009 at 10:21 pm.


It’s bullshit, isn’t it?

The big problem is – like a big chunk of anything that manages to be controversial – the debate shakes down to “they shouldn’t be allowed to do this” versus “they should be allowed to do this” while entirely neglecting the more important “Is this any good?”

It’s not any good. It’s bullshit. It’s a lie. It means nothing.

In terms of craft, Infinity Ward are… well, joint top of their field. The idea of turning a progression through a linear, scripted environment into a storytelling experience had its moment of apotheosis with Valve’s Half-life back in 1998. Specifically, its opening. The first people to really grasp the implications of Valve’s innovations were Infinity Ward, in their previous life at 2015, whose Medal of Honour: Allied Assault was the first game to not entirely ignore Half-Life and hope the lessons would go away. They (with Valve) have had a duopoly on the form ever since. Everyone else is frankly, second best, at best. So while it’s easy to pick holes in the illusion of a scene of No Russian – oh! The shirts repeat occasionally! – it doesn’t change the fact moving through it is like walking through a living painting. It’s a clockwork machine. In the seconds I managed to step back from what was actually happening, I felt a lot like I did when playing its opening scene in a military base – as in, I was scared to look anywhere, because there was so much stuff happening everywhere. No matter where I lay my eyes, there’d be something I’d miss.

“No Russian” positions you as an undercover agent, trying to infiltrate an evil terrorist’s group. By doing this, you’re helping out at a massacre at an airport. You walk in. People look at you. Your four comrades open up at the crowd, and they fall. People run, cry and die. You walk slowly through the airport, slaying those who haven’t run. Eventually, a military response arrives via chopper. You fight them and then… well, spoilers.

It’ll be foolish to deny it doesn’t provoke a response. Of course, the level and nature of that response isn’t solely about the game, or even the person playing it. So, yes, merely talking to my friends, I find people telling stories of leftist political radicals and pillars of the community mowing down people while cackling while bar-room thugs dismiss it as exploitative war-porn. Like any work of human creativity, the seriousness you bring to the game impacts upon your experience. But it’s more complicated than that. People’s response seems to change depending on who you play with or in front of. It’s like an inverse of the ErotiSim reaction I talked about previously. Playing with friends, we all fucked around with the Sims. Playing by myself, I took the emotional turmoil more seriously. Conversely, with No Russian, with someone standing behind you and judging you, even the most sociopathic may feel a little twinge before pulling that trigger.

But it’s bullshit.

It’s bullshit because, like a whole lot of Modern Warfare, it’s bad writing. By which I stress, I don’t mean “the writer can’t write”. Because the real nature of writing in games (“Everything which appears in front of your eyes with which we create the story”) rather than the responsibilities of the word-dude (“Whatever you can write quickly on freelance which the team ignore and/or present badly”) is what matters here. As others have noted, the most disturbing part of No Russian is its context. A few seconds previously you’re involved in a high-speed James Bond chase involving snowmobiles. A few seconds later, you’re mowing down civilians. That tonal shift isn’t brutal. It’s laughable. At best, you’re comedy. At worst, you’re cheap exploitative trash. Modern Warfare leans towards the latter. You have to earn the right to shove an audience’s face in that material. Before it, Infinity Ward do nothing to earn it. Afterward, they do barely anything with it – by which you can read there is slightly more than “nothing” there, which I’ll get to eventually – to justify the leap of faith you’ve taken with them.

And then there’s the matter of realism… oh, shit.

Yeah, realism is a tricky thing with Call of Duty. It’s clearly ludicrous, unless you’re the person in Alec’s Wot-I-Think comment thread who somehow thought that 24 was a documentary or something. But it lives of the sense of authenticity. It wants you to believe in its techno-thrillerness, at least on its own terms. The problem comes when you introduce this attitude into something like five dudes strolling into an airport and opening up.

Because as accurately, as disturbingly rendered as the slaughter is, it’s not convincing. The beat where people try to surrender… yeah, that’s impressive analysis. People would assume they were taking prisoners, even if they weren’t. But the rest is simply ludicrous. Machine-guns are loud. People are gone the second they start firing. Anyone anywhere near doesn’t hang around. They certainly don’t find themselves hanging around to be gunned down in lobbies. Rent-a-cops with pistols – and fuck me, if you’ve been in a Russian Airport, you know you get guys with SMGs, not pistols, walking around – don’t charge guys with hefty-machine-guns. They get the people hanging around OUT OF THERE. And crucially, SWAT-or-local-equivalent response isn’t a wall of men walking slowly towards you with riot shields. It’s snipers on the rooftops taking down these psychopathic shits.

In other words, Infinity Ward have taken great effort to render a scene of a massacre which bears no relation to any massacre that could ever happen. It’s nothing more than that moment of revulsion (or, for those sort of gamers, excitement) when you open up on civilians. It means nothing human because it’s about nothing that’s human.

So it’s exploitative and pointless. But its real failing, ironically enough, is one of cowardice. Let’s assume you accept the warped reality of their airport slaughter. It’s their universe. Let’s roll with it. Well, the idea that you’re an undercover agent who can walk alongside your homicidal comrades without you firing a shot, without them realising or caring, is openly stupid.

(I’ve heard people say they take notice and call you a coward. I’ve played through it three times and not had it once. C’est la vie.)

For the level to matter – to be the true Jack Bauer ends-justify-the-means statement – you must be forced into joining in. You’ve got a chance to skip the level. Great. But to play the level, to accept it on its own terms, you must open up at those people. That’s the cowardice of Infinity Ward. They realised a level where you had to kill the innocents is more offensive than a level where it’s your choice… but choosing the latter is the single thing that stops it ever being some manner of effective artistic statement and rendering the whole thing laughably pathetic.

