We’ve already aired our misgivings over Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare’s campaign mode but how does the multiplayer stack up? Does the space-future setting re-energise the arena, or is it the same as always with a fresh coat of silver paint? We threw Brendan into the murderfields to find out.
It has a fitting name, I’ll give it that. Call of Duty is the series that seems to go on forever – it never dies and it never changes. There is always a man and there is always a gun, to bastardise a phrase from another game concerned with the Infinite. This outing has taken the action to outer space but it has done so little with the opportunity that it is hard to recommend, even to those who have been with the series from its Modern Warfare glory days.
It does a few new things, of course. New types of explosive or gadget can been found down the unlocks screen and there is a rudimentary class system that tries to give the whole thing a veneer of specialising. These combat ‘rigs’ offer special abilities or benefits which stack with all the usual perks and buffs you can stock up on in the loadout menu. The Warfighter rig, for example, has a deadly gun with huge spread and ricocheting bullets. The FTL rig can phase into an alternate reality and phase out again in another location (unless you are caught by a fellow phasing FTL player, in which case you can get some shots off at each other in this inter-world purgatory). The Stryker has a micro turret and the Phantom can go almost-invisible. But my favourite is the Merc, who pulls out a shield and charges forward harming anything in his path.
These power moves aren’t alone, each rig has a trinity of them. But far from being game-changing and slow-to-build finales, like the ultimate of any hero shooter, these are simply extra abilities, granted thick and fast to those able-bodied combatants. They are handed to you after good performance, or as compensation when doing extremely poorly. Essentially, they become an extra killstreak, pinned onto an already-overflowing loadout menu of perks, attachments, equipment, rare weapons and extras. They feel like another button put onto an already-full controller, as opposed to something added in the process of thoughtful re-engineering.
Much of the rest of the battles are more or less identical to any of the previous games, with the inclusion of the movement abilities from the other recent scifi CoD's such as jet-packing and some wall-running (but more on that later). These are still the merciless battles of the skilled versus the skilled. As ever, there is no room for the weak, slow, or those seeking an adventurous support role. Infinite Warfare’s idea of support is still calling in a UAV or a Warden – the futuristic gunship that replaces the helicopters and harrier jets of old. None of this is a bad thing by itself. There’s always a place for games like this, where the twitching pros can revel in their quick-scoping ability. But if you’ve been gone from the series for a while, or are just thinking of dipping your toes into the FPS bloodbath for Christmas, you may have forgotten what its like to die repeatedly to those better-trained and better-equipped than yourself. It doesn’t feel good.
I have to put my hands up at this point and admit that this sense of continual loss might taint my review a little. Of course I would have liked it better if I had been better. Good games would see me just breaking even in terms of deaths and kills, bad games would see me massacred five times between each of my own murders. I was never this bad, I swear, but it seems my hands just don’t move like that anymore. At the same time, other failures of the game will taint it so much more than my simple lack of dexterity.
It might be helpful to mention the response of the community at large. There have been complaints of low player counts in comparison to past CoDs on their launch weeks. As if to confirm this, I had constant trouble trying to find a match-up for any game mode that wasn’t Team Deathmatch or Domination (capture and hold the points). Other modes, such as Frontline (a deathmatch in which the teams always spawn at ‘home’) or Mosh Pit (a cycling compilation of all the game modes) saw me waiting ten minutes in the loadout as the game searched for fellow chumps.
During those times, one or two people would come and go from the party line-up, obviously frustrated themselves with being unable to play half the multiplayer modes on offer. This has nothing to do with my NAT type (an annoying bug has been limiting players to small pools of possible soldierfriends) because I checked. All my ports and network infrastructure are ship-shape. The matchmaking, it appears, is simply a bit broken. A quick glance at the support and discussion pages far and wide confirms that I am by no means alone. Although, ha ha ha, I certainly feel it.
This may be the reason that the multiplayer pays no real attention to levels or time played, matching high-level murderers with the casual plebs (and I fall firmly into the latter category). Or maybe CoD has never matchmade properly and I am only dreaming it once did. Whatever the case, I find it a tough system to endure, especially when so much of the level-up grind is geared toward making winners even better winners. This is a part of CoD’s design which I think is intentional, something which is just fine if you have lots of time or interest but also slightly debilitating for those that don’t. A good match will get better and better, your killstreaks gaining you more and more kills at an exponential rate. A bad game will flail and slump and see you scrambling to recover in the most demoralising way.
The sprinting knife murderers of old are back too, and just as blood-thirsty as ever, matching the sci-fi perks of the robotic Synaptic rig, like the ability to increase running speed after every kill, with other perks that let you use equipment while sprinting, or that make you move faster the longer you sprint. These kinds of stacking skills create monstrous players that can team up to ravage your squad. Of course, that can be you too, if you reach level 37 – the somewhat confusing point at which a knife becomes available to you, a hardened killer. Maybe it’s better that this knife is so high up the unlocks ladder, being the harbinger of so many fast and hard-to-counter one-hit-kills.
