clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Has Call of Duty lost touch with reality?

Infinite Warfare and the future of combat

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

When Activision announced Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare I was ... well, I wasn’t impressed. I mean, yes, it’s very pretty. Things seem to blow up real good. But space battleships? Zero-gravity gunfights? When I think of a Call of Duty game, I’m thinking of something a little more realistic, something that feels ripped from the headlines. And, judging from the game’s initial reception on YouTube, I’m not alone.

You’re thinking to yourself, "But Charlie, remember in the last CoD game when they had those robotic exoskeletons that turned players into Iron Man? Stop being so critical." But I’m here to tell you that armored exoskeletons are being actively considered by the U.S. Special Operations Command. In fact, that tech goes hand-in-hand with a modern military doctrine that relies heavily on fewer, more highly trained covert operators to act as the first, and hopefully only, combatants in a theater.

But there’s no way, even in the far future, that giant, space-based supercarriers are a good idea ... right?

To help myself make sense of things, I made a few phone calls. First, to military strategist Peter W. Singer. Second, to the the team at developer Infinity Ward.

Lt. Nora Salter, the player character's wingman in Infinite Warfare.
Infinity Ward/Activision

Top men

Peter W. Singer is a strategist and senior fellow at the New America Foundation, editor for Popular Science magazine and most recently the co-author of Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War. He’s also written what I consider to be one of the most prescient books on modern warfare, called Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.

He’s also no stranger to games. In the past he’s worked as a paid consultant on the Call of Duty franchise.

"That was mostly for Call of Duty: Black Ops," Singer told me via telephone a few weeks ago. "Early on, I was giving briefings on what the world might look like in that timeframe, everything from the geopolitics to what kind of conflicts there might be to what kinds of weapons and technology might be out there. Then we moved on to story development, and I was giving ideas and offering feedback."

So, while he has history with the franchise, Singer wasn’t involved in the planning or preparation for this particular Call of Duty game. I figured he might be a relatively neutral party.

Singer was able to squeeze me in for a conversation after spending the morning with a group of one-star Marine Corps generals in Quantico, Virginia. I cut to the chase and asked him if the team at Infinity Ward had simply gone too far this time.

Maybe not, Singer said.

"One of the changes that has played out in how our military is looking at the future, and how it is starting to change its training and equipping, is to move towards preparing for multi-domain war," Singer said. "The idea is, that if you look beyond just the last 15 years after the 9/11 attacks, you can see that for multiple generations essentially we've fought on the land and been supported by forces in the air.

The player view from the cockpit of a Jackal, an "aerospace fighter" capable of atmospheric and space combat. It achieves orbit via a pair of disposable rocket pods.
Infinity Ward/Activision

"But what about our navy? The last time that the U.S. Navy fought a peer at sea was 70 years ago, during WWII. And the Air Force? The last time it fought against a peer it wasn't even called the Air Force. It was called the Army Air Corps, and that was back in WWII as well. What today’s military is preparing for is this idea that if there was a battle with Russia or China, or even other actors, you would again see battles not just on the land but also in these other domains for the first time in generations.

Vote on the future of war

One of the main characters in Infinite Warfare is named Ethan, an autonomous robot that fights alongside the main character. This year, American voters will decide who determines whether devices like Ethan can be fielded by the U.S. military.

"The next president will make a crucial decision about the future of intelligent robots," Singer said during our interview. "There is actually a policy right now that directs what the U.S. military can and can't research and deploy.

"That policy has an expiration date ... during the first year of the next president's term, so either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will need to decide what the U.S. policy on killer robots will be in the very first year of their term."

"Forces would be looking for control in the air and the sea, but ... you would also see fighting in two domains that militaries have never fought in before, either because they couldn't reach them or they didn't exist."

One of those domains, Singer said, was cyberspace. In fact, as if to punctuate the urgency of our conversation, while we were on the phone news broke that Russia had been officially implicated in the hacks of the Democratic National Committee. We were witnessing a kind of cyberwarfare in real time as we talked.

But the internet, Singer said, will be only one new battleground in the future of war. He's certain that the other will be outer space.

"The reason is, what we do in those domains are critical to everything back here on Earth," he said. "So if you’re thinking about cyberspace, most of the modern economy, communications, but also military — their command and control — runs through that. In fact, 98 percent of U.S. military communication goes through civilian owned and operated internet. It’s the same thing when you think about outer space."

