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, Dual 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.
The 14th annual iPhone photography awards offer glimpses of beauty, hope and the endurance of the human spirit. Out of thousands of submissions, photojournalist Istvan Kerekes of Hungary was named the grand prize winner for his image Transylvanian Shepherds. In it, two rugged shepherds traverse an equally rugged industrial landscape, bearing a pair of lambs in their arms.
Alphabet today launched its latest tech startup, Intrinsic, which aims to build commercial software that will power industrial robots.
Intrinsic will focus on developing software control tools for industrial robots used in manufacturing, we’re told. Its pitch is that the days of humans having to manually program and adjust a robot’s every move are over, and that mechanical bots should be more autonomous and smart, thanks to advances in artificial intelligence and leaps in training techniques.
This could make robots easier to direct – give them a task, and they’ll figure out the specifics – and more efficient – the AI can work out the best way to achieve its goal.
“Over the last few years, our team has been exploring how to give industrial robots the ability to sense, learn, and automatically make adjustments as they’re completing tasks, so they work in a wider range of settings and applications,” said CEO Wendy Tan White.
“Working in collaboration with teams across Alphabet, and with our partners in real-world manufacturing settings, we’ve been testing software that uses techniques like automated perception, deep learning, reinforcement learning, motion planning, simulation, and force control.”
Tan White – a British entrepreneur and investor who was made an MBE by the Queen in 2016 for her services to the tech industry – will leave her role as vice president of X, Alphabet’s moonshot R&D lab, to concentrate on Intrinsic.
She earlier co-founded and was CEO of website-building biz Moonfruit, and helped multiple early-stage companies get up and running as a general partner at Entrepreneur First, a tech accelerator. She is also a board trustee of the UK’s Alan Turing Institute, and member of Blighty’s Digital Economic Council.
“I loved the role I played in creating platforms that inspired the imagination and entrepreneurship of people all over the world, and I’ve recently stepped into a similar opportunity: I’m delighted to share that I’m now leading Intrinsic, a new Alphabet company,” she said.
The new outfit is another venture to emerge from Google-parent Alphabet’s X labs, along with Waymo, the self-driving car startup; and Verily, a biotech biz. ®
Charles River is expanding its testing capabilities in Ballina as part of its partnership with Covid-19 vaccine manufacturer AstraZeneca.
Contract research organisation Charles River Laboratories is planning an €8m site expansion in Ballina to facilitate batch release testing for Covid-19 vaccines from AstraZeneca.
The expansion at the Mayo site will create an additional 1,500 sq m of lab space and 90 highly skilled jobs in the area over the next three years.
The company provides longstanding partners AstraZeneca with outsourced regulated safety and development support on a range of treatments and vaccines, including testing and facilitating the deployment of Vaxzevria for Covid-19 and Fluenz for seasonal infleunza.
The latest investment follows earlier expansions at the Ballina site and Charles River recently announced plans to establish a dedicated laboratory space to handle testing of SARS-CoV-2 and other similar pathogens that cause human disease.
“We are incredibly proud of the transformational changes we have implemented on site and the role that Charles River has played in supporting the safe and timely roll-out of AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine,” said Liam McHale, site director for Charles River Ballina.
“Throughout the pandemic, our site remained fully operational while keeping our employees safe and having a positive impact on human health. Our expanded facility will provide us with the increased capacity needed to continue the essential services we provide to our clients.”
Charles River acquired the Ballina facility, which focuses on biologics testing, in 2002. The company employs 230 people at its two facilities in Ireland, including the Mayo site and a site in Dublin, established in 2017, which serves as the EMEA and APAC headquarters for the company’s microbial solutions division.
IDA Ireland is supporting the expansion. Mary Buckley, executive director of the agency, said Charles River is an “employer of long standing” in Co Mayo.
“The enhancement of its product lines and the development of additional capability at the Ballina facility is most welcome,” she added. “Today’s announcement is strongly aligned to IDA Ireland’s regional pillar and its continued commitment to winning jobs and investment in regional locations.”
Dan Wygal, country president for AstraZeneca Ireland, added: “Our Covid-19 vaccine, Vaxzevria, undergoes extremely robust safety and quality testing prior to becoming available for patients. We are committed to bringing safe, effective vaccines to Ireland and other markets as quickly as possible, and Charles River will continue to be an important partner in this regard.”