Battlefield 1 may have fallen back to 1914 but the other first-person shooters of the year are marching on, towards militaristic futurewar. Titanfall 2 was released a week ago (inexplicably, in the gap between two monster franchises) and now Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare [official site] has rounded off the explosive triumvirate with more grenades, dogfights and tin men. It’s that final image – that of the tin man – which best sums up how I feel about the story campaign of Infinity Ward’s latest gunromp. Let me try to explain what I mean.
We’ll have more thoughts on the multiplayer soon – that gauntlet of monstrous and lethal humans still needs to be run. Right now, this article is solely about the main singleplayer mode, which, I’m sorry to say, is very uninteresting.
The missions of the campaign are submerged in a po-faced and serious half-story – Martian secessionists have decided to come back and murder earth for no other reason than “grr, militarism”. The premise is brainless sci-fi politics with a lower-case ‘p’, a story which can safely be summarised as “Killzone again” and stuffed with dry characters who have nothing interesting to say. The villains are likewise grey and lifeless. Kit Harrington, aka The Uninspiring Actor In Game of Thrones Who Everyone Somehow Thinks Is Great, plays Admiral Kotch, the baddie leader. We know he is the baddie because he has a scar and does kooky villain things like shooting one of his own men to make a point.
There is one decent character on your squad. Ethan the robot (or E3N). He’s a combat-ready bot injected with a “personality core” that makes him crack jokes and announce mischievous falsities in a deadpan robo-American accent – he is basically TARS from Interstellar, messing with your prejudices of malicious AI in his own small way but always seeking to prove that, underneath all that circuitry programmed for mass murder, he’s really a decent bloke. Meanwhile, all the other characters are terminally dull, spouting nothing but military bants and serious, sour-faced orders. It’s a telling criticism of Infinite Warfare’s storyline that its most human character is the comic relief robot.
But story is one thing and shooting is another. It’s the point-to-point gunfights that most people will be here for. In that regard, it’s more or less what you’ve come to expect, with a few new toys thrown in. Seeker grenades are great fun – little spider robots that scurry up to enemies, latch on to them, and detonate. Gravity grenades make your foes float off the ground helplessly, making them vulnerable to follow-up shots. A hacking computer allows you to take control of an enemy robot and harass soldiers from within their own ranks, before sandwiching yourself between as many troops as you can and pressing the self-destruct button. A lot of the guns come with secondary fire modes too, for example, the sniper rifle whose scope slides away to become a surprisingly effective assault rifle, or the submachine gun which splits into two smaller submachine guns which can be duel-wielded. This latter weapon is great, and using it along with the spiderbots and hacking charges to storm spaceship corridors is Infinite Warfare at its peak silliness and peak fun.
The rollercoaster style mission design continues, funneling you down pre-ordained paths and exploding corridors, your fellow soldiers periodically pushing you out of cover because they want it for themselves. Between main missions, some “side quests” are offered as blips on a map of the solar system, missions that don’t form part of the main story but provide perks and rewards like faster reload times or quicker down-the-sights aiming. But these side quests only come in two forms: ship-boarding missions and dogfights. While the ship boarding missions involved enough variation on subterfuge, zero-g operations and corridor gun combat to encourage me to try them all, I quickly avoided picking up the latter dogfighting side missions entirely because the spaceship handling is so frustratingly bad.
While in your fighter, it doesn’t feel like you are flying in space at all, it feels like you’re ice-skating in 3D. The sense of scale and space is all wrong and the way your craft strafes and turns is a slippery mess. And nowhere does the game’s linear extremism become more frustrating than in these spaceship battles. An early mission sees the game wresting control of your ship from you in a key battle, allowing Ethan to drive and you only to shoot, when thirty seconds before you were perfectly capable of doing both. This continues in a less-obvious but much more aggravating way the rest of the time, whereby your ship will steer for you in particular directions. If you lock on to an enemy pilot, for example, it attempts to track them and keep them in sights, flying your ship automatically behind them. The enemy ship will then magically steer the most dramatic course it can find, above capital ship hulls or through tight passages in a planet's landscape, clearly not trusting you to get into exciting chases of your own initiative.
This simply gets in the way of you trying to control the damn thing yourself, and you end up fighting the controls of your own spacecraft just as often as you fight enemy aces. It’s these sorts of interruptive sections that show the worst excesses of the game-as-spectacle design philosophy and it is CoD’s hand-holding “the game knows best” approach taken to its most obnoxious logical conclusion. I would like to control my own spaceship, please. I have been playing videogames for one hundred years. Trust me, I can do this.
There are other disappointments. At one point you land on Earth’s moon via an exciting assault in four space jeeps, one of which, of course, doesn’t even make it to the surface (and this sequence itself is sadly non-interactive aside from a single slow-motion gunshot). But clambering out of your jeep, the moon’s gravity becomes apparent and all the soldiers including yourself are reduced to slowly bunny-hopping around – it’s hilarious and wonderful and for the first time in the game I laughed long and loud. Then some sci-fi airlock restored gravity for us and everything was back to the CoD normal. I was very sad.
