DISCLAIMER: I’m not going to talk about World War 2, because I haven’t played it. I’m sure the multiplayer is slightly better than Infinite Warfare. The rest of the package looks so boring I honestly don’t care. DISCLAIMER OVER.
Somehow, I’ve avoided talking about Call of Duty so far. Part of that is a conscious decision on my part, because it’s hard to wear a Serious Art Commentator hat while talking about the video game equivalent of Bad Boys II at length. Or perhaps Call of Duty has simply been that unremarkable for the past few years to even its largest fans—especially its largest fans, a group I would consider myself a more and more begrudging member of.
Yes, you heard me correctly; I really love this series. I think it’s been host to some of the best first person shooters of all time. That’s why the past stretch of entries has bummed me the fuck out. To quickly recap, on this generation of consoles, we’ve had Call of Duty: Ghosts, one of the most casually jingoistic entries in the series (and that’s saying something) that manages to look worse than its predecessor and bork multiplayer completely while having the most laughable campaign in a while. We’ve had Advanced Warfare, which had a decent campaign and incredible improvements to movement in multiplayer—that were promptly dumped in Black Ops III for a far floatier set of wall-runs and slow jumps. And then Infinite Warfare decided to stick with those inferior mechanics. Sigh.
It was there that I checked out, after having played every entry in the series since Modern Warfare 2. The cause of Call of Duty’s decline, for whatever reason, attracts as many armchair theorists as the fall of the Roman Republic, so I haven’t been too eager to leap into the fray with my own theories. The common complaint is that not enough changes from year to year. “These games are all the same! With linear bombastic single player stories and braindead twitchy multiplayer!” Or something like that. Personally, as a tween or teen growing up with these games, I honestly thought too much changed from entry to entry in multiplayer. In case you haven’t noticed it, guys, these games have changed their multiplayer progression systems almost every single time. And without fail, almost every time it has changed for the worse.
Gone are the simple days of Modern Warfare, one attachment for your gun and three perks. No, now we have a menagerie of bullshit no one really needs for their ShootyMans™ game, with layers and layers of nested menus for cosmetic items and killstreaks and perks and playercards and weapons and attachments and AAAAAAAAH. Yet underneath all these topheavy systems and menus lies the same core action: point, shoot. Die. In short, we’ve become accustomed to doing more work to get to the same simple gameplay, what actually brought us to the series in the first place. When you die, you can’t simply accept it as a misplay on your part and move on—you have to wonder if it’s because you don’t have as powerful a loadout as the guy who shot you.
My playtimes tell the story better than my bitching. I logged 189 hours in Modern Warfare 2. 25 in Black Ops. 55 in Modern Warfare 3. 25 in Black Ops 2. 10 in Ghosts. 20 in Advanced Warfare. 15 in Black Ops 3. And next to none in Infinite Warfare. I didn’t even purchase Infinite Warfare until just recently, and it was only for the campaign, and it was on sale. Oh, how the fandom has fallen. But I did finally play it, and it actually inspired some pretty interesting thoughts.
While the multiplayer is worse than ever in Infinite Warfare, the campaign hasn’t been this ambitious since Black Ops II and its branching inter-generational storyline. It pushes the Call of Duty formula well past its limits, but in fascinating ways. That being said, the plot isn’t one of them. In the far-flung future, you play as Nick Reyes, an everyman with a gun in the FUTURE SPACE NAVY. The settlers of future Mars have turned into real future dicks and want to destroy future Earth. They try to do that. You try to stop them and command an entire future ship and her future crew while you do so. The future end.
No really. That’s the plot. Aside from a really odd inclusion of future Kit Harington as the actor playing the main future Mars future bad guy (future), there are no attempts to give this conflict any depth or nuances. In fact, screw depth, how about basic motivation? The SDF (future Mars bad men) are never given any motivation for attacking Earth. They’re sort of this militaristic culture, (probably from how rugged life was colonizing Mars, but hey, that’s just me speculating, THEY NEVER SAY WHY) and all the quotes that come up when you die are super flat examples of just HOW BAD THESE FUTURE BAD MEN ARE. They say “Mars Aeternum,” as if they’re Roman empire groupies or as if they have to conquer to survive, apparently they say freedom or liberty is weakness, they say a paraphrasing of “History is written by the victor,” they require 15 years of military service, they don’t let women serve in the military—THESE ARE REALLY BAD FUTURE BAD GUYS YOU GUYS. Just read these quotes (partway down the screen) and tell me what you think.
The vague villains feel like an odd callback to Call of Duty: Ghosts, Infinity Ward’s last entry in the series. Remember the Federation? That super plausible coalition of impoverished South American countries that hijacked the US’ super missiles and brought the country to its knees? Yeah, me neither. Probably because I was still too busy laughing over the line, “I’m better than a Ghost now!” (Man, 2013 was a fucking rough year.) Still, if the villains and the plot have nothing to do, at least the characters are decently well drawn.