The smart thing for a team to do in a case like that of the knifeswarm is to put your heads together and think of a counter for this. These deathmatches have always been good for introducing new ways to kill and frustrate, then introducing yet more ways to stop that from happening. The UAV has the counter UAV, the gunships can be attacked with launchers, the launchers can be thwarted with flares, and so on. There’s even a deployable device that counters thrown grenades in this one, another that stops all projectiles altogether for a short time. There's a skill that lets you see the tracks of any enemy, no matter how much invisible camo they’re wearing or how many ‘cold-blooded’ style perks they’ve got. Addressing the knife maniacs: cryo mines can slow an enemy, and enough of these placed quickly at critical choke points will start to make the habitual sprinters think twice.
But when have players of CoD ever been communicative enough to think this stuff through at the level of the public match? It is quicker just to quit out and find a new match. Desertions like this occur with a high frequency. And who can blame those fleeing troopers, when the matchmaking is this negligent? I would greatly prefer it if the game took skill levels more seriously, matching players by some metric that offers a tiered system, or at least the bare bones of one. I don’t know if this is something that has gone wrong on a networking level, or what, but at the moment it seems to have a “throw them all into the same pot and see what happens” approach. Of all the matches I played, I can only remember two that were ‘close’. The rest were marred by huge gaps, sometimes up to one hundred kills between the winning and losing sides. Something here feels wrong, or maybe I have just been extremely lucky and then extremely unlucky many times over.
Still, there were times when I felt myself getting into it, when some glimpse of muscle memory returned to me, and I could see the strengths. The maps are plentiful and generally very well designed, with lots of alternate routes for those looking to make use of the jetpacking and wall-running abilities. Domination matches especially are fast-flowing and feverish, as flanking lanes made up of long walls and narrow alleys are quickly traversed by sprinting robots. But while wall-running is fun, it holds a fatal dose of poison for the player. It simply reminds you that you are not playing Titanfall 2.
Infinite Warfare’s nearest rival handles the parkour and double-jumping silliness of the future with a much better sense of flow, and it fully commits to this as both a combat strategy and a means of transportation. Meanwhile, InfoWarf's same feature is slower, less-responsive, basically ‘there if you want it’. And thanks to the lethality of the weapons (and the short time between two people sighting each other and one of them being dead) such gallant sprints along a wall are often a fatal disadvantage, putting you in a vulnerable position for very little gain in terms of mobility.
This is where the flaws of CoD in general, and Infinite Warfare in particular, begin to become most noticeable – when it is compared with the competition. You need to understand the stark difference in tone first – Battlefield 1 is for those who want to feel like part of something bigger but still enjoy a bit of that raw shooter twitchiness. It’s possible in that game to fit into a supporting role whereby you focus on driving a plane, spotting enemies, manning the AA guns or throwing down medical boxes for your mates. Despite that game's own flaws, you can do all this and still feel useful, even with a lethargic trigger finger. Likewise, Titanfall 2 offers players the chance to jump around like a madman, pulling batteries out of mechs and flying across rooftops with a grappling hook to put said batteries into the machines of their fellow fighters. There’s some scope for making yourself useful there too. In InfyWarwar, you are not useful unless you are killing.
The strange thing is that it seems to be vaguely aware of this, aware that its traditional home turf is being eroded by the hero shooters of today, like Overwatch, which cater to both the tactically-minded and the trigger-crappy alike. For example, lots of tactical and lethal devices, as well as abilities of later combat rigs, become unlocked that hint at introducing a more subtle and intelligent design – bubble shields, devices that destroy incoming grenades, perks that let you see certain enemy players “through” the map. There’s even a ‘rewind’ ability identical to Tracer’s from Overwatch, and a black hole projector similar to Zarya’s ultimate. But while abilities like this find themselves at home in a hero shooter, they just serve to make this feel even more crowded, even more congested with tiny things that counter and re-counter and re-re-counter. Not to mention that they are all stripped straight from other games which do them better. Far from making the combat more accessible and strategic, these later toys simply lock off that level of strategy to those who are already physically capable of dominating without the use of such toys.
The truth is, this kind of game theory has never really been convincing in the CoDs and often feels out of place, resulting in a battlefield that feels cramped and busy. The whole series, and InfiFights is no exception, has been all about speed, reaction times, and shooter dexterity. It is a pure game in this regard – it doesn’t waste time on you if you can’t handle the maelstrom of bullets and grenades. It is a Darwinian form of multplayer. The skilled are rewarded with radar sweeps, wardens, airstrikes, drones, their ability to kill increasing on an exponential scale with each upgrade. The unskilled are left in the dust. Again, there’s absolutely a place in the world for games of such a rarefied nature – this is what it does well and I’m happy that there will be plenty of satisfied and loyal fans willing to enter the gauntlet. But compared to the variety offered by the alternatives this year, I don’t see why either Battlefield 1 or Titanfall 2 won’t scratch the same itch, and then some. This raises a far more worrying question for CoD as an ongoing and risk-averse phenomenon: how long can it afford not to innovate? At some point even the faithful, even those incredible knife-wielding ninjas, will tire of running over the same old ground.