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 »

  1. Ryan Richards says:

    I have these (seemingly) odd pangs of guilt when playing these games. When it came to playing “No Russian” I had no idea about this level before hand. I found myself trying to fake my way through the level purposefully missing civilians and quickly discovered you can’t take out the other terrorists. So after a few minutes of shooting between civilians and unloading into the already dead I found it refreshing to blow away the security forces. After the final shot of the level I just muttered to myself “Well, that’s instant Karma”.

    I, for one, enjoyed the unsettling nature of the level and the taint that it flavoured the rest of the game with. While not the classiest writing in a game, it was effective.

  2. Brer says:

    Karry, you spend the last few levels of the game killing dozens of US soldiers.

    Speaking as an ex-army guy with a bit of an intelligence background, there are so many holes in the plot that it’s hard to know where to start, but a good place would be on the plausibility of grabbing a PFC out of 1-75 and within -days- dumping him as a deep cover agent. The CIA doesn’t work that way, and even the chairman of the joint chiefs does not have the kind of unilateral unsupervised authority that Lt. Gen. Shepherd seems to have (plucking up PFCs for top secret missions, requisitioning submarines from the -Navy- with no one batting an eyelash…). Second, the “we can’t take him down now, we have to get the whole organization” is a patently absurd excuse that exists only to serve as the good guy counterpart to “No, don’t Shoot Secret Agent 69, throw him in the elaborate death trap after I’ve explained my secret plan to him”. It’s a 100% artificial plot device meant to explain why the show/movie/book/game doesn’t end early.

    In real life we are quite willing to take our best shot at terrorist leaders even if we don’t have their boss, and even if we’re not 100% sure we’ll catch them. Witness all second, third, and fourth tier AQ leadership we’ve taken out over the past eight years (including a couple failed attempts at getting Ayman Al-Zawahiri). A more realistic controversial scene would be to have information that you THINK that the terrorist leader is in place X, to be given a mission to help execute an airstrike or similar indirect attack on place X, and find out that while you got a few bodyguards and such that the leader got away and oh by the way there were six civilians killed and 16 badly injured by the attempt. One of the reasons we’ve used predators and airstrikes and so on rather than boots on the ground except when there were little to no risk of negative consequences, by the way, is because in many countries it’s still safer than sending in an agent or agents with guns. Witness what happened to Israel in Lillehammer in 1973. We’ll still occasionally raid terrorist camps with military forces (there was a SEAL raid in Somalia earlier this year for example), but we’re very leery of using those sort of techniques outside of places like Somalia, Afghanistan, etc.

    Finally, the whole invasion thing is ludicrous, not because America is invincible, but because the techno-babble they use to justify it makes no sense at all. Neither the US nor Russia has the capability to launch a lasting invasion through air power alone. You can start by dropping airborne troops and special operations teams to destroy or control key infrastructure, seize and hold airfields for the heavier transports to land at (which is one of the primary missions of the Ranger regiment by the way), but the bulk of the forces will need to come via sea. To speed that up the US has the Maritime Pre-Positioning Force, for example, ships at Diego Garcia pre-loaded with all the vehicles, ammo, fuel, spare parts, and so on that a Marine Air Ground Task Force needs to operate for the initial 30 days of combat operations. In any case, the point is that while the initial phase would quite possibly be a heavy air attack to clear the way for a massive drop of airborne and SOF, that would have to be followed by the landing of an invasion -fleet-…and that sort of thing is pretty much impossible to hide. Blinding NORAD wouldn’t blind our acoustic sensors that cover the atlantic and allow us to identify when foreign naval vessels have entered the atlantic and in most cases which ships. That’s without all the other indicators of preparation for massive military action: cancelling leaves, changes in readiness postures of strategic forces, mass movements of troops to railheads and ports, all manner of logisitical effort that we would pick up through both satellite surveillance and more terrestrial SIGINT, ELINT, and HUMINT sources, and on and on.

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      Brer: Thanks for that one.

      (It’s odd – my favourite stuff in MW2 is the most ludicrous stuff which is so far beyond what makes sense that it becomes mental poetry. The invasion of the US is the best of that. Just this sort of fever dream of America Burning and all that, rendered with all the craft they can bring to bear.)

      KG

    • Alexander Norris says:

      Clearly lacking in torture, though.

      And yes, as someone whose degree was partly in security studies, the plot to the game is maddeningly stupid. Sometimes, I’m glad that IW went and never released this on PC, or else I’d've been significantly more annoyed about the idiocy of the single-player plot.

    • Dorian Cornelius Jasper says:

      @Brer:

      That’s a lot of stuff to think about! And worth thinking about, actually.