You have an XO, Lieutenant Salter, who is convincingly tough without being a laughable “bad girl” stereotype, and is (thank god) not a love interest, although I’d be surprised if Call of Duty ever tried something like that. Eth3n is a robot petty officer who sounds like an affable farmboy, and has some of the best understated humor in the series. I could keep on with this boring laundry list, but suffice it to say, the game manages to handle an ensemble cast deftly with only a few minutes, if that, of screentime. That’s some impressive, economic character work. Heck, even Whitey McWhiteFutureSoldierMan Nick Reyes is alright, a naïve ingénue who becomes far less so by the end of the game. He’s just a normal guy doing his best to an impossible job. In fact, in general, the cast doesn’t feel superhuman, which is a nice change of pace after, oh, almost 10 years of MEGA BADASSES—Soap and Price, Mason and Woods, Russian Lady and British guy in Advanced Warfare, the Ghosts. ENOUGH! We get it! You’re super cool dudes who shoot guys and don’t afraid of anything.
Also welcome are side missions. Yeah. There are side missions in a Call of Duty. Not only that, they’re pretty great ones. There are multiple stealth missions, with legitimately tense infiltrations of enemy ships, with ACTUAL stealth mechanics! Lines of sight, alert meters! They’ve even started ripping off Batman games, and for the better, as you silently take out enemies in a room while a bad guy threatens hostages. You steal enemy ship prototypes, assassinate leaders, sneak around asteroids above Pluto—it’s a wonderful balance of quantity and quality. There are only about 8 or 9 side missions, but they each feel pretty substantial, with their own custom built assets and mechanics. Like a lot of the campaign, they have decent pacing too, smoothly moving from dogfighting in space jets to zero G combat, to interior infiltration and back.
Buuuuuut then you’re brought back down to Earth. Because it’s a Call of Duty game. And, despite all the cool stuff around the edges, at the end of the day, most of the time, missions will boil down to shooting a few men in a tight corridor with hit scan weapons. You’ll take a lot of damage as you have trouble, not shooting enemies, but seeing where they are shooting from in the first place in chaotic, dense, constantly exploding environments. You’ll be asked to focus fire on giant mechs (cool!) as several other soldiers shoot at you while you cower in the same small bit of cover hoping not to die (not so cool). Those visually stunning zero G battles, while amazing in concept, will ask you to fight several enemies with hit scan weapons where you have very little cover and can get shot from very large distances. What should be a change of pace or a twist on the formula accidentally bares just how shallow the core action is; the game—stripped of the spectacle, left with only a few bits of cover, open space, and enemies—is a bore.
See, I’ve been talking about the side missions. And while the side missions are varied, well-paced, and engaging, the main campaign is… not. The very first action in the game is hitting space to jump and following directional prompts on the HUD as you fly through Europa’s atmosphere. A red arrow pointing left shows up on the right, leaving you wondering, “So I need to steer… which way?” And then you die. Because of course it was left, dummy. When paired with the classic “Follow your ally” prompt a mere seconds later, the opening minutes of Infinite Warfare send a clear message—stick to the script, or die. Watch your squadmate do a dramatic jetpack knife kill of the guy in front of you. Yeah, we know you could have easily just shot him in the same time. We don’t care.
If that side mission I was lauding earlier—the Batman Arkham Asylum ripoff—were a main mission, we wouldn’t have been able to choose how to clear the room. We, as the measly player, would no longer be trusted to understand how to shoot a room full of enemies quietly, and would instead be given someone to follow who tells us who to shoot when, or maybe when the game is feeling generous, an obtuse “V TO SILENTLY KILL” prompt. And this mentality drags the moment to moment shooting—you know, the core game—down significantly. Don’t worry, though, sometimes the on-foot shooting is livened up with large robotic enemies that take MORE BULLETS! Oh wait that actually doesn’t fix any problems, FU—
My fatigue with the moment to moment shooting became so severe, any chance I got to actually wallrun, I took it, regardless of whether or not it was a good idea in my present situation. What’s that, you say? With all the space jets, zero G grappling, hacking, and other mechanics, you forgot you could double jump or wallrun? It’s funny that you should mention that, because so did the game.
The campaign, on the whole, is a missed opportunity. There’s competent, fun dogfighting mechanics in here, but they’re applied to the most basic “shoot guys” missions. There’s a Mercenaries style deck of 52, a Most Wanted list of targets for you to kill, but they just show up during your missions with no fanfare. You get their picture and biography after you kill them. You know, when that information is the most useful! (Facepalm) Oh, and if you’ve been preventing yourself from looking at the whole board of targets because it has a weird tendency to bug out and force you to restart the game, say, 50% of the time, and you want to read the biographies when you’re done killing all the targets, TOUGH SHIT, because for story reasons you can’t see the board after you’ve killed all the targets. (I could be missing it, but the fact that it can be missed is issue enough.) It’s kind of neat on a story mission when you blow up a ship, and “WOW, that was a guy, this feels slightly more interconnected!” but that’s really the most you ever get out of the system. And that really describes all of Infinite Warfare quite well. Despite the name, everything around the edges of the combat has grown more expansive and engaging than ever, but the core game—the “warfare” in Infinite Warfare, the Call of Duty—feels more finite and claustrophobic than ever. So, even with all the amazing stuff at the edges—the character work, the side missions, the dogfighting, the setting, certain moments—it all lands with a bit of a thud.
