As promised, I'm continuing to record responses from game bloggers and critics as they come in.
I am very grateful to author and blogger Jesper Juul for taking the time to write this brief response:
I haven't played the game yet, but watched the video and so on.
Overall, it appears to be a flawed attempt at something that could potentially be interesting. Much has been made lately of the idea that games should give players actual ethical choices. You could imagine a very tragic game that involved the player having to choose whether to sacrifice civilians for a greater good—this would be a deeply uncomfortable and deeply interesting. Modern Warfare 2 is vaguely hinting at this possibility, but appears to fail to give the player a proper context for this or an actual choice, hence the expressive power of this possibility is basically lost, and it ends up just being simply shocking.
It's also very optimistic of the developer to expect no public backlash.
The always-thoughtful Roger Travis of Living Epic pointed me to his latest blog post on the subject. Travis claims most of the critics he reads have come down against the chapter, although I see the reaction as mostly 50-50. He does, however, add a very unique historical perspective on Infinity Ward's manner of storytelling:
It seems to me an undeniable fact that Infinity Ward, who put analogously atrocious action in Modern Warfare 2's predecessor, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, is maintaining a commitment to bringing the players of its games face-to-face with the ethical ambiguity of war. That fact by itself shows a development of game culture that mirrors the development that we can see in the homeric tradition when we look at that tradition diachronically, and pick apart its strata: in the Iliad, for example, the ethical simplicity of tales of glory becomes, over time, the ambiguous story of an Achilles who drags Hector around Troy, in front of his grieving parents, and then kills Trojan youths on Patroclus' funeral pyre. Indeed, this development leads in ancient Athens to tragedy, the ne plus ultra of literary ethical thought, where atrocities are used over and over to expose the fragility of our ethical claims and to strengthen our understanding of why we must make those claims nonetheless.
MW2 reaches in an old, old direction. Its failure to lay hold of the profundity it seems to seek is sad, but the reach itself means much more than I think many have acknowledged.
Nels Anderson of Above 49 tagged me in a tweet that points to his own blog post, which is quite perceptive and has even tinted my initial take on the level. From the post:
"No Russian" falls down because if you don't play this scene exactly how Infinity Ward wanted, they rub your face it in and say, "You'll do it again, just like I said this time." Any attempt to deviate from the intended sequence of events, including getting killed too early, means failure and having to try again.
There's absolutely no reason for this kind of strict control. The outcome of the mission is your character being killed and framed by Makarov.
The scene would have been vastly more effective if firing upon the terrorists, being killed by the Russian SWAT response and making it to the end of the level all had the same outcome. In the case of the former two, a fade to black after being shot and then briefly back into consciousness where Makarov reveals his intentions. It doesn't even need a separate failure state, beyond making the presentation a little dynamic.
In short, you should play "No Russian" just once. Succeed (get to the end) or fail (take too many hits, fire on your "allies"), the outcome should be the same. But this would allow the player to express themselves if they felt as Anthony Burch did, and simply couldn't watch the atrocity anymore. It would set it apart as something different, asking you to sit up and pay attention.