E3 2016: Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare and Telling a Modern (Future) War Story

Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare has ambitious plans for its story, even if the gameplay demonstrations aren't showing it yet.

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Call of Duty has its roots in stories about war, but in recent years it has slowly drifted from that central theme. The last few installments have been just as much about espionage, political intrigue, and an increasingly convoluted cast of criss-crossing characters. Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare is setting itself in the distant future for a level of abstraction, but to hear Infinity Ward talk about it, they're attempting to get back to those roots of a strong war story. The studio is saying all the right things, but so far we haven't seen their ambitious goals bear themselves out in gameplay demonstrations.

That may be a simple matter of time. The gameplay itself has been limited to a selected portion of a stage, while the story's focus is centered on the passage of time. In a private session, the studio explained that this is meant to be a classic good versus evil war story, focusing on the maturation of your player character as he takes on the onus of responsibility and shifts his own priorities.

To frame this concept, it invoked the names of famous war films from the past several years, and the different messages and philosophies of war they represented. Black Hawk Down, they said, represented the idea that you watch over your brothers in arms and leave no man behind. Saving Private Ryan represented just the opposite, that the mantle of command means you prioritize the mission over the lives of your men and even yourself. 

Infinite Warfare, then, is about one serviceman's transition from one philosophy to the other. Your character, Lieutenant Reyes, is thrust by circumstance into the captain's seat with his own command of thousands. Given Infinity Ward's examples, it's easy to see how the story will likely ultimately play out: Reyes will be forced to give up the lives of his crew, or his own, for some larger purpose. It's not an especially inventive story, but it has the potential to be striking as told over the course of an 8-10 hour campaign.

That said, the gameplay we've seen so far has been very much the same Call of Duty action we've come to expect, with very little time for thoughtful reflection. In a private demo, we saw the initial attack that kicks off the war spectacle, taking place during the future's version of Fleet Week. The enemy targeted the U.N.'s fleet when they would be densely packed and assured heavy casualties, leading to Reyes taking the command. 

As a hands-off game demo, though, it was well-paced and had the polished Call of Duty sheen. The quiet, rain-soaked streets of Geneva looked fantastic, and the large setpieces hit with all the explosive impact one would expect. To my surprise, the piloted segment appeared to be less on-rails than I had expected. It seems Call of Duty's push to the future is more complete than I'd given them credit for at first glance. That doesn't change the core gunplay, though, which seemed largely unchanged--aside from the ability to remotely hack certain robotic enemies.

It will remain to be seen whether Call of Duty's increasingly sci-fi focus retains its dominance in the market over Battlefield, which is going very much in the opposite direction this year by visiting a further point in the past. And as a series that is so lauded for its multiplayer, with a significant portion who don't even finish the single-player campaign, the story isn't really the most influential factor in its success. But Infinity Ward clearly cares, and that's a start. I'm holding out hope that their passion is reflected in the game itself.


This Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare preview was based on a pre-release hands-off demo of the game at an event where food was provided by Activision.

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