Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare Review – Grounded in Space (PS4)
It’s not easy to judge a Call of Duty game. Some of you might think so. Some of you already have your opinions of Infinite Warfare without even reading this review or playing it yourself. That opinion might be based on the series name alone. It might be based on Infinite Warfare’s futuristic setting. It may even be based on the multiplayer beta or comparisons to other shooters recently on the market. Some of you may be right, and some of you may be way off the mark, but Call of Duty should be looked at as a sum of the whole. Not just a name. Not just a setting.
Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare follows last year’s Black Ops 3 by containing three games in one package: the main campaign, multiplayer, and Zombies. I spent plenty of time with each facet, both at a review event a couple of weeks ago and at home over the last few days to bring a complete review of everything that Infinity Ward is bringing to the table with Infinite Warfare.
Tales From Outer Space
There may not be Kevin Spacey, but Infinite Warfare is more spacey than any Call of Duty before. And yet, it is also one of the most grounded campaigns, clearly having been inspired by the likes of war films such as Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, which, yes, I know is technically not a film. Let’s call them war stories then, windows into moments that turned the tides. Windows into the bonds between a group of soldiers just looking to do what they need to in order to win the war and save their fellow fighters. Don’t let the space setting fool you. This is a far more gritty and grounded story than most other sleek sci-fi shooters, it just so happens that some of the settings take place on other planets or in a vacuum. Space is the backdrop, not the crutch on which the story leans.
Nick Reyes is thrust into command of a carrier — the Retribution — when an attack by the Settlement Defense Front cripples Earth’s military power. As one of the last two warships defending Earth, it is up to him to lead troops on critical missions against the radical insurgents that would see Earth fall. That’s it. It’s indisputably a battle of good versus evil, a story told about a few good men and women, and their part in the war. There were a few faces from Naughty Dog that had part in telling this story and it shows in the strong characters that lead the charge. Replace planets with continents and spacecraft with boats or planes and you could tell the same story in any war setting, be it older wars, modern wars, or future warfare. Except it isn’t any of those settings. It is space, and the infinite blackness allowed Infinity Ward to explore one of the most terrifying environments and do some pretty cool things with the combat mechanics.
Once Reyes takes control of the Retribution a series of side missions open up around the solar system. These all have different gameplay styles and each one rewards upgrades specific to that side mission, making it feel like you are really working at building back up your power against SDF. It would have been easy to copy and paste the side missions, but there’s a fun variety here that ranges from stealth missions — both on an enemy ship and through an asteroid field in zero-g — to space dogfights in jackals (the space fighter jet). Balance of each gameplay segment is perfect so that any one mechanic never finds itself becoming dull or trying. The combat flows evenly from standard boots on the ground warfare to ship battles without making one or the other feel like an underplayed gimmick or an overstated fixture (we all know how it felt to have way too much Batmobile in Akrham Knight). Jackal fights feel like they have just as much a place here as the visceral ground war does.
Part of the reason everything flows so well together is that flying the Jackal feels just as intuitive as ground combat. The controls mimic those of the standard gameplay, so what at first had me a little nervous was quickly mastered and I found myself deftly cutting through waves of enemy fighters. It’s unexpected to see that Call of Duty now effectively holds a place as one of the best flight combat games on the current generation. Each jackal mission left me smiling when I was done blowing up whatever SDF could throw at me. There shouldn’t be any concern about space dogfights detracting from the grounded feeling of the campaign either. These engagements come across as far more Top Gun than Star Wars.
While each side mission does a great job at world building, giving a great scope of the war and the efforts it takes to rebuild against SetDef, they did very little character building. Developing the characters’ backgrounds and relationships was all saved for the main campaign missions, which became much more apparent when I completed all of the side missions in one go after they first become available. I feel like staggering these throughout could have lent a better flow to the narrative character development, or at least added a small bit of character depth to each one. I do understand the difficulty in writing a branching story though, especially on optional missions that can be completed before or after major plot developments, so this is a minor gripe and not a huge detractor from the overall campaign.
As the last defense fighting for the lives of Earth’s citizens, there’s an incredible weight placed on Reyes and his crew, and Infinite Warfare tells that story with a dauntless attitude that boldly goes where no Call of Duty has gone before while anchoring itself on the core values of camaraderie, leadership, and what’s worth sacrificing for the greater good. Gameplay remains familiar while also doing things that are new and exciting, and visuals along with the sound design are top notch, as expected from a Call of Duty team. The passion for Call of Duty Infinite Warfare is easy to see in its campaign, and Reyes’ story was easily the highlight of the Infinite Warfare package for me.