Rather than put myself through Black Ops III’s mechanics in multiplayer again with Infinite Warfare, I actually became curious and booted up Modern Warfare 2 for the first time in a while. Well, let’s be real, I check in about once a year, but I gave the multiplayer an honest college try for the first time in a while, instead of just vacantly amusing myself for a match. You know what? I actually kinda couldn’t stand it. The people who are good at Call of Duty are now insane in Modern Warfare 2. And it’s no fun at all. You have to check every corner of your vision and surroundings at all times, while also peering into the distant distant horizon (of say, Highrise or Wasteland) lest you be immediately sniped. There is no rhyme or reason to where enemies will be, thanks to the constantly shifting spawns. You have to be twitchy and on guard at every second. If you somehow do all of this, you will be killed by a stray grenade or someone’s airstrike. Plus, there was someone named “Goindrypulloutwet” so it was pretty much a bottom of the barrel experience all around.
So what the hell happened in these 8 years and change since Modern Warfare 2’s release? Do I just suck? Probably, but I also do okay in Counter-Strike or Titanfall. So what gives? Well, while the Call of Duty mainstream crowd moved from new release to new release—see here, me—the guys into Modern Warfare 2 stuck with Modern Warfare 2. For years. And the meta changed. Perhaps not the meta—I mean, idiots still run around with akimbo Model 1887s—but map awareness and knowledge. Everyone knows every map in and out. They know the routes and likely enemy placements like the back of their hands, and they’re probably much better shots than the average player. They dropshot, jump around, attack from sneaky angles—it’s kind of impressive to see Call of Duty at such a peak, honestly. From a distance. In person, it’s miserable. See, unlike a Counter-Strike, unlike a Quake, unlike a Titanfall, the better people are at the game—the more advanced the meta is—the less fun it is. Counter-Strike is demanding, but you can be a good player by communicating with your teammates even if you suck at shooting. It’s as much about thinking and ambushing as it is about pure twitchiness. Titanfall gives your enemies insane mobility, double jumps and slides and wall runs and bunnyhops, making them harder to shoot, but you get those same tools yourself to escape. In Modern Warfare 2, you see the other guy first, you shoot first, or you die. And there is no way to predict where someone may be, besides general map hot spot knowledge. It’s a clusterfuck.
Better question then—how was I ever competent at this hyper-twitchy mess? Well, besides the classic age and reflexes thing (21 means I’m, essentially, an old man), I think it has a lot to do with the crowd playing at the time. I realized something sad while playing Modern Warfare 2, something that other people noticed way earlier than I did—the only way to have fun in Call of Duty multiplayer is to feel like you’re getting one over on the other chumps playing. It’s not “our team made that sick play!” like Counter-Strike, it’s “I shot that guy before he shot me” or “I got that killstreak and called in a missile.” And such fun only exists as long as there are players below your skill level. Now, for a game as popular as Call of Duty, that’s no problem, at least at release. But Modern Warfare 2 in its current state reveals that it is disposable entertainment, meant to be quickly devoured by the masses until next year’s installment. Because without the masses, the game falls apart. It is the multiplayer equivalent of a pyramid scheme. And hey, if your old Modern Warfare 2 is bumming you out, why not play this year’s installment for a mere 60 dollars, where the less skilled players still exist?
In short, a game on Highrise with no dumbasses running in the open is a game that’s no fun at all. And middle school me is very sad to hear that. Adult me just shrugs.
And this is all such a shame, because I feel like a lot of these problems were solved in Advanced Warfare, only to be discarded out of hand. The boost jump and strafing turned every firefight in multiplayer into a mini dogfight, where tactical positioning and heck, even the option to retreat mattered. As opposed to the duck-shooting gallery we see in Modern Warfare 2 and Black Ops III onward. This is only talking about multiplayer! Don’t get me started on the dormant potential in these singleplayer campaigns. (You know I’m just getting started, right?)
Like it or not, these are some of the last big budget singleplayer games out there. Think about how crazy that is for a second. The games you usually only play for the multiplayer have these lavish, expensive as hell handcrafted stories, just for the additional “value” or making cool looking trailers to show to sports audiences. And if they tried just a bit more, not in design, not in visuals, not in setting or concept, but in the fucking story, these could bite-sized blockbusters. They’re four to six hours, an ideal length for a story in a game, and they have the budget and the talent to make something special happen. And every other year, they get so close to greatness, but just miss the mark. Infinite Warfare is simply the latest almost-hit.
On the other hand, we’ve been clamoring for a different setting or a better story in Call of Duty for years, and it hasn’t really helped. Think about it—in 2009 or 10, we were begging for a future Call of Duty. Then future Call of Duty happened. It flopped. And now people are treating Call of Duty: WW2 like some brilliant breath of fresh air. Maybe it’s a trap to think the problem is in the story or the setting. Asking for Call of Duty to have a different setting is like asking for a different wallpaper for your prison cell. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, but it would be naive to think it’ll help you get out. And a Call of Duty in space is still Call of Duty.