In the moments that Infinite Warfare has the courage of its convictions, when its various systems sync-up sufficiently, we get a tantalising taste of its true potential.
These moments usually come when the protagonist, Nick Reyes, leaves terra firma and zips about in zero-gravity, course-correcting with boosters and engaging enemy soldiers against the backdrop of gargantuan spaceships smashing into one another. In between precision shots from his Ghostbusters-like energy weapon, he grapples on to a grunt and pulls the pin on his grenade before kicking him towards two buddies, who look on helplessly as he greets them with an explosion. That taken care of, Reyes grapples to his waiting Jackal space fighter and boosts off to begin dogfighting with enemy craft.
Needless to say, Call of Duty’s production values ensure such episodes look spectacular. They may not be perfect in execution – rotation can become disorientating and enemy AI remains erratic – but they at least attempt to jolt this long-running series off its sometimes derided rails. Disappointingly though, Infinity Ward’s latest offering is mostly the familiar CoD routine of boots-on-the-ground combat in long corridors of choreographed action. It’s just that here, those boots are rocket-boosted and wall-run-capable. Even this concept is a pale imitation of Titanfall at its finest, boasting similar fundamentals but not the conviction to make them integral. While traversing these familiar sci-fi environments – futuristic cityscape, ice planet, rock planet, space station – parkour is mostly unnecessary.
The old problem of this game’s key narrative delivery technique remains: you have to follow computer-controlled characters who yell orders and exposition at you, but often they move too slow and it gets frustrating – like attempting to navigate Oxford Street on a particularly chaotic festive shopping day. The sheer number of times the game strips control away from you remains extraordinary – after a while, even the most impressive cinematic moments become a deadening intrusion. The first time you’re blasted out of an airlock it’s inarguably impressive and it even feels appropriate that you’re helpless. The second time is simply irritating. The third time, you just want to drift away forever like Frank Poole in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
But even in space, you lack freedom. Attempts to flank the enemy are thwarted by a curt prompt to return to the “combat zone” or be booted. The space craft combat sequences are a mess. The physics lack heft and movement feels erratic. Opposing fighters are simple to lock on to but the game then wrests control away to track them. Occasionally, when you kill an enemy, a playing card will pop up to tell you he was a big cheese (in an imitation of the American ploy towards rogue Ba’athists in 2003), but since you only find this out after killing them it renders the whole scheme somewhat pointless. You shot them just the same as all the others; that’s all you do in CoD.
Much is made of the fact you’re a captain but you can’t issue orders in the field and, despite a Mass Effect-like galaxy map to navigate on your ship’s bridge, you cannot shape the campaign’s outcome. You can select two types of side-mission – ship-infiltration or ship-to-ship combat – but the benefit of them is merely upgraded equipment. It’s certainly no Mass Effect in this respect – and while that comparison is harsh, it’s conditioned by the developer’s flagrant desire for you to care about your mission and crew; the message about prioritising one over the other crowbarred into every conversation.