In 2009, Infinity Ward and Activision released Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. It immediately caused outrage as a result of ‘No Russian’, an optional mission that puts the player in the centre of a terrorist attack - on the side of the terrorists. The controversy burned as brief as it did bright, and the game went on to sell a ridiculous number of units, but in all of the hubbub, a lot of people missed the real reason why ‘No Russian’ was so important.
In fact, it represented a kind of turning point in the modern shoot-'em-up; or it would have, if people hadn’t skipped over its nuance in favour of screaming blue murder about it turning our kids into mass murderers. Because, when the player entered that airport, it wasn’t as a terrorist; or, at least, not as someone who identified as a terrorist. From beginning to end, the player was Joseph Allen, a deep-cover CIA agent. Joseph’s loyalty was the possession of the red, white, and blue; his aim was to protect the American people at home and abroad; his mission was deemed so necessary by the US government that they let it go ahead in the first place. The player’s in-game actions, though? Terrorism, no two ways about it.
Sure, other games had explored the terrorist-soldier dichotomy before - Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Double Agent comes to mind - but Modern Warfare 2 put it out in the open. Joseph wasn’t working for a fictional agency or infiltrating some Tea Party member’s nightmare of what liberals are like (Tom Clancy’s ultra-conservative worldview screamed for attention in that one); he was working for one of the most recognisable American government intelligence agencies, and he was infiltrating a group whose ideology was vague outside of its Ultranationalist label.
‘No Russian’ asked questions of the morality of everyone involved in it - of Joseph Allen, of the US government, and most importantly, of the player. In ten minutes, the mission interrogated the entirety of America’s post-9/11 foreign policy - how far is too far? How much is too much? At what point does liberation, or the gathering of intelligence, or the affirming of security, become terrorism itself?
We’re in a post-‘No Russian’ industry, one that asks more of your average gamer than to have fun while they blithely wander into foreign territories and blast the Other to pieces. One that asks the player to look deeper than the green or red colour of the targeting reticule. Which is why Unit 13 feels dated and more than a little uncomfortable.
The first warning sign is in the manual, which provides a brief history of the titular NATO unit and, in the process, drops the choice tidbit that the unit was named after "the 13th card in a tarot deck - the 'Death' card." It's a disturbing addition to a blurb intended to mimic a straightforward military puff piece; covert or no, why would an international security taskforce employ the naming strategy of an 'edgy' thirteen year old boy drawing heavy metal band logos in his maths workbook, let alone admit to it? But it gets worse. Oh, it gets worse.
In the first mission, the player is dropped, without context, into a terrorist airbase in the fictional West Asian nation of Adjikistan (a holdover from Zipper Interactive's SOCOM series). The terrorist organisation Alko is building combat aircraft in the airbase, and it's the player’s job to shut them down. Why are they building the aircraft? Why have they seized the airbase from the Adjikistani government? What are their goals? Why do they hold those goals? Zipper answers these questions with another question - why do you care? These guys are bad because.
In fact, it's generous to even call them guys. Zipper affords Alko no identity outside of being terrorists; terrorists with faces obscured by headscarves, terrorists who talk about wanting to shoot people and needing new guns, terrorists who are enough of a threat to require Unit 13's intervention but stupid enough to run at adversaries in waves as they’re mowed down from behind a pillar. You are the Developed World's Angel of Death, hunting terrorists without prejudice because a NATO operative tells you to. This isn't a conflict the player steps into; it's The Most Dangerous Game, but with armed Muslims instead of unarmed poor people. I'm not exaggerating when I say it treats war like The Most Dangerous Game, by the by. They literally give you points for shooting Alko operatives, extra points if it's in the head or the back.
This cold, context-free violence barely lets up. Occasionally an Alko footsoldier will wonder what's on television or mention how infectious Western dance music is, prompting an all too rare moment of humanity. Likewise, the High Value Target missions give some idea of the people being pursued in this endless War on Terror, and the crimes they're guilty of, and for a second Unit 13’s actions are justified, if not excusable. But the vast majority of the game is murdering nondescript West Asian terrorists and thwarting their plans across nine cover-laden locations. It's more akin to a contemporary Gears of War - just switch the Locust Horde out for preassembled terrorists - than Modern Warfare 2, forgoing social commentary or, indeed, the need to say anything remotely interesting, and instead loading up on the po-faced cover shooting and casual xenophobia. At least Epic had the sense to be self-aware and cartoonishly exaggerate everything.
So yes, Unit 13 is an unpleasant game to play. It's a hoo-rah for a troubling brand of foreign interventionism that lost its shine in the battlefields of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. But, underneath all the mistrust of foreigners and military fetishism, it's a reasonably solid cover shooter that encourages imaginative, thoughtful approaches to tactical warfare and makes good use of its limited number of maps.
The game handles smoothly, the difficulty curve is challenging but never impossible, and the graphics look good, if rough by PS Vita standards. The AI has significant issues, switching between unerringly observant and sublimely goofy at a moment's notice (at one point, I shot a terrorist on a stairwell in the back of the head, the death in full view of two other terrorists; the others panicked for a moment before returning to their posts, totally oblivious). The limited number of maps is frustrating and runs counter to the entire idea of Unit 13 being a six-man NATO task force that can kill anything dead, but these are small issues in the long run and don't have much of an impact on the gameplay.
Unit 13 offers incentives to return to missions with the Dynamic Mission feature, giving players randomised laundry list of tasks and having them run through the map to earn more points. It's a fun idea and those hooked on the game will probably be blasting through them with gusto, but it'll do very little for the rest. Likewise, the online co-operative only offers the chance to repeat singleplayer missions with another, rather than providing a new set of missions to play; meanwhile, the Daily Challenge is briefly entertaining, but outside of the leaderboard, it doesn't do much different from the singleplayer campaign either.
In 'No Russian', Modern Warfare 2 confronted us with an almost-unprecedented moral proposition, pushing the player into terrorism because it's what your country asks of you. It made the player complicit in horrific events and then, in an equally shocking ending, asked why you did, or didn't, do something so monstrous and so pointless. It asked the player how far they were willing to go under the pretence that they were the hero, under the pretence that certain things are necessary for success, under the pretence that the government wouldn't put anyone in this position if they didn't think it was the right thing to do. In Unit 13, there's no confrontation. There's no challenge. There's pointless bloodshed, but it doesn't ask the player why they did it, why they wanted it; it just assumes that's what gamers want and moves on to the next setpiece.
'No Russian' was meant to be a watershed moment in the shooter genre. Looking at Unit 13, as competently built and as entertaining as it is, one has to wonder whether anyone realised.