Singer pointed out that the U.S., China and Russia have all developed anti-satellite weapons programs that range from terrestrial missiles to "co-orbital killers," Kamikaze-style vehicles designed to ram and destroy satellites. There’s no reason to think that space-based targets would be limited to military-owned infrastructure. Civilian communications and other assets would be natural targets as well.

In space, it would be all-out war.

"Today there are over 1,100 active satellites up there circling the globe, and we use them for everything from beaming TV shows to GPS," Singer said. "And not just for our cars, but to allow military missiles to direct themselves. So the point is, we're highly dependent on assets that we have up in space and our adversaries know that.

"The battles that would take place in space could absolutely determine the winner of battles back here on Earth. Much like, if you go back in history, the battles in the air determined the winners of battles in WWII. It’s the same thing."

Marines from the Retribution prepare for combat. Their commander, Sgt. Omar, is a British national.
Infinity Ward/Activision

But in the far future, would our Navy have a fleet of space battleships? That’s just nonsense, right?

"I can't really judge," Singer said. "It was Arthur C. Clarke who said that, ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ It's the same thing when you see some of these Silicon Valley people talking about what the world is going to look like in 2060. Who’s to say?

"Roll the clock back for a minute. Go back 30 or 40 years, and how do you predict what the economy is going to look like when you've never even heard of the internet. Now, go back to 1975 and ask them to project the geopolitics of the world today. No one back in 1976, just after the U.S. has been kicked out of Vietnam, [is] going to go, ‘Well, yes that's the place that’s going to be the most enthusiastic about capitalism.’ Just today the USS John McCain visited Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam. In 1976 no one would say that, ‘Oh yeah. Totally. A U.S. warship named after a prisoner of war will be visiting his old enemy.’"

I was a little bit floored after our conversation. Maybe Infinity Ward was on the right track here, and maybe it was just me — and a good portion of the fans of the Call of Duty franchise — who had lost touch.

Forces of the Settlement Defense Front.
Infinity Ward/Activision

General quarters

After talking with Singer, I suddenly realized that my initial, negative reaction to the setting of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare was merely a symptom of my ignorance.

In the future, war might very well feel like the fever dreams of a science fiction author.

But for all its vision, the Call of Duty franchise is unique among games. For such a young medium, CoD is as traditional as it gets. It’s become synonymous with the first-person shooter genre as a whole. Causing this kind of shock in its audience is a risky move. So I began to wonder what the team at Infinity Ward was doing to tether its game in a reality that players could connect with and understand.

To find out, I talked with Taylor Kurosaki. After 12 years at Naughty Dog where he spent time on the Uncharted series, he knows a thing or two about crafting a good story. He’s spent the past two-and-a-half years as the narrative lead on Infinite Warfare.

Most wars in the past, Kurosaki told me, have been fought over the control of resources like farmland or oil. There’s no reason that future conflicts would be any different. They’d just be fought over different kinds of resources.

"We’re running out of things like rare earth metals," Kurosaki said, "like tin and copper. Even helium. Some places are running out of fresh water. Some say that we’ve reached ‘peak oil’ and things like that. So, if we are to sustain life as we know it on Earth we’ve gotta figure out alternative energy sources."

In his research for the game, Kurosaki came across the work of Peter Diamandis, the founder and chairman of the XPrize Foundation, and his book titled Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World.

"It didn't take much of a leap when we read the chairman of the XPrize Foundation predicting that the first trillionaire on planet Earth will be the first person who can successfully mine an asteroid and bring its resources back to us," Kurosaki said. "And where there are resources there is money. Where there is money there is conflict. Where there is conflict, often times unfortunately, that conflict is settled by force of arms. That was really our jumping off point for this whole thing."

Kurosaki invented a future (Infinite Warfare doesn’t mention a specific year) where humanity has become a multi-planet species. In his vision, the evolution from mining asteroids to colonizing other planets is a natural step to support a new labor force. Those colonies would also fulfill the role of helping relieve some pressure on Earth’s own population.

"The goal of having permanent settlements on Mars, etcetera was to recreate a frontier-like mindset where you can choose to go to these distant places, probably to do some difficult work, but be paid well for it with the promise of a better future," Kurosaki said. "Now, what happens to that frontier ethos — to that promise of a new world, of a better world, of a better future for people — what happens to that when some bad actors start to assert their dominance?"

The organization that begins to dominate the universe of Infinite Warfare is called the Settlement Defense Front.

