All 'Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare', 'Modern Warfare Remastered' and 'Zombies' mode screenshots courtesy of Activision
At LA's Inglewood Forum, on a blisteringly hot day in early September, temperatures are rising—both outside on the tarmac and inside the large arena that's usually host to pop concerts and awards ceremonies. Many of the thousands who have come here for Call of Duty XP, three full days of CoD immersion attracting fans from every corner of the globe, are visibly brimming with excitement.
They're not really here for the culmination of the 2016 Call of Duty World League Championship, where the top 32 teams in the world fight it out for glory and the biggest portion of a two million dollar prize pool. Nor are they here for the nose-bleed-high zip-line, or the laser-tag zombies experience, or the PSVR "Jackal Assault" demo, or Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa's closing-party appearance—and yes, you could practically slice the air when those two were on stage.
Nor were they excited by further reveals of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, the Infinity Ward-developed next installment in the multi-million-selling shooter series that releases today, which received only a modest ripple of approval when brought out on stage. (Its complementary Zombies mode—long a fan favorite—receives a slightly more vociferous reception.)
No, the loudest applause arrives when Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg announces that attendees of the event will be able to play something that most in the room—that millions of gamers the world over—long ago played through: the big one, the old one, the classic, Modern Warfare Remastered. And when he announces that they'll be releasing "all sixteen of the original maps," the decibels multiply.
While the roar's not all that deafening on YouTube, let me tell you, as someone who was there: the difference between the vocal enthusiasm for Infinite Warfare and Modern Warfare was chasm-sized.
Later that afternoon, I struck up a conversation with a guy who's come to XP from the nearby city of San Jose. He says he's not into Infinite Warfare "because of the spaceships and shit." He won't be rushing to play it, preferring the more traditional combat of older titles, and hopes that Modern Warfare Remastered comes out separately.
He's not alone. Throughout the event, I have fans tell me that while they're excited for the remaster, they're not going to pay for another game, one they don't want, just to get their hands on it.
At the time of writing, though, Activision is standing firm on this front. The only way to get Remastered is by buying a deluxe Infinite Warfare package. That still may not be enough for Infinite Warfare to be a hit, though. Naturally, any Call of Duty game is going to do strong numbers, sales wise, but I've heard anecdotally that pre-order numbers for Infinite Warfare are lower than its publishers anticipated, even with the sweetener of Modern Warfare Remastered offered as preorder bonus for the new game's special editions.
Which is, surely, disappointing for the developers of the new game. To see the franchise's most passionate supporters actively cheer harder for a nine-year-old title instead of one that's daring to at least slightly push the series somewhere new must be gutting.
Later in the presentation, when Infinite Warfare narrative director Taylor Kurosaki—who previously worked on the Uncharted series at Naughty Dog—comes out to tell the throng that "this is the most innovative campaign we've ever made", there is barely a clap in the house. Attentions have gone: Modern Warfare is playable in a massive tent outside, so why are we still listening to this stuff about spaceships?
Above: 'Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare' launch gameplay commercial (UK). Video courtesy of Activision.
Given this fan response, is it any wonder that every developer that I speak to is constantly relating their work to successes of the past? It's like there's a companywide fear that spending too long on the ships or the future tech will completely alienate the hardcore and leave Activision with a comparative commercial dud on their hands.
A few weeks earlier, at Gamescom in Germany, Kurosaki and co-writer Brian Bloom (who also plays Infinite Warfare's campaign protagonist, Captain Nick Reyes) are telling me just how this entry goes to places (environmentally and mechanically) that previous CoD titles haven't, only to double back to tie the new game to the old ones.
"The new settings afford all these cool gameplay opportunities," Kurosaki tells me, but he's quick to align the orbital encounters with battles waged on the terra firma of preceding campaigns. "With every one of these extensions, or improvements, we're trying to keep them true to what historically makes Call of Duty fun," he says. "And that's evaluating the play space, and being tactical."