There is – AND SPOILERS ARE NOW – a twist to it, of course. Your terrorists comrades shoot you at the end and pin the attack on the yanks. Which, if you look at it, could be an excuse for them not caring that you’re not mowing down people with them. Except it doesn’t matter when you get shot, as long as they can pin the attack on you – so having someone who’s coming along and not helping is merely someone who could open up at them when their conscience cracks.

(Why you don’t just shoot this terrorist leader now that you’re close enough to him isn’t really explained. Why infiltrate the cell to stop an attack when you can just kill the ringmaster now?)

Part of me likes to think that the whole section – in fact, the whole game proper – is actually a statement that the blind following of orders leads to the death of the world. The one irony of the twist in the plot is never commented on in the game – that being, the Russians are entirely justified in being phenomenally pissed off. An American organisation knew there was a serious attack wiping out dozens of Russian citizens… and rather than warning, they sent a man to join the attack. They were complicit. You were complicit. Imagine what the US response would be to the tables being turned, and there was real evidence that a foreign government helped out a 9-11-esque attack on US soil to infiltrate a terrorist organisation. Throughout the game you’re forced into performing tasks which only lead to worse devastation, because you’re following fucking brain-dead orders.

You could see Modern Warfare 2 as the sister of BioShock – as in, mocking the player for being stupid enough to follow this linear string of events. Giving up your morality to a higher power and obeying those orders only leads to World War 3.

Well, you could if they’d only actually made their statement clear. As it is, it’s just a mess of sound and fury signifying jack-shit. The final half of Modern Warfare 2 is the sort of thing which Wikipedia entries were made for flicking through and catching up on. Clarity never hurts. Rambling purple prose sections about the nature of war do. If the above is actually what Infinity Ward were trying to say they should have made sure they fucking said it loud and clear.

That’s the most annoying thing about “No Russian” though. It’s not that the ideas are necessarily bad – I wrote a hell of a lot to defend Super Columbine Massacre RPG, after all. It’s that the execution is weak. If you’re going to do this, you do this. You make the move knowing that you’ve thought it all through. That you’ve considered everything. That you know what you’re saying and what it means. The sickening thing is that communicating simple yet powerful messages is what Infinity Ward have excelled at (Cross Ref; Call of Duty’s River landing missions, with you forced to progress with no gun due to Soviet supply problems). That clarity is missing. Instead, we’re left with a dumb shock.

That’s the problem. That’s what sickens me. It’s that they had the balls to try to do this… and they blew it. They fucking blew it. Anyone else who tries it will be living in their diseased shadow. If you want to try to do this thing you have a responsibility to do it properly, or not at all. Infinity Ward failed the medium and failed themselves with No Russian.

They’ve always cut levels which weren’t good enough, arguing for a concentrated, higher-quality experience. They should have cut this one. It’s bullshit and they should be ashamed.

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326 Comments »

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  1. jsutcliffe says:

    The first line is all you need, really. Well said.

    • jsutcliffe says:

      I should note that I’ve not actually played it, but I’m yet to see a compelling reason why you have to have control, or even be on the terrorists’ side for the massacre.

      I may have mentioned in a previous comments thread that this scene could be just as powerful (possibly more so) and certainly less offensive and ham-fisted if, similar to the opening of Modern Warfare, you are a bystander watching the massacre — one of the civilians, trying not to get shot while watching his friends/fellows be cut down.

  2. Torgen says:

    Yes.

  3. Vinraith says:

    Very interesting analysis Kieron, thanks for writing that up.

    I think LewieP’s take on the issue may be the best I’ve read, though:

    http://savygamer.co.uk/2009/11/14/glitch-in-modern-warfare-2/

  4. reindall says:

    Exit the elevator, shoot the XXX and a few XXX, go out, kill a few XXX, and at the end get XXX in the XXX. The only nice thing was the scripted XXX thrown in the XXX, which then falls. I’ve censored my summary of the level, so I don’t spoil it to anyone – but there’s not much to spoil as it is boring as hell, even more than the favelas.

  5. Lewis says:

    I’ve neglected to comment on whether it’s any good or not because I’ve only witnessed the scene out of context, having not actually played the game through. So my argument tends to be that, whether it’s any good or not, it has opened the doors for developers to do this sort of thing and get it right in the future. Y’know? Does that make sense? Is that a bit of a blinkered viewpoint?

    • qrter says:

      Was that really a door that needed to be opened, though, I wonder. I mean, hasn’t that door been standing wide open since shooters became visually more realistic?

      It needs someone to walk through, in a brisk, determined and assured pace, knowing where they’re going. Sounds like Infinity Ward ran for it, shouting “WOOH! LOOK AT ME!”, and smacked headfirst into the doorframe.

      (Allright, I’ll stop torturing your metaphor now.. ;) )

  6. Optimaximal says:

    That’s the best analysis of the level yet. The final paragraph sums the entire ‘No Russian’ saga up and Infinity Ward as a whole – they’ve gone from being a developer respected on the same level as Valve to a cash-cow money hungry shock-pit.

    You know 24 is scraping its barrel whenever they roll out a plot involving a (s)nuke too shock the audience – IW are no better.

  7. Caleb says:

    Great article. There’s no justification for being complicit with the attack so why force the player to do something that is stupid at best?

  8. Adam Bloom says:

    Yes. Just yes. Well said Kieron.

  9. Jocho says:

    Been following the discussion around this mission (as in, “hearing what my friends and classmates, who are all gamers, thinks”) and it seems to be two camps, very like the solo-vs-in-a-group camps described in the article. Some seem to care, because they *are* civilians after all, while others happily fire away because “it’s just a game”. This article sure gave a more thought-through picture of it, even though the conclusion is a bit sad (for the medium). =/

    Good article, though! :)

  10. Jake Mix says:

    Thank you for writing this! Playing through this section, I was offended the most by how absurd and improbable the situation is.

