No Russian

! – SPOILER WARNING: This post contains spoilers for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and, specifically, for That Level, entitled No Russian. I’m not talking mild ‘tiptoe around the content’ spoilers either; I’m going to be spoiling the shit out of this thing. If you have any plans at all to play MW2’s single player campaign then, seriously, don’t read this. – !

The first time I hadn’t even meant to play it. A friend was round and I was just dipping into the campaign. Being further ahead of me in the story he would sometimes interject with a “this bit’s awesome” or a “this level is a bastard”. You probably know the type.

My plan was always to play No Russian properly: no people, sound up, lights off. We’re experiencing a medium in its adolescence and I’m always interested when a game looks like it might be genuinely unsettling, especially if that game is billed as the biggest release of the year. Before I even know it’s coming, though, the screen has gone black for just a little too long. The only sound is that of guns being checked and ammo being loaded. Finally the visuals fade in and I… my character is stood in an airport.

“This is…” my friend begins. “I know,” I reply, cutting him short. I can’t remember at what point the contents of Modern Warfare 2’s most controversial level were spoiled for me. I don’t even think anyone had to set it all out in front of me, instead the puzzle was pieced together by a snippet here and a mention there; a hundred reviews and previews and discussions and whispers, each one doing their best not to reveal the content but going about it in slightly different ways.

“Remember – No Russian,” says Makarov, the terrorist leader who I… my character has been sent undercover to befriend. “This level isn’t that bad,” says my friend, the terrorist sympathiser who seems intent on cajoling me to unleash hell. We… my character and the cell he’s infiltrated walk into the airport itself and open fire on the unsuspecting, and unarmed, civilians. Here’s the thing: I do find it unsettling. I don’t want to kill these pixels but, at this point, I’m unaware of how the mechanics of the level work; whether non-participation would lead to suspicion and failure. Worse still I’d be showing myself up in front of my friend, who’d just admitted to having no problem gunning down the legions of cowering men and women. In the end I… my character walked the terminal picking off the mortally injured as they dragged themselves across the floor. I deliberately aimed just to the side of a crowd of people, winding up killing another crowd I hadn’t noticed in the background. I’d linger just a beat to long on visual cues like the departures board ticking over into a wall of ‘Delay’ signs. Still, I… my character was complicit. I felt numb.

The thing about No Russian: no matter what issues I have surrounding its execution as a level, or even its inclusion in Modern Warfare 2, in me it succeeded in its goal. Whatever its failings, that was and always will be my honest initial reaction. The game does a great job of hightening the atmosphere within the level itself. The long build up and fade in; the enforced slow walk of your character; the clean mundanity of the setting in contrast to the dusty war torn locales of the rest of the game; the underlying, unsettling, pulsating background ‘music’. Even the civilians themselves have animation models not present in the rest of the game. They’ll drag themselves across the ground and, in some cases, those too injured to even do that will be dragged to safety by others. Everything in the level is designed to provoke a reaction from the player. Mission accomplishes right? Not entirely…

I played the level again earlier today in order to see if it would provoke a similar reaction. It didn’t. After an initial, cathartic, round of gunfire in the opening section’s main bulk of passengers I had no problem moving from room to room killing everything in sight. There was no particular pleasure to be found in it but neither was any of the unease of my initial visit. In the time between my two playthroughs I’d become aware the level plays out exactly the same way whether you participate or abstain from firing completely which, ironically, destroys most of the atmosphere. Even on my first go I realised that the level dissolves completely once the tactical assault teams arrive, bringing the game back to its usual, familiar territory as you become more concerned with staying alive than with what the level is trying to achieve.

This man has clipped through his suitcase. Way to take me out of the moment, computer game.

It’s unfair to expect the level to evoke the same emotions on revisiting, but anecdotal evidence suggests that most of the people I’ve talked to felt no real issues when playing it. Most raise the point that you can do far worse to civilians in many other games. Certainly I have no problem with mowing down pedestrians in GTA, my favourite pastime in Prototype was punching citizens into meat chunks and in Fallout 3 I smiled with evil delight as the town of Megaton erupted into a mushroom cloud of my own making. I can’t entirely explain why this level was different for me but I have a couple of theories. Perhaps perspective plays a role: I’m less aware of an identifiable character in a first-person shooter and the genre itself has a standing tradition of casting you as the hero, saving mankind from aliens or terrorists or Nazis, often single handedly. More likely I think it’s due to the amount of RPGs and adventure games I have played. I’m used to assuming a role and to connecting with a story because they are the elements that those genres tend to emphasise. Are gamers who primarily play shooters prepared to allow themselves to be drawn in to such an attachment? It seems slightly at odds with what they look for in a game.

I feel it’s important to make something clear: I’m glad No Russian caused the response it did in me. Even if the level had provoked the same reaction had I played it alone, and I’m not entirely convinced it would have, I wouldn’t have skipped it. Games shouldn’t shy away from including mature content when the definition of ‘mature’ extends beyond tits and swearing. That said my biggest issue with No Russian is that, tonally, it doesn’t fit in with MW2 at all. Frankly it’s a ridiculous game. the preceding level culminates in a snowmobile chase and, just two levels after, you’re protecting America from an all out Russian invasion. If Jack Bauer went postal in a public place, gunning down civilians left and right? That’s the kind of out of place juxtaposition we’re looking at here. Even the narrative set-up to No Russian itself is handled poorly, with little background given to the terrorists or their ideology. Even a cutscene to give some contextual information about their beliefs would have increased the purpose of the levels inclusion tenfold. Instead we’re left with some cookie-cutter speil about them being Evil. At best the whole thing seems somewhat of a gimmick and is rendered slightly tacky for the fact; at worst it’s a poorly realised exploitation piece designed to court controversy.

And yet… It worked. My initial response was my initial response. For better or worse Modern Warfare 2, by its mere profile alone, has managed to set the bar for emotional set-pieces in an FPS. If a developer can come along and wrap that same sense of unease into a properly defined narrative then a true classic could be born.


3 Responses to “No Russian”

  1. 1 Izzi
    19/11/2009 at 15:12

    “Worse still I’d be showing myself up in front of my friend”; “most of the people I’ve talked to felt no real issues”; ““This level isn’t that bad,” says my friend”
    Ha, good old male psychology.. ‘We must kill because we can.’ And if you can’t, just bullshit about it anyway.

    • 2 Izzi
      19/11/2009 at 15:19

      and by that of course i mean you are commendable for your honesty.. it almost sounds like the level is just there for guys to make a point of saying “oh well i thought it was easy!” and look all cool and emotionally void in front of their mates.

      • 3 octaeder
        19/11/2009 at 17:30

        Partially, although I don’t think it’s quite as clear cut as that. I totally understand that many people wouldn’t feel anything towards the level. At the end of the day these AI characters have less complexity than the most basic of living object – they’re basic, vague approximations of a snapshot of humanity. It seems a fairly big ask to expect everybody to be able to emote to that.

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