Earlier I wrote a bit about Far Cry 2, and the way it sets a landmark for the FPS. I mentioned that linear FPS games would have to be incredibly polished to stand alongside the open world shooter. Call of Duty 4 is a perfect example of what a linear shooter has to be to compete.
The game’s brevity is a necessary side effect of the level of detail and intensity surgically inserted into every second of CoD4. Every level has its own weapons, environments and aesthetic, and several of them would be candidates for this article. It could be the first War Pig mission with its red skies, night vision room-to-room action and Javelin tankbuster missile launcher. It could be the perfectly realised, chilling air support level which sees you bombarding enemy troops through grainy camera vision as a whispery voice congratulates your every hit.
These are great missions, but there is one that for me surpasses all of these and represents one of the most memorable levels in gaming. It’s a two-parter set in the past. You are tasked with the assassination of a terrorist buying up used nuclear fuel rods amid the ruins of Chenobryl. Infiltrate. Make the hit. Escape.
(Minor mission spoilers ahoy)
Thing is there’s only you and your commanding officer. All you have is a sniper rifle, a silenced pistol and a Ghillie suit.
I’m a big fan of emergent gameplay, user driven interactive experiences, environments in which the player can express themselves using a medley of tools and gameplay devices to tailor their experience to something they’ll feel close to. All Ghillied Up is the absolute antithesis of that design theory. Your commanding officer tells you what to do when, or else you’ll be discovered and die. If you stray too far away from the action you’ll find yourself in a radiation pocket, and die. You go when he says go, you lay low when he says so or guess what, you’ll die. This succeeds because the resulting experience is so incredibly tense that I actually stopped breathing when lining up sniper shots, and when enemies got too close. In fact by the end of it I was on the verge of passing out.
You begin in a bleached grey field populated by half dead trees and bushes and – wait, that bush just stood up. Ah yes, this it the man who will be calling the shots.
Your commanding officer is the perfect figure to lead you through the level. Competent but realistically on edge, his voice immediately solicits your trust. One of the early locations in the map sees you instructed to take out a watcher in a guard tower. You pull the trigger and the lookout falls. A split second later he takes out the ground patrolman. For most of the game you roll with large squads, but this is the first time you really feel like you’re part of a team. A brutally competent team who are in the field to get the job done, not just kill everyone in sight.
Sometimes, when the odds are so clearly stacked against you the Ghillie suits come into their own. Your suits allow you to take the concept of stealth to audacious and terrifying extremes. Lying in the middle of a field as a platoon of footsoldiers and a column of tanks roll past, footsteps falling metres away, a tank track inches from your head. It’s terrifying. It’s brilliant.
That’s before you dash into the middle of a convoy, dive to the ground and evade detection by crawling beneath the troop-carriers.
The great thing about All Ghillied Up is the way it shuffles up the pace. Between these heart-stopping sequences you infiltrate deeper into Chenobryl, and you’re treated to poignant scenes of a destroyed city, empty and grey. Stark shafts of shadow pierce the courtyards. Emptiness cries out from the unflinching Ukranian geometry. It’s perfect.
Once you’ve infiltrated it’s not over. You take your place at the top of a ruined hotel and prepare for the assassination attempt. The go order is given, the target is down, all hell breaks loose.
“We need a distraction. Shoot the helicopter.”
The pilot’s forehead fills my sights, moments later the cockpit is painted red and the ‘Copter goes into a spin. We rappel out of the building as our sniper spot explodes above us. Then we run, stealth is out of the window, now it’s all action. We’ve got twenty minutes to get to the extraction point. A knife stroke to a hapless enemy soldier and his AK47 is mine.
A breathless chase sequence ensues in which you take out another helicopter, break a dog’s neck with your bare hands and defend a ferris wheel from militants. The infiltration section was just the calm before the storm. The ferris wheel defense is a difficult and climactic end to a slice of pure gaming joy which delivers the best in visual design, level design, stealth and balls out action. If you like games do yourself a favour and spend half an hour in Chenobryl, you probably won’t forget it quickly.