  11. Arsewisely says:

    I find it more chilling to read an astute analysis of what it could, and perhaps should, have been than I do playing the actual level.

  12. ste says:

    This is really good.

  13. Daniel says:

    Well said. The first (and only) time I played this, I felt pretty revulsed at the whole thing. That revulsion stayed with me for the first of the level, which probably gave it a bit of gravitas that it wasn’t deserving. Considering the level on its own I’d say that, verisimilitude issues asside, it does a pretty good job of shocking you. However, you’re right. Especially when considered with the other narrative.

    The betrayal in the second half is a particularly stinging indictment of the tone of the plot, Price’s purple rants upon the nature of war aside. Why did he betray you, what was his cause? It felt contrived and obtuse and wholly out of step with their seeming desire to make a proper point with their game.

    At the end of it all, I think Infinity Ward just need to hire better writers.

    • PleasingFungus says:

      Games writing as it is, it’s more likely that, rather than hiring better writers, Infinity Ward just needs to listen to the ones they’ve got.

  14. Darkelp says:

    When I first played it, I thought it a very ballsy thing to do and commended the level.

    Then I read this, and you pointed out some flaws that I hadn’t really thought about. So I feel my opinion is rather changed now, thanks for that.

    I feel its the same with the little sisters in Bioshock, with the ability to harvest them. It was made out to be a big moral choice, but there wasn’t enough of a backlash upon you to not do it. I mean, they didn’t even show you harvest the Adam, they showed a black screen. They took away any kind of visual aid to get any kind of feeling of revulsion or guilt for your actions.

    These kinds of situation in games need to have the ability to make you feel your guilt. I felt none after playing No Russian as there was no real consequences to my actions.

    I came, I murdered and I went onto the next level.

  15. Shitflap says:

    As Jake Mix said, Thank you.
    It was almost as if no-one was going to get to the root of the problem amidst all the moralistic hand wringing and you totally fucking nailed it.

  16. Ludo says:

    This post and Alec’s has provided the best writing on MW2 to be found anywhere. A one-two punch of win for RPS.

  17. jack in a box says:

    Another butt-hurt PC gamer. How surprising….

    • Rich says:

      Gotta love them trolls. Do you just Google ‘Modern Warfare 2′, ‘That Level’, ‘No Russian’ etc. and spew bile at anyone who dares to say anything other than “OMG THIS GAME IS TEH SHITS”?

  18. Pijama says:

    This post, above all, is why I read what you chaps here at RPS write.

    Sir Kieron Gillen, bravo. Keep up the high level.

  19. Rob Zacny says:

    Great write-up. Still, I’m not sure I’d even grant that Infinity Ward have ever excelled at “simple yet powerful messages”. The River Landing in the original game isn’t Infinity Ward’s statement. It’s a scene they cribbed from Enemy at the Gates. They added nothing except an idiotic ending. And it culminates with your soldier helping call in some artillery on the German positions, which grants the Soviets an instant victory. Only in a Call of Duty game could a human wave attack end in glorious victory.

    Infinity Ward have always cribbed from pop-culture sources, and whatever their prowess as developers, they’ve never had an original or interesting thing to say about the world or its wars.

    • scoopsy says:

      Only in a Call of Duty game could a human wave attack end in glorious victory

      This is perhaps the best single-sentence summarization of IW’s pedigree, ever.

    • Alexander Norris says:

      I don’t know; I’m not sure the AC130 mission in CoD4 was taken from pop culture (at least not anywhere I noticed), and I thought that was a fairly neat way of going “war: it’s not very nice, is it?”

      Of course, it may have made that statement entirely by accident.

    • manintheshack says:

      I don’t know; I’m not sure the AC130 mission in CoD4 was taken from pop culture (at least not anywhere I noticed), and I thought that was a fairly neat way of going “war: it’s not very nice, is it?”

      It can be taken that way for sure, except I remember at the time something PC Gamer said/wrote about the developers slightly wonky attitude towards it and how it may have been implemented simply because it looked REALLY COOL. I played that level again recently and listening to the air crew’s in-game commentary and imagining that their lines may have been written without the slightest hint of irony is a really unsettling thought…

    • Rob Zacny says:

      @Norris

      Don’t underestimate the degree to which “war porn” had permeated the Internet prior to MW. Especially on things like LiveLeak, you can watch tons and tons of gun camera footage from military aircraft. The gunship sequence was merely a playable version of something that a lot of people had seen before.

    • Sunjammer says:

      The AC130 mission made me want to throw up at the time. There was an attack video circulating the time prior to MW, and i had quite enough of a lambs-to-the-slaughter fix without having it put in front of me as something Totally Awesome. Nothing like bombing the shit out of opponents without any chance to fight back. I still think IW were tremendous cockbags for exploiting that video (“Don’t hit the church”? It’s a straight ripoff).

      I’m not particularly sensitive to this kind of thing, but the whole thing just struck me as this kind of weird jingoistic Superiority Of American Tech thing

  20. Drug Crazed Dropkick says:

    I ended up writing something about this in my blog, but not a lot. I was starting to foam at the mouth. You’ve hit the nail on the head though. Its not a good level. I think it could’ve been done in an FMV, Yes, its less effective, but would it have caused as much outrage?

    You also make a good point when you say Infinity Ward didn’t earn it. I don’t think anyone has earned it yet. The industry is too young in the eyes of the mainstream media, and thus it just gave them a target. Well done Infinity Ward for pushing the boundries. Not so well done for making us seem like psycopaths.

  21. A-Scale says:

    I don’t think that the fact that the scenario is not 100% true to life makes it bad. I think it still had a lot to offer emotionally. Secondly, I don’t think we can claim that a SWAT operation would go this way or that way because such a large scale massacre hasn’t happened in Russia, and their doctrine is probably either hidden or otherwise to be ad libbed. While a line of police behind riot shields is a bit silly, it was a strong gameplay wise.