Bloom follows suit, reminding me (so that I can remind players) that fans will be getting "more of what they love", not less: the set pieces, the "war and warrior fantasy." He tells me that "real-world top-gun pilots" are fantasizing about going space combat.
You can't just have the same guns, the same aesthetics this time. — Joe Cecot
None of Infinite Warfare's unique characteristics are left to stand alone. Each is pegged to the same old CoD promise: that ironic combination of Hollywood spectacle and referent-grounded grit that made the series so popular.
Back at XP, Infinite Warfare's lead multiplayer designer, Joe Cecot, is looking a little beat, to be honest. He may be wilting in the heat—I can relate—or slowly picking himself up after the emotional battering of seeing so few people in the Forum obviously rooting for his new game.
Whatever's got him looking a little down, he's not letting on when I grab 15 minutes with him, after the Global Briefing. We're ostensibly discussing the play-with-your-pals components of IW, but even he returns to the same familiar topic: The challenge of pleasing fans of the older CoD games while still finding room to experiment.
"I think we aim for two targets, and while I won't say they're impossible, they're certainly difficult," he tells me. On one hand, the team needs to meet "that military fantasy, that soldier fantasy" that he says is at the core of the series. On the other hand, setting the game in the sci-fi future—in space—forces the team to break out of the routine. "You can't just have the same guns, the same aesthetics this time."
And for all of the attendee excitement for Modern Warfare Remastered, Cecot speaks about the game with the sort of diplomatic tenor that you reserve for things you're supposed to love. " Modern Warfare was a different time," he tells me, "and I think FPS games, and multiplayer games in general, have evolved. When you go back to the first Modern Warfare, it's great that it hits the setting perfectly, and it was definitely a powerful, pivotal game, a real pivot point for shooters and Call of Duty as a brand. But it is looser, more freeform than what we have now."
Military shooters have moved on, even if the more fanatical members of the Modern Warfare when it comes to speed, style and spectacle. Line them up, side-by-side, and even with MW's impressive visual makeover, the generational divide cannot be ignored.
Where 2007's game positively crawls along, all lengthy reloads and unintuitive map layouts, 2016's jet-powers itself into action: maps are streamlined, the gunplay slick, and respawning players are back in the thick of it within seconds. It's a very post-Overwatch experience, without riffing detrimentally on Blizzard's outstanding online shooter.
And yet, the game's reveal trailer has an astonishing 3,300,000 downvotes on YouTube.
I briefly sit down with Lee Ross, associate project director on the game's zombie mode (perhaps the only part of Infinite Warfare that hasn't been thrashed by angry men on the internet). For his part, Ross emphasizes that the developers listen when fans are vocally upset. "As much as people think developers don't look at the comments, at the criticism, we do. We pay pretty close attention, actually. And while what we read doesn't necessarily drive our decisions, it helps to validate what we're doing."
Or, perhaps it leads to changes in messaging. Compare the first Infinite Warfare trailer, of May 2016, with its shots of Earth from orbit, spaceship combat and (atrocious) "Space Oddity" cover to the multiplayer overview that's debuted at XP, with its concluding lines designed to evoke familiarity and comfort: "While this may be the future of warfare, this is still an old-school fight."
In the XP tent where fans binge on a couple of Modern Warfare Remastered multiplayer maps, the atmosphere is partisan, the whoops and cheers of those plugged into the new version of the old classic ringing out with infectious glee. Over at Infinite Warfare, the stations are busy, but it's just not the same: There's none of that familiar electricity in the air, nowhere close to a comparable buzz.
While I might think that Infinite Warfare beats out its aging cousin, in that moment, it looked like "the old-school fight" had rather more rounds left than the new contender for the CoD crown. All Infinity Ward and Activision can do is wait and see if their reassurances have resulted in another blockbuster hit, or if instead they have fallen on ears deafened by the bombast of nostalgia.
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Transport to and accommodation in Los Angeles for Call of Duty XP was provided by Activision.