User ratings for the recently released instalment in the popular videogame series Call of Duty Modern Warfare have dropped from around 7 points to 2.5 out of 10 on PC, based on reviews on the website Metacritic, while the verdicts of professional critics mostly float between 80 and 90 out of 100. The majority of the around 3,100 negative user reviews on all of three platforms are centred on an "issue" that has infuriated gamers – the depiction of Russians in the game.
The plot is mostly set in the fictional state of Urzikstan, which resembles Syria, that is occupied by Russian forces fighting against terrorist groups. The main characters are trying to hunt down a shipment of Russian chemical weapons, which was hijacked on its way to Urzikstan, and take down a Russian general named Barkov who commands the troops in the country.
Morally Grey Warfare?
The creators of the latest instalment of the Call of Duty (CoD) series promised prior to the its release that it would fulfil one of the most popular player demands – "morally grey characters" who are neither outright "evil" nor "good". But according to the user responses on Metacritic, this is exactly what Modern Warfare failed to deliver.
Initial signs of this emerged after Activision, the game’s publisher, released one of the first trailers. In the video, people dressed like members of the Syrian White Helmets group are seen rescuing civilians trapped under the debris of a building that collapsed after being bombed by what looks like a Sukhoi jet. However, in real life, Russia considers the White Helmets to be a group affiliated with terrorists and that films staged videos of false-flag attacks on civilians in Syria.
In the game itself, US and British forces, as well as local "rebels", do carry out "morally grey" actions as the story unfolds. But, Russian troops are still shown committing atrocities like executing and bombing civilians, although in the end Moscow denounces the rogue actions of General Barkov, who led the soldiers. At the same time, American and British forces are shown in the game as saviours, according to most gamers.
Outrage Among Russian Gamers
In a bid to mitigate the possible backlash from Russian players, the developers made certain changes to the version of the game that was distributed in the country. Namely, they repainted the White Helmets as green ones and removed the majority of lines associating the "evil" soldiers with the Russian Army, calling them "Barkov's men", in an obvious, albeit unsuccessful, move to avoid associating them with Moscow.
Still, even those who played the amended Russian version wound up outraged by the depiction of Russia’s forces in the game.
"Thanks Activision for poured **** on my country, you are hypocrites and Nazis", a user under the handle "Lyrkov" wrote on Metacritic.
"I'm already tired of the evil Russians. You said that everything will be gray but I see angels of Americans and Russian devils", another used, called "Egorka", added.
Many Russian netizens slammed the game as outright propaganda coming in line with a trend established by many Western politicians and media outlets several years ago.
"It's just Joke! Not a Game! This is an incredibly propaganda *****", a user under the handle "AgentUSSR" wrote.
"Disgusting game! Taste of Goebbels propoganda. I wouldn't buy any game from them", the user "Mastacrusta" opined.
One of Russia's most famous streamers, Ilya Maddison, decided to stop playing the game mid-stream just hours after starting it.
"You must be a total freak to play this blatantly criminal game, which openly says that the [Russian] army – are terrorists", he wrote on his Twitter.
Backlash From Gamers Outside Russia
Players in Russia were notably not the only ones who were outraged by the game's depiction of Russians.
"The problem here is not that the Chinese / Russians / Latinos etc. are placed hostile to the main character. They are shown as absolute moral freaks. I'm not Russian, but I fully support the hatred and boycott of the game", a reviewer from Ukraine with the username "Olexandr" wrote.
Some users, however, managed to find something positive in the game's apparent "Russophobia".
"I would like to point out what is actually GOOD about this game. Well, it is GOOD the portrayal of the Russians is so blatant and flat-out: because it could've been subtler, the propaganda could've been smarter […] it could've been more inventive and therefore believable. But, luckily for us all, the writers of the game suffer from the same case of terminal creative impotence […] Because of this, any person with half a brain in the head will certainly view it as propaganda aimed at dehumanizing the Russians", a user with the handle "LHOOQ" pointed out.
Trying to Rewrite History?
A separate source of outrage among players around the world was an episode in the game where one of the characters describes how Russian forces were bombarding "innocent civilians" fleeing the war at a location called "The Highway of Death".
However, the term "Highway of Death" usually refers to a February 1991 bombardment of a highway between Kuwait and Iraq, where US, Canadian, British, and French aircraft bombed the fleeing Iraqi Army and, according to some accounts, also Kuwaiti hostages and civilian refugees who were fleeing with them. The controversial attack, which claimed the lives of between 200 and 1,000 people, has been regarded as a disproportionate use of force, or even a "war crime", by some.
Users on Metacritic suggested that the developers of the game went so far in their "propaganda" efforts that they decided to shift the blame for the "Highway of Death" incident onto the Russians too, despite the US and other Western states being responsible for the actual events.
"Activision is rewriting and justifying AMERICAN WAR CRIMES in Iraq by setting Russia guilty for the attack on the Highway of Death which was done IRL by the US Airforce slaughtering refugees, civilians, women and children", a user called "zedeltus" opined.
"Just one statement. Maybe when you talked about fictitious road of death bombed by Russians in your game you meant REAL HIGHWAY OF DEATH IN IRAQ bombed by US. I am confused, y know... They still say it is not propaganda", another user under the handle "Zooropa" wrote.
Call of Duty's Woes in Russia
Despite the controversial campaign, the new Modern Warfare was still greenlit for sale in Russia on all platforms except PlayStation 4, with Sony deciding that it would not be distributing the game on Russia's territory.
This is not the first time that the Call of Duty series has faced trouble in Russia. In Modern Warfare 2, which was released in 2009, there was a notorious level called "No Russian", where the main character participated in a mass shooting of civilians in an unnamed Russian airport. The level was cut out of the Russian version of the game following threats to ban it for extremism, while in international versions players were given an option to skip the part.
According to the game's plot, the massacre was carried out by a fictional Russian terrorist group pretending to be Americans in a bid to provoke Moscow to start war against the US. The author of the mission insisted that it was important to the plot and the player's understanding that the terrorist leader, Makarov, was an evil character.