    Secondly, I also don’t think we can say that people would just run and be gone by the time the shooters got there. This is an airport, not an open field. People were indeed running, but they were often slowed by the confused crowd around them. That probably would happen. Further, where do you run to? Airports definitely aren’t the most easily navigable place in the world.

    What struck me about the scenario was the feeling I had from playing out both sides of the situation in my head. I often do this sort of thing when considering such massacres. If someone came into my school with a gun, well I’d break this window with that object and get out of there. That’s because I’m smarter than the rest of those sheep, you see. The emotional hit for me was seeing people in the airport doing things that I would have done to hide from the shooters. I saw the rows of books in the bookstore and immediately thought “I’d hide behind those!”. Only we pushed past the bookstore, and I shot everyone hiding behind those rows. I was shooting myself. I was both the hunter and the hunted. That’s a very strange feeling; one I’ve never had before. And that’s important.

    • TeeJay says:

      “…such a large scale massacre hasn’t happaned before…”

      Beslan 1st September 2004

      Armed terrorists took more than 1,100 people (including 777 children) hostage at School Number One (SNO) in the town of Beslan, North Ossetia-Alania, an autonomous republic in the North Caucasus region of the Russian Federation. On the third day of the standoff, Russian security forces stormed the building using tanks, thermobaric rockets and other heavy weapons. A series of explosions shook the school, followed by a fire which engulfed the building and a chaotic gunbattle between the hostage-takers and Russian security forces. Ultimately, at least 334 hostages were killed, including 186 children. Hundreds more were wounded or reported missing.

      The Moscow theatre hostage crisis 23 October 2002

      Armed Chechens took 850 hostages. After a two-and-a-half day siege special forces pumped an unknown chemical agent into the building’s ventilation system and raided it. Officially, 39 of the attackers were killed by Russian forces, along with at least 129 and possibly many more of the hostages (including nine foreigners). All but a few of the hostages who died during the siege were killed by the toxic substance pumped into the theatre to subdue the militants.

      More recently, in 2008:

      Ingushetia – Armed groups carried out numerous attacks, often fatal, against members of law enforcement agencies, including a failed attack on the republic’s Minister of Internal Affairs.

      Dagestan – Armed opposition groups killed several high-ranking law enforcement officials.

      South Ossetia – 600 people died in hosilities (more than half of them civilians).

      Also the general murder rate in Russia is about three to four times higher than in America (and about 10 to 15 times higher than the UK) and the police often supplement their pistols with Kalashnikov assault carbines.

  22. Delboy says:

    Completely agree with everything in the article. It’s so laughably “not involving” in any way that it makes me think that IW must’ve had an internal debate on whether to include it. If they did … it would seeem that the marketing guys won the argument ….. and not the product/quality manager.

  23. subversus says:

    cool analysis, thamks

    and BTW they should hire a proofreader to read all russian words and phrases in the game, because they are hilarious. I can’t immerse myself into the seriousness of situation if I see that departure table in Moscow airport feature flights to Moscow. And why walls in Favellas feature drawings from Pripyat? Reuse of assets? 50 million dollar game? C’mon IW you can do better than that (also russian obscenities on the same walls in Rio).

  24. Pijama says:

    Gameplay wise, it FAILED.

    As it was said by the immortal Bill Hicks… Don’t get your mind clouded by such trivial pointless bullshit. Look at it, relax, take a deep breath, point your finger and you will say: “Hey, it’s a PIECE OF SHIT!”

  25. Noc says:

    Re: Cutting the level.

    I’m trying to remember now, though, what the context was when we first heard about this. I mean, the internet’s been buzzing about The Level for a while before the game came out; did they demo it or announce “Oh hey, guys, there’s going to be this thing . . . ?”

    Or did it get leaked? A quick check suggests yes, though considering that was the subject of the very first audio trailer, whether it was intentional or not is debatable.

    But what I’m wondering, though, is if it wasn’t intentional, or at least if it was intentional by someone other than the design team. (‘Cause nothing quite helps sales like stirring up controversy.) So once the controversy’s been stirred up and people are all talking and debating and conjecturing, and people are expecting The Level to be in the game, cutting it may have been less of an option.

    Not that this’d make it not an example of a lack of ballsiness and artistic integrity, but it’d be one of executive meddling not wanting a “IW cut controversial level from game!” headline and overriding requests to scrap an unfinished level. As opposed to the apparent one we’ve got now, which is of IW’s creative team uncharacteristically going “Eh, it’s good enough, lets throw it in.”

    I’d actually be fairly curious to know the story behind this level being in the game and in its present state; you know, who’s idea it was, why it’s the way it is and why it’s included in the game, and all that. I think it’s spectacularly unlikely that we’ll ever find out, but I feel like there’s probably a story there.

    • ascagnel says:

      The teaser trailer (GameTrailers link) for MW2 was pretty much the elevator scene.

    • El Stevo says:

      It was leaked. ‘No Russian’ is CoD6’s equivalent of the nuclear bomb detonation from CoD4. It was supposed to be a shock for players when they first encounter it. Robert Bowling made references to it in pre-release interviews, and gave the impression that Infinity Ward were incredibly proud of it.

  26. Thrawny says:

    Everything i read about the game makes me want to avoid it as if it’s some sort of rabid dog.

  27. Jrosenstock says:

    Here here.
    This was plain old fashioned bad art by a bunch of people who we’ve given entirely too much credit to until now.
    Well said.

  28. tapanister says:

    Holy shit, Gillen’s really pissed. I’m not a KG fanboy or anything, but this is the best article on MW2 I’ve read since it came out. And there’s been a shitload of articles on that game.

