Infinity Ward delivers an emotional tour de force that fails to make the most of its unique setting.
Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare is a tough game to evaluate. As a reviewer, I am obligated to be objective. I need to distance myself from the experience and tell you about all of its faults and assets, what makes it soar and, at times, a bore. I should compare it to its predecessors and to its competition, which is unbelievably fierce this year.
I need to tell you that in pure game design terms, it largely squanders the potential that its futuristic, space-faring setting brings to the table. This is still the same boots-on-the-ground, shooting gallery experience the franchise is known for, for better and for worse. The shooting is as polished as ever, but lacks the blisteringly fast dynamism of Titanfall 2, and its levels make little to no use of mechanics like wall-running and boosting. Zero gravity sections add a welcome bit of verticality to combat, but drag down the pace, and aerial dogfights are a riotous but repetitive spectacle that stubbornly refuse to evolve or introduce any new ideas throughout the campaign's duration.
To complete the checklist approach, I should mention that the game is a bit more open in structure than before, allowing players to accept side missions and interact with NPCs from the ship that their protagonist, Nick Reyes, commands. Some of these missions are among the most creative in the game, but mostly they're some busy work to pad out the game's runtime and give you some gear upgrades to work towards. They don't take long, and the campaign still tops out at about 5-7 hours. I should pay lip service to the fact that the game has a unique approach to a hard-as-nails difficulty option, its unlockable "Specialist" mode replacing regenerating health with limb-specific damage and the need to swap out damaged helmets lest you die to a single headshot.
This is all the stuff that I needed to mention. That I felt obligated to, in order for this review to feel "complete." The nuts and bolts of the game, the cold mechanics, the negatives...
What I want to tell you is how this game made me feel.
Infinite Warfare made me cry. It made me think about the realities of warfare and what it means to be a soldier in a new light. It made me muse over my friends that have joined the military and become part of something bigger than their own hopes and dreams. It made me want to be a better human being.
At its core, this is a story about people. The greater war presented is irrelevant, but the threat that the game's adversaries pose is enough to keep the ball rolling. It's the people you meet that make you care, the brave men and women that you live with for the game's duration. That's a cliched turn of phrase, isn't it? "Brave men and women," I mean. But as the campaign marches on you bear witness to and become a part of such acts of bravery and selflessness that cliche crumbles and gives way to timelessness. The characters in Infinite Warfare are real people, brought to life with exceptional writing, acting, and the careful guiding hand of lead talent that previously worked at Naughty Dog on the Uncharted series and The Last of Us. They have history and flaws and distinct senses of humor.
I cared far more than I ever expected to with the latest entry in a franchise that many consider to be the zenith of "soulless AAA" design, but it's the banter, the subtleties in expression, the delicate way that characters reveal hidden parts of themselves.... It's the sheer, unflinching brutality with which Infinity Ward operates as it dissects what it means to be a soldier. This is a hard game to stomach, making sure you care deeply about everything before it gets on with gutting you. Alongside The Last of Us, this is one of the heaviest and saddest games I have ever played, but it's all the more memorable for it. It's never cheap or exploitative; quite the contrary, Infinite Warfare never feels anything less than honest.
Warmth. There's a term I never thought I would pull out when discussing a Call of Duty game, but Infinite Warfare's greatest strength is its real, human warmth. It may strut around like a AAA blockbuster, playing it safe with tried-and-true mechanics and presenting itself with an almost cocky sense of polish. But dig past the surface, cut through the veneer even a little, and you'll see an endearingly earnest tale of what human beings can achieve when they work together in the service of a shared dream. This is the story of us, or at least what we could be given the right drive and circumstances. It's a story of our hubris and our potential, and it's never anything less than honest and well-intended.
So now I'm left with the most cumbersome task a reviewer can face: assigning a score to a game as brilliantly flawed as this one. It's a game that can be all too safe, almost boring, in its design. It's also a game that, when taken as a narrative experience, can be life affirming and achingly beautiful. I'll be thinking about Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare's characters and their fates for years to come. It's time to slap on a number, but regardless of the meaning you assign to it or your feelings about the franchise in general, know this:
If you enjoy narrative driven games, I cannot recommend Infinite Warfare highly enough.