Few video game missions loom as large as No Russian from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. The most remarkable thing about it is probably how much the entire game has been remembered for that one, rather short level, in a five-hour campaign designed to be blitzed through while players got the hang of Call of Duty’s mechanics – and prepared themselves for the true battlefield of online play.
Why was it so unforgettable? The fourth mission in the 2009 game, No Russian puts you in the shoes of a CIA agent, attempting to gain the trust of Russian terrorists by… optionally helping them gun down crowds of fleeing civilians in a Moscow airport.
Asking or allowing players to mow down civilians along with the ‘bad guys’ was – to put it mildly – divisive. While the game certainly sold well, there was a sour taste to that success for many – and the mission was removed entirely from the game for release in Russia.
It was quite a big change in tone from the previous Modern Warfare game only two years previously, which had – along with a slower, more thoughtful approach to combat – a bit more restraint than the Hollywood blockbusters that MW2 was geared towards imitating.
MW2 was a game with bigger action set-pieces, higher dramatic stakes, far more improbable situations, and a final-level speedboat chase that felt straight out of a James Bond movie. Not to mention No Russian, a mission that dedicates eight minutes to the murder of civilians to which you cannot intervene, ostensibly for your entertainment.
This was still a game focused on the modern realities of military conflict, but one that took ‘realities’ to mean accurate facsimiles of weapons and camo designs rather than believable gameplay – something that’s still quite characteristic of the Call of Duty franchise – and ended up being caught awkwardly between its dual-missions of realism and entertainment.
This was over a decade ago, of course, and much has been said on the uneasy reception of No Russian already. However, when news around a remaster of the Modern Warfare 2 campaign started to leak, the question on our lips was this: will No Russian be included?
The answer was a definitive yes. No Russian is still playable in the remastered game, which retails for $19.99 / £19.99 / AU$35,95, and is now exclusively available on PS4 – with a PC and Xbox One release coming in a few weeks time. You can watch the official announcement trailer below (though there's no footage from the No Russian mission shown).
Unsurprisingly, the remaster won’t be released at all in Russia – but re-releasing the game with No Russian anywhere, especially after the intense media scrutiny and industry soul-searching that the controversial mission provoked, is a choice worth interrogating.
In the game, your commanding officer warns you in advance that the mission "will cost you a piece of yourself" – but is it worth it? We’ve brought together our thoughts on whether or not the No Russian mission should have been included in the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Remaster – and which side we came down on in the end.
The case for No Russian
While No Russian was controversial back in 2009, you could argue that it doesn’t serve anyone to brush over this part of Call of Duty’s history. We can learn a lot from looking at the past from a modern perspective, and the remastered No Russian enters a different gaming landscape than it did originally.
The mission also still comes with the same trigger warnings and safeguards as it did in the original game. Players are warned of “disturbing content which may offend some players”, with the option to skip the mission entirely. Achievements aren’t tied to the mission, either, meaning that those wanting every single game trophy on Xbox One won’t be hindered from their 100% goal for having taken issue with the level.
Our Senior Editor of Home Tech, Gerald Lynch, stresses that you don't have to fire a single bullet in the mission, which feels important: "That you're the arbiter of whether you take part or not is on you – its failing is that you aren't given the opportunity to intervene in any way (unless you consider beating the game and taking down the end villain a form of correcting vengeance)."
There’s the entertainment argument to consider, too.
Modern Warfare 2 is a video game, and the story is pretty overblown already (you even go to space). The Russians aren’t the only villains, either, with (spoilers ahead) the military general who guides most of your missions becoming the big bad before the end of the game is out. How seriously should anything in Modern Warfare 2 be taken?
The case against No Russian
Obviously, Modern Warfare 2 is a piece of entertainment, but – because of that – it’s in a place to move, surprise, or horrify us. And its creators need to be willing to take responsibility for all and any of those emotional responses.
The campaign is short, at around five hours of gameplay, but it’s not like cutting this eight-minute mission – possibly replacing it with 10 seconds of voiceover exposition to explain what happened – would have dented that quantity much either. Why not just take it out and avoid the extra dev work?
TechRadar’s Gaming Writer, Vic Hood, says that, “It still feels like it’s there to shock. The game could have functioned without [the mission]… and the fact you can skip it proves that.”
It’s also impossible not to consider No Russian in the context of 2019’s Modern Warfare reboot, which included a mission including (and named after) the infamous Highway of Death, a stretch of road between Kuwait and Iraq where vehicles carrying retreating Iraqi civilians and refugees were indiscriminately fired upon by US-led forces. In Call of Duty’s rewrite, however, Russian-led forces were leading the attack.
There’s an uneasy alliance between Call of Duty’s output and US military forces, with the franchise’s writing team working with Pentagon advisers to pen their stories. While you obviously couldn’t call Infinity Ward complicit in any actual warfare, its lax attitude when representing real-life atrocities is... concerning, to say the least.
Gerald Lynch argues that "war crimes are very real, and shocking, and that in a game that does strive to have some form of realism attached, depicting one (fictional or otherwise) that we're all too often allowed to shy away from and be shielded from is actually a brave inclusion." It's a shame, though, that this inclusion wasn't handled more responsibly.
When we reached out to Activision for comment, we were reassured that the safeguards of the original 2009 game remained in place, which was a start. The publisher wouldn’t be drawn on any internal conversations regarding the mission’s inclusion, however – or whether not including it was ever on the table.
Our conclusion here is that the Call of Duty team should know better. They should have known better back in 2009, and uncritically remastering No Russian for 2020 doesn’t show a developer that’s learnt its lessons.
Last year’s Modern Warfare (2019) is certainly more culpable for its mishandling of military history, but Modern Warfare 2’s record isn’t clean either – and revisiting or restoring history requires a lot more thought than a splash of paint for modern consoles.
- Read our full thoughts on Modern Warfare (2019)