Is the Call of Duty franchise a tired series that is in serious need of a few seasons off, followed by a reboot? Or is it a reliable good time, each year being just different enough to warrant our attention but never straying far enough from the formula to seriously alienate its fans? Of course, the answer is yes to both, and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare is perfect evidence.
Infinite Warfare's big hook is a single player campaign that moves into space, to boldly go where dozens of other shooters have gone before. You play as United Nation Space Alliance pilot Reyes, a gung-ho flying ace that finds himself unexpectedly in command of a starship, the Retribution, which becomes a hub area for the game. The overarching conflict this time around is between the UNSA and a Mars-based terrorist group, whose unhinged methodology lies somewhere between ISIS and Robin Hood. Voiced by Game of Thrones' Kit Harrigton and a cast of very able actors, the script is unsurprisingly heavy on good-evil stereotypes but not poorly written or performed. There's even a bit of humor in the form of Reyes's mechanical companion, Ethan (E3N).
The six hour single player campaign includes a critical path and quite a few optional side missions that unlock various weapons and upgrades, but taken as a whole its pacing is wildly uneven. Veering from breathless, cinematic set pieces to frustrating space warfare to plodding downtime on board the Retribution, Infinite Warfare's campaign could learn a thing or two from Titanfall 2 or Gears of War.
Space combat plays a large role in the game, with Infinite Warfare obviously going for a Star Wars vibe as small fighters swoop around lumbering capital ships, looking for their vulnerable spots. It's a shame that piloting the ships isn't more intuitive, precise or fun. In fact, it can be downright frustrating and disorienting.
Planetside missions fare better, though the campaign is stingy about handing out effective weapons and the first couple of hours are pretty mundane. It gets better, though, and firefights eventually become pretty rewarding in the usual Call of Duty way. And while some stealth elements sneak into the playlist, in general the campaign doesn't stray far from battles in space or battles on the ground.
Players who re-up every year for Call of Duty's multiplayer modes won't be disappointed, though they may notice less vertical mobility and a slightly slower speed than in Black Ops 3. Otherwise, all the trappings of CoD are there and won't require much adjustment for veteran players. As always, the maps play a huge role in shaping the pace and tactical opportunities in both deathmatch and team-based modes, and while the assortment of maps are visually somewhat underwhelming, the folks at Infinity Ward consistently create interesting spaces in which to play.
Then, there's Zombies in Spaceland, Infinite Warfare's contribution to the fan-favorite Zombie mode. For many players, the Zombie mode is worth the price of admission, and this year's iteration might be the best so far. Set in an abandoned theme park, Zombies in Spaceland is silly, engaging full of strangeness, and a lot of fun for four players.
Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare does little to really push the series forward in a meaningful way, beyond the addition of space combat. Although well written and acted, its story is still too binary and lacks the subtlety of real-life geopolitical conflict. Amazing, its short campaign can feel too long in places, and its stop-and-start pace suffers in comparison to its shooter peers. Multiplayer and Zombie modes fare better, and for many players, that will be good enough.