Before we get started I’m going to push my glasses up my nose with my index finger and talk a bit about science fiction.
Some folks don’t know this, but not all sci-fi is cut from the same cloth. There are various subgenres, including (but far from limited to): space opera, cyberpunk, libertarian, tech noir, space western, and hard science fiction. Each has a different focus and tone and targets a different type of audience.
Infinity Ward’s latest Call of Duty game, set some time in the future when humanity has colonized the solar system, belongs to a genre most would call military science fiction. This type of science fiction typically doesn’t concern itself overly much with science, save (perhaps) where it concerns descriptions of weaponry and military hardware. It generally assumes the audience will accept that the scientists and technologists of the future will eventually be able to do pretty much anything and doesn’t spend time explaining the how. Which is another way of saying it’s pretty content to break the laws of physics whenever convenient for the sake of making up neat-o stuff that serves the story they want to tell.
There’s nothing wrong with this. It can make for a fun, fantastical romp. And if you were one of the people who saw the jaw dropping space-based trailers for Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, you probably knew that military sci-fi is exactly what Infinity Ward was aiming to give us. Because it’s clear from the get-go that this is not a game concerned with impressing any scientists in its audience.
ActivisionInfinity Ward may play fast and loose with the laws of physics, but the space vistas in Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare are second to none
Its massive warships can move at speeds many times that of light, travelling to any planet in our solar system literally in a matter of seconds. Fluctuations in standard 1 g gravity – like that of Earth – exist only in isolated instances; namely, places where the game’s designers figured it would be cool for the player to experience zero- or lesser g. Space fighters appear to carry out all their maneuvers with giant F-18-style rear jet engines rather than stability maintaining attitude thrusters. Perhaps most conspicuous of all is that the outer space Infinity Ward has created is damned noisy. Vacuum seems to carry the sound of everything, from engines to gunshots to explosions. 2010: A Space Odyssey, this ain’t.
Normally, I like my science fiction at least a tiny bit harder. Like the Dead Space and Mass Effect games. There were times in Infinite Warfare when I was intensely frustrated that, say, my character was able to easily run across the outer surface of an asteroid with such a small mass that one good jump should have been nearly enough to achieve escape velocity. It felt like Michael Bay’s Armageddon all over again.
And yet I’m also a sucker for a pretty space vista. And, good lord, does Infinite Warfare ever deliver on that score.
The opening mission on the icy surface of Europa, with Jupiter a silent giant in the sky above, is dazzling. And that’s just the start. Gas giants loom large in the background of many missions, both in space and on the ground. We see ships floating majestically in endless fields of floating boulders. And the artists have done a fantastic job lighting scenes that transition from the ebony black of deep space to the blinding light of the sun cresting a planet. The most visually striking mission, hands down, takes place on a cosmic rock near Mercury. Human folly has set it tumbling towards the sun, and its accelerated spin makes the nearby star come flaming over horizon once every minute or so, burning everything unlucky enough to be caught out in the open on the surface. It’s dizzying, disorienting, and just plain gorgeous.
This stunning visual depiction of space – among the very best I’ve seen in games – went a long way toward me accepting and eventually enjoying the kind of campy campaign.
The story gives us an enemy that’s easy to hate in the form of a rogue military group composed of people who were born and grew up on the colony worlds and hate Earth. Led by a despot played with one-note woodenness by Game of Thrones’ Kit Harrington, this group – called the Settlement Defence Front – wants to erase every trace of Earth-born humanity. Basically, we’re meant to have no moral qualms killing scads of these guys.
Which is good. Because that’s exactly what we do. We kill the DF in Geneva on Earth, we kill them in on the moon. We kill them Moonraker-style in floating space suit fights, jetpacking and grappling our way between rocks and space debris, and we kill them in ridiculously maneuverable star fighters that a seven-year-old could pilot with ease. And by that I mean no insult; aerial combat has never been more fun in a Call of Duty game. Space dogfights kind of steal the show here in the same way sea ship battles did in Assassin’s Creed III.
Amid all this killing is the story of a diminishing crew desperately manning one of Earth’s last warships. It includes themes of military family (there’s a weirdly touching subplot about an affable robot named Ethan who finds a home in the marines) and the hard responsibilities that come with leadership. The writers clearly want to say something about all this via our protagonist/avatar, a well-liked lieutenant thrust into the role of captain (the Kirk kind – he’s on literally every away mission). But – perhaps in part because the drama feels so out of sync with the hokeyness of the space-based action – it never comes close to delivering the sort of emotional clout found in some of Call of Duty’s earliest games set during the Second World War.
What you really need to know about the campaign is this: You’re going to see some things that will make you wish we really could travel to Saturn and Neptune in a matter of seconds, you’re going to have a good bit of fun shooting your way through the halls and hangers of spaceships (without worrying too much about whether your high-power rounds are going to rupture the hull and result in explosive decompression that ejects you out into space, because the designers deemed that would make it less fun), and it’s all going to be over – optional ship-to-ship combat missions included – in a little less than 10 hours.