Like it or not, Call of Duty is one of the biggest names in competitive first-person shooters. It’s got a lot of stiff competition this year, going up against the likes of Battlefield 1 and Titanfall 2, and there’s plenty of buzz around which one will take the crown. As much as the single-player campaigns are scrutinized and remembered long term — for better or worse — the competition will always come back to the vitality of the multiplayer component.
Last year Treyarch crossed the Rubicon, and changed the face of Call of Duty multiplayer with Black Ops 3 and a whole new movement system that made the gameplay faster and flow better. Infinite Warfare is largely uniform to this new design that Treyarch created, only tweaking some gameplay elements. This brings over the good with the bad. Everything is well built and from a technical standpoint, it works great. Sound design is incredible — perhaps even outclassing Black Ops 3 — and it’s worth it to play the game on a good set of headphones or nice home surround system. Overall though, the pacing is stiffer, with heavier weapons actually slowing down movement (there are certain rig perks that override this). It’s ironic that the movement system is ripped from Black Ops 3 which promotes speed and flow, yet Infinite Warfare’s multiplayer movement feels sluggish by comparison.
That sluggish movement might be for good reason though, and that’s Infinite Warfare’s map design, which doesn’t promote movement or flow at all. None of the maps have a clear three-lane layout that funnel engagements. Many of the available paths cris-cross each other, leaving openings for flanking regularly. I felt like I was relying on UAVs and other team perks to tell me where the enemy was, rather than being directed into combat by the map design, and with my eyes on the minimap more than what was in front of me, it tended not to end well in most cases. Even watching what was in front of me wasn’t good enough in some cases. Many instances will see players camping in carved out corners and pockets, or even bad spawns that put opponents behind me. While I noticed that Black Ops 3 always kept players on the move, Infinite Warfare keeps doing things to promote staying still, and even then I was likely to get flanked.
Another thing that Black Ops 3 added was specialist selection, with unique weapons and abilities that would charge during the match. Infinite Warfare expands on the idea by giving different rigs that can be selected, each with three abilities and three intrinsic perks (one of the three can be selected at a time). This system does expand the scope of individual play styles and abilities, but utilizing the rigs instead of unique characters for each class sucks a lot of the personality out of it. This is something I would have been happy to see them copy more directly, as the specialists in Black Ops 3 helped further expand the depth of the universe and the charisma of the online interactions.
Infinite Warfare adds gun variants to the mix, increasing rarities of each gun that provide progressively better modifiers. Each variant is supposed to have a risk/reward built in to prevent any of them from feeling too overpowered (such as a slower firing rate, but additional damage), but there’s no question about these weapon variants providing abilities that ultimately outclass the standard weapons. When given unlocked access to these more powerful tools at the review event, I found that my own performance in the game went up, which was concerning knowing the amount of time (or money) that it would take me to earn these same weapons at home.
Speaking of money, supply caches make a return, offering things like weapon skins, calling cards, and character emotes, but they also add the above gun variants to the mix. Of course, keys and salvage can still be earned at a slow rate in game to unlock these variants, so nothing is exclusive to purchase (at least for now), but anyone paying money could give themselves a nice head start, effectively bordering on a pay-to-win scenario for the microtransactions. The biggest issue here is the potential imbalance of multiplayer games with weapon variants that can effectively be purchased with real money. These guns may require skill to ultimately use, so a powerful gun isn’t going to make a shoddy player immediately better, but the inequality of engagements is apparent in plenty of clashes and the ability to pay for a boost to that inequality is questionable.
One of the most fun additions is Infinity Ward’s new metagame, where you ally yourself to a certain team in the multiplayer and complete missions for them to earn exclusive unlocks. Each team has a unique personality that will favor specific playstyles, so if you are more apt to play the objective than get sniper kills, you can join that particular team and take on challenges that will lean more towards objective play than straight kills per match. It’s a little thing that gives something for everyone to pursue, from those that couldn’t hit a positive kill death ratio to save their mother, to people who can snipe a fly off a rampaging camel while riding a cheetah. Completing these challenges also gives a boost to the earn rate of keys to unlock supply caches, so this may be a way of holding ground against those that pay for an advantage.
