When Infinity Ward's Jacob Minkoff and Taylor Kurosaki, design director and narrative director, respectively, on this year's Call of Duty, talk about the story they want to tell, they reference two now-classic war movies.
The first is Black Hawk Down, Ridley Scott's 2001 film about the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu. Scott's movie, Minkoff and Kurosaki said, cinematically embodies the motto "no soldier left behind." No matter the outcome, "you fight for the guy next to you," Minkoff said.
The other is Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg's 1998 tale of Captain John H. Miller and his journey to bring the last surviving Ryan brother home against the backdrop of the invasion of Normandy in World War II. The mission comes first, Miller knows, even if he must put the safety of those under his command at risk for a stranger.
Minkoff and Kurosaki, who previously worked together at developer Naughty Dog, said they steeped themselves in war films and classic Call of Duty games during design meetings. But it was those films, Black Hawk Down and Saving Private Ryan, that resonated strongest with the themes of their new game.
The story of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare will draw from both of those stories and their core themes. As protagonist Captain Nick Reyes, a special-operations pilot, players will experience the story of a man who fights for his fellow soldier and, early in the game's story, is thrust into command after an invasion of Earth.
"In Infinite Warfare, you are a captain," Minkoff told Polygon in an interview. "That's different from of playing as the FNG, and being led by a veteran. You are a veteran, like [Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare's Captain] Price. You give the orders."
As captain of the Retribution, one of the last remaining warships of the UNSA (an international coalition overseeing space travel, trade and colonization), players will chart their own path through the game's single-player campaign. Unlike in other, more linear Call of Duty games, in Infinite Warfare, players will be able to select their missions from a starmap aboard the Retribution. Where you go next and how you choose to engage the enemy is, in some ways, the player's decision.
Your foe in Infinite Warfare is the Settlement Defense Front — or SetDef, or simply, The Front — a militarized nation-state born in space. They're human, but they're the settlers of our solar system. They've colonized distant moons and planets as resources on Earth have become scarce. They're also the byproduct of Earthly greed; as corporations reap windfalls from mining minerals off-planet, the settlers of those worlds, the workers tasked with surviving harsh conditions and making the people of Earth rich, revolt.
"They believe they should control the trade and travel through the solar system," Minkoff said, adding that they view the citizens of Earth who benefit from their backbreaking work as soft — inferior.
As The Front expands its reach, taking control from settlement after settlement from the UNSA, war looms.
Then, The Front strikes in a showing of its amassed military might. And Reyes' story as captain begins.
In a hands-off demonstration of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, Infinity Ward showed an early level from the game. The Front has assaulted Geneva, the home of the UNSA, and Reyes and his squad patrol the streets in the aftermath. It's chaos. Dazed citizens walk the streets as buildings burn. Drop pods pound the streets, deploying murderous, mechanized SetDef soldiers. Reyes and company, including a friendly robot soldier named ETH.3n (or "Ethan"), usher civilians to safety as they search for a rally point.
Infinite Warfare's early level manages to convey the classic war setting that Infinity Ward is aiming for. Despite the futuristic setting — Infinity Ward won't say what year its military fiction takes place in — and the sci-fi military technology on display, the conflict manages to feel grounded. Granted, there are spider-like, explosive drones that skitter toward their target, and grenades that instantly vaporize enemies, and there is a wrist-mounted riot shield that deploys an impenetrable mesh force field in a blink. But there's a tangible, boots-on-the-ground feel here; the super-powered exoskeletons of Advanced Warfare and the swarms of flying drones of Black Ops would feel out of place in this world, in this alternate but familiar future.
"We try to start out the game trying to show who this enemy is, the depravities they'll commit to get what they want and, with that context, you'll understand what the stakes are," Kurosaki said.
"We've put a lot of work into our flight combat"
The gunplay of Infinite Warfare feels similarly tangible, grounded. Shotguns roar with thunderous bursts of rapid automatic fire. Semi-automatic rifles emit a bluish, almost holographic muzzle flash, a visual cue that feels like an intentional anachronism. The noisy violence feels here less detached, more unsettling than in other Call of Duty games, where mowing down the opposing force often comes across like an arcade shooting gallery.