    • Bret says:

      I, on the other hand, have become something of a Gillen fanboy of late, thanks to Beta Ray Bill: Godhunter and S.W.O.R.D., and I agree.

      So, good to know others share the opinion. Good stuff from Gillen.

  29. ascagnel says:

    The guys over at GiantBomb put up a MW2 spoilercast on Friday where they went through the entire story in excruciating detail.

    In general, the storyline, and that mission in particular, is full of plot holes. You’re told that you can’t attack Makarov, because he’s being bankrolled by some bigger bad guy. At the same time, who fed Makarov information that you’re the American? The general? Would he be crazy enough to attack the continental US? He doesn’t come off that way, to the point where his double-cross is completely wasted.

    Why was Cpt Price even in this? He went from shot by Zakahev in CoD4 (and the game ended with his attempted rescue by the SAS) to in a Russian gulag? How?

    The only really interesting part of the game, at least for me, was the “Wolverine” level. I’ve lived in American suburbia (and right off I-95, the invasion vector of the game), and the scene of running between a diner, a chain restaurant, a burger joint, and a taco place (facimilies of your local diner, a US fixture, TGI Friday’s, Burger King, and Taco Bell). Granted, there’s no particular reason to defend these points, but the next time I go to grab a burger I’ll wonder whether or not the booths could stop bullets.

    Also, what’s happening that the rest of the world doesn’t notice a massive Russian invasion? Nobody in Alaska was eyes-on during the flyover?

    I think the worst part of “No Russian” is that you have to play it through to the end. I decided to only shoot the dead, and was shocked at the betrayal the first time through. On my second playthrough, I didn’t fire at all, without comment or recognition. If Makarov is as bloodthirsty as they make him sound, wouldn’t he yell at me for being so hesitant? At the halfway point, wouldn’t he just dispatch me in the same manner as his other victims, seeing that I’m not hardened enough for his mission?

    Why would Makarov even bring someone he knows is a double agent on such a reprehensible mission? Why would Makarov physically turn his back on someone that he knew wasn’t working for him?

    • ascagnel says:

      Sorry that was so long, I needed to rant about the story being so iffy. Also, here’s that SPOILER-TASTIC BombCast where they discuss MW2.

    • Dethgar says:

      I personally wonder why the Russians would even bother to invade, when they could simply do a nuclear attack on a lot of key area’s and be done with it. This was an attack of vengeance, not justice. You don’t invade a fight a long drawn out war when you can just as well carpet bomb the place with nukes. ESPECIALLY considering they hacked/jammed/duped the NORAD recon system.

      Another thing that bothered me, why in the hell did Price bomb the ISS? That made little to no sense to me. Maybe I missed something in the story.

    • ascagnel says:

      Price didn’t bomb the ISS per se, it was collateral damage. A nuke emits an EMP burst, but normally you don’t notice since everything else got blown up too. By detonating in space, the EMP burst can reach DC, but not have all the other problems with burning everyone up and destroying the buildings.

      Also, another point, how many times was the President saved?

    • Dethgar says:

      I’m kind of curious about that too now that you mention it. I also thought that the secret underground bunker was poorly placed and way too obvious. Yes the one under the real white house is fake, I’ll give them that. But the real one would not be so easily identified or accessed — at least that’s not how I’d set it up.

    • Fatchap says:

      Is the point not that actually Makarov is being double-crossed himself by the General? Makarov is being bankrolled and fed info by the General so that he gains support for his jingoistic ambitions of a strong US military.

      It is a far fetched story yes but hey one person basically took on the whole army and one so that is one of the more credible parts of it.

  30. Dethgar says:

    I agree with most of what you said. The game didn’t really need this level in order to tell the story, and the fact that he mission is doable by doing it yet just watching, takes away all the expression that is given to the entire campaign. It’s a good story through out, but the more I look back on it, the more I believe it to be reach for a simple shocking and controversial reaction. The end of the level makes the level itself pointless, especially considering the vague nature of your orders to begin with. Personally, I think Marakov and Shephard set the thing up together. That’s really the only logical way to make the story believable.

    I’ll be honest, I mowed down as many civi’s as possible. It’s a game. I wasn’t going to do the mission and just tag along. I committed.

  31. army of none says:

    Yes to this entire post. Well done Kieron.

  32. Flappybat says:

    Part of me likes to think that the whole section – in fact, the whole game proper – is actually a statement that the blind following of orders leads to the death of the world. The one irony of the twist in the plot is never commented on in the game – that being, the Russians are entirely justified in being phenomenally pissed off.

    I would have loved this to be the message but like you say the game swings too much between seriousness and snow mobile chases for it to be true.

    I had problems with a lot of the game, Afghanistan seemed to be tacked in purely to be topical and the levels on US soil just felt like it was played to the US crowd who would be shocked at playing on their home turf (compared to the 100th fall of berlin/stalingrad). And like Rob Zacny, Infinity Ward seemed to have no overall vision for the game. The story feels like a 14 year old who has watched too much 24 writing down all the cool things he can come up with but can’t come up with any greater meaning than shoot the bads, which would be fine if it was all snowmobile chases instead of wild swipes at realism.

  33. Karry says:

    Whats actually bullshit, is that in other games you are never really allowed to kill US citizens and/or soldiers. Thats whats bullshit. I think in one of Delta Force games (could possibly be another game) you could potentially shoot allied russian soldiers, but the targeting icon changed into cross when you aimed at USian.
    In most games if you shoot a USian the game your mission ends right there. Thats whats bullshit. But thats okay, i kill them anyway, even though i have to load afterwards. There are hundreds of games where you kill russians, i want “torture and kill a USian” game too, tis only fair, dont you agree ?

    • Oak says:

      i want “torture and kill a USian” game too, tis only fair, dont you agree ?

