Okay, don't think any less of me than you already do, but here we go: until yesterday, I'd never played Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. I know, I know. It's a crime. I shouldn't be doing this job. I need to hand in my badge. And so on. But that's the truth: despite being a fan of the first-person shooter genre, and chucking hours untold into all manner of Infinity Ward's 2007 game's peers, rivals and progeny, Modern Warfare had, until the Call of Duty XP event* happening right now in Los Angeles, never actually been in my hands.
And now that it has, via the much-tweeted-about Remastered version, coming bundled in the special, pre-order "Legacy Edition" version of this year's guns-and-grunts-in-space Infinite Warfare – another Infinity Ward production – I can't help but feel disappointed. On the press-only opening day of XP, before thousands of paid-their-money punters descend on Inglewood's Forum for hands-on previews of both the IW and MW multiplayers, the new Zombies (in Spaceland) mode, and more, I play both the new CoD and the so-called classic within an hour or two of each other. And it's so, almost painfully obvious that the older-school model, despite palpable buzz in the tent emitting from journos who hold the game dearly, that Modern Warfare just isn't very modern at all, nowadays.
I play two comparable – well, mechanically identical – modes on both games: Domination and Team Death Match. And in both instances the experience in Infinite, rather than Modern Warfare, was so much more fun, from the perspective of a first-timer across the proverbial board. It's faster, with more manoeuvrability, boost jumps and maps better tailored to contemporary PvP play, funnelling competitors down clear lanes of combat, almost MOBA style. The weapons, the new rigs, the way in which you load up your character for each session: everything is so much more exciting in the near-future newcomer to the CoD family. IMO, of course, and I'm taking nothing away from the fantastic precedent laid down by MW, as it's as popular as it is for a reason (or several). But honestly, hand on blackened heart, when you put these two games next to one another in 2016, it's a wholly unfair fire-fight.
'Infinite Warfare', multiplayer overview
I don't want to bore on here with too much granular information on all the new perks, the mission teams, the ranking system and the crafting of prototype gear, the relative "small" stuff – you can find all of those pretty specialist details elsewhere, easily enough (or, watch the trailer above). So the avatars, called rigs, are extremely varied in both looks and abilities, and customisable in terms of persistent traits – there's your standard heavies and assassin-type options, but also the "FTL", a character using experimental weaponry, and the "Synaptic", a robot soldier that can shift its posture to run at pace on all fours. Specialist new instruments of destruction, selectable payloads, include the "Warfighter" class's "Claw", a gun that splits open to fire bullets across a wide area, and a bunch of new energy weapons that, says lead multiplayer designer Joe Cecot, presented the team with "cool design opportunities". Traits include perks like greater bullet damage, more health, score streak improvements and increased endurance for sprints. You can also activate Actual Black Holes to take out multiple opponents at once. Again: Actual Black Holes.
Despite the futuristic maps, the play spaces – arenas are set on orbital bases and the surface of Jupiter's moon Europa, and the fan-favourite Terminal map gets a visual overhaul, now set in a spacecraft station – Cecot is keen to highlight the inclusion of classic weapons, and one of the two trailers we're shown during a presentation ends with the line, "This is still an old-school fight". I wonder if this kind of messaging is a response to the incredibly negative reaction to Infinite Warfare's reveal trailer of May, currently with over three million dislikes against half a million thumbs up. I catch up with Cecot later in the day and ask him about the line, and the team's attitude to crafting multiplayer in the wake of the audience's response to IW's new aesthetic and thematic horizons.
"I think that it's a natural reaction, a thought process, in players that when they see far-future, or even near-future settings, that they go straight to sci-fi, to aliens, to unreatable things. So I think there's an element of reassurance to the messaging, but that's the Call of Duty brand – every year, we're hitting on military fantasies, and pushing the envelope of what that means."
What the Call of Duty brand in 2016 means is two primary pillars of player engagement: the casual audience, and the pro scene. With the Call of Duty World League a firmly established fixture on the eSports landscape, Infinity Ward is both maintaining the structure that (the outgoing) Black Ops III has worked with – a focus on just a handful of game modes, like Uplink and Hardpoint – and adding something new into the mix.
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Frontline is a multiplayer mode I don't get to play, but Defender I do, and it's great, really. So much fun. It sees each team having to possess and protect a drone – a sphere-shaped item much like the tossed-about "ball" of Uplink. It necessitates great communication and sharp map reading, and plays out at such terrific speed that the minutes fly by. The winner is the first to 250 (seconds, I guess) in possession of the drone. It's one of Those Things that is one, quite unspectacular thing on paper, but quite something else in practice.
And to go from Defender in space back to playing anything on the Modern Warfare Crash map? It's like binning the laptop for a typewriter. Amazon Prime for mail-order shopping where you needed to post an order form off to get your new slacks delivered eight weeks later. It might be shinier, refined, remastered, but Modern Warfare plays like the relic it is in a medium that moves at lightning speed. Maybe if I were "there at the time" I'd feel differently today. But all I feel is that I want more of Infinite Warfare, and you guys can keep the old dog without so many new tricks.
A much fuller feature on the next Call of Duty, covering the campaign, multiplayer modes and all-new (David Hasselhoff-starring) Zombies, will follow soon on VICE Gaming. *Travel and accommodation for Call of Duty XP 2016 covered by Activision.