Modern Warfare 2 : No Russian.
If you have not finished the game there WILL be spoilers below. Turn away NOW.
So, as you probably know by now Modern Warfare 2, while being a massive hit has its fair share of detractors. From complaints about the size of the install vs lenght of game play, lack of 'modern game play' and of course the now infamous 'no russian' level.
The first two can be handled quickest so I'll cover them first.
The size vs lenght (and vs cost as well) arguement is an intresting one and one which, in my opinion, really isn't a major one. The fact is a large game which takes 5h or so to play (my approximate play time, spread over 3 sittings) is, if nothing else, testimate to the amount of assets present in the game. The first focus is, as always, on the graphics, which aren't by any means poor (although I might be a tad bias given my gaming rig) however it doesn't end there. The between mission cinematics are, like the first game, very impressive giving you a wealth of secondary information and story detail while the voice overs explain what is going on.
After that comes the sound scape put together; something which is often missed in a number of games. The characters you are fighting with and against feel more real. They have accuate situational things to say and their general interaction with the player is engaging enough that you find yourself becoming attached to them somewhat. We aren't totally out of the 'canned single line response' yet, as they are still present but there is a definate improvement in this regard.
All of which feeds back into cost and, lets not ignore it, profit. End of the day Activision are a company, they are there to make money, and while I'm sure they have made a profit on this game the fact is it would not have been a cheap game to make by any stretch of the imagination.
Finally there is length and the fact that people are complaining that it is only 5h long. I'm not going to compare it to the cinema, or indeed to other games, however while it might have "only" been 5h long I feel it was pretty much long enough.
You see, the problem with many games is if they try to go for 'epic game play' then unless they have a story and tasks to match it then you are just getting into padding. It becomes 'oh, another <place> filled with bad guys I have to kill. yay' and then it really does become 'just another shooter'. Two games which are hailed, for in my view mind boggling reasons, as the 'best FPS games ever' suffer from this for me. I'm talking of course of Half-Life and Half-Life 2, where I've never made it past a few levels of the former and the latter I only played because I had nothing better todo with my time and the later levels just dragged on.
All of which brings me to 'modern game play' elements and, frankly, I'm not sure what this really is. Is it the lack of "physics puzzles" people are talking about, because if so GOOD! Those things often turn out to be quite pointless and contrived just to show that 'wooo! we have a physics engine'. Once you get beyond that there isn't much else that I can see; I admit I'm not a game designer by a long shot but I never found myself playing MW2 and thinking "yeah, this game needs X".
What MW2 represents to me is a FPS game doing what an FPS game should and sticking to being an FPS game. You still have to be stealthy because thats in the context of the game, but beyond that you have a gun, you have your orders, and you have to carry them out in, what is at times, the cluster fuck of modern combat.
End of the day MW2 lives up to its original as a solid, FPS game, by no means glorifying war and is well worth the price of admission.
All of which brings us to 'No russian'.
As you may or may not know 'No Russian' is an early mission in the game. Having played the level to 'learn the game' and select your difficulty level and have some combat experiance vs some enemies you are recruited to go undercover as someone close to the main villian of the piece (a Vladimir Makarov, a former protégé of Imran Zakhaev from MW1) as part of a multi-national task force (aka some SAS members and some cannon fodder). The rest of the task force, containing one of the other characters you play 'Roach', is off in Russia obtaining some hardware.
Once you complete that mission you leap back to the undercover guy to the mission in question. The mission plays out with you and 3 other guys, including Makarov, walking through a Moscow airport, cutting down civilians and guards alike with heavy machine guy fire.
This level alone generated alot of outrage and people calling it "sick", the thing is I disagree and I'm going to give them a pass on this.
Now, the one complaint I have heard about this level was the lack of setup, and I do agree with that to a degree; a mission before hand involving yourself and Makarov to introduce things and get you on this 'team' might have been a better introduction to this section of the story, but the level itself I have no issue with.
