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Modern Warfare 2: No Russian, Mo' Problems

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Adrian Hatwell
Adrian Hatwell

Just before the game dropped I provided a brief overview of the myriad controversies that dogged the launch of Activision’s Modern Warfare 2. Regardless, the title went on to smash all kinds of sales records upon release and now I, like millions of other gamers, have had the opportunity to experience the offending material first-hand. Lets see what all the fuss was about.

The first of the controversies is easily dismissed as an overreaction to an out-of-context teaser (unless you still suffer traumatic episodes as a result of the last time the Russian military invaded US soil…), and the later was more a sad indictment of online culture than an issue for the game itself. The kerfuffle that still persists, however, is over a level involving a terrorist strike against a civilian population.

‘No Russian’ is a brief stage early in the game in which players take the roll of an undercover CIA agent who has infiltrated the Ultranationalist Russian terrorist organization. The group plan to massacre civilian targets in a Moscow airport and poor old agent Allen is forced to take part. The player is made to waltz through the building and watch, or even participate, as the terrorists massacre hundreds of helpless civilians.

In response to the sensationalist headlines provoked by the leaked footage Activision were quite clear on their intent with this segment; it is meant to illustrate the depths of the villains’ evil and the urgency the player should feel in trying to stop them throughout the missions that follow. As a rough concept it was interesting, and certainly a bold decision for such a big, conventional title, but the proof always comes down to execution. 

As the ominous white ‘No Russian’ text fades and the doors of the darkened elevators ding open the player, as an ardent hype-follower, knows what comes next. The real question is how to proceed; does one attempt to stop the inevitable carnage, refuse to participate and simply bear witness, or take part in the travesty? Unfortunately Modern Warfare 2 already has its answers lined up regardless of the gamer’s own reaction.

Stopping the massacre from occurring is out of the question, any attempt to harm one of your fellow murderers results in cries of traitor and a swift mission restart. Whether you choose to partake in the slaughter or leave your sword sheathed as hell unfolds is the only quandary left to the player’s volition, and either way the result is the same; this level has a story to tell and, no matter how horrendous, you will be told.

It’s an unquestionably well-crafted scene, realistic violence is Modern Warfare’s signature dish and on this scale, with this much malice its impact is assured. However, its purpose is a little less solid. If instilling the desire to see these loathsome terrorists ended was the goal then the game creates self-defeating parameters in not letting the player act on this desire during the massacre. If we have no hope in altering the scene’s course then why not just employ a non-interactive video to essay the brutal tragedy? If we are to take part in these events then how do we condemn the villains’ actions without condemning our own?

These questions, the ethical quandaries, the justifications, the reasoning, the only real arguments for such a level’s existence are superficially sidestepped by the scene’s twist ending (this would be where you stop reading if you don’t want things spoiled); terrorist leader Makarov has Allen marked as a rat from the very beginning and a bullet to his head leaves a convenient American scapegoat for the disaster, a manipulative pretext to the ensuing Russian invasion, and a thoroughly unsatisfying ending to a problematic level.

If Allen hadn’t died how would he have lived with the consequences of his actions? Would the institutions within which he operates have condoned them? To what extent are civilian casualties acceptable in such operations? Isn’t it important to attempt to act rightly, even in an unwinnable situation? If we are to die anyway, why should the player not get the futile opportunity to take down the terrorists?

These aren’t the questions Modern Warfare 2 is interested in answering; the thundering military skirmishes that ensue are where the game’s allegiances lie. But  ‘No Russian’ raises these issues nonetheless, and anyone interested in that conversation is, disappointingly, going to be left in the cold as the game whisks off to tell its popcorn flick narrative. It doesn’t infringe upon the game’s overall quality but it does seem like an opportunity to say something engaging thoroughly squandered.

And just quickly, while we’re on the subject of complete ignorant twats (we were, right?), in case you were lucky enough to miss it our local talkback headache and sterilization enthusiast Michael Laws has weighed in on the ‘No Russian’ issue. While his comments on the game aren’t even worth bothering to refute I think the rampantly homophobic Mayor might find some unexpected common ground with the Modern Warfare marketing gurus who gave us this gem. Seriously, we kicked Beanie Man off the Big Day Out but this blood clot is somehow an elected official? Funny old world.

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