You couldn’t ask for three more different experiences, this is the first year in a long time where we saw no contemporary settings in our annual shooter titles. Possibly the industry is reading a tiredness of the genre with generic bad guys in slightly fictionalized conflicts. Maybe it’s the fact that the news is reading more and more like one of their games and they need to push into the realm of fantasy or historical realism to provide us with our distractions but this is a big change since the initial release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare in 2007 (though Infinite Warfare does release with a remastered copy of the original Call of Duty: Modern Warfare).
After a largely story free release with Titanfall Respawn decided to include a robust and full featured story mode in Titanfall 2. This created an interesting juxtaposition of story and technique. I’m going to try and explore the three very different stories and how they compare before briefly speaking on their multiplayer components.
Lest We Forget
On launching we see the welcome screen which lets us navigate between news, multiplayer functions and campaign mode. On viewing the campaign we are shown a global view of Europe and Africa as if we were divine beings watching the follies from Olympus. The narrator, an African American from the 369th Infantry Regiment (known as the Harlem Hellfighters for their tenacity), tells us how in the boldness of youth many a boy signed up and an entire generation was essentially lost. This is our first break from the tropes of first person shooters. While we have the framing device, a single narrator recounting what he heard and setting up the campaigns each campaign covers an incident of a different soldier’s life. The introduction is that Hellfighter and his brothers. We shift from soldier to soldier who as they are gunned down in the charnel fields of France seeing a name a birth date and a date of death as we slip through one after the other being gunned down.
We don’t spend much time with the Hellfighters which is unfortunate. This historical unit is honoured and well decorated. Many complaining in forums would say it was “PC Culture” adding a black man to the war. When explained to them how this was one of the most storied all black regiments and was given the name Hellfighters by the Germans for their tenacious and uncompromising conduct in battle (they were also known as the Black Rattlers due to the snake on their standard and the Men of Bronze which was how the French honoured them) they would often sink back into their holes but this illustrates the shameful bald spot in American history, their soldiery remaining segregated until 1948 has left a hole wiping the sacrifices of many from history.
We see what sets it apart in the finale, a non-playable montage talking about the tragedies of war and praying it’ll never happen again. This is a game made up of real campaigns with real people or people inspired by real people. It is uncompromising and the campaign in no way glorifies the horrors that veterans of this now fading conflict suffered. If anything it is the first “shooter” that advocates non-violence. Would I have liked to have seen Canadian soldiers? Yes, the second battle of Ypres would have made for powerful viewing, the first major battle by Canadian forces and considered the moment we truly became a country but with an already lopsided narrative more importantly we could have seen the struggles of the Central Powers. This is the only blemish I can see with the game as you don’t have the opportunity to play as one of the Central Powers (the name of the German coalition of states during the First World War). This was one of those dirty wars where there was no clear cut “baddies”, no goose stepping monsters just men and women pressed into services by their empires moving them around like pieces on a chess board.
A Boy and his Bot
After a fun but fairly tame tutorial where we are introduced to Rifleman Jack Cooper our hero for the game and are given the abridged version of the conflict between the Frontier Militia (the plucky rebels) and the IMC (a generic evil corporation) is laid out for us. Not the most inspired setting, this could easily have been a variation the themes Avatar used which were themselves cribbed from Star Wars. Basically, you want to know short form the setting, imagine Firefly and replace space cowboys and psychics with giant robots and mercenaries.
We quickly find ourselves going from the frying pan into the fire as a mission to take an IMC planet goes terribly awry. The Titan Pilot Tai Lastimosa who was training us earlier in the game is quickly killed defending us and transfers his link to his Titan to you before he dies. This is where the game truly picks up, in the first Titanfall Titans were largely personality free walking death machines. They were fun to storm around the map in but there was no real personality to them. In Titanfall 2 they are given AIs with personalities and a sense of humour reminiscent of Data from Star Trek. Linking with BT we quickly set out to take up the mission.
Impressively, at the half way point Respawn mixes up the gameplay dramatically keeping us guessing. Adding a major gameplay component that only lasts for a handful of missions it changes the pace and a new urgency is added to the gameplay and the stakes are raised exponentially. From here out it becomes a near constant escalation mission after mission ultimately culminating in a powerful and unexpected ending.
What makes this game work is that it largely avoids the larger conflict, unfortunately when it does touch on it the tropes are heavily leaned on. The IMC goes from vague and remote oligarchs to cartoonish villains and the Militia’s pluckiness is almost obnoxious. That said the game is solid and a fun break that has the right balance of seriousness and humour (BT’s got some real zingers). The inclusion of an active dialogue system keeps you engaged in the story and no two levels feel the same.
