Written by Stephen Patterson
This article comes on the back of an exciting yet albeit short journey I have pursued during the last week, which is the campaign mode of the latest Call of Duty title, Infinite Warfare. The whole structure of the game flies in the face of another of my recent articles, in that it does very little other than throw set piece moment after set piece moment in your face with barely a moment to breathe in between. Ultimately it’s tightly put together, tells the story it wants to tell efficiently and manages to cut out some of the chaff that plagues shooter campaign modes in all of their varying iterations. One thing frustrated me constantly during my few hours playing it however – why on earth am I even fighting my supposed enemies? It’s an issue that permeates a huge amount of game writing: the villains are simply evil with no recourse for compromise or settlement.
My issue revolves around the gentleman pictured above, Kit Harrington.
Wait… that’s not right.
Kit Harrington’s character is the admiral of the space-borne navy of the Settlement Defense Front (SDF), a faction of Mars-dwelling humans who are intent on battling and destroying their kin who still live on Earth. The whole situation is eerily reminiscent of the Killzone storyline, where the Helghast are confined to a poisonous mining world and rebel against their masters. If anything, the two are directly comparable, except Killzone has a breadth of background content spanning four mainline titles and spinoffs to help justify the actions of what, from the outset, appear to be helmeted space nazis. Infinite Warfare does nothing extra than Guerilla games attempt at space opera aside from limiting the combat to our own solar system – the opening of the game takes place on the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan – and throughout the course of the storyline we find ourselves warping across the system to every single planet we possibly can.
Every time you die in Infinite Warfare’s campaign, you are presented with a fictitious quotation from one of the senior figures in the SDF, for example ‘The time of individual happiness is over’ or ‘death is no disgrace’. If anything, the SDF represent a much clearer definition of fascism than the Helghast did, but the only way we can tell is from these death screen and the brief diatribes of Salen Kotch, who occasionally appears to espouse his desire to annihilate Earth and force its inhabitants into forced labour camps, some of which they have already established in others parts of the solar system. What troubles me is that we never even stumble upon why any of the senior ranking figures in the SDF feel the way they do about their existence in Space. The story shifts so quickly between the streets of Geneva, to atmospheric space combat, to boarding a capital ship, that no-one ever stops to wonder why anything other than trade and cooperation would be preferable. When the SDF invades, they lay waste to spaceports and mining infrastructure, one of them on an asteroid orbiting Mercury, that represent a colossal investment of resources surpassing anything ever accomplished on Earth – without their ever being a justification for why doing this over occupying and capturing them would be less of a sensible move.
We can probably attribute this in in no small part to budget restrictions on the part of the development team. When each set piece and speech from a high-budget actor or personality (the game contains not only Mr. Harrington but also cameos from Formula 1 Champion Lewis Hamilton and UFC double champion Conor McGregor) has to be individually captured, rendered and edited, it’s no wonder they didn’t go to the trouble of including mountains of dialogue and context which take time, and most importantly money, to make and add to the experience. The most frustrating aspect of Infinite Warfare is that there seems to be a background tale to be told hidden amongst the text files you collect for each character and the slight hints at deeper, more complicated motivations for conflict disguised amongst all of the explosions and shooting. The mistake made here is one that games set in World War 2 can get away with far more effectively: if I want context on why the Third Reich or the Soviet Union acted in a certain way, there is a plethora of historical context available to me online at the touch of a button with no effort whatsoever – games don’t need to explain why exactly each offensive took place or what the political motivations behind such moves were. In the case of the Settlement Defense Front, I absolutely need that information up front in a prominent position. If you want me to come out of your game caring about the characters portrayed, the depth and brutality of the conflict or even granular intrigue such as weapon and ship technology in the game universe, far more effort needs placing on explaining those things in a way I cannot miss them. As far as my own experience in Infinite Warfare is concerned, I have little to no idea why people on Mars hate the people on Earth.
There are elements of Infinite Warfare to redeem its campaign mode significantly however. In fact, many writers have been calling it one of the best story modes they’ve released for the series in years, and I think I would agree. Gameplay-wise, I’m not tied to the old-school trope of hiding behind a box and popping up to hit a few guys before recovering my health like I used to be. Most of the missions have an excellent transitional feeling that meld each part together seamlessly: In a later mission I chased a high-ranking SDF officer through a church to the top of the steeple, and then hopped onto my fighter plane from there and blasted off into the atmosphere to board a destroyer overhead, all in one motion. Playing through, I felt an affinity for those I fought alongside too, the lovable robot companion Ethan cracks jokes and ‘learns the meaning of brotherhood’, while the mildly disguised sexual tension between your main character and sidekick Lieutenant Salter is at times charming and at worst heartbreaking.
So to summarise, without diving into a much longer piece (Sundays are for relaxing!) Infinite Warfare raises some major issues in games surrounding how we both write and respond to antagonists. Call of Duty is an example at the forefront of modern games, but you can look across a broad spectrum of video game experiences and find the same problem plaguing tales from the ground up. Those games that do flesh out their villains, give them personal desires and motivations tend to make us think more, analyse our own beliefs and get more from the story we are being told. Despite the leaps Infinite Warfare makes in spicing up the single player gameplay of the series, it does absolutely nothing to make me care about Salen Kotch or the Settlement Defense Front, which is a crying shame considering the potential their ideas represent.
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