      More people ought to take on consultants for this sort of writing–especially if they’ve got the time and the budget.

    • Slaphead says:

      Your reference to the Lillehammer Affair seems weirdly non-squitur. Or are you saying that the biggest operational failure in Lillehammer was that the Israeli agents got captured after they murdered an innocent man in cold blood?

    • Brer says:

      Slaphead:

      The point I was trying to make referencing Lillehammer was that that sort of fuckup (-BOTH- the mistaken targeting and getting caught) is a diplomatic and PR nightmare for most countries, and it serves as an excellent example of why only countries that feel like they’re facing genuine existential threats (Israel) or countries who don’t give a shit about both international and domestic opinion (The USSR during the cold war, say) have regularly allowed their intelligence agencies to operate as aggressively as it’s implied is standard in MW2 (planting an agent inside a terrorist organization operating on the foreign soil of a non-hostile power without any coordination with that power, etc). Domestic security agencies, on the other hand, are more likely to have undercover agents penetrate an organization because they’re far more in control of both the agent and the environment the target organization is operating in.

      TL;DR: Even after its leash was lengthened post-9/11 the CIA has far less black ops capability (both in operational terms and in terms of its freedom of action with regards to political oversight) than is generally believed, and that’s something that’s been the case ever since the leash started progressively tightening in the late 60s, leading to the Church Committee, the axing of most of our HUMINT resources under DCI Turner and the Carter administration, etc. Operations like Lillehammer are textbook examples of -why- that leash got yanked in good and hard.

    • Brer says:

      Slaphead:

      The point I was trying to make referencing Lillehammer was that that sort of fuckup (-BOTH- the mistaken targeting and getting caught) is a diplomatic and PR nightmare for most countries, and it serves as an excellent example of why only countries that feel like they’re facing genuine existential threats (Israel) or countries who don’t give a shit about both international and domestic opinion (The USSR during the cold war, say) have regularly allowed their intelligence agencies to operate as aggressively as it’s implied Shepherd/The CIA is in MW2 (planting an agent inside a terrorist organization operating on the foreign soil of a non-hostile power without any coordination with that power, etc). Domestic security agencies are more likely to have undercover agents penetrate an organization, but that’s because they’re far more in control of both the agent and the environment the target organization is operating in.

      TL;DR: Even with its increased capabilities and freedom of action post-9/11 the CIA has far less covert action and even clandestine HUMINT capability than is generally believed, and that’s something that’s been the case ever since the leash started progressively tightening in the late 60s (the Church Committee, the Halloweeen Massacre under DCI Turner, etc). It’s never been in the same league as Mossad, the Soviet-era KGB (I can’t say how much of that has been retained by the modern SVR), and so on when it comes to stuff like assassination, penetration agents, and even basic HUMINT collection.

    • subversus says:

      Thanks, that was interesting.

    • Casimir's Blake says:

      This is why I read RPS.

  3. Reiver says:

    I didn’t shoot a civy once in that level. Call it role-play or whatever but i just fired above their heads. I don’t think i shot someone until the swat teams arrived and tbh i’m not even sure i hit many of them as my allies did a bang up job of doing for them while i cowered behind a pillar waiting for my face to top bleeding, occasionally stabbing the wall as i reflexively tried to lean.

  4. Radiant says:

    Has anyone from Infinity Ward spoken about the level?
    The aim of it seems clear [shock the player and provoke controversy] and they do it throughout the game [they kill you twice and immolate you once]. But what is their take on it; internally?

    I actually really want to know more about Infinity Ward.
    I mean in terms of execution [badoom tish] they’re on par with Valve for sure but talkative wise and play wise they’re the polar opposite.

    We need a post mortem interview RPS stat!

    • Kadayi says:

      I doubt after this justified savaging, they are likely to want to speak to RPS tbh. Still they’ve never really had a strong public face like Valve.

  5. Anthony says:

    One of the things I adored about COD4 was Death From Above, because the guys in the crew around you are completely detached from the efficient and nasty methods by which you’re disposing of tens of bad dudes every shot. It gave the strong impression that this is exactly how it is on an AC-130 lobbing howitzer shells at brown people. I never figured out if that was intentionally the case or just bad writing meeting great execution.

    This whole deal with No Russians has got me thinking that maybe I gave IW too much credit.

    • Walsh says:

      You seriously haven’t seen the AC-130 video from Afghanistan? The level is basically interactively playing that video. Even the commentary is basically ripped from the video.

      Look up AC-130 on Youtube.

  6. Staggy97 says:

    I consider myself very tolorant to violence and scenes of a disturbing nature, yet this level infuriated me. Not when I was playing it however, but when I had completed the game.

