The first thing you do in Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, the latest in the ultra-popular first-person shooter franchise, is jump out of a plane in the middle of a cloudy sky. As far as these big, bombastic games go, this is pretty par for the course. But things change once you see the ground, because it’s not a war-torn city you’re jumping down into. It’s… ice? You land. A squadmate says, “Surface temp is 300 below.” You look up and see a giant red planet. And then you remember that Europa is the name of Jupiter’s moon. And then you pause, and you think, “This is Call of Duty?” The franchise sure has come a long way in its 13 years, from World War II to modern times to the near future…and now it’s gone to space.
This isn’t out of nowhere, of course. 2012’s Black Ops II was set in the near-future. And after a deviation with the thoroughly unexciting Ghosts, both Advanced Warfare and Black Ops III continued down Black Ops II’s path, setting themselves in the decades to come. The games became increasingly ridiculous, culminating in the absolutely bonkers Black Ops III, which we here described last year as a “really, really dark cartoon.” In that sense, Infinite Warfare feels a little more typical—it’s not cartoonish, it’s a blockbuster like most of its predecessors. Part of that difference comes from the strange way that Call of Duty games get made.
There are now three developers working on the franchise, each releasing games one after another, allowing for annual releases with multiple years of polish from teams that don’t have to be stretched so thin. But though they all share the same underlying technology and have similar content—single player, multiplayer, zombies—each developer brings their own spin and their own vision for the future. This is the first time that Infinity Ward, the original creators of the Call of Duty franchise, have really gone into the future, and that means going to space. Because, really, what is there left for the franchise on earth? Ghosts had a scene that took place on the International Space Station, but even that is at least a real place where people have actually been. At some point, playing through the destruction of either actual cities or approximations of them becomes numbing. So, we go somewhere different like, say, Europa, or our own moon—with our beautiful blue-and-green planet visible in a tense sequence as you frantically jump in zero-gravity trying to reach a base before you run out of oxygen.
If you opt for Infinite Warfare’s “Legacy Edition,” you’ll receive a code for Modern Warfare Remastered. It is exactly what it sounds like: the 2007 classic with all of the gloss of a modern shooter. And going from Infinite Warfare directly into Modern Warfare Remastered is kind of fascinating. It’s been nine years (wow) since Modern Warfare released, and re-experiencing it is really cool. It looks pretty much the way I remember it, which means that I’m definitely thinking back on the game with rose-tinted glasses, but that also means they did a great job with the visual update. And from all that comes this odd feeling that nothing has changed in nine years and also that everything has.
Modern Warfare was a very serious game, and that’s not a bad thing. Early on, you “play” as the president of an African country who is taken by terrorists. You spend the entire sequence unable to move, as you are dragged or driven through a country in turmoil. In the end, you are brought out in public, a gun is put to your face, and the trigger is pulled. A bang. A flash of light. Everything goes black. It set the tone for a different kind of first-person shooter, one that features a sequence through the monitor of an AC-130 gunship, wherein you rain down death onto black-and-white human shapes. It’s the game where an atomic bomb goes off and you slowly crawl around your helicopter crash site until you succumb to your wounds.
These moments defined Modern Warfare’s campaign, and their effects have been felt in every subsequent iteration (and in so many of their competitors). And Infinite Warfare feels them, too. That opening sequence on Europa ends with your death, at the hands of Jon Snow himself, Mr. Kit Harington. Like Advanced Warfare, the latest Call of Duty turned to a recognizable face for its antagonist. Harington’s Admiral Salen Kotch doesn’t play as big a role as Kevin Spacey’s Johnathan Irons, but he appears here and there to berate you and tell you about your inevitable failure and/or demise. Now, as then, it feels a little odd to see a not-quite-right digital incarnation of a familiar face, but it was less distracting here in large part because—finally—the game has lost its self-serious pretensions.
No game in the Call of Duty franchise ever really recaptured the effectiveness of Modern Warfare’s most intense moments. Instead, they’ve just cranked up the dial until it had become self-parody. Unfortunately, the games still thought they were creating drama that would work on the same level. Modern Warfare 2’s infamous “No Russian,” where you gun down an airport full of civilians; Modern Warfare 3’s London bombing sequence, which starred a little girl dancing up to a truck as it explodes; and all of these other sequences tried to tug at your heart strings in a way that ultimately just felt manipulative and sort of disturbing.
There is some intense violence in Infinite Warfare, but barring one or two quick moments, it’s different. When Infinite Warfare tugs at your heartstrings, it’s doing so in the same way a Hollywood blockbuster does: by sending off characters the screenwriter assumes you care about in a blaze of glory. This isn’t a game that wants you to contemplate your actions or consider the horrors of war. It isn’t interested in making you think much at all. Sometimes, that’s a problem. Heck, it’s been a problem in past iterations of Call of Duty.
Here, though, it feels okay. In fact, it’s kind of nice, coming as it does after the problematically violent Black Ops III. It’s refreshing to have a game that just accepts its own silliness. And that’s the best thing to come out of the decision to go into space. By leaving our world, it is able to remove itself from the politics inherent in a typical war game, such as the recently released Battlefield 1, which brought the series all the way back to World War I. The last few Call of Duty games have had sci-fi technology in semi-familiar settings, while this one actually has comparatively down-to-earth tech yet jumps off-world for its narrative. The switch lets Infinite Warfare feel genuinely different.
Throughout the story, I kept coming back to that initial question: “This is Call of Duty?” When I was dogfighting in outer space or looking over a solar system map deciding whether or not to check out some side missions, I would forget what game (and what franchise) I was in. It may look and feel like Call of Duty on a superficial level, but there are moments where it’s closer to something like Destiny than it is to Modern Warfare.
Infinity Ward won’t be making next year’s Call of Duty installment, and so the franchise may well go back to its old ways, working to recapture Modern Warfare’s seriousness while somehow also topping itself in scope and scale. There haven’t been many hints from Sledgehammer Games, whose last title was Advanced Warfare, about what they’ll be doing. But wherever it goes from here, I’ll be thankful that we got this nice little sci-fi reprieve.