Yeah, I think Call Of Duty might be done now.
It’s disheartening to play Infinite Warfare after watching the CoD series’ painstaking attempts to claw its way back from the brink of irrelevancy over the last three iterations. Ghosts was mostly a failure, but Advanced Warfare and Black Ops 3 were both encouraging in intent if not in execution, as they started to explore what would be possible in a near-future setting and showed that CoD was at least trying to give the player more interesting things to do than sit behind cover looking out for grenade indicators. Black Ops 3 even had some half decent story ideas and visual design to offset its quite considerable flaws. It was a moderately promising path for the series to be headed down; I don’t think it would have saved it as those yearly releases carry far too much inertia for CoD to be able to reinvent itself in the comprehensive manner that its modern competitors have, but it at least would have been a managed decline and the best that CoD could have realistically asked for without Activision drastically rethinking how they manage their biggest property.
Infinite Warfare is not a managed decline. Infinite Warfare is an almost conscious rejection of all the progress that CoD has made over the past three or four years, no matter how slight it might be, in exchange for ramming itself face-first into the nearest wall. (Not coincidentally, this is what the act of actually playing Infinite Warfare feels like.) On the surface there’s a lot of potential to be found here, as Infinite Warfare finally sheds the last vestiges of plausibility by setting itself in a far future where mankind has colonised a solar system that’s now replete with space stations, space destroyers and space fighters. You could do a lot with this setting in terms of gameplay gimmicks – as an example I’d point you towards what Titanfall 2 managed to do just last week if it wasn’t still a massive spoiler — and CoD is a series that is extremely heavily reliant on its gimmicks to spice up the basic shooter action so rote and uninspired that I could do it in my sleep by now. Example gimmicks from the series’ past include but are by no means limited to: the AC-130 gunship level from Modern Warfare; the ice climbing level from Modern Warfare 2; the five trillion minigames from Ghosts; and the jetpacks and grappling hooks from Advanced Warfare. Opening up vast new gimmick horizons for CoD to exploit by making that giant leap into space probably could have staved off the death of the series for a few years, if the developers had just had the wit and/or creative freedom to properly take advantage of them.
Instead we get probably the most regressive shooter I’ve played in the last half-decade. Think of everything you do in a standard Call Of Duty game, add the rider “But in space!” to the end of every sentence, and you will be able to successfully visualise the entirety of Infinite Warfare in your mind. I will give it grudging points for the tutorial mission, which is a jetpack drop onto the surface of Europa followed by a stealthy infiltration of an enemy facility that shows off the main innovation of the FPS segment of the game: anti-gravity grenades. (Yes, the best they could come up with is a grenade that replicates the Lift biotic power seen in the original Mass Effect nearly a decade ago.) It’s not a stellar experience by any measure, but it did briefly trick me into thinking I might at least get some interesting environments to explore during the campaign. Unfortunately since this is Call Of Duty the special ops team you’re leading gets executed by Infinite Warfare’s villain Salen Kotch — a laughably miscast Kit Harrington who you absolutely will not be able to take seriously, and doubly so if you actually do watch Game Of Thrones since there’s zero effort made to ensure that he doesn’t look and sound like Space Jon Snow — and the action then cuts to Earth, which has unified into Space America, and the main character you’ll be playing for the rest of the game: Lieutenant Reyes, a square-jawed space fighter pilot/space special forces soldier (the writers for this game have clearly been watching a lot of Space: Above And Beyond) who might as well be marketed as a brand of carpet cleaner since he is odourless, colourless and guaranteed to leave absolutely no lasting impression on you whatsoever.
Joining Reyes are Salter, the female wish fulfilment character for this iteration of the franchise — steely-eyed, competent, one of the lads, yet secretly into your character — Ethan, a robo-bro who paradoxically displays the most humanity out of anyone in the campaign, and Omar, a sort of knockoff Idris Elba1. All of these characters communicate with one another solely in the form of tired military cliches, to the point where I’d almost suspect Infinite Warfare of being an exquisite parody at times since the refusal of its cast to talk to one another like normal human beings is taken to such extremes that every single one of them comes across like they’re a jabbering lunatic. They’re also all from English-speaking Western nations (mostly America with two Brits and an Australian sprinkled in) which I thought was a bit much for what is supposed to be a united Earth military, especially since Kit Harrington’s faction in this game — the Martian SDF — are pretty clearly Space Russians complete with Space Russian accents and Space Russian names, and they even carry Space AK-47s with a space wood finish as their standard weapon.