      Yeah, I mean, that’s only reasonable.

    • Vinraith says:

      “There are hundreds of games where you kill russians”

      There are? The only one that springs to mind is World in Conflict, but of course in the Soviet missions you kill US soldiers (and citizen resistance elements) so I’d think that would balance itself out.

  34. Rayme says:

    There is this exchange, early in the game, between your character and Shepard:

    ==========================
    “So Makarov is the prize?”

    “Makarov is no prize; he’s a whore. A mad-dog killer for the highest bidder.”
    ==========================

    There’s further talk on that. But it should be clear that your character, at least, thinks that Makarov is just a means-to-an-end.

    ** spoiler **
    And as it turns out, that’s all he is. Makarov, willingly or not, is a puppet and a decoy.

  35. nayon says:

    Infinity Ward want to thank you for promoting their game by putting it up on your front page. No publicity is bad publicity. Also, yes, it’s not a classily designed level and it kinda sucks, but why so much anger? What is achieved by such a post? It makes good points, but still. This post stinks of angry internet man rage.

    • Stupoider says:

      I’m not quite sure what the aim of the post was, but it did manage to convey what I was thinking in a handy, readable format.

    • nayon says:

      As much as IW are riding the “WE ARE CONTROVERSIAL” bandwagon, games jorunalism right now is riding the “IW IS TRYING TO BE CONTROVERSIAL AND FAILING” bandwagon. I mean, this issue has been discussed to death in the last few weeks, and it’s starting to get just as annoying as IW being IW. I hope the rage will be over now that someone “of authority” has focused their rage in one post where everyone will discuss it and not move it over to every single comment thread.

    • Alexander Norris says:

      Oh my god, someone has an opinion on something beyond “BUY BUY BUY SPEND MORE MONEY CASH BUY!!1!” Surely, this must mean that they are an idiot and a fool.

    • Premium User Badge

      Chaz says:

      That’s pretty much what I was goig to say. I think this level has done exactly what IW wanted, and that’s to get people talking about the game, and articles like this just play right into their hands and only serve their cause greater. As you say, in the world of entertainment, there’s noo such thing as bad publicity.

    • TeeJay says:

      Not true. There are loads of things (films, TV, books, games, music etc) people avoid because of the weight of negative press.

  36. One F Jef says:

    If you want artistic integrity from a game-maker, don’t expect it from a money whore like Infinity Ward. If you want an answer to why they did ANYTHING in this game, the answer will always be the same: Profit.

  37. darthpugwash says:

    Yes, very well said Kerion. I haven’t played the section because I’m one of those spurned PC-gaming types, but having watched a playthrough on Youtube, this seems to be a good analysis. It is BS, really.

    Prior to all this controversy business with the dedicated servers and now *this* level, I counted Infinity Ward as one of the very best developers around, but they have made rather a bad mess of this, haven’t they? It’s a shame.

  38. TotalBiscuit says:

    Bravo, hit the nail on the head right there. It was a golden opportunity to advance the medium and their hamfisted immature method of storytelling torpedoed it.

  39. medwards says:

    Alright, that was a pretty solid critique. As a leftist political radical I’d like to mention that I didn’t shoot any civilians, and the part I was looking forward to (killing cops, something I’ve learnt to take pleasure in primarily thru Mirror’s Edge) brought me no pleasure at all after the massacre. In fact thats part of why my gut reaction was to give the game the benefit of the doubt throughout. I was also looking forward to the Russians invading the states, and while there are humorous beats with fights in fast food outlets and the ‘oh-so-sorry’ destruction of an affluent community (if you have a problem with me not caring about that, consider what happens to the poor community in the first Afghan level), but the later levels around monuments and trying to buy time for evacuation convoys brought me precious little malicious glee and just a sense of deadened horror. Essentially the game managed to fundamentally usurp my intended perspectives on play and feed me a different experience, and that subjective experience is what I’ve mostly judged it by.

  40. cliffski says:

    Whether it was artistically good or not, it was a crap business move. There is nobody who was on the fence about this game but bought it because they saw this level, but there are people like me who bought the last 4 games and skipped this one secifically because they didnt like the sound of this.
    I bet the game would have done better without this level in it.

    • ascagnel says:

      It would have worked better with some role-playing/branching storyline elements. Or, when saw what the terrorists did, let me open fire on them, have them kill me, and end the level immediately.

    • A-Scale says:

      I don’t think you understand how controversy works.

    • TotalBiscuit says:

      War is not very nice. The previous games are rather unpleasant too, this is no different.

    • ascagnel says:

      @TotalBIscuit

      The nuke was unpleasant, but it felt reasonable. The game did a good job of explaining how that character was a coward and backed into a corner, plus it would be what he thought of as a reasonable response to America invading his country.

      On the other hand, there was nothing building up to “No Russian” — instead, it was the flashpoint for the game.

  41. Jeremy says:

    I think one of the frustrating aspects of the whole discussion is the group that speaks out against those of us who think That Level was utter garbage. Saying things like, “it’s about time that a scene like this happened”, or “some people just can’t handle things like that” and are completely avoiding the issue at hand. It is NOT about time a company used sensationalism to try and sell a ridiculous plot point upon which an entire game barely hinges. And maybe they’re right, I can’t handle it when a company has the chance to make an important statement, and squanders it on a poorly thought out and contrived scenario. Sure you kill innocents, or you don’t. It doesn’t matter either way. I’ve been killing innocents since Baldur’s Gate 2. Just because I’m killing an innocent with a gun in an airport doesn’t suddenly make this a deep and thoughtful development. It’s just killing zeroes and ones, at least in BG 2 I became a Fallen Paladin, which is infinitely cooler and has more impact than your decision to kill innocents in No Russian.

    • A-Scale says:

      I’d rather play an ambitious failure of a level than a well executed but dull level.

