Modern Warfare 2 Remastered is a chance to revisit the controversial level, but while there are interesting ideas in "No Russian," Call of Duty struggles to convey them.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 includes a lot of moments that stick in the memory, for a variety of reasons. The 2009 game's campaign features a Russian invasion of the U.S., sees your player characters killed not once, but twice, and heralds the return of fan-favorite hero Captain Price. It also puts you in a position to gun down an airport full of civilians and police in the infamous mission, "No Russian."
The newly released Modern Warfare 2 Remastered campaign updates the game's visuals and sound, but the gameplay and story are identical to what was originally released. Revisiting the game demonstrates that Modern Warfare 2's intense first-person shooter moments still stand up to more recent games and remain as powerful as they were more than a decade ago. But the whole game resonates a bit differently when considered in the light of what has happened in the last 11 years. That's never more apparent than with "No Russian."
I went into a replay of Modern Warfare 2 with the expectation that "No Russian" and the rest of the game's story had been misunderstood over the years. After all, if there's a subversive Call of Duty game, Modern Warfare 2 is probably it. The bad guy is an American general and the mission in which you have a hand in a massacre puts you in the role of an American CIA operative. I had come to think that Modern Warfare 2 was making a comment about United States foreign policy and militarization, rather than just being shocking for shocking's sake. Especially after years of rising mass shootings, though, "No Russian" just comes off as callous. There might be interesting underlying ideas in Modern Warfare 2, but the game either fails to commit to them, or tells its story so poorly that they don't come across.
At the point you hit "No Russian," you play as PFC Joseph Allen, an Army Ranger who has been recruited for a secret mission by General Shepherd, the guy in command of your characters throughout the game. After a couple of levels as Allen in which you fight the bad guys alongside a bunch of other Rangers, you're sent undercover to Russia to infiltrate the organization of a terrorist named Makarov. As the game notes, you take on the name Alexei Bodorin for the mission, but you're not primed for what comes next.
When "No Russian" loads up, you're armed with a massive machine gun and start in an elevator with Makarov and a few other guys. Makarov tells the group, "Remember: no Russian," reminding them to speak only English, then steps out of the elevator into a crowded airport. With no warning, Makarov and his men start firing into the crowd of unarmed civilians, who scream, run in panic, writhe in pain on the ground, and, on several occasions, try to crawl to safety, only to be executed by the terrorists at point-blank range.
Essentially, "No Russian" is a mass shooting scenario, and you're the one with the gun. You can choose not to participate, of course. No one forces you to pull the trigger, and refusing to do so relegates you to the role of watching your digital comrades commit murder after murder. At the same time, though, you're also unable to stop the carnage; you can't turn on Makarov and are forced to watch things play out. Eventually, you do have to do some shooting, as Russian police and FSB officers arrive to stop the attack. These guys are armed and fight back, though, making them more in line with your usual Call of Duty enemies--but they're still security guards and police, not the soldiers, militia members, or terrorists you're usually fighting.
On the surface level, "No Russian" is still shocking today, if not more so than when it was released in 2009. Mass shootings in the U.S. have increased significantly in the last 10 years, and here a game has you participating in one. A rundown of mass shooting incidents in the U.S. from Vox logs some 2,412 incidents since 2013, resulting in 2,730 people killed and another 10,057 wounded. Regardless of how you feel about games depicting real-world ideas, events, and tragedies, "No Russian" is a troubling thing to play through when you think about these real events and how they affect real people. (It should be noted that you don't have to play through it. Modern Warfare 2 Remastered, like the original game, warns you about "Offensive Content" and asks you if you'd prefer to skip "No Russian.")
At the same time, you can attempt to read "No Russian" as Call of Duty at its most subversive and artistically expressive. The franchise markets itself on realism--usually in its visual fidelity and the attention paid to creating digital versions of real-world guns--and mostly depicts soldiers as fraught good guys, willing to put their lives on the line to protect freedom and save lives. Dying in Modern Warfare 2 brings up a screen that usually includes a quote from a famous leader, war hero, or philosopher, either praising soldiers or decrying the horrors of war. Call of Duty usually comes off as pro-gun and pro-military at the very least, and even jingoistic.