"They have access to all these resources because they are sitting right on top of them and they're using a lot of the wealth they are gaining through trade with Earth, through supplying these minerals and these sources or fuel and energy to us. But they're using that money to build an army, and to build a war machine."

This is an early concept art image of the aerospacecraft carrier SWC-141 Retribution, which is the last carrier left to defend Earth from the Settlement Defense Front. In Infinite Warfare it’s outnumbered, outgunned and almost entirely alone.
Infinity Ward/Activision

See the world

In Infinite Warfare, Earth’s military fights under a single, unified force called the Solar Associated Treaty Organization, or SATO for short. Kurosaki says it’s almost a carbon copy of the modern U.S. Navy, teleported into space.

"We’ve built SATO around observing the way our armed forces are organized and arranged," Kurosaki said. "We have a fleet that is made up of carriers and destroyers and frigates." Just as in a modern navy, he said, space-based battleships and other, smaller vessels provide protection and support for their carrier which boasts an arsenal of deadly attack planes — the spaceflight capable equivalent of the F/A-18 Hornet, called the Jackal.

To figure out how the U.S. Navy works together as a fighting force at the fleet level, Kurosaki and his team spent lots of time doing research and conducting interviews. They were even granted permission to go aboard the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, CVN-71, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier commissioned in 1980.

"What I found very interesting when I started out at Infinity Ward is the level of partnership and collaboration that we have with the military," Kurosaki said. "I have met over the course of this project three admirals. I have worked very closely with a naval bridge officer consultant throughout the project, have worked with two ex-Navy SEALs and have spent the night on an aircraft carrier.... The admiral of the fleet we worked with, her office is aboard the Roosevelt.

"There's a squad of ships, and then there's a fleet of ships and they move and they coordinate and they need the different abilities of each to become something greater than the sum parts of their whole."

But in Infinite Warfare, SATO’s space fleet has largely been built to protect stellar trade routes from piracy and to keep the peace at home. It simply isn’t ready when the Settlement Defense Front launches an attack.

The results, Kurosaki said, are devastating.

SATO’s mighty fleets are all but obliterated. The last carrier ship, called the Retribution, becomes a lifeboat for 763 surviving sailors, soldiers, marines and airmen.

Infinity Ward/Activision
ETH.3n, better known as Ethan, is an autonomous robot custom built for infantry combat.

Repel boarders

The use of the U.S. special forces has grown by leaps and bounds over the past 30 years. Take the SEALs, which spent much of their adolescence fighting on and underneath the water. Memoirs like Chris Kyle’s American Sniper and the recent book by Sean Naylor, Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command, paint the picture of a modern SEAL as an elite front-line shock troop that is just as comfortable parachuting into harms’ way in the dead of night as they are fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with enlisted grunts or multinational forces.

In short, modern SEALs are nothing like the lightly armed "frogmen" common at the unit’s formation in 1962. They’re heavily armed, highly trained warrior athletes with diverse, interdependent skillsets.

For Infinite Warfare, Kurosaki and his team had to consider the next evolution of the special forces warfighter. Their answer was SCAR — Special Combat Air and Recon. These soldiers are the best of the best of the best, equally comfortable on the ground fighting hand-to-hand and with small arms as they are at the controls of a spaceplane.

"We talked to Top Gun, naval pilots," Kurosaki said, "and we asked them what the future of their sort of profession looks like and they kind of smile and they point up. But, they're not pointing at the sky. They're pointing beyond the sky to the reaches of space. We've heard that time and time again, and so we were bolstered by their predictions for what the future may hold.

"We also talked to Navy SEALs, and we thought it would be incredibly interesting if for our game, for our universe, if we ended up creating effectively a new class of soldier; someone who was equally adept at being in a cockpit of an aerospace fighter as they were fighting like a Tier 1 commando or like a Navy SEAL."

In the fiction of Infinite Warfare, SCAR troopers are fully capable of a frontal assault on an enemy carrier. With their Jackals, loosely based on the modern F-22, they can break through the outer ring of enemy fighters. Once in position, they pop the hatch and clamour onto the enemy ship.

Their ultimate goal, just like modern SEALs taking down an enemy vessel, is to capture the bridge and disable the ship. But how would future soldiers move and fight in zero-gravity? Kurosaki and his team asked the people who would know best.

