A Night On The Ghost Town

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare goes back to the distant past of 1996 to explore a heart-pounding faux stealth sequence in the abandoned city of Pripyat.

[one_third]Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare goes back to the distant past of 1996 to explore a heart-pounding faux stealth sequence in the abandoned city of Pripyat.[/one_third]

An abandoned city littered with invisible pockets of radiation: the perfect site for an illicit arms exchange.

Chernobyl was the site of the deaths of thousands of men, women, and children. At the heart of the radioactive exclusion zone lies the city of Pripyat, abandoned in the real world but heavily populated in the realm of videogames. It’s about to be the site of one more casualty: Imran Zakhaev. His crime? Being a Russian in a Western military first-person shooter. The mission is meant to be a silent assassination, but the bloody trail of… well, blood, that is left in its wake is not the subtle calling card of a black ops assignment. So, despite the lack of most expected mechanics of a stealth game, Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare’s flashback to Chernobyl, “All Ghillied Up”, is one of the most memorable stealth sequences in recent history.

When we think of stealth games, we imagine open environments, multiple paths to success, elaborate enemy patrol routes that would cause an ant farm traffic controller to have multiple heart seizures, and inquisitive AI – none of which are present in All Ghillied Up. We are locked within one expansive, grassy corridor. There is only one path to success. Though there is some opportunity to kill every enemy single-handedly, a pacifist run is out of the question. The AI has no awareness of your presence throughout the mission – unless you trigger a fail state. Alternate routes give way to spectacle.

Even though you might control the lens that captures the action, Captain MacMillan is either the one initiating the spectacle or guiding you through it. A climactic moment sees both Price and MacMillan caught in an open field, having just stumbled upon a whole cadre of men and armour. Manoeuvring through these obstacles is a thrilling and pivotal moment, but it’s all set up to work perfectly as long as you follow your superior’s exact lead.

Do as Captain MacMillan says. And also as he does.

Yet the mission is tense, taut, and thrilling. It serves to add a little bit of variety to the usual noise of an afternoon of Call of Duty. But Modern Warfare is not a stealth game, and All Ghillied Up is not a stealth level. So why is it easy to mistake it for one?

[one_third][message_box title=”Time Delay”]The following mission, “One Shot, One Kill”, in which players must assassinate Zakhaev and escape, occurs a full three days after “All Ghillied Up”. In three days, not one single Russian has noticed the definitive lack of radio chatter or the sudden increase in rabid dogs ravaging the stiff corpses of their expired comrades. With security like that, we’re sure there must have been a more direct and simple way to murder Zakhaev. Like, drop a bear on him from orbit.[/message_box][/one_third]

This might go back to the fundamental design of the series, post-World War II. Rarely is the player in control of the action; they are more akin to krill at the mercy of the greater powers of the ocean. When the series attempts a stealth mission, it takes this scripted, cinematic approach along for the (slightly quieter) ride. As a result, “All Ghilled Up” maintains a cracking pace and delivers spectacle in spades.

You get to shoot some guys and cunningly creep by others unaware of their comrades’ wet gasps. You get to experience the fear of lying in tall grass, watching and praying as Ultranationalists casually saunter inches from your camouflaged body. You get to crawl under armoured cars and dodge through a shipping container maze on a long path to a ghost city haunted by feral dogs and childrens’ laughter. You get to feel like a shadow yourself; a spectral force attentive to the greater perspective of the immediate world, and nothing but a cold chill down the backs of unaware Russians. But, alas, one whose phantom nature leaves them powerless to influence their surroundings.

For us, stealth games are best when we can keep coming back to them to experiment with new ideas, new approaches and new strategies. It encourages us to prod at the supports of these videogame worlds, and manipulate the intelligence within through virtual electrodes, to see if we can master or eventually break it. Stealth games move at the pace that we demand, because we are always the ones who know most and, consequently, have the most power. The best stealth games demand participation; not just an audience.

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Though there are degrees of creativity within the mission, such as the above knife-only playthrough (the music during which we sincerely apologise for), repeat playthroughs of All Ghillied Up reveal the supports to be unpainted plaster, and the intelligence connected by invisible strings to an omniscient presence more ghostly than even Price and MacMillan. Yet, as a first-time audience, we were rapt.

2 thoughts on “A Night On The Ghost Town

  1. I don\’t have much love for COD/MW any more, but All Ghillied Up was fantastic on first-play. It was the first time I\’d ever trusted an NPC so completely, so the hand-holding worked nicely.

    I would have loved a much more open version of the mission, though. For stealth to be really \”fuck yeah\” awesome, there needs to be freedom to observe, plan, improvise etc.

    1. I\’m sure we\’d all love a more open-world-y version of All Ghillied Up, but I also don\’t think we can ever, ever, ever expect anything vaguely \’open\’ from a Call of Duty game (at least while they\’re keeping their current iterations of the game).

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