The Space Russians are very bad people indeed – they’re so bad, in fact, that every time you die in Infinite Warfare you get spammed with a quote about how evil the Space Russians are (the anti-war literature is a thing of the distant past). They open the game by doing a Space Pearl Harbour on Space America, evilly surprise-attacking their space fleet while it’s having a space parade in Geneva and dropping off space marines to shoot civilians in the streets, because they’re so evil2 You spend this mission fighting your way through Geneva on foot to reach HQ, and it’s here that the true nature of Infinite Warfare first rears its ugly head since the gameplay experience of slogging through a wrecked European city with a few AI buddies while stopping to trade shots with occasional groups of bad guys who are crouched behind waist-high cover could literally have been spliced in from the very first Call Of Duty back in 2003. The enemy behaviour is about the same grade as 2003-era CoD too; they show massive preference for targeting you over your friends and they’ll shoot at you no matter where you are in the level — since Infinite Warfare’s cover has a lot of tiny holes in it that they can get you through this leads to a lot of frustrating deaths because you’re not crouching in exactly the right spot. To avoid death you spend a lot of time lying prone behind cover waiting for the flashing red screen borders to go away. Then you quickly poke your head out, snipe one bad guy if you’re lucky, and then immediately retreat back behind cover to recover from the sheer weight of incoming gunfire.
This static gameplay of remaining huddled behind cover while the bullet storm rages around you couldn’t be more at odds with the two outstanding FPS heavyweights released this year, Doom and Titanfall 2. In those games your mobility is not only a thing to revel in and enjoy, it’s absolutely essential to keep moving in order to survive. The reverse is true of Infinite Warfare; here, moving out of cover will result in you looking at one of those quotes about how evil the Space Russians are after approximately one and a half seconds. It wants you to remain nailed squarely in place behind whatever piece of concrete and/or metal you’ve selected headshotting goon after goon until you finish the encounter and move on to the next shooting gallery. There’s fuck all enemy variety to spice things up; there’s human enemies that you use bullets against, and robot enemies that you use lasers against (and can hack if you want to briefly relieve the tedium), and this is the sum total of Infinite Warfare’s imagination when it comes to the baddies since otherwise they behave in precisely the same way. There’s very little that you can do outside of shooting them, either; you have two slots for activated abilities but the most interesting of these is the one that lets you take over a robot and blow it up in a particularly large cluster of enemies. The others are a shield, which I suppose lets you move with the cover, and a little deployable drone that’ll shoot whatever you’re shooting at and basically functions as an additional useless AI sidekick. It’s so damn sickly that I found myself actively pining for Black Ops 3’s nano-abilities, or even something like Advanced Warfare’s grapple: literally any additional option for doing things in a mission that wasn’t shooting somebody in the head.
Anyway, after you’re done with the Geneva slogfest you hop into your space fighter and blast off into space to shoot it out with the enemy fleet. These Jackal segments are supposed to be Infinite Warfare’s big step forward, since in most of them you’re in the fighter the entire time and there’s no classic FPS gameplay at all, and they’re certainly quite impressive visually with lots of flak and explosions and tracers flying around. Unfortunately in terms of what you actually do they are, if anything, even shallower than the FPS segments since there is exactly one type of enemy fighter and two types of capital ships, and the capital ships don’t pose any threat to you just so long as you press Q to launch flares whenever they launch missiles. It’s pretty much just the Apache level from Ghosts — but in space — except where Ghosts at least recognised it was a gimmick with a short shelf life and didn’t allow it to outstay its welcome Infinite Warfare has decided to unroll it into half of a game. Every Jackal mission plays out the same way: shoot the fighters, then when they’re all dead shoot the capital ships, and then land on your space carrier. Which, by the way, is a literal space carrier complete with a space landing strip. In fucking space, that famously air- and gravity-filled3 environment where fighters must approach a carrier at speed in order to remain airborne before touching down and braking hard. I wouldn’t bitch about it so much except they actually do make you land on the carrier at the end of every mission, and if you’re even slightly misaligned with the blue target circle you have to turn around and do it again4.
