Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare is out today, and it’s not a disappointment. I would say that it’s one of the best Call of Duty games in years, but I said the same thing about last year’s Call of Duty: Black Ops III. But I have to say that the critics of Call of Duty who say that it’s the same game every year are going to have a harder time making the case this year. This one takes a lot of risks that really paid off.
Activision’s Call of Duty series has generated more than $15 billion in more than a decade. And with Infinite Warfare, I expect the company to add a billion or two billion to that figure. Activision’s Infinity Ward studio, coming off the poorly received Call of Duty: Ghosts, redeems itself with an excellent game that takes a lot of risks, like shifting the setting from modern war to science fiction and outer space. Borrowing some leaders from Naughty Dog, maker of the acclaimed Uncharted series, Infinity Ward created an epic story that is also very personal.
The story follows a surprise attack launched by the Settlement Defense Front — a rebellious military group that has colonized the solar system — against its home planet Earth, held by the United Nations Space Alliance. It is an interplanetary war for resources. But Infinity Ward it tells the tale of that war in a personal way, following the path of Lieutenant Nick Reyes, a brave special forces soldier and pilot who gets promoted on the battlefield. The great insight of the developers in improving the story and characters is that it makes you care that much more about the action sequences.
“One of the reasons I came here to work on Call of Duty is I’d always admired how well they did those big blockbuster action-movie set-pieces,” said Taylor Kurosaki, a former Naught Dog designer who was Infinity Ward’s narrative director on Infinite Warfare. “But my feeling was—if the guys that specialize in doing that stuff just do that again, they don’t have to outdo themselves. They just do the thing they do so well, and we can infuse context and characters you care about. You could have two equivalent set-pieces, and the one involving characters you care about is going to feel far more spectacular.”
Infinite Warfare has benefited from three years of development. I encountered almost no bugs in the build that I played. The characters are well crafted, and the story makes good use of them. It’s an epic action game, but it has a lot to say about its central characters and the sacrifices that you make when you move from boots on the ground to command. The voice acting can be moving. The villain and hero are a study in contrasts. The facial animation is great, and the graphics are first rate. Zombies adds some much-needed levity, and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered will provide a fix for those who feel nostalgic for modern war. Best of all, the action sequences will leave your hands shaking after you’re done with them because they’re so intense.
Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare debuts today on the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and the Windows PC. I’ve played the entire campaign and multiplayer sessions on the PS4. Check out our interviews with studio head Dave Stohl and narrative director Taylor Kurosaki.
This has some spoilers, but we’ve tried to minimize them. We recommend you read this after you’ve played the campaign. Check out our Reviews Vault for past game reviews –Ed.
What you’ll like
A better story with characters who change
By staying rooted in his grunt’s training, Reyes risks being a terrible commander, as he can’t bring himself to sacrifice a few for the needs of the many. He continues to fight like a grunt until his own subordinates challenge him to step up and be a leader.
“We wanted you to feel what it was like to be a military leader,” said Taylor Kurosaki, narrative director at Infinity Ward and a former Naughty Dog designer. “To have to move forward, despite the fact that maybe some people you’re close to didn’t make it. There’s still an overarching mission you have to focus on despite those losses. That’s a tough circumstance to be put in, and we wanted you to be in those boots.”
Reyes undergoes a change in the story as he is tested in battle and loses comrades around him. He is almost paralyzed as his cohorts ask him to step up his command, but he ultimately becomes more assertive and goes on the offensive by taking the battle back to the enemy.
“The fact that he’s still the tip of the spear, still going out on the front lines, makes it that much harder for him to have that metamorphosis, to truly behave like a leader,” Kurosaki said. “He’s having to wear both hats. Like I said earlier, we’re all creatures of habit. We don’t like to change. He’s going to double down on his MO until he’s basically forced to change.”
Plenty of memorable moments
The action is intense enough to sear some scenes into my mind. The first time I came up against a giant C12 robot was intense. It’s a terrifying thing to charge up a hill while evading heavy return fire. I remember a couple of times when I had to use every gun and every piece of ammo to hold off a horde of attacking robots. Flying into space battles full of capital ships and hostile fighters is a sight to behold. The setpieces — or cinematic action scenes — are huge in scope and memorable.
But the explosions weren’t the only memorable parts. Reyes and his lieutenant, Nora Salter, are battlefield veterans, and many moments test their mettle — and friendship and trust. The conversations can be raw. One moment between Reyes and Ethan the robot when death is near and they communicate as if they are saying farewell. It was a dialogue between a man and a robot, but it’s touching. In so many ways you’ll feel like you’re in the middle of a game that combines Call of Duty and Uncharted.
