Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare review

Game Info
Platform Win, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher Activision
Developer Infinity Ward
Release Date Nov 4, 2016

We’re in uncharted territory with Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare.

Three years ago, Infinity Ward had every intention of launching a new, long-running Call of Duty franchise — one that could match the critical and commercial success of Modern Warfare and Black Ops. Unfortunately for us and them, that new game was Call of Duty: Ghosts. Back then, I derided it as being one of the worst installments in Call of Duty history.

So, for the first time ever, a Call of Duty franchise has been abandoned after just one game. Infinity Ward instead decided to start from scratch on a totally new franchise, one set IN SPACE. But for all the apparent vitriol over Infinite Warfare’s debut trailer (it was one of the most downvoted videos in YouTube history), the end result is something far more interesting than anyone would have guessed — at least in its campaign.

Infinite Warfare's campaign is more interesting than anyone might have guessed

Call of Duty’s recent forays into future warfare make this new journey into the outer reaches of our solar system kind of a no-brainer, but despite the setting, Infinite Warfare’s campaign is something of a return to basics. The waves of AI and VR ridiculousness of Black Ops 3’s campaign have been abandoned in favor of a simple story about one core concept: whether the mission is more important than the lives under one’s command.

It’s a question that might have seemed too heavy for previous games in the franchise; even some of the best (Black Ops and Advanced Warfare, for example) struggled with depth and, at most, had few standout characters.

Infinite Warfare, on the other hand, offers the strongest writing and characters the series has seen thus far. A measure of narrative strength and success is whether you can remember a character’s name, or whether you care if they die. And I cared. A lot. I haven’t cared this much since Gaz and the gang from the first Modern Warfare were summarily executed in that campaign’s closing seconds.

And why did I care? Infinite Warfare’s cast is fleshed out. They’re believable characters with personalities and motivations, characters I wanted to see make it out safe and sound. Not all of them do.

The story’s only real weak point? A spot of celebrity stunt casting in Kit Harington (Game of Thrones’ Jon Snow). Unlike your shipmates, Harington’s Admiral Kotch is flat and uninspired, offering shallow platitudes and threats of Martian dominance (yes, he’s from Mars). His appearances are mercifully few and far between, with the bulk of your time spent jawing with your newfound buddies.

infinite warfare review 2

Beyond the story, the campaign succeeds on several fronts. The interstellar setting allows for quite a bit of environmental variety, even if the boots-on-the-ground gameplay hasn’t changed all that much since the first Black Ops. Standout levels include a trip to Earth’s moon and a mission that takes place on a rapidly spinning asteroid that makes it seem like there’s a 30-second-long day/night cycle. Planetary variety did wonders to make me feel like I wasn’t repeatedly assaulting the same old arctic military base.

Another success: ship-to-ship dogfighting. While it lacks the depth of more involved space simulations like TIE Fighter or Freespace, the dogfighting sequences are a great way to add some more variety to the Call of Duty formula. Certain missions have you fighting on a planet’s surface before jumping into a ship and flying into space to board an enemy starship, complete with out-of-ship zero-gravity sequences, all over the course of just a few minutes. And unlike short vehicle sequences in past games, which felt like cute gimmicks, the ships here feel fully integrated into the overall package.

The campaign’s overall length is comparable to previous installments, at just over seven hours, but that’s padded a bit by another first: side missions. Not to be confused with the groan-inducing survival scenarios in Black Ops 2, Infinite Warfare’s short, 15-minute endeavors offer a mix of infantry-based ship assaults and pure dogfighting sequences. One of the most interesting sequences has you donning an enemy uniform to go undercover and assassinate enemy leadership. You can actually stealth your way through the whole mission, eventually sucking all the air out of the conference room they’re meeting in. All of the side missions have their own little twists to make them feel unique, even if they reuse a lot of assets.

I realize that many people skip right past the Call of Duty campaign, only playing a mission here and there while waiting for friends to hop online to play multiplayer. Don’t make that mistake with Infinite Warfare. It’s an exceptional single-player experience, and the strongest part of what this package has to offer.

Unlike its campaign, multiplayer in Infinite Warfare is, well ... safe.

infinite warfare review screen 3
Infinite Warfare's multiplayer is safe

The last Call of Duty game that Infinity Ward worked on, Ghosts, messed with a lot of the systems that worked so well in Black Ops 2. It took risks, shifting from the simple and elegant Pick 10 system to something far more convoluted. It also suffered from technical and balance issues. This year, it feels a bit like the developer decided to take its biggest risks in the campaign, while playing it very safe on the multiplayer front.

If you played Black Ops 3, the multiplayer in Infinite Warfare is damn near identical. Movement feels the same, with boost jumps and wall-running returning. Character abilities work the same as well, although this time they’re locked to specialized rigs that come with a selectable super and passive ability. Some of the perks have been switched around, and the killstreaks are a little more space-oriented — laser bombardments instead of explosives, for example — but for the most part, this is Black Ops 3 multiplayer with new maps and some bells and whistles tied on.

One of those bells is a new system called Mission Teams. Before each match, you’re able to select one of three random objectives. These objectives are determined by your chosen team. The first team you unlock is the easiest, with objectives focused on getting kills with guns or abilities. As you level up, you’ll unlock new teams with more varied and challenging objectives.

