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It’s hard to shock these days. Whether in real or fictional media shocking people so desensitised to war, violence and sex is difficult to do. I suppose it’s worth questioning whether things were any different ten years ago? In 2007 Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare had forced players to die as the ousted President of an unnamed Middle Eastern country and as an American soldier in a nuclear blast. In Modern Warfare 2 developer Infinity Ward put players through the wringer again, this time forcing them into the boots of an undercover CIA agent moonlighting as a Russian ultra-nationalist terrorist.
‘No Russian’ is the name of the game’s fourth level. The name is taken from main villain Vladimir Makarov’s insistence that no one on the strike team speak their native tongue. Makarov is hell bent on revenge for the death of his commander, Imran Zakhaev, even if that means war with the United States. So Makarov attacks a Russian airport fully aware that a member of his strike team is an American spy. At the end of that mission Makarov kills player character Private Joseph Allen, leaving the American’s corpse as a declaration of war and setting the plot for Modern Warfare 2 in motion.
I think after all the hullabaloo around that particular level died down it was the starkness of it all that was really shocking. The level opens with Allen, Makarov and Makarov’s team of ultra-nationalists loading up in an elevator. Dressed in sharp suits with Kevlar vests and armed to the teeth with assault rifles and heavy machine guns they look like they’ve stepped out of Michael Mann’s Heat. Makarov states: “Remember, no Russian.” The elevator doors open, the team steps out and as the crowd turns they open fire.
It’s hard to think of a less dramatic intro to a level that involves you, the player, participating in mass murder. After that opening though that 21st Century desensitisation kicks in. The more pixelated bullets you pump into pixelated bodies the less real it all becomes. Eventually it starts to look less like Heat and more like Con Air as an army of SWAT arrives on the airport runway. Call of Duty has always seemed to be caught between the realism of Kathryn Bigelow and the bombast of Michael Bay, falling all too easily into the latter time and again. It only really achieves something close to Bigelow’s sun-bleached vision of modern warfare at the start of ‘No Russian’ and at the end where Makarov shoots Allen in the head, leaving him to kick start a new global war.
The rest of Modern Warfare 2 takes place in the aftermath. As Private James Ramirez players will fight through the streets of Washington DC defending the capital against the Russians. The meat of it all though lies with Sergeant Gary ‘Roach’ Anderson and John ‘Soap’ MacTavish as they and the spec-ops team Task Force 141 attempt to find Makarov and stop the war. Much like every Call of Duty campaign in the last decade or so it had its moments of brilliance that had to be picked out of a morass of first person shooter templates we’d seen before.
Modern Warfare 2 had two things over its predecessor: a bug-shit crazy story about confused geopolitics and an improved multiplayer. For now we’re talking bug-shit crazy geopolitics. Russian ultra-nationalists supplied by Brazilian arms dealers with bases in rural Georgian villas and Afghan aircraft boneyards spurred into action by a treacherous American General. It’s like Syriana on crack cocaine. Still perhaps because of all,this, it’s never boring.
One high point is the game’s hellish vision of Washington DC, the sky aflame and full of Russian paratroopers; McCarthyism’s worst nightmare. Rescuing Captain Price – Soap’s old commander – from a Siberian gulag feels like something out of James Bond. The final mission involves a firefight through Afghan tunnels followed by a hell-for-leather dinghy vs helicopter chase down a river before finally, as Soap, you pull a knife from your chest and throw it into that treacherous general’s eye. Like I said geopolitics but jacked up on Michael Bay movies and methamphetamines.
It’s difficult to know where Modern Warfare 2 takes its influences from other than Red Dawn and The Rock. It’s version of Russia feels like something drawn from the late 1940s or early 1950s all chest beating bravado combined with a total lack of human empathy. With that said it’s not too far off but Putin’s Russia today is still a little more subtle. Sure they’ve assassinated dissenters, screwed with foreign elections and invaded sovereign countries but at least… Well maybe Modern Warfare 2 was on to something here.
Modern Warfare 2 was not the downturn of the Call of Duty campaign mode. That happened around Advanced Warfare. It’s hard to take a game seriously that asks you to “Press F to Pay Respects”. It was perhaps the high point of this specific sub-series’ multiplayer though. Not only did it go bigger and better than Modern Warfare’s multiplayer it came out swinging against World at War’s incredibly successful Nazi Zombies mode with it’s own co-op Spec-Ops mode.
Built around gradually more difficult co-op missions Modern Warfare 2 was the last Call of Duty game to come up with an original idea for co-op that didn’t involve shooting the fascist undead. Not even this year’s revamp of the series offered much of anything in it’s own lazy Spec-Ops mode apart from a Nazi Zombies mode with neither Nazis nor Zombies.
In the end though Modern Warfare 2 did something a Call of Duty has never done before or since. It opened the door for a discussion of how we treat terrorism in games. Later games in this 16 entry series would destroy the Eiffel Tower, send suicide bombers into London and rewrite the history of American war crimes but none of them had the impact Modern Warfare 2 did. The developers of Spec-Ops: The Line said they took inspiration from ‘No Russian’s’ massacre of civilians so that their own PTSD-inducing accidental massacre wouldn’t look so clumsy. ‘No Russian’ was a risk and it would be the last time the developers took one so big. Calling it brave feels wrong but to say that it didn’t open doors feels wrong as well. For once the biggest FPS franchise in the world had its finger on the pulse and, for good or for ill, no one can take that away from it.