In 2015, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson gave an interview in which he argued that the world’s first trillionaire will be somebody who successfully mines asteroids.
These celestial rocks are loaded with the sort of rare metals essential for the manufacturing of computers and smartphones – metals that are becoming increasingly scarce on Earth. There are already companies such as Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries developing technologies to facilitate the industry. It’s going to happen.
And its this prospect that provides the background to Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, 2016’s instalment in the long-running shooter series. It’s the near future and humankind has expanded out into space, operating mining colonies throughout the solar system. To keep these in check, a new agency, UNSA, has been formed, uniting the armed forces of all the major countries involved. However, a fanatical organisation known as the Settlement Defence Front (SetDef) has formed out in space, looking to place a stranglehold on resources by taking over outposts throughout the system. “Wherever there is war over resources,” says Call of Duty design director, Jacob Minkoff, “there is extremism”.
In a demo shown during E3, Minkoff and story director, Taylor Kurosaki, reveal the beginning of the game: a seemingly unwise Fleet Week parade in Geneva, organised by UNSA countries and involving the organisation’s entire military force. Naturally, a surprise attack by SetDef takes out pretty much the whole thing, leaving player-character Nick Reyes and his spec-ops squad, Scar Team One, legging it through the burning streets, trying to help civilians. As SetDef forces arrive to mop up, Reyes needs to blast through the wreckage to reach the UNSA HQ, an imposing tower on the other side of town. SetDef dropships crash to earth, spewing out battle droids. We see Reyes using one of the new gadgets, a robotic spider grenade called a seeker bot, that scuttles around until it finds an enemy, then explodes.
From here it’s vintage CoD campaign stuff – a hectic rush through wrecked buildings as explosions fill the sky and military personal shout into comms equipment demanding air support and suppression fire. At one point you get to hack an enemy dropship and initiate its self-destruct mode, then you’re on your wrist computer marking targets for a missile attack. Once at the tower, the orders are to leap into a Jackal fighter craft and zoom off into orbit, where you must immediately engage in a mass spaceship battle. It is breathless stuff.
So then you’re dodging missiles and taking out enemy fighters; Reyes needs to get in close to a vast enemy destroyer and start pounding its gun turrets with 50mm cannon fire. It certainly looks fast-paced, exciting and visually accomplished, but with no hands-on available, it’s difficult to gauge the feel of the fighting. According to Mintoff, flight handling has been designed to resemble ground controls, so the ship has RCS thrusters so that you can strafe, while hitting sprint operates boost, the jump button is up and crouch is down. Targeting and firing missiles uses the same left and right trigger combo as shooting guns.
Later in the mission, we’re told, there will be dogfighting sequences, which seem to involve open-space environments rather than on-rails attack sequences. You then land aboard the Retribution spacecraft, where Reyes discovers that the captain has been killed and he’s now in command.
This is effectively the game’s hub world, from where the player can decide which missions to take on, in which order. Some are mandatory story missions sent down from Strategy Command, but there are also optional missions, shown on the solar system ops map. These involve fighting on asteroids and outposts, or attacking enemy destroyers and stealing intel, technologies and weapons – apparently, there are certain weapons that will only be available if you take on these supplementary tasks, and these will make subsequent story missions easier to complete.
During the Sony press conference, Activision revealed one of these ship attack sequences, which involves rocking up in Jackal, popping the canopy, fighting along the outer hull (using a handy grapple hook to grasp and drag in enemy solders, before sending them spiralling into space) and then boarding the craft. “We’ve done a huge amount of technology advancement in this engine,” says Minkoff. “We’ve never had a streaming system where you can go from Earth up into a space dogfight, then into an enemy ship before returning to your hub, walking to the bridge and selecting the next mission. This seamless experience is huge for us, it really increases the scope of the warfare.”
Infinity Ward is saying that this is a game about leadership; while previous titles have always had you following a commanding officer, now it’s the player in charge of a ship and a crew, which provides the game’s ensemble cast. Amid the roster of military game archetypes (the father figure, the hot head, the resentful dude who feels you’re too inexperienced for command), there’s also Eth.3n, a newly unveiled mechanised soldier with an array of enhanced abilities – the one concession to the cyber-augmented warriors of Advanced Warfare and Black-Ops 3.
This is all campaign stuff of course – Activision is holding off any multiplayer details until its Call of Duty XP event in September. For now, this looks to be CoD as we know it: military bombast, an array of recognisable weapons (assault rifles, shotguns, snipers), and highly choreographed set-pieces, interspersed with intriguing space battles that may or may not work in a similar way to the fighter squadron modes in Battlefront. The studio is certainly desperate for players to know that the boots-on-the-ground basics of the series have been retained.
“We’re going for the feel of classic war, of being part of a large fighting force with many different soldiers and ships in the air,” says Minkoff. “Even though we’re going to space, even though this is a futuristic setting, we want to have a classic war feel.”
“But we’re also taking a lot of risks, we’re doing things differently. The seamlessness, the non-linearity of missions, going to space, new flight AI, new zero-g AI – teaching our engine that up isn’t up anymore is a big challenge. We wanted to create something that feels different, but at the same time has the core Call of Duty experience.”
Battlefield 1 is clearly winning the early hype war with its fan-pleasing return to the first world war. Thousands of shooter veterans have spent the last five years lamenting the fact that both these titles have moved ever further into the future and away from the frenetic, gritty action that they used to depict. With Infinite Warfare, Infinity Ward wants to have its cake and blow it up: it is promising a classic experience, but also one that innovates and goes further into space combat than even the unloved Call of Duty: Ghosts.
During the E3 presentation, Minkoff comments that he’s never seen a game that combines infantry combat, space dogfights and starship management – there could well be a reason for that beyond the possibility that no one’s thought of it before. In the Triple A gaming sector, just as in the summer season of popcorn blockbusters, people have specific requirements – they want more of what they know. Infinite Warfare is a strange venture – a leap into the unknown that carries with it the very familiar baggage of 16 previous games.
Infinite Warfare is graphically impressive and crammed with stuff that either explodes or fires missiles. Or collapses into the street in flames. In the end though, it will all come down to how the game feels, and whether there’s still raw excitement to be mined out there in space, as well as all the asteroids.
This article was written by Keith Stuart, for theguardian.com on Thursday 23rd June 2016 15.22 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010