If any insecurity lurks beneath the steely surfaces of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, the gallons of gloss that publisher Activision has poured over the series since its inception do much to mask it. The faces attached to the dozen-or-so uniforms that make up the game's core cast rarely display anything other than serene jingoism – honor, loyalty, dedication to the mission – even as the impending space apocalypse thunders around them. But while it might just be another day in the office for these fictional comrades, Activision and the small army of studios that produce gaming's thickest annual tentpole ought to pay attention to the racket outside their own windows: it's the sound of the rest of video gaming thundering past them, perhaps at light speed.
Perhaps we should give the CoD cartel credit for at least attempting to shift the ocean liner just a few degrees: on paper, this is the most audacious entry in the series in years. After completing two popular trilogies and politely knocking on sci-fi's door with two separate versions of the "near-future," Activision decided – in true CoD fashion – to kick it in. Yes, by any definition, Infinite Warfare is Call of Duty in space, complete with warp drives and a wisecracking robot sidekick. It only takes a couple of sluggish stop-and-pop gunfights through spaceship corridors to discover that the only discernible difference between Infinite Warfare and 2007's landmark Modern Warfare is that the AK-47 fires lasers instead of bullets.
The shift from the familiar militarized milieu to a pseudo-space opera – dub it Saving Private Spock – remains one of the game's more baffling blunders. Characters still speak in the same babbling soldier-ese as they did in Modern Warfare, all Oscar Mikes and Semper Fi's, and the familiar strained rivalry between the various branches of armed forces continues to go on strong, despite the implication that the characters belong to a fictional Starfleet-esque organization. The villains are therefore not the expected xenophobic caricature born of American fear that marked previous incarnations, but a vaguely-sketched regime/terrorist organization/Empire stand-in that might as well raise their arms chest-high and hail Space Hitler. Unfortunately, Space Hitler was presumably deemed too controversial by playtesters, and instead we get the perpetually-grimacing Simon Kotch, played by actor Kit Harington, best-known for not dying on that TV show where everyone dies. As for Harington's performance, let's just say it's roughly on the level that the character deserves.
That said, the writing is a step up. Our two dependable leads, player character Nick Reyes and ace pilot Nora Salter, certainly don't live up to the rather inexplicable The Thin Man – a 1934 detective noir based on a Dashiell Hammett novel – reference that provides their namesakes, but the congeniality and mutual respect that underlies their relationship is believable throughout. Though the "wisecracking robot" trope is tired even by the generous standards of video games, E3N ("Ethan") provides some much-needed levity to the proceedings, though he can't hold a candle to Knights of the Old Republic's HK-47. And while Infinite Warfare can't quite escape the series's trademark penchant for spiraling off into senseless explosions and ever-escalating set-pieces in the back half, the care that it gives to its characters at least grants some emotional heft to the entire solar system detonating before your very eyes.
The evil admiral might be a piece of cardboard with stubble glued to it, and the setting an ill-advised mish-mash of genres, but the real problem with Call of Duty in space isn't the space – it's the foundation itself, rusting underneath years of stress. All the aspects of the game that display even a flash of creativity couldn't exist without the space setting. The flaccid turret and vehicle sections that once marked the trough of the CoD rollercoaster are replaced entirely with aerial dogfights in Reyes's "Jackal," an aerial fighter-jet that plays like a cut-rate Descent. These sequences essentially boil down to the same rote "left-trigger to aim, right-trigger to shoot" as the base combat, and the Jackal itself handles like a buoyant kite, spinning on a dime on any axis, but they're a damn sight better than the interminable helicopter sequences that clog almost every military shooter ever made.
From a raw shooting perspective, the only pieces of the game that leave an impression are the zero gravity gunfights; though Infinite Warfare is far from the only game to attempt the concept, only a few have actually managed to persuasively capture weightlessness, and Infinite is maybe the best so far. Trying to find cover in three dimensions of movement in the void of deep space requires you to rewire your first-person shooter senses, and a grappling hook allows you to use inertia to your advantage. Unfortunately, the ratio of zero-G to linear slog is pitifully low, and most of these sections don't even give you a full minute to fly around before you find your feet planted unhappily on the ground.
Beneath these flourishes, it's the same old CoD. Yes, you sometimes engage robots that disintegrate into nuts and bolts rather than flesh and bone, but they fight almost identically to their meatbag counterparts; the hover-jump and wall-run established by 2014's Advanced Warfare remain, though attempts at fancy footwork or aerial flanking usually result in a faceful of hot laser. Virtually every new element of the gunplay, from a handheld riot shield to a submachine gun that breaks down into two smaller weapons, has a less-lustrous analogue in a previous Call of Duty game. The fact that the combat knife – long a default in every soldier's loadout – is now a perk you have to unlock shows just how drained the series is of unique ideas.
Such is the grand irony of the ludicrously-named Infinite Warfare – the only decisions that breathe fresh life into it are the same that have scared long-time fans of it away. To those devotees, rumors of CoD's radical reinvention have been greatly exaggerated. Not since the likes of 2002's Jason X has taking a well-known franchise into space produced so little tangible change; if anything, it's a testament to how it needs to be altered even further. Yet the fans still revolt, flooding comments sections and storefronts the net over with jibes and boos. And maybe that's the curse of the ocean liner – trying to get all those damn passengers to decide where the destination is.