Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare review

This reminds us a lot of something else we played recently...

Five minutes after starting Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare's campaign I was given the energy weapon from Darkman 2. That's how I knew that this time around, Call of Duty had upped the ante by going full-on future. No more half-assed, day-after-tomorrow military tech; we were going to space, baby!

As it turns out, our Mobile Suit Gundam-like future — where spacenoids are the aggressors against Earth in a war across the solar system — looks a lot like past Call of Duty games. Besides that early, arcing particle weapon, most of the game's guns were what I'd expect from a more direct Modern Warfare sequel: SMGs, assault rifles, and shotguns of various speeds and stopping power.

It's not just the guns that are awfully familiar, but the nameless hordes that wield them as well. The Settlement Defense Front, Infinite Warfare's baddies, are really bad. I know this because developer Infinity Ward's latest single-player campaign beat it into my head like cold iron on hot steel. Every enemy's dialogue, every quote that appears on-screen when you die, and every scheduled speech from Kit Harrington (this year's Call of Duty's face-scanned villain) is devoted to how the SDF only wants to kill and/or enslave "Earthen" citizens.

They're never given any reasonable motive for this obsessive conquest, which begins with a city-wide attack on Geneva that converts the otherwise more established Earth military (the goodies you play as) into convenient underdogs. Meanwhile, your motley, and underdeveloped crew bemoans how all of this could have been stopped by a preemptive strike (and are proven right by the unprovoked terrorist attack). "Hesitation is a hole in the head," they say more than once, before dying heroic deaths in every other cutscene of the game's last act.

If every Call of Duty game is about something, this one is about how soldiers can sacrifice life, limb, and often happiness to defend their beliefs. Yet Infinite Warfare is too afraid to make that sacrifice seem like anything other than unequivocally righteous, and good, and justified. Untethered by modern-day politics, Infinite Warfare can comfortably do just that with its cartoonish villains, made-up stakes, and strife.

Fear, more than anything, seems to be what drives Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. The fear of changing too much, and losing longtime fans; the fear of changing too little, and not being able to justify $60 for the umpteenth consecutive year; the fear of not keeping up with the times, and losing public interest to ever-so-slightly more daring shooters like Titanfall 2 (which came out just one week before Infinite Warfare this year).

By trying to walk all of these tightropes at the same time, Infinite Warfare can't find its footing — that is, an identity all its own for the game to stand on. That's more obvious in the game's competitive multiplayer than its single-player campaign — which at least includes spaceship-to-spaceship combat, and  entirely optional levels to fill in the dips on the series' linear roller coaster ride.

For instance, no matter what mode you're playing (besides the cooperative "Zombies", which plays almost identically to its inclusion in 2008's Call of Duty: World at War) it'll have wall-runs, double-jumps, and other first-person parkour options the series has borrowed from Titanfall. This is the game at its most "keeping up with the Joneses," and having just reviewed Titanfall 2 before Infinite Warfare, it was plenty easy to tell which series pioneered that style of movement in this style of game.

Here it's stiff, and slow by comparison, with obvious breaks in animation that feel unnatural. The maps, and levels were also clearly not designed with it in mind. I actually forgot it was even an option in the single-player, while in the multiplayer you can't use it to catapult over, and across the map. Invisible walls keep you within the confines of a preapproved, board-certified Call of Duty firefight, while none of the maneuvers actually increase your momentum (as, again, they do in Titanfall 2). Probably because the maps aren't large enough to support that kind of speed boost in the first place.

The result is Call of Duty multiplayer that feels painfully slow compared to the competition it’s trying to emulate. And because it’s emulating that competition, it invites even more comparison. It's odd to say that a player-versus-player suite where you can see you kill, die, respawn, and die again in the span of 30 seconds feels slow. Yet it's the trap Infinite Warfare finds itself in after trying to emulate one style of game, without actually breaking out of its comfortable, familiar shell.

Slow or not, you will die: often. If you're anything like me, anyway. That is, if you're someone who plays Call of Duty off and on every other year. Since the multiplayer adheres so strictly to tradition, the hardcore have gotten very good at it in their nine years of practice since Modern Warfare. That concentration of skill might not be a problem for long, however, although not for the best of reasons.

One way in which Infinite Warfare is not keeping up with the times is by segregating its players. Shooters like Gears of War 4, Halo 5, and, yes, Titanfall 2 have smartly transitioned to free post-release multiplayer maps. That way everyone who owns the game can play with everyone else who owns the game, no matter how much DLC they have the budget and inclination to consume.

Call of Duty has yet to follow suit, assuming it ever will. In fact, it's doubled, and tripled down on splitting players apart.

The launch of Infinite Warfare coincided with a remastered version of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare — complete with that game's beloved multiplayer suite. Granted, the remake is only available to those who bought a special edition of Infinite Warfare, but that's still a number of players swinging back for a swig of nostalgia instead of playing the new game.

Then there's the fan favorite Modern Warfare 2 map, Terminal, which is only available to those who preordered. Oh, and for some reason Windows Store copies of the PC version won't interact with Steam copies. In my experience, Team Deathmatch, and Domination have been well-stocked with players on PC, but most other competitive modes are worryingly under-populated — even before the game has added its four upcoming map packs that will wall off players even further.

Call of Duty has played things safe for nearly a decade now. While the series has taken flack for it, people have still come to play each year's game in droves. It's Infinite Warfare's bad luck, then, that it came out just a week after the all-around superior package that is Titanfall 2. It's worse that it so clearly mimics that game's ideas, but just can't keep up (literally, in the case of the slower-than-I'd-like multiplayer).

This year's biggest value add is a single-player campaign that, while mechanically sound, failed to capture my attention the way its main competitor did. Meanwhile, its adherence to old business practices will almost certainly harm Infinite Warfare's life expectancy. I'll be fine, though. I've got giant, nuclear robots to ride, and walls to catapult myself off of for the foreseeable future.

Verdict: No