Call of Duty has always been to video games what Michael Bay movies are to cinema. Pro-military and bombastic the formula set in motion has now become almost ritualistic in its adherence to form. Honestly, if this game was released first I’d probably have had a much better time with it than I did but coming third in a row of games about war and most importantly following Battlefield 1 there’s an ugliness to it that makes it smack of propaganda. We start the game with the now traditional throw away character. It has become a formulaic conceit that Call of Duty games start with a mission that goes south very quickly and more often than not we loose a character or entire squad towards the end of this meeting. Some times it’s to a nuclear bomb or in this case it’s to a squad of Space Jon Snow’s Space Fascists. We then take up the mantle of our true avatar for the game lantern jawed Nick Reyes. Attending a private briefing with an admiral about our faceless protagonists we just saw wiped out (which would never happen) at the UN’s Space Alliance headquarters in Geneva during fleet week. Of course the entire planet’s space navy is gathered in once place, what could go wrong?
The stakes escalate time and time again with the odds becoming ever increasingly thin and reversal after reversal leaves us constantly thinking we “won” only to be shown how dire our situation is time and time again (ridiculously over the course of one day… that’s right the entire campaign is supposed to have happened in about 24 hours). Ultimately the “good guys” win the day but for some reason it did not resonate with me. The characterization of the SDF was cartoonish in its portrayal. During the colour commentary in the load screen we’d often see how the SDF were monsters using child soldiers, forcing a strict cast system on their citizens and how they used their name as a “propaganda tool” to appear as the under dogs in their battle to assert Martian dominance. Kit Harrington’s speeches had a Hitleresque quality asserting the dominance of Mars over the now “obsolete” Earth. Lastly the accents of almost all the SDF’s forces had a vaguely European or Russian feel to it. Compared to the use of an Afrikaans accent used in Titanfall 2 used by the mercenaries (while the IMC themselves had a generic American accent) was colour this felt much more pointed and political in nature given the current political climate.
Now, if reading my thoughts on Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare you might think I hated the game, I didn’t. The gameplay was tight and fun. Shooting was robust with a variety of weapons that was enjoyable to use. The performances of Harewood and Nordling were fun and charming (and in fact aside from Harrington all the performances were solid and I suspect Harrington was more a victim of the material that he was handed than any acting choices). We also have vehicular combat for the first time in a meaningful way with entire missions taking place in space combat as well as zero G and extra-vehicular combat in space. These were great additions and the space combat were one of the few times I’ve seen a space sim play well on the console (even if it was a VERY arcade like experience). Ultimately the game suffers more based on its timing than its actual content. If it had come out prior to Battlefield 1 I feel its rampant propagandizing and chest thumping advocacy of “Duty and Sacrifice” of soldiery in support of the sate would have felt much less hollow.
What Most People Care About
Let's be honest, most people get these games for the multiplayer components. I don’t really have much to say about multiplayer, all three titles are solid. Battlefield 1 is the most unique of the three, its adherence to real period accurate weapons, real battlefields and theaters of operation and variety of game modes makes it a solid and rewarding experience but as always you are very fragile and will die very quickly. COD: Infinite and Titanfall 2 on the other hand are very similar, movement and gameplay is almost identical with the same kind of wall running and traversal systems. The only real difference is in Titanfall 2 you call down giant robots, unlock special abilities and weapon unlocks compared to the streak unlock drones, special abilities and weapon unlocks that are kind of similar but different flavour. Titanfall’s Titans and wide open battlefields set it apart from the largely claustrophobic settings of Call of Duty but honestly if you took out the Titans they’d be nearly indistinguishable.
The reality is, for many players this is the most important part and because of this in the case of Titanfall 2 or COD: Infinite either would be an equally fine choice. In the case of Battlefield 1 though we have a degree of dissonance between the campaign and its pacifist depiction of the horror of war and the point driven twitch fest that is its multiplayer. While the gameplay is amazing and fun there was something sort of off playing the game.
What Are The Stories Left Untold
Battlefield 1 truly changes the entire table though, it has moved all the dishes around and we are no longer at the kids table but we’re at the adults table with proper stemware, the nice china, even little name tags. It gives us a game that treats conflict with a maturity and respect that I’ve only come close to seeing once before in the Heart of Darkness remake Spec Ops: The Line. It is ironic that we had to go backward to go forward. By bringing us back to a conflict now almost 100 years in the past, a war where many reading this may never have met a veteran of the conflict let alone sat and talked with one (I am blessed to have had conversations with a few and their experiences were truly harrowing) we have been able to create a piece of art. Something that is powerful, moving and truly makes you think in a way that I suspect Owen Griffiths and John McCrae would appreciate.