The Dreaded Backlog: Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare
Infinite Warfare hit the ground with something of a thud. It wasn’t so thuddish that Activision didn’t still make tonne of cash, but it was enough for them to go back to basics with upcoming Call of Duty: WW2. Its plot and mechanics are the climax of years of increased use of Sci-Fi settings and technologies since Black Ops II.
A common issue with more recent Call of Duty games is a use of constant bombastic noise in its game design. Large linear levels, high enemy counts and lots of explosions. When the games embrace smaller enemy counts in open ended but smaller levels, you get a much better experience. One can choose how to flank, when to use a grenade at the perfect moment, how to storm a building room by room. Will you be quiet and quick constantly? Or go loud immediately? Or wait until you’ve thinned them out? And so on.
Since Modern Warfare 2 (if we’re being honest) the gameplay has turned into sitting back and picking off people from a remote position for ten minutes until the too many enemy NPCs are dead. Obviously you can choose to be up close and personal, but the experience turns into constant hiding to recover your health after you get shot at from every angle, because there’s too many damn enemy NPCs. Someone might say ‘git gud’ in response to this, but it’s hardly fair to expert every player to become a master twitchy shooter of the CoDs. It’s a series targeting a broad audience, not the gaming “elite”. Even if you do ‘git gud’ and learn how to weave through enemy lines, you’ll still get shot in the back by someone who wasn’t present before, because of lazy enemy respawn point placement.
Good Call of Duty games know that you make the bombastic sequences the exception, not the rule. You thread in smaller sections of play throughout that can all build to the big set piece. Call of Duty 2 understood that it’s fun to take a small French village building-by-building (the player chooses the order) before you take the bunker on the hill behind the village. If Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is the gold standard, it’s worth remembering that people’s favourite missions are: All Ghillied Up and Crew Expendable. Both are missions that emphasise stealth and the latter only has small pockets of open gunplay and it’s in tight spaces with opportunity to flank people. There’s even a part where you take a village down building-by-building with the order at your discretion. Frankly, Advanced Warfare is the only following game to really understand this balance. Activision noticed that people enjoyed Advanced Warfare and took the wrong things away from that. They assumed people were into the advanced technology.
Which leads us all back to Infinite Warfare. We now have spaceships and space dog fight battles. Jet packs and wall running isn’t just standard, but considered old hat. It’s Star Trek meets Saving Private Ryan with all the post-Advanced Warfare CoD trimmings thrown in. That’s not to say that those things make it bad automatically. As state previously it is how they are implemented.
I rather embarrassingly did a stream of this game late at night when I was drunk. I still wasn’t into the game and I got very angry at it. I raged at the excessive enemy numbers and lack of quiet moments. What makes this embarrassing is that by the end I did fall for the game. Not during that stream of course, I was far too drunk and angry.
The reason I went on about all that history of CoD stuff is to make it clear why I hated the game at first before falling for it. It was constantly so very loud. Constantly overstuffing the levels with enemies. Despite the ability to jet about and wall run it was more effective to hang back and just pick people off for five minutes. I was lamenting the irony of them trying to attach the release of Modern Warfare Remastered to this game, whilst not understanding why MW was so good in the first place.
Infinite Warfare has some decent side missions. One ship assault required you to sneak aboard and adopt a disguise and pick off people in midst of the hustle-and-bustle of daily space ship life. The dogfighting missions were equally a bore in the core campaign and the side missions. They liven up a bit once you unlock the better weapons that make it less of a bullet sponge tour. However it’s odd that a gameplay mode that lets you fly any direction (even strafe) still feels like you’re on rails.
In the last two campaign missions the game gains some focus. The first of these levels is Operation Black Flag. In this mission you are largely alone and have to deal with only a half dozen enemies at once. They’re smart enough to try outflanking you and you do have to be particular with your ammo consumption. Rather amusingly this level is set in the dark on Earth. It’s telling that the most effective level of Infinite Warfare doesn’t really involve any spaceships and is set in a generic looking city on Earth. Following this is Operation Blood Storm. This level was bombastic with high enemy counts, but it was built so thoroughly that it was not an issue.
You start at the top of a building, before jumping into a jackal, which you use to board a larger carrier ship in the city skies. Which you then take into orbit. Then you fly it to Mars and take out their orbital defences before being shot down. Once on the surface of Mars you lead a final charge of your remaining army towards their HQ, which is a space lift up to their main orbital defence station. Which you then take apart from the inside, corridor-by-corridor. They designed enough smaller combat moments to offset the big stuff. The wall running and jump jetting become useable without being shot by the millions of enemy NPCs. And all the explosive stuff is varied from one set piece to the next. This was clearly where the majority of the effort went into the game.
That’s Infinite Warfare’s main issue. It does get good, but only in its last two (admittedly long) levels. Before that is lazy level design with lazy enemy respawn placements. Even if the game does pull itself together momentously, does that make up for previous sections? Won’t those sections still be poor? Will they still be a slog that I only get through for the story?
That story being fairly slight if one is honest. I only got this far because I love Star Trek and Saving Private Ryan and used to love CoD. You play as Commander Nick Reyes. He’s a professional and taciturn white dude with stubble. You know the type by now. He has a trust sidekick in Nora Salter who is even more taciturn.
That being said there is something unique in games about the male and female leads mostly just having a professional relationship, with only a nugget of platonic affection underneath that. It’s a nice relationship though and it is enough to drive interest in their war time adventures. Given my initial poor experience with the gameplay I did actually often rely on Nora Salter, more so than any other CoD friendly NPC I’ve ever fought alongside. It made me like her a lot. She was a reliable crutch for me, as she was for Reyes when he suddenly finds himself thrust into command of the carrier ship Retribution (eye roll).
The Retribution has contains a variety of very slight personalities. They’re played by the likes of David Harewood, Claudia Black (with her own face for once), Lewis Hamilton (huh?) and that dude that beats up Raylan from season four of Justified. You also get a robot friend, who doesn’t want a robot friend? They’re all memorable enough to be cared about, but not deep enough for the game to really hit home…until the end at least. During the game I looked for side material about the characters. I looked at their personnel files and did whatever other side activities I could find to try and deepen the characters. None of this helped. However, by the time the credits roll *SPOILERS* every single character in this game is dead.*
Everybody is dead Dave. Over the credits is a menu that plays the character’s pre-prepared post-death message to their loved ones. At the peak of emotion in the game you learn who these people are at their most vulnerable, just after witnessing their horrible deaths. It works effectively and I cried. One could argue that it works this effectively because you only know these people as professional soldiers up to this point, but equally one could argue it would cut much deeper if they felt like people throughout. It might be possible to balance those two approaches.
Admittedly it’d be useful if there was a point of comparison of how to execute this story. So you want a Sci-Fi military epic. It’s about it being messy at first before pulling together near the end, at which point all the characters heroically sacrifice themselves in a desperate last stand. If only something like that came out…two months after the game…oh…
This is actually the end of this piece. I rambled too much already. I haven’t played CoD multiplayer since Advanced Warfare, and I only played it briefly then. Before that it had been since Modern Warfare 2 which I thought was overdesigned within an inch of its life. I will probably get around to giving the zombies mode a go. I don’t know what I thought of Infinite Warfare, that’s the truth.
*Nora survived. I couldn’t tell it was her looking at a memorial at the end of the game. My bad. Also some other folk I didn’t mention survived. They weren’t played by famous actors so I forgot they existed.
Played on Xbox One.
What is a Dreaded Backlog?