Call of Duty Infinite Warfare has some large boots to fill. Not only is it thirteenth installment in the Call of Duty franchise (oh how the time flies), but it’s also the entry in the series Activision picked to be repackaged with a remastered version of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare – an oft-considered high-point for series.
Expectations, as you might imagine, are set high here. As such, a big change was needed.
After four previous entries that flirted outrageously with science fiction concepts and technology, Infinity Ward has finally taken the series full Halo and heads into the darkened depths of space.
This futuristic choice in settings is ironic: despite its high-tech, sci-fi focus, play through the triumvirate of modes that makes up Infinite War and you get a real sense of Infinity Ward’s preoccupation with the past.
Not long into its first hour, Infinite Warfare has you walking solemnly down a corridor lined with the names of history’s fallen - an experience that’s not dissimilar to playing through the game’s five-to-seven hour-long campaign and one that’s emblematic of Infinite Warfare’s entire package.
Look over there, incredibly familiar looking robotic enemies. Hey, is that a level set in a besieged airport terminal? Hold on, semi on-rails dogfights in a futuristic jet fighter? This war might be fought in the future, but Infinity Ward is using nostalgia as its ammunition.
Exploring the fringes of battle
But let’s focus on setting for a second. That sci-fi backdrop makes for one of the most breathtaking sets the series has ever had - every mise-en-scene captivates, from skydiving onto the permafrost of Europa to the boiling gas of Venus, you’re treated to one gorgeous panoramic after another.
Moreover, the linear story paths we’ve grown so tired of are discarded in favour of a Mass Effect-style galaxy map that presents a set of side-missions set across the dark depths of our solar system. Many of these are missions are better than the story ones, and with suit upgrades awarded for completing them, they’re a real bonus that’s leagues away from the poor side-quests of Black Ops 2.
Despite being contained within the confines of a template that its developer is reluctant to shed, Infinity Ward has still crafted an exciting and consistently entertaining story. The plot doesn’t feel the need to immolate itself with philosophical rhetoric in the way it did with Black Ops 3, giving us instead a simple story of warfare that enables a little more innovation in gameplay.
But this unique setting would all be for naught if the gameplay itself wasn’t fun.
To that end it was only natural that the augmented rigs first seen in 2014’s Advanced Warfare are clear and present in the latest game, offering a set of perks and attributes that facilitate different styles of play. There are six in total, and while they lack the unique character avatars of Black Ops 3, finding which Trait and Payload (a pair of special gadgets or weapons that unlock for a limited time each match) adds a new spin to the same rigs you know and love/hate.
Being able to build loadouts based on acquired weapons (more on those shortly) and upgrades helps create a Halo-esque synergy between single-player and multiplayer and gives players a new avenue of agency to approach missions, similar to how they would a multiplayer match online.
That said, being able to pick everything from camos to Jackal upgrades while roaming your ship feels far more rewarding than simply navigating windows and suits its hyper-militarised setting perfectly.
Jackal of all trades
Combat has a few interesting twists this year, too. Being able to shoot out windows while fighting through a lunar airport makes for a very satisfying tactical option when being held back by entrenched forces, while the gravityless combat of on-foot space battles - where your grapple hook combines with floating cover to create a constantly changing battlefield - feels a world away from the similar offering found in 2013’s Ghosts.
Speaking of space, the dogfighting sections are an endless treat. Aboard your jet fighter-style Jackal, you’re treated to an experience that seamlessly blends full flying controls with on-the-rails set-pieces without sacrificing player agency. Simply being able to jump into your craft, fly away from Earth and start battling it out in the stars is endlessly gratifying and something that was sorely missed in the likes of Star Wars Battlefront.
The fact that these sections - which are numerous throughout the campaign - don’t feel hollow in an age where the likes of Elite: Dangerous and EVE: Valkyrie have made the genre so popular again, is a testament to Infinity Ward’s ability to make such a union feel so organic.
The problem is, for all its impressive vistas and high-octane pace, none of it feels particularly memorable. Monolithic capital ships being blown out out of the sky above Geneva should feel breathtaking, but we’ve seen it all before in the likes of Modern Warfare 3’s Russian invasion. Battling through space like a futuristic Red Baron should feel special, but it was only last year that the series saw you flying about in a similar craft.
It’s bizarre to acknowledge Infinite Warfare’s weakest aspect is the online mode that cemented its place as one of the industry’s most successful franchises. But 2016 has given us some of our greatest shooters in years and by comparison Infinite Warfare’s over-familiar killstreaks, reward badges feel age-old and stiff. Even something as simple as navigation, which is meant to have been given a high-dose of epinephrine thanks to the introduction of wall-running, feels glacial compared to the same mechanics found in Titanfall 2’s multiplayer.
It’s another reminder that while Call of Duty does what it does well, its formula is so strict few new elements ever feel that influential. The series may be a faster beast now than it was in the days of Modern Warfare, but it still ultimately boils down to an experience you’ve already prestiged before.
That isn’t to say this is a bad or broken form of multiplayer. If you still enjoy CoD’s own brand of online shootery goodness, you’ll lap up the maps and mode Infinite Warfare ships with relish.
New maps such as Frost - with its walls of tricksy moving bots - show Infinity Ward still knows how to design intricate maps, while the lunar setting of Terminal takes a blast from the past and makes it relevant again. It’s just a shame the mods system takes the edge off a combat model that’s both precise and punchy.
Thankfully, this year’s undead co-op mode, Zombies in Spaceland, is a world away from the stale offering found in its multiplayer sibling. The amazing ’80s pastiche, set in a space-themed amusement park, is another slice of twee irreverence, each map full of things to find, explore and poke.
Being able to pick five perk cards, with each one coming into play one after the other, is another great twist on the rewarding arcadey feel to the mode. And hey, any mode that has David Hasselhoff and Paul ‘Pee-Wee Herman’ Reubens on the cast list has our vote.
Verdict: Play it
Infinite Warfare proves to be Call of Duty’s most schizophrenic entry to date, with a campaign trying desperately hard to impress in a genre already overstuffed with mind-shredding spectacle and a Zombies mode that continues to prove the series’ most endearing feature. Now more than ever it needs to break away and become its own standalone release.
But it’s in its multiplayer that Infinite Warfare disappoints the most. The bread and butter of the CoD legacy, Infinite Warfare manages to take out any elements of personality Treyarch added in Black Ops 3. Throw in a weapon variant system that feels imbalanced - one that will almost certainly be tweaked as it seeds into the eSports market - and the multiplayer comes off as simply ho-hum.
Infinity Ward have certainly tried to reach for the stars, but it’s hit a glass ceiling of its own making along the way.
TechRadar's review system scores games as 'Don't Play It', 'Play It' and 'Play It Now', the last of which is the highest score we can give. A 'Play It' score suggests a solid game with some flaws, but the written review will reveal the exact justifications.