    After what felt like a non-stop Hollywood blockbuster, the final credits roll and I could finally catch my breath and think about the whole experiance of the game, and in hindsight – ‘No Russian’ adds NOTHING to the experiance of the game. It’s not enjoyable to play, it’s not deep, thought provoking or in any way presents any valid attributes that it can defend itself with in or out of context. It is inexcusable, and I regret not taking the option to skip it, as the end result is the same.

    What this is level? This is a controversial badge to get the game noticed and to boost sales, nothing more.

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

    “Makarov” is interchangable with “Infinity Ward” it seems; big budget, massive hype and profit hungry at whatever cost. Integrity is even for sale (price hikes/platform delays/dedicated servers included).

    Which is a shame, it hurts a perfectly competant and well polished shooter from an uptil now, consistant developer.

    QFT KG.

  7. kyrieee says:

    I love reading pieces like these
    I think I’m going to have to subscribe

  8. Dominic White says:

    Watching a video of the level in question (I’m waiting until the game is £20 or less), I can only agree that it’s tacky as hell.

    It also made me kinda want another Terminator game, like an update of the super-ancient 3D one, where you play as a Terminator. Let me be an evil killbot from the future, and let me rack up points for causing as much havoc and mayhem as possible in my attempts to track down and murderize my target.

    MW2 tries to dress up senseless violence as a statement about *something*, and comes off like Tom Clancys most paranoid fever-dream. A Terminator game, you just take for granted that it’s going to be messy.

    That, and I just like the idea of playing as a stompy great evil killbot from the future.

  9. Cedge says:

    As if it hadn’t already, the series has absolutely irrefutably officially jumped the shark, at this point.

  10. richmcc says:

    I’m most confused by the complete media non-event of the shocking allusion that occurs straight after No Russian – spoiler: the next scene has you in a favela in Rio, having caught an informant, whereupon Soap, your companion on the mission, closes a grate with the captive tied to a chair, while warming up some nasty looking jump leads.

    Has 24 made torture acceptable? Has Taken made it fine to do whatever it takes, as long as it’s in your interest and it’s only baddies that get it? As far as I can see, criticising No Russian for a callous, badly-skewed vision of an atrocity needs to be followed by condemnation of this next scene, but none seems to be forthcoming.

    It’s the South Park humour defence – either all is fair game, or none is. We can be shocked by all shocking things in our games, or cherry pick those that have been selected for us by others.

    • Saul says:

      I haven’t seen that part of the game, but it is interesting that not one of the commentators I’ve read or friends I’ve spoken to have even mentioned it. I guess the fact that it’s not a first-person, interactive sequence makes quite a difference, but yeah, it should be included in the discussion, for sure.

    • richmcc says:

      It either means that a) torture has become at worst, an acceptable facet of small-scale warfare, or at best, something to be quietly eye-rolled over when it appears in mass-media, or b) people are outraged because they’ve been told they should be outraged.

      Both are a little scary.

    • Buemba says:

      For me the craziest part of the whole Rio de Janero sequence is the fact that the game outright states in one of the loading screens that Soap’s secret supersoldier group operated entirely without the knowledge of the Brazilian government.

      The fact that a group of foreign armed men snuck into a neutral country, turned a densely populated area into a warzone, killed hundreds of locals and got out while the local authorities just scratched their heads bothered me a great deal, but the fact that the good guys are the ones doing that bothers me even more. That they also tortured one of the locals is just the cherry on top.

      And I thought 24′s glorification of torture was already extreme enough.

  11. Arg says:

    Kieron you are my hero

  12. Saul says:

    Pretty much spot on, Kieron. I haven’t played the game myself, but I watched my brother play this and several other levels. When I first heard about this level in the press, I was actually pretty intrigued. I though perhaps that this could be a watershed moment in gaming. That, although it would be controversial, a game developer might actually be making an unforgiving and powerful statement that could be made in no other medium.

    How wrong I was. While the mission itself was exactly what I’d heard and expected, the complete lack of a plausible context appalled me. It was like:

    “Do this horrific thing. Don’t kill the bad guy because… well, just don’t”

    [you do the mission]

    “Oh you died and started a world war. Oops.”

    The issue is not whether the mission provokes powerful emotional responses (it does), but what those responses are in the service of, and here they’re in the service of pure nonsense.

    • Unlucky Irish says:

      “Oh you died and started a world war. Oops.”

      Someone really needs to make a game about the Franz Ferdinand; the Duke not the band.

