2016 was a good year for first-person shooters, but a great year for single-player shooter campaigns. First, Doom, Gears of War 4, Battlefield 1, and Titanfall 2 all had single-player campaigns, which is a victory in itself for an industry that would prefer to go all multiplayer all the time (screw you Overwatch). Second, all those campaigns were good, and some were even great! However, the biggest surprise of all was that the best shooter campaign came from the game I had the lowest expectations for: Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare.
This is, of course, opinion, but I think Infinite Warfare had the best balance of innovation, emotion, and action.
Doom had a story that was better than it had any right to be and action that never got old, but I found the levels and environments to be repetitive. I can only run down a red-tinted hallway so many times.
Titanfall 2 was easily the most fun game of the batch with a campaign that emphasized creative gameplay and awesome spectacle, but the story was lacking. I don’t mind a thin narrative, but Titanfall 2 committed the egregious sin of not actually ending. The main antagonist gets away, the central conflict isn’t resolved, and the whole story feels like a setup for a sequel.
The same goes for Gears of War 4, which did a good job revitalizing the series with a likable new cast, but it too felt more like a setup than a story. I hate eight- to 10-hour prologues.
Battlefield 1 smartly split its campaign into several short stories. This allowed the narrative to hop around the world and show the experience of The Great War from multiple perspectives without getting all Forest Gump about it, forcing a single character to somehow be everywhere at once. However, it relied too much on the real tragedy of war for its emotional beats: It’s sad when a character dies not because we know them as a character but because they died in a fucked up war. It would feel cheap if the sentimentality weren’t so effective.
Then there’s Infinite Warfare, a visually striking, smartly structured, well-paced adventure packed with distinctive and likable characters that also has a solid and definitive ending.
From the first moment you take control, you’re faced with a stunning picture of planetary scale: You’re standing on a flat ice sheet with a clear view of the horizon, roiling clouds to your left, and a gigantic planet to you right that completely engulfs your view if your turn towards it. The size is already impressive, but then you’ll see a tiny moon between you and the planet. The moon is important because it acts as a measure of distance: We assume the planet looks huge because we’re so close to it, but then we see the moon and realize we’re not actually that close. It’s just that damn big.
Then there’s the mission that takes place on an asteroid spinning dangerously close to the sun. If you go out on the surface when it’s facing the sun you’ll be burned alive, so you have to time your surface excursions with the spinning so that you only go out when you’re in the dark. This results in a fascinating visual of the universe spinning around you since you’re standing static on the surface of the rock. The game knows how to use the scale of space to inspire spectacle.
The humanmade structures inspire similar awe: Giant capital ships, mining refineries, and space elevators that never seem to end. In the same way that previous Call of Duty games have delighted in the destruction of national monuments, Infinite Warfare delights in the destruction of these sci-fi monuments, and it inspires a similar kind of sadness: Signs of human progress wiped out by war. It’s poignant, but not hokey. Blowing up the Eiffel Tower was a little on the nose, but because a space elevator is a less well-known symbol its destruction doesn’t feel forced or obvious.
The story earns its emotional moments with solid character development, imbuing those explosive action scenes with some genuine pathos.
After each mission, you’ll return to the bridge of your ship to plan your next move. This hub area becomes a kind of sanctuary over the course of the game. You return to it often, and it comes to feel like a place of safety. You can’t talk to the crew (unfortunately), but you can go to your computer and listen to recorded conversations. It’s awkward, yes, (when exactly did these conversations take place?) but the dialogue is natural, the acting is good, and each audio clip will make you like your crew a little more.
The hub also works to bond you with your crew even if you never listen to a single audio tape. It’s an insidiously clever kind of character development: Every time you pick a mission from the bridge you have to walk to an elevator, ride it down to the armory, equip yourself, and then leave for the hanger bay. This quickly becomes a ritual, and the people you see along the way become familiar faces. That familiarity creates a bond even if you ignore the conversations on your computer. You will come to know these people, if you don’t become friends you’ll at least become acquaintances, and that’s still better than a faceless soldier.
Infinite Warfare even makes some impressive gameplay innovations. There’s a surprising amount of space combat in the game, and that space combat is unusually good. The game does a great job expressing a sense of chaos and speed and disorientation, while still providing us with a very conformable sense of control.
How it works: You can fly around the 3D space just like you can in any other space combat game, but when you lock on to an enemy that also locks you into their flight trajectory. Where they go, you automatically follow. We still have a little bit control; we can veer left, right, up, or down to avoid obstacles — 3D space flight is simplified down to 2D controls. That allows the game to have some cool dogfight chases, with you swerving between asteroids and debris, while not actually requiring us to be good enough to pull off those maneuvers. We’re just there to finesse the movement, which makes us feel participatory in the action without being overwhelmed by it.
On a personal note, one thing that always bugged me about 3D space combat games is how they rarely seem to take the mechanics of momentum into account. By that I mean you don’t often get to move and shoot in different directions. It’s easier to accomplish in 2D games like Galak-Z, hell 2D games have been doing it since Asteroids — the ability to thrust forwards and then spin the ship around while still moving in that original direction. Most 3D space combat games only let us shoot forwards, where we’re flying as if we were on an airplane.
Infinite Warfare gets around this by making the ship controls the same as the on-foot controls. Flying feels like a typical FPS controls, with a couple added buttons for the Z-axis. This means you can stop and spin and fly backward whenever you want. It may not be true to physics, but it’s a control scheme that recognizes space combat as something different from air combat.
And then the game ends with an actual, satisfying, ending. While the war between Earth and Mars is still ongoing, the journey for these characters is over. We were never following the war itself, we were following them, so their ending is our ending. There’s a door open for a sequel, naturally, but that will have to be a new story, not just a continuation of this story. That means a new cast, a new antagonist, and a new mission. In this day and age of franchise building, making a stand-alone game is downright radical.
In a sea of great games, Infinite Warfare stands out as the game that took the most risks. No, really. It broke from an established series aesthetic (modern military); it combined different genres of action (FPS and space combat) while getting both right; it slowed its pacing to let us get to know supporting characters; and most importantly, it ended—it didn’t try to force-feed the audience a new franchise.
I still very much enjoyed Doom, Gears of War 4, Battlefield 1, and Titanfall 2, but Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare defied the odds and came on on top of the all.