Now I wonder why that is?
The Jackal fights bring more gameplay variety
The Jackal introduces jet-like combat in outer space, but it’s not a flight simulator. You fight on a 2D plane, for the most part, using controls that map well to the first-person shooter controls. You can hover or descend, and maneuver left or right easily. For the most part this is a good thing, but it does produce some annoyances (I’ll get to these later). Yet, adding the ship-to-ship space combat and dogfighting was a good decision that makes the action more intense and variable. It doesn’t lessen the intensity, as you’re either pulling the trigger of a gun or firing the cannon of a space fighter.
“In some of the Jackal missions, there are times you can do more up and down,” said Dave Stoll, head of Infinity Ward, in an interview with GamesBeat. “But it was important to kind of keep stuff on a plane. You can get very disoriented. This is more of a cinematic experience than a flight sim. We try to keep things on a level plane. In some of the more challenging Jackal assaults, like when you’re taking out the destroyers, they’re at different heights and you can take yourself—I don’t get seasick, so I can flip upside down and do all kinds of stuff. But for ease of accessibility we kind of keep stuff on a plane.”
It has a sense of humor
The hero has his sidekick, but it’s a mechanical one. Reyes has a companion in Ethan (formally spelled ETH.3n, and it’s short for Enhanced Tactical Humanoid 3rd Revision). And Ethan is the funniest character, providing comic relief in a grim war story.
Ethan is capable of human-like emotions and responses, and he isn’t obtuse. He doesn’t joke when it’s inappropriate, and he’s a badass fighter. But when the captain asks Ethan what the Navy’s solution to a tough fight is, Ethan replies, “Send in the marines.”
“That’s tough line, I’ll tell you. Doing a robot, a talking robot, that’s a tough line to walk,” said Stoll. “It’s been done so many times in pop culture, in entertainment. We’ve created a robot, I think, that does his own kind of thing. He’s not like any of the others.”
Ethan pulls it off. And his humor spurs some emotional moments as well.
The combat is fierce, from planetary firefights to zero-gravity assaults
I played on Regular difficulty, and I thought that middle level was too tough at times. Replaying the same firefights over and over is a little embarrassing. But I had to do it quite a few times during the course of the campaign. And I loved it. This is truly a Call of Duty game because it delivers so many scenes with endless combat. You have to empty clips, count on your comrades for help, and find ways to outflank or outthink the enemy. You’re constantly changing weapons, scrounging for ammo, jumping out of the way of gigantic wrecks and explosions, hacking the enemy’s tech, and using your grenades.
Combat in zero gravity is tough, forcing you to learn how to use the grappling hook, which pulls you at a high speed to an enemy or to cover. Fortunately, you don’t tumble through space doing somersaults. You can float in one direction and pick off the enemies by puncturing their suits. There’s a huge range of fighting, from taking on humans to dealing with giant robots. The depth, intensity, and breadth of combat is impressive.
Multiplayer is intense and massive
When you get shot in the Frontier multiplayer map in Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, your dead body starts floating in space. That’s because the gravity boots stop working when you die. You face a learning curve when it comes to figuring out which weapons are the best, but they fall into the familiar categories of pistols, shotguns, sniper rifles, heavy guns, and assault rifles. This gives Call of Duty fans plenty to like and plenty to learn. The zero gravity combat adds a sci-fi feel that modern-war diehards don’t really like. But I felt that Infinite Warfare’s multiplayer definitely felt like Call of Duty.
You can choose from among six combat rigs, like Warfighter, that let you define your style of play. The weapon types are familiar, but you’ll have fun choosing your accessories like the Seeker grenades or the Biospike explosive knife. But you can also customize your guns as you get more experience. I’m looking forward to progressing up the ladder and unlocking the badass equipment.
Zombies is light-hearted fun
Zombies in Spaceland is a big bonus in Infinite Warfare, as it’s the first time Infinity Ward has tackled the co-op gameplay mode that Treyarch has always put in its Call of Duty games. In contrast to the serious Infinite Warfare, Zombies in Spaceland is as goofy as can be. The Valley Girl will gag zombies with a spoon. You can make zombies dance on a disco floor and cut them down with lasers.
When you die, you can play 1980s arcade games such as Pitfall. You can team up with multiple players and try to survive as long as possible in an abandoned theme park. You have to conserve your ammo yet make sure your friends stay alive. You can revive them, but if there are zombies about, they’ll take you down. As you go up in levels, the slaughter becomes more intense. It becomes just as intense as Infinite Warfare.