    • Mark says:

      Ooh, an idea! Your superior gives you a mission to assassinate a political personality giving you various reasons to do so. After a tough mission, when you finally succeed to do so, you learn your superior was acting rogue and the assassination leads to unrest and eventually war.

      IW: you can have that one for free.

  13. LordCraigus says:

    Not to mention that the scene from the film/game is pretty ridiculous from an historical standpoint.

  14. Jimbo says:

    I don’t think Infinity Ward had an obligation to anybody to handle this scene in a meaningful way. They certainly haven’t harmed the medium or whatever. The usual suspects whined about it for about five minutes and then went onto the next thing – and every one of them would have whined regardless of how the scene had been handled.

    It’s a relatively weak level in an otherwise-solid popcorn FPS campaign. There are elements of ‘No Russian’ that are a little ridiculous, but no more or less so than any other part of the game. I don’t believe you should expect this one scene to have a totally different tone to the rest of the game, just because of the nature of what is happening in it.

    From your character’s perspective you are there to prove yourself to Makarov and figure out who he’s working for. From Makarov’s perspective you are there solely to be the smoking gun, with the intention of triggering a Russian response against the US – and given that a dead US agent is integral to that plan, I think it’s likely that Shepherd orchestrated the whole thing. The scene may not be ‘deep’, or even particularly good, but it achieves everything it needs to achieve for the plot, such as it is.

    The closest Call of Duty ever gets to artistic merit is the content of the load screens, which is to say, not very close. This scene is no more deserving of outrage than all of the other scenes which are equally lacking in artistic merit. Thinking it’s ‘not any good’ is fair enough, but it isn’t much to get worked up about either. If you are as angered by this specific level as some of you seem to be, I suspect it’s because you – rather than IW – set yourself up for something which was never coming.

    The ‘laughable’ tonal shift is, I think, actually an imagined tonal shift. It’s an assumption on your part that the super-serious subject matter of ‘No Russian’ will be handled in a super-serious manner – it isn’t, it’s handled in the same OTT, ridiculous Clancy/Bond/24 manner of every other level. Infinity Ward’s intention was just to make a blockbuster techno-thriller campaign – you are fishing for an artistic statement that doesn’t exist, and which they aren’t trying to pretend does exist.

    • Saul says:

      Putting you in the shoes of someone perpetrating a terrorist attack isn’t a tonal shift? It’s a complete reversal of the role you play for the rest of the game. And it clearly provokes a strong emotional response in most people who have played it. So yes, it is a massive tonal shift, and a very poorly executed one.

    • Jimbo says:

      No, it’s a material shift. The tone remains as ridiculous as the rest of the game, for all of the reasons stated in Kieron’s original article.

      This seems to me like playing GTA and then getting upset that the part where you ran over the little old lady wasn’t handled sensitively enough. I think most people had a similar ‘emotional response’ the first time they knocked somebody down, handbraked over their corpse and got blood marks all over the road – now nobody thinks twice about it

      Kieron is absolutely correct that the scene doesn’t mean anything. Where I feel he’s mistaken is in singling it out and suggesting that IW had an obligation to us or the medium to handle this specific scene any differently to the rest of the game. It’s a popcorn scene in a popcorn campaign, and IW never tried to build it up as anything more than that. We might have done, but I don’t think they did.

  15. Nimic says:

    I yelled “fuck you!” at the game when they shot the guy. Oh, don’t get me wrong, he deserved getting shot, but it made the whole level feel incredibly pointless. The fact that it was a key part in a clearly mental plot doesn’t help.

    And it annoyed me greatly that they didn’t just take this terrorist out when they had the chance. By everything they knew, he was his own boss, he didn’t have someone ordering him around. So why not just shoot him and his cronies in the back and cackle with glee?

  16. Web Cole says:

    This is why we read RPS. Bravo.

  17. ChaosSmurf says:

    I thought it was awesome and I really enjoyed the single player campaign as a whole.

  18. Dagda says:

    You’re setting a higher standard than I am, Mr. Gillen; while I share your dim analysis of the ‘writing’ to a degree, I’m still inclined to respect the moment as a legitimate piece of storytelling. I suppose I’m cutting it the same slack that I cut Pathologic (yes, sorry, I did just go there): They’re breaking ground for games as a storytelling medium, even if they’re not exactly leveraging it with a deft touch.

    To put it another way, I think their #1 priority with No Russian was to show atrocities being perpetuated against civilians in the most compelling way they could; something that penetrate the average gamer’s cynicism and detachment. I can see the room for greater depth, and can get behind you taking them to task for this in a heartfelt manner. But when we get to the point where you’re criticizing the people not fleeing quickly enough, and the guards not being sufficiently armed. . .that’s the point where I feel like I’m reading a rant rather than an article with a fully thought-out point. That’s the point where it seems like you’ve moved away from a coherent analysis to grasping at any and all criticisms so as to better rationalize your bile.