    • invisiblejesus says:

      I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not play either one. Saying it’s more interesting than a well-executed but dull level is pretty faint praise, especially for a company that’s set the bar as high as IW have.

    • Premium User Badge

      Sagan says:

      No this is different than in other games. The scene actually still works, even if you don’t kill a single person. This is about more than just killing innocents. This is about you empathizing with the innocents. In Baldur’s Gate or other games where you are simply playing an evil character, you are always very detached from the victims. Here you cannot help imagining yourself in the shoes of the victims. So saying “well I have eradicated entire planets in other games, so this shouldn’t affect people” doesn’t count.

    • Wulf says:

      It really depends on what kind of ambitious failure you’re talking about. Whether it’s a Robinson’s Requiem sort of ambitious failure, or the far more appealing Boiling Point: Road to Hell sort.

      From everything I’m reading here, it’s a Robinson’s Requiem sort of failure. There’s usually a redeeming, compelling element in the latter sort of game, something that endears, something impressive, perhaps the storytelling, something that shows the game has soul, something truly new…

      The scene, from what I understand, was:

      A.) Sensationalistic and nothing new to videogames, we’ve been doing this since GTA.
      B.) Had plot holes one could slip the Titanic through.
      C.) Had limitations on player choices, which punched asteroid sized holes in one’s suspension of disbelief.
      D.) Was pretty average as far as gameplay goes, when looking at gameplay mechanics alone.

      At the end of the day, it seems like it’s a soulless piece of sensationalistic pap that’s there for no other reason than to get a rise out of hte player. It’s there to be controversial, that’s one thing you said earlier that I agree with, but also so damned sensationalist, and it’s there to sell copies of the game. This is idiot food, that’s what it is. It’s utter garbage, gore, and revulsion that appeals to people who don’t actually bother to sit and think about it.

      Because you can either sit there and get a kick out of slaying the innocents (thanks for painting us all as sociopathic killers, IW), you can sit there and feel ill and actually get a kick out of that instead before continuing to play the game… or… or… you can think about it, maybe finding it repulsive or not, but if one really thinks about it, it sounds like it was there just for the cheap shock value. Just like a newspaper feeding on schadenfreude. In fact, it sounds like it’s exactly like that.

      I’ve seen mainstream games pull this nonsense before, and it wasn’t big or clever of IW to do it again. In fact, it’s actually kind of getting old now.

      And the sad part? Today, the most shocking thing would be to see true, quality storytelling in a console game, that would get more of a shock reaction out of a console audience than this level could ever hope to. For the only people who’ll be shocked by it are the people who it was marketed to.

      I made the point about the lowest common denominator before, and here I smugly make it again.

    • Wulf says:

      Oh and for the record, I watched it on YouTube, which is how I know anything about it.

      Were I to show this to a film buff, they’d probably roll their eyes and say “Good lord, are videogames still cranking out such poorly conceived scenarios? Then again, they probably never stopped, eh?”

      That makes me seethe, because there are intelligent games out there, but it’s hard to see that through the mist of games like MW2.

      Talk it up all you want, but at the end of the day… I still call it as idiot food.

    • Hmm says:

      Watching mainstream games on a mainstream site like youtube. You’re so mainstream.

  42. Premium User Badge

    Sagan says:

    Well said. I wish we could get the inside story about this.

    But this just showcases again the problem with the games media nowadays, in that there is unlikely to be an interview about this with Infinity Ward. When Modern Warfare was released, Shawn Elliott got to interview Vince Zampella, and got him to talk a little about the AC 130 gunship mission. But back then Shawn Elliott was working for GFW magazine, so they could get interviews like that. I don’t even read magazines anymore, and none of the blogs I read could possibly get an interview with Infinity Ward. Gamespot or IGN probably could. But they wouldn’t ask the right questions. Maybe Eurogamer could get a proper interview. But then again it’s hopeless, because the game is already out, so Infinity Ward is probably not even available for interviews. Except concerning DLC.

    But on the other hand we would probably not have half as intelligent a discussion about this topic a couple years ago.

  43. DJ Phantoon says:

    I heard you automatically lose if you try to shoot the terrorists in said level.

    If I had bought the game, I would’ve stopped right there. Talk about shoehorning a game.

    • A-Scale says:

      Do you hold every game to this standard? I can’t think of a single FPS that lets you murder necessary NPCs. I bet you quit out of most games in disgust within the first ten minutes.

      Or are you only holding this particular scene to that high standard because you find the alternative morally repulsive?

    • Mark says:

      Play Deus-Ex.

  44. kwyjibo says:

    I agree with your comment about the piece’s quality. I believe that games can tell this story, even with the context given, but the execution is weak.

    Maybe I’ve just played too many games, some were aghast, but I just felt the thing was too poorly implemented. It was too far away from the reality of such a situation, which, given that the greatest success of Modern Warfare, was that it was first to convey the intensity of 21st century warfighting, was a shame.

    I too couldn’t help but pick up on the ridiculous civilians. Whole groups of them hanging around, waiting to be massacred. As soon as you clear the first room, you’d have thought that everyone would have legged it, but no, they’re waiting for you at the top of the stairs. The top of the stairs that you’re forced to walk up.

    I wanted more intensity, more pleading eyes, more pleading screams. I wanted the horror. I wanted Mumbai. What I got, was more whack-a-mole. Whack-a-mole that Infinity Ward thought was irrelevant enough to skip.

  45. manveruppd says:

    Aren’t you contradicting yourself a little bit, Kieron? First you say “oh, sure, you can pick holes in the fiction, but it still provokes a response” and then you go on to pick holes in the fiction. I haven’t played the game, but watching the video did make me feel a bit upset, so it can’t be TOTAL bullshit, can it? I think you’re right in every comment you made about it, but, surely, the problems you identify couldn’t have detracted from your experience that much if it still had an effect, as you admit it does. They’re more the type of thing that you think about and get annoyed at afterwards.