"No Russian," on the other hand, could be seen as Infinity Ward subverting its own genre by twisting how you feel about pulling the virtual trigger, changing you from heroic warrior to indiscriminate murderer (or at least, bystander to tragedy). It's a level that's meant to make you recoil, evoking empathy in players by doing the thing video games do best: putting you in a role you wouldn't normally experience. That the role is a horrific one should make the moment all the more impactful, and maybe get you thinking about what you enjoy about the idea of shooting even digital depictions of humans, or what consequences gun violence has in the real world.
You might also see the mission as Infinity Ward calling out the U.S.'s cavalier foreign policy. After all, you play a deep-cover CIA operative tasked with getting close to a terrorist--but you don't stop the terrorist attack, you participate in it. Whatever the goal the CIA or Shepherd have in infiltrating Makarov's group, they're willing to allow a massacre to proceed in order to achieve it. Given the real history of CIA intervention around the world and its aftermath, it's pretty bold for Call of Duty, a franchise usually about brave soldiers fighting off hordes of enemy combatants, to suggest that maybe the U.S. and its institutions aren't always on the side of right.
That's amplified further when you see how the story campaign all plays out. At the end of the massacre, undercover agent Allen is killed by Makarov; apparently, the terrorist knew the agent's true identity the whole time. Allen's body is left behind as evidence that the massacre was carried out not by Russians, but by Americans, resulting in a full-on world war. Russian troops invade the U.S. in response to the attack, and you and the other Army Rangers repel parachuting soldiers in American suburbs and the literal White House in later missions.
But it turns out that Shepherd was actually behind the whole thing, somehow. Shepherd placed Allen undercover, and it seems likely he leaked the agent's true identity to Makarov. He later betrays and kills another player character in order to intercept intelligence that links him to Makarov and to instigating the war. The entire story of Modern Warfare 2 is a false flag operation carried out by an American general to create a new war for, seemingly, personal gain. Again, that's a pretty subversive point of a view for a franchise that's consistently pro-military.
The trouble is, the game does so little to get any of these ideas across in its story (or any other ideas) that it's not clear Modern Warfare 2 actually has any. "No Russian" doesn't put any emphasis on the fact that you're a CIA operative in a very compromised position; the rest of the characters move on after Allen is killed, cursing Makarov's name, never acknowledging the fact that the gambit of blaming the U.S. for the massacre was possible because you were there, helping him--or at least, not stopping him. Modern Warfare 2 doesn't use any dialogue or context to suggest what point "No Russian," or any other part of its story, is trying to make, and so it's hard to guess at what the scene is meant to convey. It's easy, then, to chalk "No Russian" up as nothing more than cheap and tasteless, an example of Call of Duty trying to be edgy for edgy's sake.
If Modern Warfare 2 were better at storytelling, a challenging point of view on violence, militarism, or war would be easier to accept. But Shepherd's betrayal comes abruptly and out of nowhere toward the end of the game, and it's tough to parse his motivations. (He seems mostly mad that a lot of soldiers died in the first Modern Warfare, and he's trying to engineer himself as a war hero, although even this much explanation is being generous with how he's portrayed in the game.) And while there are American military bad guys to fight, there are just as many American good guys (as well as allies from the UK, Australia, and Russia), fighting the good fight for freedom. The game doesn't stray too far from lionizing the military, especially by portraying it fending off a massive surprise attack on home soil.
And Modern Warfare 2 doesn't slow down in parading digital humans before you to kill, so it's tough to buy that the inclusion of "No Russian" is meant to make you stop and consider the damage guns can inflict on real people. Mixed in among the enemy soldiers are the occasional teammate or civilian who might stray into your line of fire. Shoot too many of them and the game will fail you, but a little collateral damage goes by without remark.
So Modern Warfare 2 maintains its shock value and controversy, but if it's an attempt to make a comment about the American fetishization of guns, the U.S.'s foreign policies, the willingness of the greedy and powerful to sacrifice civilians and soldiers for their own ends, or the military industrial complex's need to self-perpetuate through warfare, those things are muddled at best.
Modern Warfare 2 Remastered is an impressive visual update of what is inarguably a classic shooter, and its big moments--like retaking the White House or going house-to-house through an American neighborhood--are just as exciting and impactful as they were in 2009. But age and distance haven't improved the questionable parts of Modern Warfare 2, and they're even tougher to overlook in the modern climate. It might be exciting to defend the Burger Town and chase down Shepherd in a Zodiac, but Modern Warfare 2's weaknesses make moments like "No Russian" feel exploitative more than informative to the story or an important part of the experience--especially in 2020.