"We spoke to our Navy SEAL consultants and we asked, ‘OK, if you're going to be in combat in zero-G what would you need most? What would to be the first thing you would require?’ They all said, ‘We would need a means of getting to cover quickly.’"

That’s how Infinite Warfare’s grapple was born.

"That was very interesting for us," Kurosaki said, "because zero-G combat is a thing we were interested in exploring, but gameplay-wise it's a difficult thing. In Infinity Ward's previous title, Call of Duty: Ghosts, there was a little bit of zero-G combat that took place in lower orbit near a satellite. But we wanted it to feel more tactical than that.

"Between that desire and the need to get to cover quickly, those two things combined is where we came up with the idea of a grapple — a method to identify a bit of cover and very quickly move to it through zero-G faster than you would be able to utilize thrusters on your pack."

But smaller tweaks were made as well to the way that modern troops fight in close quarters. Breaching and clearing rooms using the slow-motion mechanics of previous titles in the Call of Duty series simply wouldn’t cut it.

"Our consultants said, ‘Yeah, we don't do that anymore,’" Kurosaki said. "They’re very methodical about the way that they go into new spaces and use geometry to cover all of the angles of the room they’re moving into.

"You have multiple guys working in unison, working as a team. One is on the door and the others are covering him and covering all the various angles of the room as the door opens up. So you open the door just a tiny little bit and now you can kind of peek in and you can see a certain angle in that room. Meanwhile, there's a guy looking the opposite way looking through the door hinge and covering those angles.

"They told us this is a much saner, safer way to enter into these new spaces and it actually inspired one of our designers to prototype and come up with a new mechanic that we are using in our game. We call it ‘door peek’ internally."

The air boss, in charge of all the combat aircraft aboard the Retribution, looks on from his cupola, called the Flight Control Nest, just above the flight deck. The large craft on the right side of the frame is a Raven dropship. Along the left sit a row of Jackal fighters.
Infinity Ward/Activision

Foundation’s edge

By the end of our conversation, it felt like Kurosaki had done a bang up job of selling me on the idea of Infinite Warfare. I could see all the threads he was drawing from, and I was impressed with just how far down the futuristic rabbit hole he’d gone.

But I remembered how Singer had rightly pointed out that the U.S. Navy hasn’t fought a peer at sea since my grandfather was a teenager. How do we even know that the idea of a modern navy makes sense? It’s still fundamentally built the same way today as it was then, and the concept of a carrier today is functionally the same as the concept of a carrier 70 years ago. Who’s to say that they’ll be relevant when that concept is ported into space?

Maybe there will be a new kind of military asset, or a new type weapon system that will completely change how wars are fought on the ground and in space. Maybe first-person shooter fans just aren’t the right audience to share that future with. Not yet at least.

I’m reminded of something that Peter W. Singer said just before we got off the phone.

"Vietnam was just 40 years ago. Any further than that, and you're talking about multiple generations of technology," Singer said. "You've got examples of standing questions, like ‘Are aircraft carriers even viable in naval combat any longer?’ Big navy people would say, ‘Most definitely, and they will definitely continue to be.’

The flight deck of the Retribution is a meeting place for support personnel, marines and the elite SCAR troopers — Tier 1 operators with a diverse skillset. Aircraft use a system of airlocks and launch tubes to take off, and return on platforms lining the top of the carrier.
Infinity Ward/Activision

"But you've got this new generation of technology out there. China has surveillance satellites that allow them to track our fleets, and that makes an aircraft carrier much more vulnerable. But extrapolating that out and predicating space battleships? And is it going to be these massive craft, or lots of small ones? That's really hard to project."

Sometimes fictional representations, no matter how futuristic they want to be, can be too grounded to truly represent the exponential pace of change.

"I use the example of the most recent Star Wars movie. In that timeline, between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens it's 30 years of time. And yet, pretty much everything is the same. There’s slightly better X-Wings, the Death Star is now the size of a planet. But the robots are pretty much the same. Isn’t that odd?

"BB-8 isn’t much better than R2-D2, and arguably worse and more annoying. Han Solo is carrying the same blaster he shot first with. And yet, look at our world and how much has changed over the last 30 years."

Maybe, instead of going way out on a limb with space planes and combat astronauts, Infinity Ward has actually been showing some restraint in Infinite Warfare. Perhaps Kurosaki and his team have had to spend time reining in the true future of warfare so that this game can actually make sense to a modern audience. Otherwise the shock might simply be too much to bear. Babykayak