At which point the real Call of Duty experience – multiplayer – will begin.
Keep in mind that my experience with multiplayer this far has been quite limited. I had less than a day to experiment with it before writing this review, and the less-than-full pre-launch servers made it hard to find games in all the modes I wanted to try.
But it was still plenty of time to realize that, despite the novel space-based nature of the campaign, multiplayer should prove very familiar to series fans.
It makes some use – though not as much as you might expect – of extraterrestrial locations. Looking heavenward on one map I saw a beautiful spacescape composed of stars and giant asteroids. And while fighting inside ship I quickly noticed how once a player died his or her corpse would start to float upwards, magnetic boots presumably failing precisely at the time of death.
But after a couple of hours I’d basically forgotten all about the space theme and was just doing what I’ve been doing online in Call of Duty games for years: shooting people, running along walls and boost jumping (in this game you have something called a “rig” rather than an exo suit or physical implants), and spending my time between missions figuring out how to upgrade my character – which didn’t take very long, since it uses systems for weapons and attachments, cosmetic avatar upgrades, and scorestreak abilities that don’t seem much different from those of previous games.
So, what has changed? Aside from a sprawling array of fresh, futuristic weaponry that will change some players’ tactics – like a shotgun with ricocheting bullets and an anti-gravity grenade – the new bits are decidedly iterative.
For example, you can now join something called a Mission Team, which will determine the types of missions you’ll be tasked with completing to earn rewards, like achieving a set number of kills with a certain type of weapon, or racking up headshots. It’s just a different way of doing something we’ve been doing for years in Call of Duty games.
Happily, the exo rig you choose makes a bit more of an impact than the team you pick. One of the earliest rigs available, the Warfighter, offers boosts that will give poor players (like me) a bit more of a chance to try some of the rewards – like satellite and missile bombardment – typically available only to those who can put together a bigger scorestreak before getting killed. It provides a perk that doubles points for all of your actions for a limited time and another that disables scorestreak resets upon death. (I think I might have actually let out an “oorah!” when I saw that.)
And, of course, there are some new match types that – in the one night I’ve played – I’m only just starting to appreciate.
Frontline, for example, employs the vaguely quaint idea of making everyone on each team spawn at their base. I’ve found this tends to lead players to very specific choke points and kill zones – or, as its name suggests, frontlines – and that it makes players naturally want to work together, using numbers to overcome entrenched forces. I liked it.
I also enjoyed a new game type called Defender, which seems designed as an alternative to Call of Duty’s popular sports-like Uplink mode. It has players racing to pick up and hold a drone, kind of like rugby players trying to carry a ball. One player holds it for as long as he or she can while the rest of the team provides protection. Like Frontline, Defender leads players to instinctively work together – always a plus.
It’s also worth noting that the multiplayer user interface seems streamlined and simpler compared to other recent Call of Duty games. It’s easy to find your way around, and there’s less glitz to distract you from doing what you want to do. It’s more compact, if that makes sense, but it’s not the step backwards that such a description might suggest. It’s a positive move towards accessibility and efficiency.
And that just leaves Zombies mode, a staple of the series since Call of Duty: World at War, butappearing for the first time in a Call of Duty developed by Infinity Ward. And it’s a step up from what we were given in the last couple of releases.
The first episode (more will be released with each of Infinite Warfare’s four DLC drops) is called Zombies in Spaceland, and has a vintage 80s theme. After meeting a crazed filmmaker a group of four young friends are magically whisked away to a zombie infested sci-fi theme park filled with spaceship rides, corny exhibits, and old radio hits like Cory Hart’s “Sunglasses at Night” playing in the background.
The general formula remains the same: Fight alongside three other players to live through waves of successively more powerful zombies while unlocking new weapons and new areas of the park as you try to escape.
But there are also a few cool new twists, the best of which is the Afterlife Arcade. When you die you’ll be transported to the park’s arcade, which is filled with retro video games (like Pitfall 2), a skee ball game, a basketball game, and more. Your goal is to quickly play these games and earn enough points to be granted a soul token, which you can use to self-revive. It beats the heck out of passively watching your partners run around killing zombies for four or five minutes after you bleed out.
Plus, if you play solo and opt for a tutorial (located near a map by the park entrance) you’ll receive timely tips on how to progress and what some of the park’s secrets and goodies mean – which should prove very helpful for anyone who’s ever tried a Call of Duty Zombies mode and been frustrated by its unwillingness to explain what to do.
We’ll need to see how Zombies evolves over the next 10 months before rendering a final verdict, but it’s off to a strong start.
As for Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare as a whole, it’s not a particularly bold leap – despite being largely set off planet.
That said, the campaign is polished and spectacular in the way nearly all Call of Duty campaigns are, the controls are as tight and comfortable as ever, and multiplayer is bound to hook you for at least a couple of weeks. Maybe a couple of months, depending on whether you’ve got serious skillz (or at least a tolerance for those who do).
Put a little more simply, this is a sci-fi game for Call of Duty fans, not a Call of Duty game for sci-fi fans. Make your purchasing decision accordingly.