Set in the future where space colonization has become a necessity after Earth’s natural resources have been depleted, a group of militant colonists called the Settlement Defense Front (SDF) have rebelled against Earth rule and started to form their own independent civilization across the solar system. The game opens with an infiltration of a secret research facility on Europa, Jupiter’s icy moon, that’s intercepted by the SDF, led by Rear Admiral Salen Kotch, played by Kit Harington. Kotch opens your helmet’s visor and gives the execution order for your squad mates with a cryptic declaration: “This place isn’t yours anymore.” Their heads are stomped into a bloody pulp by the SDF’s robotic soldiers as you hear the sounds of your asphyxiation. With your last breath you watch as another SDF henchmen, played in a surreal cameo by UFC featherweight champion Conor McGregor, punches your face until your body finally gives way.
As with other games in the series, these death scenes work as justification for righteous vengeance. “Infinite Warfare’s” version centers on Nick Reyes, a young lieutenant who’s promoted to captain of his own starship after the previous captain is killed in an SDF attack. The remainder of the game has you choosing bog-standard side missions and story missions from a holographic map of the solar system as you attempt to prepare for a counteroffensive against the SDF’s base on Mars.
It’s here that the game’s long-running traditions begin to feel like a limitation. “Infinite Warfare” is arguably the most imaginative and wide-ranging game in the series, and yet every new idea it tries feels hamstrung by the conventions that have made the series so successful. There are a few interludes of space dogfights, but these feel strangely similar to on-foot levels, but with fighter ships that can come to a full halt and hover before zipping off again to chase a new enemy vessel.
After finishing the game’s story mode once, which will net you two additional first-person death scenes, a new “Specialist” difficulty mode becomes available, limiting player movement based on specific limb damage and sending players scavenging for a limited number of Nano Shots to heal damage. What seems like a promising complication of the series’ predictable hero fantasies eventually feels incompatible with the cramped corridors and high enemy numbers more suited to sprinting and shooting.
The game’s righteous, split-second violence is most at home in the multiplayer modes, where the pretense of character and plot are stripped away. Earlier games simply threw you into a series of menus to pick game types, loadouts, and upgrade paths, but “Infinite Warfare’s” multiplayer is framed as a Freudian melodrama guided by a paternalistic commanding officer whose approval you win by getting kills, winning matches, and completing meta challenges. There’s the suggestion of a new idea here, an armed father figure firmly pushing players into repetitive play sessions in hopes of earning better weaponry, but the game never builds upon this character dynamic and instead seems to forget about it after a few hours.
The final piece, a complete non-sequitur called “Zombies in Spaceland,” has players surviving waves of zombie attackers in a kitschy 1980s theme park while Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Europe play in the background. The push-pull dynamics of attacking, defending, saving money, and spending it on new weapons or to unlock other areas of the theme park subverts the fantasy of individual heroics by forcing players to grind though dozens of deaths to learn the park’s layout, and build experience with methods of using or preserving resources. Death becomes an instructive currency through which progress can be measured separate from any individual life.
There’s a telling tension in these near-opposite conceptions of death in “Infinite Warfare,” something that captures the series’ growing incoherence over the years. The story mode couldn’t exist without the emotional righteousness of great heroes martyring themselves, and the game’s multiplayer modes, the massive and loyal players on which Activision depends for its annual windfalls, wouldn’t work if death was anything other than a few seconds of inconvenience.
The kind of heroic martyr stories “Infinite Warfare” trucks in can be described as “propaganda of the deed.” In “Why Marxists Oppose Individual Terrorism,” Leon Trotsky warned against the heroic fallacy of individual violence as a fantasy that distracted from collective organization from which real historical change derived: “Why meetings, mass agitation and elections if one can so easily take aim at the ministerial bench from the gallery of parliament?” In the same way, “Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare” feels like a game at war with itself. Playing it year after year, it’s hard to tell whether the series’ creative contradictions are a sign of progress or implosion. It’s a game for a culture that wants both at the same time.
Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Slate, the New Republic, the Daily Beast, the New Inquiry, Kill Screen, Edge and Gamasutra. Follow him on Twitter @mike_thomsen.
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