I'll come straight out and say it; I shot the civies. A fair few in fact, because I felt, given the position I was in and the guy I was with that if I hadn't done that I might have been punished for it in some way (ironic considering your are shot and killed at the end of the level by Makarov). There have been complaints that there was no reason to shoot them, but given that mindset and the fact you went into this mission being told that 'you would lose a piece of yourself' (or words to that effect) and that it was for 'the greater good' would probably have convinced someone in that situation to follow through as well.
The fact of the matter is that game is set in modern times and terrorism is a part of modern warfare as much as massive battleships, armor and remotely targetted missiles and this brings it home what some might do in the name of their cause.
Now, that this ignites an invasion of the US by the Russians has also been critised but lets consider this from a few angles;
Firstly those in charge of russia at that point in the game were anti-american and would have been looking for an excuse to do something like this. The ACS system, which I can only assume was a key piece of technology for the main land defense, gave them the technical ability and the attack gave them the 'moral' ability to get the people behind it.
You might say that an investigation into the shooting would have found out it was a setup but then if you want an excuse who does a real investigation? If you want "proof" however you can look to the real world and the events post-9/11. Now, I'm not going to say the American Goverment is like the Ultranationals however even then given a single terrorist event on home soil the USA (and the UK) went on to invade two countries and this was with a moderate goverment; imagine if the goverment had been actively looking for an excuse to go in.
End of the day, could "no russian" have been handled better? Possible, however I feel this level IS an important landmark in gaming history because it is the first time that I can think of where a game has taken on an issue such as terrorism and the role people might play in it head on in, what I feel, was a mature way. There was no shying away from the death and suffering there (a theme which continues in the rest of the game with the realities of war played out). The response will certainly have an effect on how this subject matter is handled in the future but I feel that with this Infinity Ward have opened a door and its one I think we should use if we are going to tell stories set in the modern world; a bit less jingoism and a bit more of a look at how things are done is never a bad thing and gaming is a powerfull way to get that message across.
Intrestingly, this whole level probably over shadowed another aspect of the game completely one I'm surprised didn't get more reaction from the Americans out there.
In Modern Warfare 1 the SAS were, pretty much, the guys who got stuff done. The USMC did their part, however their part was pretty much screwing things up and getting nuked. While the SAS weren't the nicest bunch they got in their, got shit done, and got out again. It isn't until the last mission where things go boobs skywards and even then they are bailed out by the russians.
Modern Warfare 2 kinda continues this theme to a degree; the fubar mission in russia, getting their arses kicked on home soil and the shelling of the gulag while Task Force 141 (aka SAS and some cannon fodder) are still inside, nearly killing them in the process. Meanwhile TF-141 carry out their missions pretty much flawlessly, save Washington (at the cost of the ISS I admit) and generally continue to run about fixing things.
Frankly, as a non-American its refreshing to see games which don't show the US in an all positive light, however the one thing I was surprised didn't get more coverage was the end of the game where, having completed the objective yourself (playing Roach) and Ghost are met by General Shepherd who shoots them both and sets fire to them (all seen from the eyes of Roach, while Cpt. Price who you previously rescued, is yelling over the mic that Shepherd isn't to be trusted). The game then jumps you to playing Soap again, with Price as they escape the ambush, hunt down and kill Shepherd (and as many people as get in their way).
To me, the most shocking 'what he hell?' moment of the game was that betrayal by the americans of the SAS members, and the lack of complaint about 'painting the US' in a negative light I find intresting.
I'm going to end this with some words from Adam Biessener of Game Informer, as summerised by wikipedia, which I happen to agree with;
In his review for Game Informer, Adam Biessener writes that while the level "makes the player a part of truly heinous acts", he also notes that the "mission draws the morality of war and espionage into sharp focus in a way that simply shooting the bad guys cannot". Biessner concludes that it is one of the more emotionally affected moments in the game, is "proud that our medium can address such weighty issues without resorting to adolescent black-and-white absolutes".