On the Level, by Ed Smith, examines how small moments in games can resonate throughout—and beyond—the games themselves, encapsulating all of their various qualities.
There is no reason for "No Russian," the fourth level of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, to exist. As undercover CIA agent Joseph Allen, you partake in a mass shooting at Moscow International Airport, optionally murdering civilians in an ambitious bid to convince Makarov, your surveillance target and the game's villain, that you're a genuine terrorist.
Go along with the actions of the terrorists you're embedded within, and you'll fire randomly into crowds, sending people running, screaming and crying. Your accomplices gun down the unprepared security guards. There is blood, and chaos. You can walk behind, merely spectating; or skip the stage entirely with no penalty. But naturally, many players chose to participate.
It's easy to posit that "No Russian" (which you can watch here; viewer discretion advised) draws upon the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, India. Just a year prior to Modern Warfare 2's release, almost to the day, 166 people were killed when gunmen stormed a café, a hotel and, most analogous of all, a railway station.
Of course "No Russian" caused controversy. Given the events of just a year earlier, how could it not? Mohammad Alavi, the designer of the mission, has said it's not based on any real massacre, but that didn't prevent comparisons. As a means of promoting the game it was part of, "No Russian" did its job.
Which is precisely why it needn't exist. As a marketing tool, it proved effective, there's no doubt of that. But as a substantive and coherent part of Modern Warfare 2, it's a failure and a waste of time.
As well as aggravating politicians and newspapers, "No Russian," presumably, is mainly intended to characterize Makarov. His display of violence, which hits uncompromisingly close to home, ought to solidify him as an arch but also plausible villain. Instead, because of the "troubling scene ahead" content warning at the beginning of Modern Warfare 2, we can get the impression that the game's creators are leading us on.
Modern Warfare 2 encourages us to be emotionally masochistic. We are primed, excited, to find out how much this upcoming level is going to hurt us.
And so, we play the first three levels of MW2 in ghoulish anticipation. When "No Russian" arrives, it feels not so much like a surprising and confrontational turn in the narrative, but a macabre reward for having strong stomachs.
Like the Kingda Ka rollercoaster and its record-breaking 418-feet drop, Modern Warfare 2 encourages us to be emotionally masochistic. We are primed, excited, to find out how much this upcoming level is going to hurt us. And the game's makers want to shock and thrill players, of course—but while Alavi has said that the mission's there to serve the narrative above anything else, the scene plays out in such a way that it fails to satisfyingly flesh out the personality of Makarov, and supplement the wider story.
By giving them, respectively, a distinctive mustache and a jocular, London accent, the original Modern Warfare makes Captain Price and Gaz feel like close friends. Details such as these, always present but perhaps not explicitly telegraphed, are what sell fictional characters to us. From his unkempt beard and slow, phlegmatic voice, we understand Zakhaev, by juxtaposition, to be Modern Warfare's antagonist.
By contrast to these subtleties, Modern Warfare 2 uses an entire airport of dead, unarmed people to make a single point: Makarov is the bad guy. And not only is it gratuitous, it's badly staged. If the game wants you to fear this man—to be shocked and terrified of what he is capable of—it would work more effectively if, rather than one of the gunman, your role in "No Russian" was that of a fleeing bystander.
Modern Warfare 2 has stealth mechanics. Like the original game's "All Ghillied Up" mission, there are several levels wherein you must sneak around guards. And conveniently, the section directly preceding "No Russian", called "Cliffhanger", provides one such occasion. Its infiltration of a Russian airforce base is tense and tentative, the careful picking off of patrols essential to progress, over full-frontal assault. A single wrong move can compromise the entire operation, so enemies must be dealt with quickly, while player movement remains gentle and precise, making as little noise as possible.
If you were to play as one of Makarov's victims, rather than his accomplice, Modern Warfare 2's sympathies would lie with the right people.
Having just taught players precisely how its stealth systems work and feel, Modern Warfare 2, once "No Russian" begins, is at an ideal place to use those systems to explore something narrative and affecting. More importantly, if you were to play as one of Makarov's victims, rather than his accomplice, Modern Warfare 2's sympathies would lie with the right people. To have to cautiously pick around the environment, avoiding the attentions of the terrorists, would have been a riveting experience.
Instead, since you play as Allen, "No Russian" seems to imply that any atrocity is worthwhile so long as it permits the American military and intelligence services to complete their missions. Viewed from the other side, without that understanding (or with it stated less explicitly), Makarov would seem so much more frightening, since you'd be running for your life from him. And the massacre itself would appear, fittingly, a senseless tragedy.
In its closing moments, "No Russian" almost grasps this. As the attackers climb into their getaway van, Makarov reveals that he knew all along Allen was an American spy, and shoots him dead. Here, one can't help feeling that developer Infinity Ward is playing up to its past successes.
The death of Jackson in the original Modern Warfare, in a nuclear explosion, won attention and plaudits, and Allen's murder seems like a cheap attempt at recreation. Yet it could also be seen as a fine punctuation mark at the end of the level. If the American's undercover operation has come to nothing, it only emphasizes the needlessness of the massacre.
It's a stretch to be truly convinced of that intent, though. Allen's death completes the brazen, nihilistic sequence that is "No Russian." So long as it pricks people's attention, no matter how fleetingly or artificially, Modern Warfare 2 will kill off anybody. Allen is an empty nothing of a character in the grand scheme of the story, but a braver game might have kept him alive to deal with the emotional consequences of his actions. But as it stands, Modern Warfare 2's depiction of the murder of hundreds of innocents is delivered without any real moral burden at all. Therefore: why does it matter to the game, at all? There's no reason for it to be here. Skip it.