In many ways, Infinite Warfare feels more like a World War II game set in another century. You'll battle an unsympathetic enemy, and you'll do it soldier against soldier.
But then there are moments where the technology takes over, like when Reyes hacks into the robot brain of a mechanized soldier on an enemy dropship and initiates its self-destruct sequence, killing everything on board. And when you fly into space, seamlessly, from the surface of the Earth to fight the enemy, starship against starship.
Those space-fighting sequences, one of which Infinity Ward showed during Sony's E3 press conference, aren't on rails. Players will have full control of their ship during these moments.
"We've put a lot of work into our flight combat," Minkoff said. "You have full control over your space fighter," which is called a Jackal.
After the Geneva mission and the Jackal assault on a Settlement Defense Front destroyer-class ship, Reyes learns that he's in command of the Retribution now. The ship's captain has been killed in the assault, and Reyes just got field-promoted.
Aboard the Retribution, players will have access to an operations map that shows targets of opportunity. Players can call up missions from the map and take down The Front's ships and settlements. These ship assaults will also let players infiltrate the enemy's capital ships, where they can seize SetDef's advanced technology and add it to their arsenal. Doing so is optional, Minkoff and Kurosaki said, but acquiring new tech and better weaponry from the enemy will make your mission easier.
These ship assault missions, which consist of zero-gravity battles amid ship wreckage and in the ships' interiors, are "bespoke levels," Minkoff said, and offer "the sort of pacing and experience you'd expect from a handmade level" in Call of Duty.
"What you get narratively from experiencing these missions, it fleshes out the world of the Settlement Defense Front, and the way they [...] how they live, the contents of their ships — there are mechanical benefits of going on these missions," he said.
As players progress through the story, so will their home base, the Retribution. Kurosaki called the UNSA warship "a living hub" that will have its own type of progression. It can be in various states of repair, he said, and players can explore and interact with the ship. And its inhabitants will be a constant reminder of what's at stake for Reyes.
"It serves as a representative of the crew you're trying to protect, but also the billions back home that you're fighting for," Kurosaki said.
The Retribution will be home to an ensemble cast. The UNSA, and those under Reyes' command, will be a multinational, multicultural fighting force. Reyes will interact with characters like Adm. Raines, his longtime mentor and teacher; Staff Sgt. Omar, a British national who questions Reyes' ability to lead a crew of thousands; and Lt. Salter, a Lebanese pilot who's served alongside him for years.
"She's been flying alongside him for a decade," Minkoff said of Salter. "She's not leadership material, but she's a great pilot and a great soldier. She's hotheaded and puts Reyes' safety above all else."
Infinite Warfare feels more like a World War II game set in another century
Players will also have ETH.3n, a robot soldier "designed to be the perfect soldier." He's programmed with a personality construct that allows him to integrate with a group of soldiers, Minkoff said.
Ethan, Salter and the rest of the crew of Irish, Canadian and Australian soldiers will all reflect off Reyes' personality and the realities of his struggle to lead. They'll be the band of brothers of this Call of Duty, and players might be faced with difficult decisions that reinforce the conflict that comes from balancing the mission and ensuring that no soldier gets left behind.
Despite the futuristic setting, the dazzling technological military wonders that are at the core of Infinite Warfare's battles, it's the human characters that seem to be one of Infinity Ward's biggest priorities.
"We want to take the familiar into the unfamiliar," Kurosaki said of its blend of boots-on-the-ground combat meets sci-fi space battles.
"There's really nothing else like this," Minkoff said. "You can point at shooters that occur in the future ... but you can't point at another one that has a really grounded, authentic soldierly feel that's also got all these elements we do. It's unique in that it's something that plays to a genre and fantasy that I've always wanted to play and I never felt like I've played a game that did it. So we had to make it."