    This level bears discussion, and I agree with the better part of your thoughts on this matter. But taken as a whole, this piece is not one of your better moments as a games writer/journalist/what have you.

  19. Cvnk says:

    Excellent commentary. I can only wish that game designers displayed the level of maturity that game critics like Kieron do. We’d probably have much better games and they’d be taken a lot more seriously as an art form.

  20. Tei says:

    If the level is “trolling”, then we are feeding the troll.

  21. Helm says:

    I have similar sentiments. What’s really interesting also is how the game gives you the choice to walk or not walk, to look left or to look right, to pull the trigger on innocents or not. But it doesn’t give you the choice to shoot the terrorists in the back of the head. Why? Is this interactivity? Is this how you make a point about choice, by giving it where it doesn’t matter as much but not where it does?

    Generally it seems much bad will follow MW2 in the mainstream field.

    • A-Scale says:

      It’s an artistic choice. If you’re arguing that the scene is not good because it doesn’t account for the direction you wanted to take you’re walking on very thin ice.

      You might as well argue that a hedge maze is not good or not artistic because it doesn’t let you walk in whichever direction you choose, or that Half Life 2 was a bad game because you couldn’t restrain, rather than shoot, the combine.

    • Helm says:

      I’m arguing that the scene is not good because it barely holds together narratively (as the article explains) and on top is hand-held to its invariable conclusion via cutting off impulsive paths the player might take. And it does this by providing *no feedback at all* (you click on the head of Makarov and nothing happens). At some point just shooting the terrorists and getting a game-over screen would-you-like-to-replay? would have been barely more honest, if you see what I mean.

      I get that the issue of free-will in a scripted universe like a videogame exists and I’m not trying to side-step it at all, in fact even what I considered a bad game – like Bioshock – gets points from me for even attempting to tackle such an issue (imagine what happens when a good game – like Braid – does it!!). But in a game where the raison d’etre is to chose where to shoot and where not to and then see what happens (shooting/not shooting are the only verbs in MW) to be denied by the game to shoot where I placed my cross-hairs with no explanation whatsoever, just so they can have their controversy, is terrible. And opting to not play the scenario to begin with is bullshit. I was warned in the beginning that there are scenes in the game that might disturb me and would I like to opt out or not. I am playing a videogame where I am going to shoot a lot of people dead, is that not disturbing enough? The reason I’m doing this is because there’ll be a point to it all, right? A videogame is not a buffet, it’s a work of art, you don’t skip the chapter in the book because it makes you cry, you stick with it and it makes you a better human. No Russians didn’t make me anything other than reevaluate why I bother playing these games.

      A ground rule to a gaming system is one thing (the presupposition being that when I start playing snakes and ladders, I will obey that I need to roll dice, say) and then very artificially containing valid impulses (like shooting a bad man when playing a first-person-shooter-where-you-shoot-bad-men) is a very different thing. I am not saying this effect couldn’t conceivably have been handled well, everything is possible in art. The tragedy is that whereas this cognitive dissonance could have been used for a potent result, it’s handled so shallowly on every level (of design, narration and even style) that it backfires hugely. When I played the level I wasn’t horrified on a humane level nor did I treat it cynically, instead I finished the level, half-heartedly played the next one for a bit and then uninstalled.

    • Mark says:

      I agree with Helm.

      Putting the subject matter aside, any time you are given the illusion of free will (I have the choice to pull the trigger or not) and choice is taken away from you (I pull the trigger but nothing happens when I aim at a terrorist) it shatters immersion along with any credibility the level may have had.

  22. h4plo says:

    Even with the over-used expletives and a very clear bias, this is one of the best pieces you’ve written in awhile, Kieron. The level of analysis and your conclusion, that the level is shit because it’s just bad, is an interesting one that’s on-point.

    I don’t have much to add – just wanted to throw some props.

  23. Helm says:

    I’m really confused when you say he has a bias when he’s writing an opinion-piece to begin with.

  24. NegativeZero says:

    I’ve always believed that Infinity Ward were masters at creating brilliant, incredibly fun set pieces. The trouble is that they’ve always struggled to have a strong enough plot to string all those separate pieces together. It’s like they studied what Valve did in Half Life and picked up the mechanics of it perfectly, but completely missed the purpose.

  25. scratchy says:

    Brilliant article. That is all.

  26. James says:

    Well put, what a disaster in execution.

  27. Adrian says:

    Three things.

