Modern Warfare 2's Misunderstood Terrorist Level

Sheremetyevo International Airport

You can't kill Makarov, for starters (he's immune to gunfire from all sides), but that's nothing new. You can't kill a lot of people in a lot of games for the sake of preserving their broader narrative. Games aren't supposed to be infinitely fractal. The notion that gaming's uniquely a medium that allows you to make choices doesn't mean every choice. The technology and design scope present limitations. The burden isn't on game designers to anticipate and reward every possible play contingency.

Put another way, Modern Warfare 2 is an unabashedly linear, plot-driven game. Everyone familiar with the franchise knows this. No one's expecting an experience that lets you dash out of the airport, hijack an ambulance, then ride around Moscow picking up the injured for transport to hospital before calling Michelle to grab a burger and go bowling.

That said, you are allowed to shoot Makarov without automatically resetting the level (he just says "You traitor" and his goons come after you). At least you're offered the satisfaction of firing at him until he finally drops you. Shoot any of his compadres--two of whom die automatically anyway--and it's an instant "You blew your cover…don't fire on Makarov's squad."

But taking shots at Makarov's the brain-dead obvious choice, anyway. What about the more interesting others? Like: Why can't I race ahead and hand my gun off to someone? Slip them a grenade or two? Why can't I take Makarov hostage? Why can't I step into the line of fire on purpose? Why, for that matter, can't I put a bullet in my own brain?

We already know what happens if Makarov dies. The whole thing goes off. The story changes completely. Use your imagination to extrapolate, then tack on the fact that you're conjuring a story Infinity Ward isn't interested in telling.

There are serious issues with "No Russian," but the inability to kill Makarov isn't one of them.

Like: Why do Makarov and his thugs ignore you if you don't fire? Wouldn't that alone be enough to rouse their suspicions? Where's the narrative pressure on me to pull the trigger here? Why am I permitted to lag behind the group without reaction? Gaping flaw number one.

Gaping flaw number two: Modern Warfare 2 can't tell a decent story to save its life. It's littered with brainless platitudes like "The more things change, the more they stay the same," and "History is written by the victor," and "Yesterday's enemies are today's recruits." It rushes you along too quickly to make sense of who's who or why this cause produced that effect in its panicked haste to get you back behind the barrel of a gun.

At the outset of "No Russian," your commanding officer trots out a few aphorisms like "front lines are history" and "uniforms are relics" to convince you the ends justify the means before dropping you in that Moscow airport elevator. There's no dramatic buildup, no serious intel on the group you've infiltrated, and no chance to relate to what's about to happen.

Sheremetyevo International Airport

In reality, you'd know well in advance what you're about to do and have to rationalize your apathy toward it. You'd have to objectify the victims of your "noble" endeavor. You'd have to agonize. You've have to be fully convinced what you were about to do was, as your CO implies, for the greater good of all.

Here, that's conveniently done for you, so that it's impossible to empathize with anything. As a player, you don't know the level's coming (assuming you stayed off the Internet prior to the game's release) and so you're like Scott Bakula in Quantum Leap, beamed cluelessly into the body of Private First Class Joseph Allen (whose sangfroid for a lowly Pfc. is astonishing) at the last possible moment. It feels dishonest, like a get out of jail free card for both the developer and the player, a way to safely insert the level in the game while creating a kind of plausible emotional deniability by removing all the dramatic impetus that ought to surround it.

Levels in any game need reasons to be. They have to integrate into the broader story in a way that's earned. "No Russian" has all the stage design and costumery of an Important Gameplay Experience, but it's missing actors and compelling performances, making it less disturbing than disappointing. The lesson for Infinity Ward is this: If you want to insert emotionally complex, risky gameplay into a B-story franchise, you'd better up your story all around, or risk coming off as tabloid.

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