I’m lying on the roof of a bombed-out shopping arcade, watching tracer fire igniting the cool evening air about 500m from my position. Whoever wins that shootout will come my way when the fight is over. I don’t have the armour or weaponry to defend myself properly so all I can do is wait and hope they get in an abandoned car and drive right past.
Deep down, I know they won’t.
Call of Duty: Warzone, which is celebrating its first birthday this week, is only one of a number of battle royale titles competing for the attention of locked-down gamers in this weird new reality we’re inhabiting. Just like Fortnite, Apex Legends and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, it involves dozens of players landing on a limited expanse of land with the sole purpose of killing each other until only one remains. But there is something different about this spin-off from the famed military shooter series. It has so much dread and atmosphere it feels like a horror game. At least the way I play it.
Consider the setting: the fictitious eastern European region of Verdansk, a bludgeoned smörgåsbord of horror movie locales. There are the deserted towns, blasted airports and ruined TV studios of George A Romero’s zombie apocalypses, but there are also elements of rural horror cinema: the foreboding lumber yards, the rocky, windswept uplands, the squalid farms where carcasses of cows lie festering in the sun. These are the stark, threatening domains of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, Duel and Deliverance, and like the unwary city-dwellers who find themselves stranded in the outbacks imagined by Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven, we’re always under threat from some shadowy, unknowable figure, lurking behind a jagged, broken window.
The attention to grim detail is what makes it. You’ll blunder into a house and find an unmade bed, a calendar with dates marked, a mobile spinning above a baby’s cot. These scenes of abandoned domesticity are another staple of zombie cinema; they are disturbing in themselves because they suggest a very recent catastrophe: something that made these people drop everything and run, and could still be there. The game also uses the sound of swarming flies in various locales, which hint at pestilence and death.
Indeed, the sound design is incredible throughout. When you’re hiding out in one of the many old abandoned buildings, you hear dust crumbling from the bricks above you or metal beams groaning. According to evolutionary psychologists, one of the reasons haunted house movies are so scary is that the noises they make – the creaking floorboards, the rustling of branches against windows – are similar to the sounds that alerted our prehistoric ancestors to the presence of potential predators out in the darkness. These instinctive “agency detection” mechanisms still keep us on edge when we hear them, and in Warzone they have added potency because we actually are surrounded by predators who want to kill us.
The gunfire and military vehicle sounds also add to this intimidating audio environment. From the screeching feedback of a ricochetting bullet to the monstrous roar of the A10 tankbuster’s front-mounted gatling gun, the development team has created multilayered, highly positional effects to immerse you in each deadly skirmish. Although these are doubtless based on authentic samples, they’re also weirdly animalistic, recalling the hyper organic sound design of the Alien movies and Walter Murch’s incredible work on Apocalypse Now, where whirling helicopter blades and swooping napalm drops become loaded with almost supernatural terror.
On the subject of Aliens, Warzone even has its own heartbeat sensor gadget that closely resembles that film’s iconic motion tracker. It allows players to locate enemies who appear as a bleeping points of light on a handheld display and the tension this generates, as the bleep gets closer, closely recalls a classic scene from the film.
The various military effects throughout the game also utilise two specific types of sound: infrasound, which creates unsettling vibrations, and non-linear sounds – sounds of a high amplitude, which feature rapid changes in frequency and harmony. These are sounds we instinctively fear: infrasound resembles the noises of natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods, while non-linear sounds resemble animal cries and human screams. Once again, these are commonly used in horror films, both in sound effects and in scores – the screeching violins in the Psycho shower scenes and the sonorous, vibratory strings of the Jaws theme, for example.
There have, of course, been other games that more obviously seek to replicate horror movie experiences in online multiplayer spaces: DayZ, H1Z1, Phasmophobia. But while these are all interesting and involving, the exquisite graphical fidelity, convincing animation and expensive production value of Warzone set it apart. It is cinematic in a way its rivals are not.
The recent Outbreak mode, an open-world version of the familiar Zombies Mode, and the introduction of zombie-infested areas into the Warzone map, have seen CoD teams doubling down on the game’s subtle horror underpinnings. Titles such as Prey, FEAR, Dead Space and Doom have explored the fecund and interesting relationship between first-person shooters and horror fiction. There is something uncanny about inhabiting the avatar in this way, and being under constant peril. Warzone isn’t meant to be a horror game, but playing in Solos as opposed to a team-based mode, and creeping from house to house, hyperaware there could be a player around any corner, it produces exactly the same unconscious responses in our brains. And ultimately, like Resident Evil, like Silent Hill, it’s a game about survival.
What Warzone hints at, and where online survival games such as Rust, Sea of Thieves and Ark are pointing, is toward a new style of tense, narrative adventure, set in open worlds with many players, and with stories that emerge dynamically from the fear and chaos. Horror is after all something best experienced with other people.
These are certainly fun things to think about, as I’m hiding out on a rooftop, low on ammo and armour, waiting for the inevitable sound of approaching footsteps.