    This level isn’t about Makarov, it’s about Shepard

    This level has created a lot of discussion and passionate responces so I’d say the effectiveness of this stage went beyond IF’s expectations.

    It’s a videogame game. In real life, you don’t have regen powers and you will get killed in one hit. If artists choose reality over emotions, then this would be one very boring game.

    • h4plo says:

      Adrian:
      Glenn Beck generates enormous amounts of passionate and heated discussion. Does that mean what he has to say is valid or worthwhile if it is based on speculation, imagination, and untruth?

    • Adrian says:

      I don’t know who that guy is h4plo, but I’m guessing there’s lot of people out there who thinks what he has to say to be very valid and worthwhile. Just like Bill O’reilly.

    • JoeX111 says:

      @Adrian:

      Excusing stupid shit because “It’s a video game” doesn’t do much to help this medium evolve.

    • Adrian says:

      The OP called this level bullshit because the civilians didn’t run fast enough from his bullets. Give me a fucking break.

    • invisiblejesus says:

      That’s not what he said. And I think you know that.

    • Adrian says:

      “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. “

      A big chunk of his rant is how unrealistic this scenario is. The whole game is unrealistic. One man cannot take down a Brazilian viallage full of militia. This is why it’s a video game.

    • Jeremy says:

      Video games are about putting people in unrealistic situations that they could never be in, not for the systems within them to act in unrealistic ways.

  28. Matt says:

    that “Death from Above” level really impressed me too, because for the first time I could remember a “dumb” FPS actually seemed to be making a statemate, that war has become a point-and-click video game. But for the rest of the game I got the sense of a game that was making a brave stab at being art, only not quite succeeding.

    It sounds like MW2 is more of the same. Here’s hoping for MW3, yeah?

  29. subedii says:

    I just wanted to thank you for calling out IW on the complete absurdity of this whole scenario. It really does read as an attempt to give a “deeper meaning” to the game, but it can never achieve that because of how stupid they’ve been with it.

    It’s… trash. People will praise it for being deep and edgy, and other games will try to emulate it. It doesn’t make you think, and the way it’s crowbarred into the narrative is a joke. About the sum total point of the scene is to say “here are some badguys, they’re really really evil. It doesn’t try to make an actual point or make you think. And yet whilst it can have the power to shock, it’s purely as a reactionary thing, the way a sudden monster closet can make you “jump” you but that doesn’t make it horror.

    Also, I’ll agree with richmcc about the complete neglect everywhere of the torture scene. It’s a tiny thing but grief. Torture’s seen as happily a part of warfare, the just and right thing as long as we “good guys” do it against the evil bad men. Honestly, when I saw from the trailer that there was going to be torture in the game, I was hoping, hoping that IW would be able to take a more intelligent track with that scene. Instead it’s just more “24″ style idiocy where you grab the badguy (and he’s definitely the badguy otherwise you wouldn’t be torturing him), torture him (it’s electricity so it doesn’t count. But just to be sure it’ll be off-screen anyway), and get precisely the information you want from him, and everything’s right with the world.

    Oh I like how immediately after they shut the door on the torture scene they talk about how “important ” it is to avoid those civilian casualties. We wouldn’t want to be bad people now would we?

    • Helm says:

      Well said.

    • Saul says:

      Exactly. It would be wrong to kill civilians. Oh, unless we’re undercover helping terrorists do it for no apparent reason except to accidentally start WW3. Hmm.

  30. Urthman says:

    Really, this scene is no more and no less than the same stupid scene that’s in every dumb action movie where the bad guy rapes a puppy so the audience will think he’s Really Bad and Needs Killing Now.

  31. Krikey! says:

    Well said Kieron. Well fucking said.

  32. elle pesh says:

    “they’ve never really had a strong public face like Valve.”

    If MW2 is game of the decade, these words are the understatement of the century.

    I mean, Valve makes a jar of piss into the Most Quotable Game Joke, topping even false cake (Valve), a box with a heart on it, (Valve), crowbars (Valve) and appropriate cows (Monkey Island).

    MW2′s high-point in public relations – unless you consider “custom stuff like mouse control” intentionally funny – is a gay-bashing joke with a “celebrity” baseball pitcher. A U.S. AMERICAN BASES-BALL PITCHER calling people pussy while obliquely being called a faggot.

    Nobody should be surprised that their games are as insincere as their community.

    • oceanclub says:

      “MW2’s high-point in public relations – unless you consider “custom stuff like mouse control” intentionally funny – is a gay-bashing joke with a “celebrity” baseball pitcher. A U.S. AMERICAN BASES-BALL PITCHER calling people pussy while obliquely being called a faggot.”

