The Gulag, a mid-game mission in Modern Warfare 2, should be talked in the sort of hushed, reverent tones that Infinity Ward's best levels are. You know, the way people talk about All Ghillied Up from the original Modern Warfare. Both levels are the defining moments of their story, both have been referenced again and again throughout the series, and both serve as a wonderful showcase for the owner of gaming's greatest 'tache, Captain Price.
Despite these similarities, revisiting Modern Warfare 2's campaign (via its recent remaster on PS4) clarifies precisely why The Gulag doesn't command the same sort of respect, even with a decade of hindsight on its side. This mid-game siege might be the campaign's - and arguably the series' - best mission, but it's also the turning point for Call of Duty's morph into the monolithic blockbuster we know today.
If you've never played Modern Warfare 2, the shooter's story oscillates between the American army, who are fighting an invasion on US soil, and the fictional Task Force 141, an international special forces team who are aiming to capture Vladimir Makarov, the game's big bad. After TF 141 learns that Makarov has a particular dislike for Prisoner 627, a mysterious figure trapped in a Russian Gulag, the team head off to break him out.
The mission itself is a carnival of ideas, seeing you snipe enemy soldiers from a helicopter, fight through claustrophobic cell blocks, bust out of an armoury using riot shields against an onslaught of gunfire, enjoy a brief night vision interlude, and breach into a shower area to push past a wave of shielded foes before finally getting to Prisoner 627. When you breach through into their cell, a bearded figure rushes at you, only to reveal Modern Warfare's Captain Price, a fan favourite who was presumed dead following the events of that game.
More importantly, all those elements somehow work together. The level immediately establishes its scale with that sniper section, the weathered walls of the Gulag giving you a sense of the task at hand. The tension only escalates as you make your way through the dank and dimly lit corridors, with the rare source of light only coming from gunfire. By the time you manage to force your way through to the more illuminated showers, you might imagine respite is waiting for you. You'd be wrong. Instead, you're up against an army of riot shield sporting goons who are more than happy to slam you to death.
So yes, it's breathless and frantic, chucking so many things at you that by the time you reach the final moments, rappelling up through an exploding building, listening to Price's delighted howl, it's hard not to get swept up in the sheer spectacle. In a game where you fight on the lawn of the White House, and take a quick trip to space, the Gulag's dank corridors and roadrunner pacing still stand out as the most exhilarating moments in a story stacked with them.
The Price of it all
And yet, what makes The Gulag special is also what makes Modern Warfare 2 a far different beast to its predecessor. Modern Warfare is comparatively restrained by comparison, a story that has some basis in reality, as well as a clearer moral message. Modern Warfare's All Ghillied Up is that game's best level because the tension it generates comes from trying to avoid conflict, instead of embracing it head on.
That mission, told from Price's perspective, is also about how violence begets violence. We play as a young Price, as he and his commanding officer, Captain MacMillan, attempt to assassinate arms dealer Imran Zakhaev. When they botch the shot, taking off his arm instead of killing him, it's the indirect catalyst for the entire series. In the original Modern Warfare, the story might move with the pace of an action movie, but also exhibits some consideration to the consequences of said actions.
Modern Warfare 2, however, focuses purely on spectacle, and asks you to enjoy the ride. Any pretence of realism is quickly disregarded when Russian forces invade America, and it only gets wilder from there. That is not a criticism, both are great examples of a single player campaign, but they also have different focuses. Modern Warfare's aim was to drag Call of Duty into the 21st Century; Modern Warfare 2's was to top a game that many considered one of the best shooters of that era.
All Gulaged Up
In a way, that's why All Ghillied Up and The Gulag are so similar to each other. They are both a perfect distillation of the games they're in. All Ghillied Up is the tense, thoughtful soul of the series. The Gulag is the pulse-pounding template for what it would become. And that's what gives the latter an added weight of significance; it's the moment where the series embraced its blockbuster status.
Everything that follows, in both Modern Warfare 2 and Call of Duty as a whole, attempts to top what came before it. Gone are the quiet moments of introspection, and in their place are an escalating series of devastating events that you must try to avert. The franchise went off in several different directions after this; a direct follow-up in Modern Warfare 3, another America under siege story in Ghosts, the futuristic leanings of Black Ops 2, Advanced Warfare, and Infinite Warfare. They all have great moments, delivering breezy set-pieces that quicken the pulse.
Yet none have a sequence that can match the giddy thrill of seeing Price's face swim into focus the first time around. And it's difficult to predict whether Call of Duty can ever have a moment like that again. You can't transform into one of the biggest series of all-time twice, after all. But, having said that, revisiting a pristine Gulag in 2020 is a fond reminder of just how good Infinity Ward was at the peak of its powers. Just because Call of Duty embraced the Hollywood mayhem in the sequels to follow doesn't do anything to cheapen the inimitable adrenaline rush that Modern Warfare 2 so easily conjured.