With Hitman 3 releasing this month, I’ve been thinking a lot about stealth games. The flawless runs of Dishonored 2, the bone-chilling alert sound of Metal Gear Solid V, or even the meticulous mapping out of levels in the Hitman games themselves. Yet strangely, as we approach a full year where there was not much else to do other than play video games, the game that stands out to me as my favorite recent stealth experience may seem a bit outlandish. And even as I type it up, I find it odd to say it has “Call of Duty” in the title.
Nonetheless, Call of Duty: Warzone is that game. Stemming from a franchise hardly known for its association with stealth, Call of Duty has, for the longest time, thrived in the bottomless pit of Michael Bay-isms, with large explosions, cringe-inducing one-liners, and the squealing excitement of a double-figured killstreak. But as Warzone was introduced to the world last March, it became clear that Activision and those at Infinity Ward and Ravens Software had tweaked the DNA of this extension of the franchise to make it a little bit sneakier.
As we began to lock ourselves indoors last March, Warzone floated down to us as a holy entity, gifted by the Gaming Gods to keep us entertained and connected during the most isolated period in recent history. Part Call of Duty namesake, part perfect timing, Warzone exploded, becoming one of the biggest gaming success stories since Fortnite itself. Yet with its reputation and marketed angle of expansive car chases and epic sniper battles, many gloss over the stealthier components that make the game’s amalgam of both so special.
Altering the very nature of the Call of Duty experience is no small feat. Gameplay is often designed around speed, where death is only a second’s inconvenience before you are rushed back into combat. Yet Modern Warfare, the game that would birth Warzone, slowed things down considerably. There was still that speed in the game’s smaller multiplayer environments, but Warzone felt definitively “boots on the ground,” more so than any other time the descriptor was slapped on a Call of Duty title. Returning to combat from the Gulag or after being bought back by your squad left you on the defensive: outgunned, usually outnumbered, and with nothing more than your wits to keep you alive. Oh, and a handy wee X16 pistol. It was miles apart from what we were accustomed to, and really highlighted that this wasn’t your traditional Call of Duty.
However, while this slower gameplay style doesn’t entirely sell the idea of stealth, it certainly encourages it. Warzone takes a very hands-off approach to how you play the game, with barely a mention of what you should or could do besides staying inside the circle. By proxy, it is clear that stealth isn’t a featured mechanic in the game; there is no magical grass that makes you invisible to all, or enemy awareness meters. On a surface level, stealth is not there at all. Instead, you are plonked down in the middle of a massive map with 196 other players with a simple objective: survive.
The idea of survival within Warzone is imperative to its consideration as a stealth game. Unlike previous Call of Duty installments, Warzone isn’t about racking up kills. Of course, triggers need to be pulled to win a match, but in the end all that matters is who sits in the helicopter as they are lifted from the suffocating grips of the gas circle. Verdansk is teeming with death, as dozens of squads shoot their way closer to that exfil, so you need to pick your battles carefully. The sound of distant skirmishes, surrounding terrain, and squad loadouts all become interchangeable elements that can influence whether combat is a must or something to be avoided entirely. And through experimentation and repetition, the Warzone community began to establish their own ways of outsmarting one and other.
Some players dig down into far-seeing vantage points, constantly highlighted by the hair-raising glint of a sniper scope. Some skim the outer rims of the narrowing circle, preying on those running desperately from the gas that is hot on their heels. And others lay in wait, baiting out players with the enticing presence of a loadout drop.
Suffice to say, Verdansk is a dangerous place, and you must navigate it cautiously if you wish to survive. Some of my most memorable moments are laying stooped in the shrubbery as an unaware enemy team pass by, with my twitchy fingers anxiously waiting for the perfect moment to strike. Others include finding ways to draw fire from an opposing sniper while other squad members sneak around to take them out from another angle. Or even the smaller moments, like closing doors behind me and leaving windows intact to give enemies the impression that they’ve wandered into an untouched area of the map.
And this stealthy consideration only gets better as the encroaching circle tightens. When you can count the squads alive on one hand and combat inevitably draws closer, those final moments of hiding in the shadows create an intensity unparalleled, as you try to pick the right moment to let yourself be known to those around you.
However, that intensity of Warzone’s stealth is entirely based on your level of commitment. In the game’s opening months, I struggled with the guns-blazing approach that I had carried over from playing Modern Warfare’s multiplayer. Across hundreds of games, I only had one glorious run in with victory. Then, as I played with different friends, each with their own self-developed tactics, I realised that I got much closer to victory—and even won a few times—simply by considering my options before diving in headfirst. Once I started to view Warzone as a stealth game, it entirely changed my perspective on how to play, and my enjoyment of the game skyrocketed. It was no longer a game simply played for fun shooting and nice-looking explosions. It was an experience that required tactics, communication, and careful consideration for one’s actions.
As Hitman 3 approaches its release, a title that is by every sense of the genre is a “stealth game,” I like to imagine Warzone standing by its side as a hybrid. On one hand, it is the wild first-person actioner we have all come to know and love across over a decade’s worth of Call of Duty. Yet on the other, it’s a stealth game that simultaneously diversifies gameplay and keeps the action on a leash. Through its meshing of both, a new type of stealth game has been born, and while Warzone certainly wasn’t the first to attempt it, it feels like the first to find a balance; it’s a game that allows you to weigh up the potential consequence of your actions without ever highlighting what they may be. A game thats inclusion of stealth was itself so stealthy that it snuck its way into the bombastic franchise that is Call of Duty. That act itself must be commended.