“I think we wanted to make a Zombies that was fun and cool and would get people interested because the theme was more accessible, and then try to ease people in, make the beginning a bit more accessible,” said Stoll at Infinity Ward. “Of course, for Zombies, you must have all the crazy cocktail of quests and stuff going on in the levels. One of my big hopes for this game—the campaign is great, the multiplayer is great. But getting more people to try out Zombies would be great.”
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered provides your modern war fix
If you really miss the modern war setting of the previous Call of Duty games, you can get it in the special editions that include Modern Warfare Remastered. I played this again in high-definition, and it is still one of the best games ever made. I have to say I enjoyed using the “noob tube,” or the grenade launcher attached to the assault rifle. It’s just like old times.
Side missions make the game replayable
The single-player campaign has a story that you’ll want to get through as fast as possible. But there are side missions in the game where you can veer off the story, or just come back to when you play the game the second time around. You won’t miss anything if you skip these missions, but you can make your way around the solar system and make yourself stronger for the final mission.
What you won’t like
I have surprisingly few gripes. I have a little nitpicking to do, but these are relatively minor complaints in a game that has some epic highs.
Sometimes space combat seems too much like modern war
The weaponry was familiar, as the designers didn’t want to change too much on players. That’s a good idea, but once in a while I felt like I was playing a modern warfare game. I could choose between pistols, assault rifles, rocket launchers, shotguns, and sniper rifles. Only the grenades offered something out of science fiction. I could toss an anti-gravity grenade, or seeker grenades that crawled off to find enemies. That was imaginative. I can appreciate that the developers wanted to preserve the feeling of Call of Duty. But in making the combat too familiar, they robbed us of a vision of what weapons in the future would look like.
The pace slows down unexpectedly
The whole game takes place in the course of 24 hours or so, as Captain Reyes takes his team into one battle after another. The firefights are grueling. But every now and then, the pace slows down and you feel like you’re in a role-playing game like Mass Effect. You can stop at the gun range and practice for as long as you like. You can stop at the captain’s quarters and read Reyes’ emails and audio logs. You can also step off of the main storyline and perform side missions that don’t advance the narrative. It’s just a little jarring to have these quiet little moments in a campaign that is so full of action.
Space fighter combat is too arcadey
It was a rare experience to pilot a vehicle for an extended amount of time in a Call of Duty game. I enjoyed it. I never got sick or woozy while fighting in the jet-like Jackal fighters in space. The aerial combat in space was familiar in some ways, as the controls for maneuvering the Jackal were not so different from maneuvering an infantry soldier. But in some ways, the dogfighting was far easier than it should have been.
The graphics engine is able to put huge numbers of enemies on the screen at once. But the dogfights are simple and aren’t as difficult as they should have been. For instance, huge capital ships loom in the space battles. When you run into one of them, you don’t blow up. You just bounce off them and stop. And the fleeing enemies don’t maneuver like they’re being chased. They evade you, but in a predictable 2D plane. If they really took advantage of the three dimensions of space, they would be really hard to hit. In this way, I felt like space combat just isn’t challenging enough.
On the other hand, I appreciated the fact that it was far easier to fly a Jackal in space than a biplane in Battlefield 1.
The worst villains go down without boss fights
Admiral Sanal Kotch is a particularly annoying villain. Played by Kit Harington (Jon Snow in Game of Thrones), Kotch is brutal and loves giving speeches about the poor oppressed Settlement Defense Front and why it was so justified in launching a Pearl Harbor-style assault on Earth and its United Nations Space Alliance. But we don’t get a chance to take him down in single combat. The same goes for another villainous traitor. I enjoyed blasting lots of grunts and robots on the path to these villains, but I felt robbed in the final firefights. If you’re going to create great villains, you need to create the satisfaction in taking them down in the most dramatic way possible.
In some ways, we should be thankful for Call of Duty: Ghosts, which was a creative failure. It made Activision step back and give its studios more time to work on games. And it forced Infinity Ward to take risks.
“There was a desire among a lot of the team when I got there to do something different, to really mix up the formula,” Stoll said. “That was part of the impetus for—when you’re in the Call of Duty franchise, you’re either doing not enough or too much, you know what I mean? People really wanted to do something different. There was so much passion on the team for doing this game.”
As I mentioned, this has plenty to like and to learn. Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare delivers a familiar Call of Duty gameplay in an innovative new setting that should satisfy gamers who are tired of playing the same old thing.
Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare is available now for PC, Xbox One, and Playstation 4. The publisher provided GamesBeat with a copy of PS4 edition of the game for this review.