      Details? Hadn’t heard about this. My middling opinion of IW has been plummeting lately.

  33. Tim says:

    “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. ”

    Precisely why I haven’t bought this title yet. I enjoyed the first Modern Warfare because I thought it was believable. Despite all of my hesitance to play a single player story about “modern warfare”, it was an intriguing, balanced, plausible story that did not lapse into a naive pacifist diatribe not did it lapse into a justification of the war on terror.

    Once I saw that Infinity Ward’s new story was trying to create fictional military units and use picatinny rails to attach Aliens-style motion trackers to assault rifles, I realized that Inifinity Ward had stopped watching the history channel and started reading too much Tom Clancy(or maybe they were just playing too much Spinter Cell).

  34. FRIENDLYUNIT says:

    “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.”

    Actually that sort of thing annoys me. I’ve spent a lot of time and effort (I play RPGs as well as computer games) going along with silly inconstancies and ignoring lack of motivation (why am I saving your village again?) for the sake of jumping on the plot wagon and allowing the game to flow. To have a game turn around and then smack me in the face and call me stupid, well that’s just uncool.

    Let me restate that.
    Game: Knock knock!
    Player: *sigh* Whos there?
    Game: People who say whos there suck!1 kekekeke

  35. hitnrun says:

    I agree with most of what you said. By arguing over the permissibility and taste of the level, people miss the greater point, specifically that the level was a crock of shit, a pitiful attempt to inject gravity into a story that is less serious and engaging than 3 of Pierce Brosnan’s Bond movies.

    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”.

    I beg to differ. Somewhere in Act 3, the game enters territory occupied by Ninja Gaiden and Crysis. In a sense, the airport fiasco really was foreshadowing.

  36. Mr. Bravado says:

    Whilst I may not agree with the extent of the complaints in this article, it was quite well-put and thought-provoking. Articles like these are why RPS is my favorite online gaming read.

  37. Mr. Bravado says:

    Also, I have to say, for a comment thread more than a page long, there’s hardly any flaming. You Brits (and Brit-writer-readers) have your Interweb ettiquette down pat.

  38. Deadend says:

    I hated the level, as until the police showed up, it was on auto-pilot. It may as well have been a cutscene for all the choices the player could make. I also don’t think Infinity Ward was making a statement, as their games strike me as a bit.. not artistic at all, unless you mean reenacting scenes from War Movies.

    The amount of choices players could make in the game was shockingly low as well.. I think the scene with the most freedom was taking over the House In The Forest, as you got to pick what door you went in and what rooms you blew up first. But most of the game has you running down 5 foot wide hallways with enemies that pop out at you. Thank god for the high quality set pieces, as the corridor crawling in between belongs in 2000 or so.

    I also think the game was hurt by the strange silent protagonist thing. As Soap does not shut the fuck up when you see him, but the moment you take over, he zips those lips.
    If I tried pointing the gun at the other terrorists and internal narration voice came on and said “no! I have to wait until I find out who hired Makarov” and a few other internal comments in the airport.. maybe it would have been better.
    Or if the people in the airport tried to be heroes, have a bunch of guys decide that the only chance is to rush the terrorists en masse.. only to get cut down, as Call of Duty is all about that sort of thing.
    But, as it stands.. the level sucks and Infinity Ward either pussied out, or doesn’t understand. I am assuming they pussied out of making the level better.

    But I do give the game credit for the Iraq level.. as that level is great until you get into corridor crawl mode, as that jeep ride evoked what I think being on a patrol gone wrong would be like.

  39. bill says:

    While I never expected this, or 24, to be the one to do it, surely the only real value in placing you in the shoes of the “other side” is to attempt to explain their viewpoint and motivations. Otherwise it’s just an attempt to shock… which is almost impossible to do when it’s “just a game”.

    • TCM says:

      A true work of brilliance, be it game, novel, comic, movie, or tv show, can do both.

  40. Wraggles says:

    I can agree with the core sentiment, that they only went the half mile rather than the full with the execution of the scene. But as to it’s place in the story, well it’s fairly deserving of that. Too many people claim that it’s a stupid move to send an American into this mission, well guess what, *spoiler* that’s exactly why he was sent in. Shepherd (regardless of what powers of office he should have, considering this is a fictional game), pulled someone with little knowledge of undercover ops, told him he’d be a hero, prevents him from meeting anyone else on the taskforce (so he gets no chance to be told this is unorthodox), then sends him into Russia to die. Also Makarov’s machinations are seen quite plainly in that he has no reason to strike Russian soil. The man is Zekhaev’s Lieutenant, and the coup’ has been successful, a terrorist op on Russian soil would be done FOR NO OTHER REASON, than to provoke whatever Russian conservatives that are left into open action.

