Like it or loathe it, nothing has had as big of an impact on mainstream gaming this generation than Call of Duty. Originally a World War II-based shooter that attracted positive reviews and decent sales, the series quickly transitioned from popular shooter to million-selling juggernaut with the launch of the paradigm-shifting Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in 2007. As such, the series quickly became publisher Activision’s main money-spinner, smashing records for the highest-selling entertainment property on an almost annual basis and scooping numerous awards. Its multiplayer became one of the most played games on Xbox LIVE and PlayStation Network, eclipsing even the likes of Halo and Killzone as the most popular pastime online.
Of course, as with any major franchise, Call of Duty hasn’t been without its controversies. Activision’s commercial behemoth has been home to quite a few of these over the years, and in celebration of the series’ 10th anniversary, we look at Call of Duty’s most prolific controversies.
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No Russian – Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
Easily the series’ biggest controversy to date, the infamous ‘No Russian’ stage sparked outcry across many major territories, including the U.K., U.S., Russia, and Japan. The issue of course pertains to the brutal and bloody mission ‘No Russian,’ an optional stage where players control undercover CIA agent Joseph Allen as he accompanies terrorist Vladimir Makarov and his men during an airport massacre. Here, the player has the option of gunning down dozens of innocents, or watching as Makarov and his goons do the dirty work themselves, leading a gruesome trail of blood and bodies.
Needless to say, the mainstream press caught on and uproar ensued.
The censors weighed in heavily, with Japan and Germany receiving modified versions of the game that resulted in a ‘Game Over’ screen should you target and kill a civilian. This was meagre compared to the outrage in the U.K. and U.S., though. Over in Blighty, the controversy found itself on prime time TV, with a segment on ‘The Alan Titchmarsh’ show dedicated to the most violent video games, where host Titchmarsh (who erroneously referred to the game as Call of Duty 2: Modern Warfare) and his sex specialist buddy proceeded to crucify a CVG journalist who admittedly did a good job a defending the issue.
The stage also got an airing in the House of Commons, with Labour’s Tom Watson arguing the level was “no worse than [scenes] in many films and books.” Meanwhile, No Russian also caused religious upheaval, with Alex Goldberg, head of the London Jewish Forum stating the game, “puts the gamer in the position of being a terrorist.” Across the pond, Modern Warfare 2 was labelled the ‘Most Controversial Video Game of the Year’ by Vince Horiuchi of The Salt Lake Tribune, who added the events depicted in the stage were too hard hitting in light of the then-recent Fort Hood shooting. Similarly, Gieson Cacho of Mercury News suggested most people would feel ‘sick to their stomach’ after playing the stage. Modern Warfare 2 was met with a hail of fresh criticism in Australia and New Zealand too, with Stuart Kennedy of The Australian arguing the stage did nothing to advance the plot or aid player progression, accusing the level as a mere marketing ploy.
Turn the page for more controversial CoD moments.
London bombing / train derailment – Modern Warfare 3
Another Modern Warfare entry for pile, this time hailing from Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer Games’ Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 in 2011. Once again, Infinity Ward puts innocent civilians in the limelight, with the scene in question grisly depicting a mother and her young daughter caught in a terrorist bombing in London in broad daylight. Similar to the No Russian stage, this is not a main mission, and you have the option of skipping it if you wish. Another stage set in the capital saw gamers engaged in a firefight in the London Underground, resulting in a major accident.
Again, the mainstream media flocked to the level like flies around a cow pat, although perhaps unsurprisingly the reaction was felt more in the U.K. due to observers noting its similarity to the London Bombings of July 2005.
Once again Call of Duty found itself scrutinized by UK parliament, with notorious game-hater Keith Vaz arguing, “that this House is deeply concerned about the recently released video game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, in which players engage in gratuitous acts of violence against members of the public.”
It certainly doesn’t help a game when you have the words ‘child-killing controversy’ hovering over its head like a dark cloud, but even that didn’t stop Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 from comfortably selling in the millions and breaking yet more records in the process.
Turn the page for the the final batch of controversial CoD moments.
Bay of Pigs – Call of Duty: Black Ops
Treyarch’s Cold War-era shooter kick started a whole new era for the military shooter franchise, and with it, fresh media attention thanks to the depiction of the Bay of Pigs invasion in the game’s first level. The climax of the opening level sees an attempt on the life of Cuban President, Fidel Castro. This unsurprisingly didn’t sit too well with the Cuban government, which took exception to the sequence in an official statement issued by the Cuban Media:
"What the United States couldn’t accomplish in more than 50 years, they are now trying to do virtually," said an article posted on Cubadebate, a state-run news website. "This new video game is doubly perverse. On the one hand, it glorifies the illegal assassination attempts the United States government planned against the Cuban leader … and on the other, it stimulates sociopathic attitudes in North American children and adolescents."
Castro, who in a July 1998 speech revealed he was the target of the most assassination attempts of any Politian in the world, was indeed targeted by the CIA, and has survived over 600 attempts on his life. Black Ops’ depiction of the events has SOG agent, Alex Mason, successfully killing Castro’s double, with the real Cuban president later kidnapping Mason and handing him over to General Nikita Dragonvich.
The next entry in the Call of Duty franchise is due out in November for current and next-generation consoles.
Do you have any controversial CoD moments you’d like to share? Post your comments below.