Why does this work? Finally there’s a reason to finish a match. Call of Duty has a bit of a reputation for being brutal on newcomers, and if you’re losing by a boatload, you may feel like you’re just throwing yourself into a meat grinder over and over again. With Mission Teams you have something to work for, even if the match is a total loss. Completing these mini-objectives will level up your Mission Teams and eventually unlock skins and new guns that are exclusive to that team. It’s a nice addition for more casual players who want to feel like they’re actually making progress without destroying the flow for everyone else.

infinite warfare review 5

Mission Teams aren’t the only way to unlock new guns. The beloved/hated supply drops of Black Ops 3 are back in Infinite Warfare, with an added twist: salvage. In the previous iteration of supply drops, you were at the whimsy of luck when you were trying to get a specific gun to drop. Now, with salvage (earned when opening supply drops, completing missions and finding duplicate items), you can save up your resources to unlock specific gun variants. The end result: Even if you have the worst luck in the world and the gun you’re pushing for never drops, you’ll eventually have enough salvage to buy it outright. Sadly, there are still guns that will unlock only from supply drops, but eventually they will become craftable as well, as new guns get added.

It’s an interesting system that allows for yet another form of progression, though I do have balance concerns. Unlocking some of the epic-tier guns without spending any money (beyond the $60 or more you already shelled out) could take weeks or even months. That feels like those who pay will have an advantage over those who don’t, at least at launch. Infinity Ward’s diligence on gun balancing is really the X-factor here, and right now we just have to hope the studio will keep things fair.

Even if you’re not into the randomness of supply drops and the time sink of salvage collecting, there’s still plenty to work for in Infinite Warfare. The series is peerless when it comes to customization, and there are dozens of gun skins, emblems and player banners to customize your character with. Every gun, perk and piece of equipment has its own challenges and unlocks, leaving true obsessives with a good year’s worth of stuff to keep them busy. It’s a relief to see that Call of Duty hasn’t strayed from these tenets of constant progression and reward when other franchises, like this year’s otherwise excellent Battlefield 1, have pared back massively on this front.

Infinity Ward’s contributions to the core gameplay introduced in Black Ops 3 are welcome, even if they feel additive rather than revolutionary. It’s fair to say that if you found last year’s multiplayer to be to your liking, you’ll get the same level of enjoyment out of this year’s multiplayer. That’s assuming you can stomach another full year of what is essentially the same game with a few minor upgrades.

infinite warfare review 4
With zombies, Infinite Warfare leans heavily on what Treyarch has done before

Like its multiplayer mode, Zombies in Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare seems to lean heavily on Treyarch’s pre-established formula. Four random heroes are gathered together in a zany environment and must do a series of increasingly obscure tasks to unlock a mysterious Easter egg.

This year’s installment is set in the 1980s, with archetypes like the Valley girl, the nerd, the jock and the, uh, rapper (is this even an archetype?), attempting to survive in a zombie-filled amusement park.

The fundamentals are identical to just about every other Zombies map we’ve seen thus far, but several concessions have been made to encourage those who have been scared off by the mode’s notorious difficulty. For one thing, it’s actually pretty easy to survive, at least to wave 10, without knowing anything. Exploration is also pretty straightforward, with maps to guide you around and sections of the park being themed ("Come to the rocket ship!" or "We’re in the arcade!") for easy identification.

The mode also tells you a lot more about what you should be doing. Treyarch’s Zombies maps are known for being stingy with guidance. Here, though, there are numerous help screens and tooltips. One of the pickups you can stumble upon is a sack of jelly beans. Throw some on the ground and nothing happens. In a previous game you might have thought, "Oh well, maybe I have to save these for later?" Here you’re actually told to shoot the candy to set it ablaze, creating a temporary barrier to ward off zombies. It’s not exactly holding your hand, but it’s not completely tight-lipped either. We’ll call it quasi-helpful.

Another bone thrown to the player is that weapon experience and attachments in multiplayer actually carry over to Zombies. If you’ve unlocked a silencer in multiplayer and have that specific weapon unlocked in Zombies, it’ll come packed with that attachment when you buy it off a wall. It’s similar to the system in Black Ops 3, but again is a little friendlier and more generous, a running theme in this mode.

Wrap Up:

As a package, Infinite Warfare stands out

There’s no doubt that Infinity Ward made a wise call in ditching the Ghosts franchise. Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare offers one of the best campaigns the series has provided, with stellar writing and varied environments. While that level of ingenuity didn’t transfer over to multiplayer and Zombies, taken as an entire package, Infinite Warfare is a standout effort whose biggest sin is not trying to reinvent the wheel at every turn.

Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare was reviewed in part at an event held by Activision and Infinity Ward in San Francisco from Oct. 17-20, 2016. Multiplayer, Zombies and campaign were played with other press and developers on debug, non-final PS4 code. Some multiplayer was tested using retail PS4 copies of Infinite Warfare. This review will remain provisional until we can determine the final launch state of the game. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

About Polygon's Reviews
8.5 PS4
8.5 Xbox One