Infinite Warfare’s multiplayer plays like a soulless perversion of what’s come before, as if Infinity Ward didn’t really have their own foundation or model for mutliplayer already. It feels like many ideas and features were adapted to fit with the Black Ops 3 model, and some of these are as compatible as a square peg with a round hole. The biggest issue here is the potential imbalance of multiplayer games with weapon variants that can effectively be purchased with real money, but map design is another concern. Infinite Warfare’s multiplayer hardly feels like it fits in with the innovative nature of the campaign. I mean, no multiplayer jackal space battles? Huge missed opportunity for the sake of playing it safe and trying to stick to what players know. There’s not a lot here that has a unique Infinity Ward seal on it, and time will tell if it goes down as the Call of Duty that crossed the line when it came to fair gun balancing and microtransactions.
Zombies and the Hoff
Zombies has traditionally been a Treyarch staple, first appearing in World at War, and subsequently making appearances in each of the Black Ops games. Advanced Warfare did do its own take on Zombies as the first Call of Duty since Black Ops to do so, and now Infinity Ward is picking up on the popularity of the survival rogue-like to add some value to the package, except this doesn’t feel like a unique Infinity Ward variant of Zombies. It’s structured like a copy of Treyarch’s Zombies from Black Ops 3, albeit with some tweaks here and there. Gobblegum (loadout abilities that could purchased in Black Ops 3 Zombies) has been replaced with the Fate and Fortune card system that is charged through kills, and there’s an After Life Arcade, where dead players can play small arcade games to respawn themselves.
Though it’s been made a touch more accessible to less hardcore players, it’s still full of the difficult-to-find Easter eggs that make Zombies such a fascinating experience to so many players. Taking on the visage of four actors trapped in a B-rate horror flick, Zombies in Spaceland embraces its ’80s nature with music and visuals appropriate to its terrifyingly goofy nature. Wave after wave of zombies increase the difficulty in the search for hidden secrets, such as getting David Hasselhoff to fight with you (lovingly carried in embraced by a proper ’80s style robot), which appears to be just the tip of the iceberg of the mysteries hiding in Spaceland. When the Hoff is barely scratching the surface of the secrets you can find, you know you’ve got to be in for a treat.
Despite the licensed ’80s tracks and the presence of the Hoff, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was playing last year’s model with a fancy coat of paint. Spoken lines are hilarious and trapping a crowd of zombies on a laser blanketed dance floor, but it’s the little things, from the sound effects and arrangements of building back up the blockades on windows, to way the zombies come at you. If you played Black Ops 3, this will feel more like a DLC Zombies map than an entirely contemporary Zombies mode. The phrase “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” may apply splendidly. It’s a disunion in my mind because the formula works so well and Zombies in Spaceland is really a lot of fun to play, but it’s disappointing not to see Infinity Ward do a completely unique variation of Zombies that they could call their own.
The terrifying squeaks of the shoes while being mobbed by exploding zombie clown though? They will live on in my nightmares forever. That’s completely owed to Infinity Ward, and similarities to last year’s mode or not, I’m more than happy to repeatedly grab a pass to Spaceland to take on the zombie hoard.
One Small Step for Call of Duty
The three-year, three-developer cycle is supposed to take away some of that yearly iteration franchise fatigue, and though the campaign takes many zero-g leaps to shake up the traditional formula, multiplayer and Zombies both feel plucked straight from last year and are almost out of place against the backdrop of Infinite Warfare’s new campaign. It’s ironic that the best part of Infinite Warfare — the classic war story — is also the reason many have turned their noses up due to the setting being in the future and in space.
Outside of the innovative campaign, Infinite Warfare plays it safe by cloning and tweaking what’s worked in the past with multiplayer and Zombies, which makes neither really seem like products of Infinity Ward. Gameplay imbalance in multiplayer, with arguably more powerful weapon variants available in loot boxes, is a real concern, as is current map design and spawn logic promoting far too many instances of being shot in the back. Depending on where you place your weight, there’s a dichotomy of value from this package. The campaign and Zombies are definitely worth playing, but the multiplayer is as likely to leave people feeling frustrated as it is to see a fair and fun match, especially with so many other shooter options that have upped the ante out there.
Review copy provided by publisher. Reviewed at a review event and at reviewer’s home on PS4. Travel and accommodations to event were provided by Activision. We aren’t considering Modern Warfare Remastered with this review, as it is only a part of the pricier Legacy and Digital Deluxe Editions of Infinite Warfare. For more information, see our Review Policy.