Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare
Sony PlayStation 4Also available on PC and Microsoft Xbox One
As Battlefield looks to the past for a more visceral depiction of war, Activision’s Call of Duty franchise barrels forward in time, even managing to push the believability envelope that was so thoroughly nudged in Black Ops III. It’s been a helluva year for first-person shooters but does releasing after the double strike of Battlefield 1 and Titanfall 2 prove a bold move, a confident reliability or a misfire?
First things first: suspend your disbelief from the off. Any Call of Duty junkie looking for their next modern warfare fix will need to come to terms that this iteration has more in common with Halo and Battlestar Galactica than it does Andy McNab and Ross Kemp’s Ultimate Force. If you’re able to accept that then Infinite Warfare actually turns out to be a thoroughly enjoyable campaign. Placing you in the combat boots of Nick Reyes, the game soon gives you command of the battle cruiser Retribution after Earth comes under attack from Kit Harrington’s nasty Mars men. It’s all fairly ridiculous and takes you planet-hopping across the galaxy in a desperate bid to avenge the Pearl Harbor-esque attack on Earth.
Call of Duty never fails at bombastic spectacle and Infinite Warfare is no slouch in this respect. Imagine the ‘Exodus Pt. 2’ episode of Battlestar Galactica, but with any of the subtle writing removed and the action ramped up to full. Starships crashing out of the sky, ship-to-ship combat, attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion (well, possibly not exactly there, but there’re definitely ships and they are definitely alight). Visually Infinite Warfare deserves commendation, throwing all of this chaos at the screen and still hitting silky smooth 60 FPS. On the PS4 Pro it looks even better - Lewis Hamilton (in the year’s silliest cameo) looks like Lewis Hamilton, as do the remaining cast.
While the story sandwiches in some interesting gameplay quirks - an asteroid base reconnaissance sees robots spring to life only when in sunlight, something compounded by the problem of the asteroid spinning out of control. Likewise, this is the first Call of Duty to put greater onus on the player in terms of what missions to go after. A galaxy map lists missions available to complete, selectable in non-linear fashion. It’s a small change but one that feels radical in a typically straight-lined series.
However, despite the campaign being overall a thoroughly enjoyable facsimile of standard sci-fi fare, there are some problems. The optional missions between the main story beats are very much of a type - tending towards spaceborne combat in the Jackal (Infinite Warfare’s space fighter jet). These are by no means boring but once you’ve played a couple they soon feel familiar. The main story itself also seems over preoccupied with death - to the point where it feels po-faced when it doesn’t have the story content to justify such downbeat predilections.
But the story is better than Black Ops III’s enjoyable but muddled narrative (remember the ability to tackle missions in any order, to hell with logical storytelling?) and the cast of characters slightly more memorable too. Life commanding a battleship really gives you a sense of empowerment and a connection to your crew, even if it really isn’t given much time to develop.
A new era also gives rise to even more fanciful technology. Boost packs return, allowing again for double jumps and wall running, but there’s also the ability to hack combat mechs, plenty of anti-gravity sections (and grenades!), seeker grenades and all manner of cool gizmos. In some ways this will infuriate Call of Duty purists, but it works well and means there’s something new constantly around the corner.
While the campaign is pretty darn good, it’s the multiplayer - arguably the biggest draw of Call of Duty - that feels archaic against the competition. Standing on its own, Infinite Warfare’s usual fast-paced run-and-gun multiplayer modes would be more than enough to keep attention rapt. Unfortunately, that’s all it really does and there really doesn’t feel like there’s been any movement forward. Maps work but feel miniscule compared to Battlefield's expanses and lack the perfectly designed flow of Titanfall’s acrobatic kill spaces.
The series standard zombies mode also makes a return, now set in an 80s nostalgia-fuelled romp through linked film sets, complete with David Hasselhoff and a jukebox of recognisable tunes from the decade. For newcomers there is an option to attempt it solo, but the mode was really built for four player co-op. Aside from shooting zombies, there are power switches to activate, rides to try, pickups, power-ups, souvenir coins - the lot. The mode becomes ever more impenetrable with every iteration, but Call of Duty fans should still find a lot to discover in its intricate ways. The 80s design certainly makes it far more approachable, but also fairly irritating, especially when you consider the fact that the target demographic of millennials and YouTubers probably don’t have much fondness for it.
Yet the series has come so far - explicitly realised through the simultaneous and symbiotic release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered. Movement, set pieces, the glossy shell surrounding the whole thing - it’s all been streamlined yet these changes have been diluted through annual release. It’s an achievement still worth recognising - this isn’t the same old CoD that everyone complains about.
Therein lies Call of Duty’s biggest problem - the competition. Battlefield 1’s multiplayer just cannot be beaten for sheer astoundment, while Titanfall 2’s campaign introduces new, clever ideas at every turn. Next to both, what would usually be a damn good Call of Duty package feels underwhelming. However, this is not a discouragement against purchase. If anything, CoD is on the back foot now, despite still raking in sales. You can see it straining to stay ahead of the pack and this results in some huge highs and some definite misfires. Undeniably entertaining, Infinite Warfare still has the feeling of a series running out of ideas, constrained by a template that needs change at a structural level.