Infinite Warfare puts you in the shoes of a man trying to save Earth. Unlike some other games in the Call of Duty franchise, you remain locked in those shoes throughout the entire game: Your name is Nick Reyes, you’re a crack pilot, and you’re also the planet Earth’s last hope. You’re not reading this wrong if that sounds like it might be something outside of the normal realm of the long-storied franchise off the Call of Duty games. We’ve fought in the second World War, Vietnam, Cold War skirmishes across the world, and in near-future conflicts located all over the planet. Infinite Warfare doesn’t just place us in a slightly-better-tech future cribbed from war fan fiction and the wet dreams of the defense industry—it puts us in a world where humans have mastered lightspeed travel and colonized the entirety of our solar system.
That expansion came with some friction. Earth was dying, so we built a colony on Mars to weather the storm. Earth got better, I guess, and the Martian government became more totalitarian. A war of secession a couple decades back split the two planets into two competing, spacefaring civilizations, and Infinite Warfare opens with the military invasion of Earth by those Martian separatists.
Look, let’s get some stuff out of the way here because it’s technically important: if you’re looking for a game to shoot people in, you can do that here. It is neither more inspired nor more interesting than any other entry in these games since Call of Duty: Ghosts. The weighty, “realistic” shooting of the franchise up to Ghosts has totally been abandoned, and it feels like I’m scooting around these levels as a floaty phantom with a Nerf gun. Call of Duty games are fundamentally different than what they used to be, and whether you like that is totally up to you. As for myself, I really yearn for those old, weighty, clunky guns.
There are also a number of gadgets that are all brilliantly designed and genuinely interesting the first couple of times you use them. There are little robotic spiders that hunt down enemies in cover, and there are grenades that turn off gravity in a select area. Sometimes you’re in space, and you can grab people with a grappling hook to murder in a slightly more interesting way. You can hack some robots. You can sometimes do air strikes. Every single one of these actions are well-made, well-designed, and utterly boring after the tenth time you do them.
In addition, I’ll be honest and say that I was blindsided by the fact that a full 30% of Infinite Warfare is a spaceship dogfighting game. Reyes is a crack ace fighter pilot pew pew pew man who is very strong and can do many airfights very good, and we get to experience that in a number of different missions that have us warping into an area, zipping around to shoot other pilots down, and getting the heck and hell out of there. The first couple of these missions are excellent, but the fifth, sixth, and forward ones were full of diminishing returns of fun.
If you can’t tell, I am deeply conflicted about this game. Infinite Warfare is a tightly-written game that is well-designed, superbly art-directed, and keeps the pace up from moment to moment in a way that few games in the franchise have managed to do. From the perspective of gameplay and my engagement with the game loop, I think the dev team did a damn fine job. But when I’m not in that loop, I’m amazingly distant from the game. I don’t think about big explosive moments that I loved. I don’t say “whoa, Internet Friends, let me tell you about this gameplay experience.” I just kind of blank on it.
From a narrative perspective, I can say that I’ve found Infinite Warfare to be one of the best-told Call of Duty games while also being one of the most troubling ones. Many of the previous installments jumped around the world to tell a story from the perspective of many different people who were all doing things at different times. The Modern Warfare trilogy, the real breakout stars of the entire franchise, took an almost novelistic approach to showing you all the different actors that made conflict and war possible. Some were victims, some were vicious murderers, and others were blockbuster heroes shooting their way through dozens of enemies. This approach was a way of playing with pacing and how the player came to understand the world that the game took place in: modern warfare was always bigger than a single hero and a single villain.
Infinite Warfare centers us in one heroic man bent on saving the Earth. Reyes, commanding a significant part of the Earth’s forces, is caught in a battle with Admiral Salen Koch of the Settlement Defense Front, a character who is positioned as the brutal warlord commanding a civilization of militaristic, authoritarian drones who seek nothing but the destruction of a free, liberal Earth and its way of life. Martian culture is written as a little bit like ancient Sparta spread over a nice base layer of Stalinist Russia with a dash of fantasies of ISIL added to the top for good measure. It’s a composite set of tropes and fears about authoritarianism and the hive mind potential of any kind of dominant ideology that maintains the subservience of the individual to the iron will of the top-down collective.
“Death is no disgrace” is the watch word of the Settlement Defense Force’s authoritarianism, and we hear it quite a few times over the course of the game. Reyes’s enemies explain that Earthlings cannot win any war because they don’t have what it takes. Earth’s commanders won’t sacrifice. They won’t harden their hearts. The leaders of the SDF, a group who LITERALLY crush the skulls of their enemies in the opening mission of the game, are talking to the player and telling them that they aren’t monster enough to win.
Early in the game, Reyes tells Staff Sergeant Omar that a captain’s job is to bring their men home. Omar tells him that the captain’s job is to complete the mission. Much of the game seems to be about the balance between those things; if war is about sacrifice, then who gets to decide when the sacrifice is made does seem pretty important. A couple times, Reyes falters at the precipice of making hard choices.
But, ultimately and without specific spoilers, the game comes down on the argument that the SDF is right. Death is no disgrace, and a mission accomplished on a pile of your allies’ bodies is still, and I swear that these words are used in this game, “a win.” The game tells us that whatever your beliefs are, the only way to make sure that you win a war is through total annihilation that has no empathy for your enemies and sees your allies as nothing other than tools. Victory, no matter the cost. And, somehow more horrifically, the credits of the game have monologues from the fallen where they express how incredibly happy they were to die for the right cause.
Call of Duty has always celebrated violence and war, but the Modern Warfare trilogy (and Advanced Warfare) all contained a built-in ambivalence about how war had to be fought and who had to be sacrificed along the way. Soldiers get moved around like pawns on a map in these games, and the mission always comes before anything else, but you often got a sense of the toll that this violence took on soldiers. We played through a man dying in a nuclear blast while trying to retreat, saw someone driven to war by grief, witnessed lives snuffed out by betrayal from top brass.
However light it is, it’s commentary that has room for thinking about how war works. Infinite Warfare doesn’t have that. It’s OOH-RAH and do or die all the way. It’s a game that tells us that the monstrosity of the enemy must always be matched by monstrosity of our own. It’s a theory of war that says that the only way to win is to mimic the methods and ideologies that we find most abhorrent in our enemies. It’s a race to see which side can lose any semblance of humanity first.
At the highest points, Call of Duty has evoked the flavors of films like Sicario. They show you the shape of things, and they present a messy world that soldiers make their way through. Sadly, the narrative of Infinite Warfare is closer to something like White House Down, a series of black and white tropes that merely tell us the same stuff that we knew already: we’re good, the enemies are bad, and we can murder the world into the shape we want it to be.
Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare was developed by Infinity Ward and published by Activision. Our review is based on the Playstation 4 version. It is also available for Xbox One and PC.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released last year. It’s available on Steam.