    I get pissed off with “bullshit” as much as the next guy. In fact last week I saw a horror film where the heroes were in a Ferrari and were being chased by the villains, who were in a 4×4, and, for some inexplicable reason, THE HEROES COULDN’T GET AWAY!!! That 4×4 should’ve been eating dust, but that would’ve ended the movie half an hour early. :)

    Anyway, I’m surprised virtually no-one has written anything in defense of that level’s shock-value. I would’ve thought people would be keen to prop it up as an example of a game that not only does not glamourise violence, but deliberately makes the player feel aversion towards the violence which he/she either wittnesses or participates in. It’s not only indicative of the strength of the medium but a good argument against ignoramuses accussing games of trivialising violence and desensitising players to it.

    • Adam Bloom says:

      Provoking an emotional response isn’t art. Provoking a response that makes you think is. The problem with this level is that as soon as you start thinking about it, the whole thing falls apart.

    • manintheshack says:

      I would’ve thought people would be keen to prop it up as an example of a game that not only does not glamourise violence…

      I don’t think people play Call of Duty in order to benefit from any underlying message. I think that’s the big issue here. If pulling a *blank* out of your *blank* and throwing it in somebody’s *blank* isn’t glamorising violence then I’m not quite sure what is…

    • manveruppd says:

      First of all, be fair, I never called it art. The point is that although it may well be that it does fall apart under scrutiny (as I said, I only saw the video, haven’t actually played it) it’s still quite rare that an FPS tries to make you feel revulsion at the site of violence.

      Regardless of its merits in itself (and within the broader context of the game, which both Kieron and Alec said is far too popcorny for you to be able to take that level seriously), this level is a good counterargument to the luddites in the anti-gaming lobby claiming games are harmful because they treat killing with levity and desensitize people to violence.

      It’s fair enough to say “it’s a bit shit really”, as this is a website for gamers after all, but just a little nod in the direction of what it tried to do would be nice.

  46. andreadst says:

    You know, although I agree that there are some faults in the execution of the scene, when I played it I felt compelled to shoot above the civilians to fake shooting at them.
    Now, I’m not the role-play kind of player, but this scene really triggered a mix of repulsion and understanding of the horror happening in front of my eyes. IW had the balls to try this, and I believe my reaction to it proves (to me) that their execution of the matter is effective.

    This is mass-market entertainment, the one that usually delivers controversy-free products; In my opinion, IW set out to trigger an emotional response from the player, like the one you experience in the Metal Gear 3 torture scene or in that one mission in the original Modern Warfare (the one where you’re stuck in the car and are inevitably carried to your execution), and it succeeds in doing so.

    This is creative freedom. It might not be perfect, but at least it dares to try and bring new emotions (repulsion, you don’t see that very often in games) and it succeeds in getting us talking about it.

    And as always with provocative creations (games, movies, art…), it’s ultimately only a matter of subjective choice as whether you want to see as a simple and very marketable provocative content or as a genuine attempt at trying something new in the gaming medium.

  47. kwyjibo says:

    And Makharov was a shit villain with absolutely no motive.

    Later on in the game, I assume he was under the General’s employ, but that meant for the first half of the game – I was chasing this figure who I absolutely didn’t give a shit about.

    The first game was about a fucking attempted coup-d’etat in Russia with a Middle Eastern nuke as a distraction. MW2 was about catching a mercenary with no actual aims.

  48. no says:

    The level had a lot of potential. When I played through, my instinct was to kill the bad guys, even if it counted against me. But it wouldn’t let you. My second instinct was just not to shoot anyone, which felt miserably unrealistic due to their lack of response to your not participating and just “faking it”.

    If that level only had a little more wiggle-room, it could have been very memorable in an expanding-the-genre sort of way. It wouldn’t have even muddled their plot, either. Since you die in the end of the level and they find your body — does it really mater if you die because they find out who you are and kill you at the end after you participated in the massacare (even passively)? Of course not. You could have turned on them or refused to shoot anyone and instead of just letting you walk through to the end, they could have yelled at you and threatened you and then killed you near the beginning or if you turned on them… and had the same plot result (dead american agent body to blame for the killings).

    Because of that lack of choice and lack of interactivity, it feels like a gimmicky device that should have simply been a cut-scene. It’s manipulative and the way in which they fail to capitalize on its true potential leaves it feeling like a giant step-back for all gamers.

    Of course, the real question is which of Activision and IW’s stupid moves set gamers back the most? The “FAGS” commercial or the meaningless and poorly handled airport massaccare?

  49. The_B says:

    Honestly, I think No Russian is the gaming equivalent of Jedward within Modern Warfare 2’s The X Factor in every single way;

    It divides public opinion, very little technical ability, no use for anything but being showy, famous enough to gain notoriety even if you don’t follow the game/watch the show.

    MW 2 is clearly The X Factor as it’s absurdly popular despite adding nothing to the development of the field it is in.

    – I can seriously run with this analogy through a good few pages of words, come to think about it. But that’s a general gist of my viewpoint on it.

  50. Premium User Badge

    Vitamin Powered says:

    I’m not quite agreeing with Karry’s wonderful desire for an American killing sim (wasn’t Postal enough for you?), but I think we should wonder about IW’s use of Russians as massacre fodder. Why not place the massacre at JFK, if controversy is your goal?

    It also seems to be going straight for 24’s These are Evil, Evil Men approach, as versus giving us a more nuanced look at “the other side”. Surely there’s more to be gained by letting us play, for instance, a hopeless Iraqi insurgent, than a spy amidst cliched muscled thugs.

    Anyway, thank you Kieron for an amazing read. Well said.