  41. Jerry says:

    To me, it’s an issue of “willing suspension of disbelief.” I’m willing to accept that an elite soldier could potentially take out dozens of enemies. I know it’s highly unlikely, but it’s within the realm of possibility. If you don’t believe that, feel free to do a little research on winners of the Congressional Medal of Honor and some of the insane exploits they pulled off. Or look up Simo Hayha.

    What I’m =not= willing to accept is that some PFC fresh out of boot camp is going to have four armed terrorists in front of him, slaughtering dozens of civilians, and not shoot them in the back. It takes years of desensitization, religious fanaticism, and/or some mental disorder to produce that kind of remorseless killer. And Shepherd would have been a fool to trust that sort of mission to a fresh-faced recruit without extensive psychological testing.

  42. Corion says:

    I definitely think the story in MW2 was much sloppier than the one in MW1.

    MW1 felt like playing through a movie. It felt epic. It felt desperate, but it felt like what you did made a huge difference.

    A lot of MW2 was doing random missions of questionable impact – even up until the very end. Since when is taking out the leader of this shadow organization suddenly going to fix the world? Why is taking him out and quite probably dying in the process going to help things in the long run?

    Half the time I had no idea what was going on – I suppose some of this chaotic storytelling was intentional, but other times it was just frustrating.

    As far as the “No Russian” mission went … Eh … could have done without that, shown it from a different perspective, or talked about it in a cutscene or briefing. Regardless, it doesn’t make ANY sense. I doubt an operative in that situation would just play along with it, even if it meant possibly saving more lives in the future. They had to have seen the game’s outcome from a mile away – though I suppose that was kind of the point? I just think they could have come up with a much more plausible storyline there …

    Also, I hated the mission briefings. Most of them tell you nothing about what you’re supposed to do in the upcoming level but rather give you background/history on a location, vehicle, or weapons. I’d actually like to be briefed on what the strategy or tactics for the mission is … am I alone in this?

    It’d also be nice to be able to pick a loadout in singleplayer and Spec Ops … Why don’t they have this?

  43. Lord Benjamin III says:

    Infinity Ward never claimed to be Hemingway, and is in all probability quite happy being Danielle Steele.

    It’s not war-porn, it’s war romance. Equate ‘undercover agent’ with ‘young, dusky nobleman’, ‘fully-automatic rifle’ with ‘throbbing member’ and ‘crowd of civilians’ with ‘creamy inner-thighs’.

    Oh hot.

    Like romance novels, the game is not laudable on any intellectual level, but perhaps worth a wank nonetheless.

  44. Caerphoto says:

    Are there any children in the No Russian level?

  45. Caerphoto says:

    Are there any children in the No Russian level? If not, what (in-game) justification is there for them being absent?

    • demon arm says:

      I don’t remember any kids. Only in front of the TV, perhaps…

      In fact, I don’t remember any more than perhaps a dozen distinct individuals.

      Looking down from the balcony when the terrorist pauses to shoot down makes this most obvious, you’ll see dozens of identikit business men and women fall over like dominoes.

      It’s true that you can’t shoot at the terrorists – what you can do, however, is lob a grenade at them. This will earn you shouts of “traitor” and a couple of bullets to the head, followed by a quick game over.

  46. Caerphoto says:

    *shakes fist at crap company proxy server*

  47. Lockdown says:

    Brer, you missed out the biggest plot hole of which is that infinity ward seem to have forgotten about NATO or more to the point believe it consists of the US and the SAS. I mean even if the russians had managed to get that fighter crash techno babble gizmo and knock out US radar and then circumvent whatever other stuff the US has to track hostiles, becuase they’re assaulting the east coast they’d still have to cross through european airspace, which means going through NATO airspace who can track Russian aircraft crossing over the top of europe all the time. The ammount needed to detect airborne would in no short order cause NATO to shit a brick, tell the US of this massive air fleet and scramble all avaliable fighters. Now I know many may say ‘it’s just a game’ but many people seem to have this preclusion that modern warfare is incredibly realistic which is just bullshit, if you want some form of realism play Operation Flashpoint: Dragon rising, if you want ultra realistic play ARMA 2.

  48. faelnor says:

    I’m glad a journalist realizes that this level is completely irrelevant. Thanks Kieron.

  49. abhishek says:

    That level has everyone talking about it. I would consider that Mission Accomplished for Infinity Ward.

  50. TheApologist says:

    Yep – glad you’re saying it Kieron. Was sick of Giantbomb style defence just because its big, dumb and ‘the biggest entertainment launch ever ever ever’…