‘Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare’ Highlights the Burdens of Command
A franchise out of ideas seeks solace in the stars
by MATTHEW GAULT
What a difference low expectations makes.
After more than 13 years and 14 games, mega-hit video game franchise Call of Duty has finally made the desperate leap from the Earth to the stars. It’s a cliche that when a popular media empire has run out of ideas, it simply ships the whole thing to space to see what happens. Video games are no different.
This is an affliction normally reserved for horror films. Jason Voorhees hacked his way through holographic campers in Jason X, the cenobites took painful pleasure intergalactic in Hellraiser: Bloodline and the plucky Lubdan protected his pot-o-gold in Leprechaun 4: In Space.
When a franchise makes an interstellar leap, it often means that the franchise is creatively bankrupt. Call of Duty has been running on fumes for a few years now and it’s hard to believe it took this long to set a game in the far flung future where humans are a space-faring species.
The rust is showing in Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. I had trouble finding a multiplayer game, sales have slipped dramatically from previous titles and the trailer premiere was infamously one of the most disliked in YouTube’s history.
Which is sad. Infinite Warfare’s single player campaign is among the best in the franchise. It uses a by-the-numbers plot about an interplanetary civil war to tell a story about the struggles of command. Despite the space nonsense, it’s more grounded, focused and cogent than the series has been in years.
Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare takes place in a far future where Earth has conquered the solar system. The United Nations Space Alliance has outposts from Geneva to Pluto and maintains an uneasy peace with its Martian neighbors. The Earth colonized Mars decades before and the Red Planet fought — and lost — a war of secession the previous generation.
The two sides carved up the system after the war and Mars’ military — the Settlement Defense Force — patrols its borders and shoots at anyone who gets too close. The player controls Nick Reyes, a Jackal fighter pilot visiting Geneva for Fleet Week — a yearly celebration of the USNA’s victory over Mars.
The Jackal is a weird mashup of an F-35, F-18 and F-22 that can fly both through the vacuum of space and planetary atmospheres. Don’t ask too many questions.
During Fleet Week, the might of the Earth’s space navy gathers in one place to parade above the planet. So yeah. If you’ve ever read any military fiction ever, you know what comes next. Mars assaults Earth’s fleet when it’s gathered in one place and destroys all but two if its carriers.
Reyes survives and makes it back to the USNA Retribution only to discover the captain and XO died during the assault. As the flight crew leader, Reyes is next in line for the job. He doesn’t want it, but he takes it.
Reyes is a hotshot Jackal pilot unused to leading troops from the comfort of the command center. So, of course, he decides to either personally lead or support every single mission the Retribution takes on.
Which sounds like a ridiculous thing that would never happen in a real military, and it is. But Infinite Warfare is doing this to make a point. Reyes is so burdened by his new command that he makes terrible choices that put the lives of his soldiers at risk. Choices such as micromanaging missions and refusing missions with even a one percent chance of casualties.
What seems like a contrivance to get players to feel powerful is actually a comment on Reyes’ character. This is a guy unfit to lead in a time when the navy doesn’t have anyone else. He’s got to change or he’ll kill his crew. At one point, a fellow officer even tells him so explicitly.
Beyond Reyes’ journey and the Retribution’s crew, Infinite Warfare’s best ideas come from sources that used them better. The USNA culture, as well as the Martian surprise attack, come directly from Battlestar Galactica. Reyes is a carbon copy of charismatic viper CAG Lee Adama. He’s even got the same inferiority complex, guilt and daddy issues.
The Martian bad guys are vague communists scraped from Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. The SDF say there’s no dishonor in death, require all citizens to carry a firearm and conscripts them into the military for 15 years … beginning at age 12.
On Mars, loyalty to the state is supreme and Earth is below contempt. The SDF see the Earth — with its ravaged ecology and high rolling citizens — as parasites living off the work of the off-world colonies. They’re not wrong. But this is a Call of Duty game and they’re the bad guys, so it’s best just to ignore the socio-economics of space colonization and exploitation.
Hilariously, almost everyone in the SDF speaks with a Russian accent. Everyone, that is, except principal villain Rear Adm. Salen Kotch. Kit Harington — known to the world as Jon Snow — plays Kotch and confirms my suspicion that Harington’s post Game of Thrones career will consist of z-grade sci-fi films and d-list horror ripoffs.
He’s a terrible cardboard cutout that doesn’t do much to forward the story or explain SDF ideology. I wonder how bad his Russian accent was before developer Infinity Ward just let him use his real voice. It’s a missed opportunity, as Kotch could have fleshed out the SDF’s beliefs — instead he just pops up to tell the good guys they’re gonna die.
Despite all these problems, Infinite Warfare’s campaign is solid, fun and — aside from Kotch’s dialogue — well written. It’s also cogent, which is something Call of Duty hasn’t been for years.
The last few entries of the series led the player down story paths and set up missions that didn’t make much sense. They were all an excuse to force the player down a badly concealed tunnel ending in waves of faceless bad guys.
Infinite Warfare still has those badly concealed tunnels full of baddies, but they’re fewer. And all the missions make sense. I can’t emphasize that enough.
Reyes and his crew are in one of the Earth’s last space carriers. They’re fighting a war against the odds and they take on missions which evole from a believable set of tactical and strategic plans.
Players fly to Saturn’s moon Titan to destroy an SDF refueling station. The SDF capture a port on the moon, a critical logistical path for the Earth, and Reyes and his crew have to push back the invaders. Reyes and his team engage in targets of opportunity, stealing prototype weapons and knocking out SDF leadership.
Y’know, war stuff that makes strategic sense.
By contrast, last year’s Black Ops III had players traveling through the hallucinatory manifestation of another character’s college World War II thesis. Even though Infinite Warfare happens in space, it’s far more grounded than the previous entries.
Reyes’ journey also shines through. He’s a commander who wants to be friends with all his soldiers — and keep them safe. It’s a stark contrast to the SDF’s “death is no dishonor” policy where individual soldiers routinely give their lives to the cause.
The protagonist is also dangerous. No individual soldier is more important that the mission, and no matter how much both his fellow officers and his troops try to convince Reyes otherwise, he has to learn the hard way.
Reyes’ story is a big part of what makes Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare work and I’m shocked it ended up in a big budget video game franchise. He’s an ace pilot who doesn’t want to lead and can only barely do the job.
He’s a hero who just wants to be a grunt and save everyone he works with. His fellow soldiers are his family, and those emotions cloud his judgement. Again, much like Lee Adama in Battlestar Galactica.
It works better than it should. This new Call of Duty creates strong emotional connections in its cast by putting the player in control of their lives. Then it sets that against an enemy who understands the power of a soldier’s sacrifice better than the player does.
All this and space combat too. It’s still Call of Duty. This isn’t a morally ambiguous journey like Spec Ops: The Line, but it’s a helluva lot better than what the franchise has offered the past three years.