Back in 2014 when Activision announced that the Call of Duty franchise would shift to a three year-three studio development cycle, it elicited optimism for the future of Call of Duty in that an added year might allow breathing room for more creative ideas, and less repetition for the annualized series. Sledgehammer’s Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare made a hell of a case for the added development time, being the most exciting installment in years and introducing all-new fundamental mechanics in an all-new timeline; it is still held as one of the best Call of Duty titles to date. Treyarch then followed up with Black Ops 3, and although the more Titanfall-esque slant in their mechanics proved to be divisive, a powerhouse campaign and an all-new hero system in its multiplayer, too, showed that the additional year in development paid off.
Though likely coincidental, one couldn’t help but see the shift a three year development cycle as a direct response to the universally panned Call of Duty: Ghosts, the first Call of Duty title built by the leftovers of the original Infinity Ward, a studio from which its founders departed to create Titanfall. It’s also the first Infinity Ward title that shipped without the help of Sledgehammer, who aided in the development of Modern Warfare 3 after the Vince Zampella and Jason West scandal. Currently holding the lowest console/PC Metacritic rating in the franchise, Ghosts was widely criticized for its derivative design and complete inability to move the franchise forward in any meaningful way. Ghosts tarnished the studio’s brand so badly that many became skeptical as to what their next installment would look like. While this summer’s E3 footage showed off a nearly unrecognizable Call of Duty campaign, the recent Infinite Warfare beta gives the exact opposite impression, feeling more like an extension of Black Ops 3 than anything else.
Customizable unlocks, score streaks, and the Pick 10 system are all Call of Duty staples. And juggling an assortment of assault rifles, SMGs, snipers rifles and more in a fast-paced, twitch 60fps gameplay are what separate Call of Duty from most shooters on the market. Getting all of this year in, year out is a requirement in order for Call of Duty to retain its identity, just as Halo must have that floaty inertia, and Gears of War has to have its snappy magnetic cover system. But the systems built around Infinite Warfare’s handling of Call of Duty mechanics, thus far, are largely uninspired, and feels like the most re-skinned installment in almost three years.
Admittedly, I’m against Infinity Ward’s decision to retain the uni-directional jet fuelled movement ripped directly from Black Ops 3. To this day, I’ll still defend Advanced Warfare’s lateral exosuit mechanics as the best mobility option of New Age Call of Duty. However, even when setting aside my grievances, there’s not much to be impressed about Infinite Warfare’s treatment of the relationship between the player and the space around them. Many of the maps in the beta don’t carve out paths through which players can wall-run freely to make a B-line from one end of the map to the other. Most of the map design sticks to the franchise’s present trend of a three-lane structure with multiple points of elevation to justify your jetpack. The commitment to using the environment to usher players forward is reigned back considerably, and even interesting path options such as underwater routes found ij Black Ops 3 are nowhere to be found. The best map in the beta was easily the classic Terminal from Modern Warfare 2, which was in need of very little tweaking to make it fun in present day Call of Duty. That, however, speaks both to its timeless map design, and how little everything else stands out in comparison.
The new ‘Combat Rigs’ that Infinite Warfare introduces isn’t much of an introduction at all – they’re more of a re-imagining of the Specialist system from, again, Black Ops 3. Rigs are various character types that give the player access to special abilities that are activated on a cooldown timer. Sound familiar? These ‘Payloads’ grant players access to special weapons such as the Warfighter’s assault rifle that ricochets off of walls and around corners, and the Merc’s heavy beam cannon can target multiple opponents. But whereas Black Ops 3’s Specialists had one of two active abilities to choose from, Infinite Warfare offers more nuance by adding a third ability to each Combat Rig along with three ‘Traits’ which are passive bonuses that act as a third perk unique to that Rig. This is undeniably an improvement from last year’s installment, yet Infinity Ward seems to be hanging its hat on the Combat Rig system, which isn’t the sort of major departure that justifies three years’ worth of development.
Strangely enough, the new so-called ‘Weapons Crafting’ system might be the hook that gives Infinite Warfare’s multiplayer some legs. Infinity Ward’s use of the word ‘crafting’ is extremely liberal mind you, since all you’re really doing is unlocking variants of every weapon in the game. Similar to some of the rewards found in Advanced Warfare’s Loot system, Weapons Crafting entails purchasing one of four different gun modifications that are pre-equipped with their own perks, all in which are ranked by rarity. On top of weapons attachments, perks, guns, equipment, and now combat rigs, ‘crafted weapons’ effectively extends our lizard brain’s desire to stay on that treadmill of unlocks, reaping tangible rewards within Infinite Warfare’s multiplayer.
2014 and 2015 brought significant changes to the Call of Duty franchise in both its single player, and multiplayer. Both Advanced Warfare and Black Ops 3 introduced drastically different experiences to Call of Duty’s multiplayer, and set the trend of what’s to be expected from the shooter that was deeply criticized for its egregious repetition. But from what’s been seen thus far in Infinite Warfare’s multiplayer beta, Infinity Ward seems to be repeating the same mistakes that Call of Duty have made in years past, only this time without the excuse of just having two years of development to hide behind. The stark comparisons to last year’s Black Ops 3 already show signs of this franchise slowing down. Perhaps much more will be revealed when Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare launches on November 4 on Xbox One, PS4, and PC.