Off we go to war again…
Developer: Infinity Ward
Format: PC, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One
Released: November 04, 2016
Let’s get this part out of the way – I’m done caring about, attempting to review, or trying to play Call of Duty‘s competitive multiplayer mode.
After more than a decade of yearly releases – games now catering to a very specific audience that has spent years playing very little else outside of them – going online with a new COD is akin to flipping A Game of Thrones to a random page and just starting the story from there.
It’s no secret I’m not the most skilled player of games in the world, but I’m not that awful. I can pick up Titanfall 2 or Battlefield 1 and hold my own, sometimes even get into MVP territory now and then. Hell, there are shooters I can play after months of hiatus and put in at least a decent enough showing to remain a solid, if unremarkable, contributor to my side of the fight.
But Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare? I couldn’t have gotten a colder welcome if I was playing naked in the fucking Antarctic.
It’s impenetrable to me. Utterly incomprehensible gibberish in which dozens of opponents, at launch, were already ridiculously high levels and rocking all sorts of expensive looking guns.
From this day forth, until the series changes things significantly, I’m just not going to give the competitive multiplayer much of a look. I’ll accept all the judgement that such a decision might earn me as a critic, but I’m done with it. I wash my hands of a feature that, in my humble opinion, does not want me there.
With the competitive mode taken care of, it’s time to look at what I’ve always cared more about anyway – the campaign.
For the past few years, starting with the dire Call of Duty: Ghosts, I’ve found myself increasingly bored to tears by the narrative offerings of Activision’s biggest cash cow. Desperate in their attempts to shake things up without rocking the boat too much, they’ve been half-baked and inconsequential, slapdash in their writing and rote in their gameplay.
To its credit, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare boasts easily the best campaign since Black Ops II – it’s energetic, it’s sincere, and even when held back by the series’ all-too familiar trappings, it’s plain just how much it wants to break free.
It very nearly does.
One major problem with the last few Call of Duty games is how rushed the worldbuilding is. It has come off as creatively stranded as it attempts to generate a whole new universe with each game, and the process has an inevitably rushed feel to it. We’re quickly introduced to the heroes and villains, the political climate is given mere cliff notes, and then shooting happens.
Initially, Infinite Warfare suffers from this same problem, and it’s an issue that definitely persists throughout. Unlike the last few games, however, things improve as they develop.
Beginning with a hurried explanation of what might be centuries of galactic history, we’re told Earth is at odds with yet another abbreviated military group, the Settlement Defense Front. They’re bad because of reasons, and they have Kit Harington on their side because we need another villain rocking the facial scan of a famous man.
While not explored anywhere near as much as they should be, the SDF present the most interesting threat a COD game’s seen in years. We get only glimpses of their culture via Admiral Koch (Harington) and historical tidbits after player deaths, but they’re reminiscent of Killzone‘s Helghast with their collectivist culture and contempt for the “weakness” they see in more free civilizations.
It’s my hope that Infinite Warfare‘s universe persists across more games, because even if this game did nothing else, it at least made me care enough about the factions at war to want to learn more.
Themes of leadership, loss, and making tough calls are a large part of the story, and while they take time to get going, these narrative threads grow into surprisingly evocative parts of the story.
As Captain Reyes, players are put in the boots of an idealistic leader who doesn’t want to lose a single soldier. Infinite Warfare takes great pains to destroy that idealism, to show loss as an inevitability and sacrifice as a call that has to be made. This is reflected with Koch, who routinely claims that “Death is no disgrace” and is happy to let anybody die if it advances a greater cause.
All this is present in Infinite Warfare, but it’s frustratingly downplayed at times to the point where it feels almost jarring when the themes are emphasized clearly. Some scenes play out without an adequate build if you’re not paying strict attention. The contrast between Reyes and Koch can be lost if you’re not reading optional text that could easily be missed.
It’s all there – it just needed greater focus.
Infinite Warfare suffers from emulating Titanfall while lacking the same level design and freedom Titanfall 2 awards its players.
While there’s wallrunning and jet packs, they’re limited in their application and environments do nothing to encourage their use. They exist as shallow accoutrements, halfhearted acknowledgements that Call of Duty needs dynamic new ideas but lacking enough dynamism to actually matter.
Anything fresh is crammed into an existing, traditional, safe COD package. Robotic enemies and human soldiers are hard to distinguish in a firefight, and while the weaponry is supposed to be futuristic, they look, sound, and handle like any old assortment of guns you could find in other shooters.
That “energy” assault rifle is, for all intents and purposes, just another assault rifle.
Some nice touches have made their way into the glossy, dizzying array of setpieces and combat. Technological toys such as spider-like Seeker explosives and remote hacking devices that allow for possession of enemy robots aren’t exactly new to the world of videogames, but they spice things up a bit and they’re not dull to play with.
Space combat appears several times, with zero-gravity environments providing interesting situations. Players float among the space debris, using rocks and destroyed ships as cover, wielding a grappling hook that can latch onto enemy astronauts and lead to highly entertaining executions.
The biggest shakeup is the prevalence of flight combat, with fully controllable “Raptor” ships that partake in a multitude of dogfights. While these segments are messy and err on the wrong side of chaotic, their fast paced rollercoaster rides do a solid job of stopping ground battles from growing too monotonous.
Guns and ships are both upgraded with unlockables earned throughout each mission, and there are quite a few optional missions to take part in for extra rewards. So many optional missions, however, that they actually make up a majority of content. Trying to blaze through the mandatory objectives will lead to a significantly short campaign.
One major issue I have with Infinite Warfare is truly indicative of all the problems I’ve brought up so far – Reyes becomes a commander soon after the game’s opening segments, the captain of a warship with a small army under him. However, you’d think he were a mere grunt during gameplay with every other soldier bossing him around, sending him places, and generally addressing him the way a captain should never be addressed.
This is handwaved lightly by Reyes’ one-of-the-guys persona, but it’s still an uphill struggle to swallow frequent disrespect and disregard from what are supposed to be his subordinates. Their saying “sir” every now and then only serves to maintain the disassociation as you’re expected to believe you’re in charge while remaining a standardized shepherded COD footsoldier.
Infinite Warfare is still too afraid to step outside its ancient comfort zones, but the frightened steps it does make are positive ones, and despite dated design and unwarranted creative restraint, the campaign comes out as a net success. At the very least, it is able to tell a coherent story and lead toward a satisfying conclusion, which Call of Duty hasn’t managed in a long time.
While competitive multiplayer is a no-go, Infinity Ward brought the undead back for Zombies in Spaceland, another cooperative wave-based slaughterfest. Taking place in a 1980s sci-fi theme park, the increasing silliness of the ever popular mode carries its own distinct appeal.
Unfortunately, for all the retro music, bright colors, and irreverent humor, the game takes several distasteful cues from the free-to-play market, with the kind of crates and card packs that you expect to see in the average freemium mobile game. This is not helped by how strong the zombies get, how quickly they overwhelm you, and how much of a difference the random unlocks can make to your survival.
This freemium randomized crap is part of the competitive multiplayer too, but fuck competitive multiplayer.
This is one zombies mode that, as appealing as it should be, I can’t see myself sticking with.
Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare is very much like Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate in that it’s a promising show of energy for a series that desperately needs a break. Despite alternating studios and the claim this game took Infinity Ward three years to make, the backbone of this series is tired and needs a considerable rest.
Incremental updates just aren’t cutting it, especially not so soon after the financially less successful but creatively superior Titanfall 2.
Still… good campaign while it lasts.