Infinite Warfare’s other big innovation outside of the FPS segments (god knows it fails to innovate enough inside of them) is that once you get the initial three missions on Europa, Earth and the Moon out of the way you get command of the big space carrier you spend so much of your time trying to land on and can choose which missions to do via a big tactical display in the middle of the bridge. About half of these are Jackal missions, which means they’re functionally identical and absolutely disposable. The other half are ship boarding missions, where you fly to and board a Space Russian capital ship on foot in order to do a thing, and while these are kind of mixed they do have their good points. The approach to the ship is usually great fun as Infinite Warfare does a pretty good job of the zero-G sections that Ghosts got so horribly wrong — the enemy AI still blows and you still have to hope there’s a good piece of cover between you and them, but if there’s no enemies around the game can focus on spectacle and there’s some great bits where you’re scrambling through asteroid belts to plant bombs inside the engines or boarding the target ship while it’s shooting it out with a friendly capital ship. Unfortunately once you do finally get on board the tables turn: some clever soul at Infinity Ward has gone “Well, since the ships you board are all the same class of ship that means we can use the same level for each one!”, and while you’d struggle to notice the difference between each ship’s drab metal interior at the best of times it’s striking how many times they re-use the armory room, for example.
This ensures that the latter half of each boarding mission feels exactly the same, and this is kind of a problem for Infinite Warfare since the number of missions where you don’t board an enemy capital ship is somewhere around six. Three of those form Infinite Warfare’s opening as described above. There’s another two set in a fuel refinery on Titan and an asteroid mining base, for which you can read “prefab metal structures on a rock”. Infinite Warfare now wants me to go back to Earth, which is the point where I punch out of the game because I’m absolutely unwilling to go through that bullshit again without a moderately pretty environment to back it up; I imagine that after this there’s one final mission to attack Kit Harrington’s super star destroyer but quite frankly I’m perfectly happy not sitting through that either. It’s rare for me to give up on a game so close to the end but given the mostly monotonous and repetitive missions that Infinite Warfare has thrown at me up until this point I’m as sure as I can be that I’m really not missing anything by yanking on that EJECT handle a little early. Call Of Duty is a series that’s built almost 100% around scripting and spectacle, but despite the exotic new theme Infinite Warfare contains precious little of either; this was supposed to be a game that took me on a tour of the solar system to visit whole new planets, but instead it seems far more interested in showing me the interior of a fucking filing cabinet that’s filled to the brim with aimbots, over and over again.
This is why I say Call Of Duty is done. These days development duties for the series revolve between Infinity Ward (last responsible for Ghosts), Sledgehammer (Advanced Warfare) and Treyarch (Black Ops), so Infinite Warfare sucking so hard is by no means an indicator that the genuine progress made by Treyarch and Sledgehammer is going to disappear. However, this was the series’ big opportunity to really reinvent itself and it’s just been screwed up so badly that Activision won’t ever allow the series to go back into space again; at best it’s going to be all Advanced Warfares and Black Ops titles from here on out and, as I stated in the opening paragraph, that’s not enough to keep the CoD series going on anything more than basic life support while it gets eaten alive by its more agile competitors. I don’t have a particularly high opinion of the franchise (my interest in it is academic more than anything else), but I do think the failure of Infinite Warfare is sad in at least one respect: it is so weak that EA really didn’t need to aggressively market its two best shooter franchises against it, and so all they’ve managed to do there is crush Titanfall 2 — arguably the actual best all-round FPS of 2016 — beneath the unstoppable bulk of Battlefield 1. That’s the real tragedy of Infinite Warfare.
- My apologies to David Harewood, who is an established actor that I recognise from several TV shows and who tries to do the best he can with the godawful dialogue that’s been put in front of him. Unfortunately he does also sound an awful lot like Idris Elba, and I suspect the casting requirement for Omar ran something along the lines of “Idris Elba, but cheaper”. ↩
- Exactly what Space Russia hopes to gain by shooting the entire population of Earth one at a time when they could just hit it with a handy asteroid instead and save themselves a lot of time, money and effort is never explained. ↩
- Yes, space technically is full of gravity since that’s practically its defining feature. But you know what I mean. ↩
- One of the reasons Infinite Warfare’s Jackal missions got up my nose so much is because I played it just after watching the big space battle episode from The Expanse, which wasn’t the greatest I’ve ever seen but which was at least refreshingly different and really showed up CoD’s version for the tired Hollywood horseshit that it is. ↩