There’s some satisfaction later, though, with ship-boarding missions indulging in the zero-g combat that was touted in the long marketing march. These scenes let you use a grappling hook between bits of debris or on spacerocks, then walk along their surfaces at weird jaunty angles. It’s sad that more is not done with these sections, since sniping the helmets off armed terrornauts while hanging upside down from a meteor seems like the kind of ridiculousness a science fiction shooter ought to make the most of. Sadly, even these sections invariably become simple fish-in-a-barrel style shootouts.
Much of a CoD lies in the setpieces, though, and some of these are better than others. There’s a good mission on an asteroid which is spinning at such a rate that the sun sets and rises every twenty seconds or so. As well as being a burning hazard, the sunlight powers all the lights, robots and systems, so this means that everything shuts down every 20 seconds, including the murderbots out to kill you. Then a few seconds later they power back up. Another side mission sees you sneaking into a ship to assassinate three VIPs while wearing an enemy spacesuit, running around trying not to get noticed, like the worst Agent 47. Unfortunately, moments like this are the exception and they are only half-heartedly executed. They are only bits and pieces, tiny shards of good ideas hidden among dunes and dunes of clichéd sand.
I’ll give you a better example of this half-hearted design. Between missions, you hang out on your capital ship, which is three or four rooms large with a big hangar deck. In your captain’s office, there’s a wall of playing cards, displaying a hierarchy of enemy forces, reminiscent of the playing cards of the Iraq War. When you first see this, it suggests there might be something like a nemesis system in store for you, or even just some interesting minor characters for you to meet and murder. But all it really means is that certain kills while on missions unlock a card and display a big DECEASED over them. None of the people you kill are revealed to you as you fight, only post-death. These ‘high-value targets’ could be any one of the hundreds of grunts who come at you in waves. Sometimes they are slightly more notable, like the three VIPs you assassinate on the infiltration mission. But overall, this card wall is just a fancy list for side quest completionists.
This wall of cards is representative of CoD’s story mode in general - a pretty, surface-level detail hinting at a greater depth which doesn’t actually exist. Being the captain on the bridge does not mean anything here, all these sections do is let you look at sci-fi lore and browse which mission you want to do next, making them nothing more than a good-looking level-select screen. As for the noticeboard of playing cards, I honestly don’t know why Infinity Ward bothered to put this in. It brings nothing to the game and actually just highlights how empty your overall mission is: kill the baddies.
However, if CoD campaigns are rollercoasters, designed to be played on-rails, then maybe we ought to judge it based on that expectation. So, is it a good rollercoaster? Well, no. It’s a hugely try-hard rollercoaster that offers no clever pacing or rhythm – just one hundred samey loop-the-loops one after the other. The final missions really hit this feeling home. There are only so many “heroic sacrifice” deaths you can watch before you start feeling glad that yet another soldier has croaked it in the name of EARTH 4EVA. Often the soldier has remained totally insignificant and unremarkable until the moment of their death, at which point they are treated by an interruptive cinematic as a complex and well-loved martyr. At which point I am left feeling baffled. I’m sorry, videogame, are we supposed to feel sad about this person, this valiant hero whose name was said twice in the form of a barked order? I must have missed some integral characterisation because I feel nothing but silent, dead-eyed boredem. Hurry up and die, non-descript soldier boy.
I sound like I am being harsh. So I’m going to be a bit more harsh. Infinite Warfare’s story mode is an expensive-looking spectacle without a single idea of its own, mechanically or narratively. Even Ethan the robot’s attempts to salvage the Marine vs Navy vs Army banter by playing off some well-worn robot tropes can’t save the story or dialogue from being hogwash. Even the rare glimpse of interesting ‘burning asteroid’ level design can’t redeem the rest of the grey corridors and flaming city streets. As for how good it looks (and it does look very good) that is no saving grace. I have long believed, along with many others, that we should stop praising the Call of Duties for their production values, since making a game that looks this good does not equate to making a good game - and never has.
All these issues aren’t isolated to Infinite Warfare, of course. This is a much bigger problem as regards the FPS “story mode” in general. Titanfall 2 has been getting hugely positive press for its campaign, and having played it I can understand why. Because in comparison to this and the bi-polar tone of Battlefield 1’s war stories, Titanfall 2’s tale of one man and his big robot pal is positively heart-warming. Yet even this campaign is not fantastic. It is just Pretty Good. The standard for first person shooter plots is now (has always been?) so low that we are satisfied if we get a story which is essentially Marley & Me with a mech instead of a Labrador. This is a plight known to videogames in general but to the FPS in particular: our standards as an industry are depressingly low. We are that underwhelming teenager who falls in love with the first shooting game that smiles at us. Still, it is funny to see the Titanfall 2 twitter #brand getting into trouble over such comparisons, especially when every single assertion it has made has turned out to be, as far as I’m concerned, totally correct. Of the three shooters, Titanfall 2 has the best campaign.
As for Infinite Warfare. Its sin is the same sin that the series has always committed: that of being uninventive. Like I say, we’ll have more detailed thoughts on the multiplayer later - I’ve only played a bit. As far as the campaign is concerned, an incredible amount of hard work and money has gone into it, creating explosive spectacles and heavy gunfights. But that doesn’t stop it from being a hollow chassis, a tin man of a game – shiny, impressive, with absolutely no heart.