(Pocket-lint) - In the 21st century, life now has three inevitabilities: death, taxes and an annual instalment of Call of Duty.
But Infinite Warfare, 2016's effort, comes with an added layer of controversy: the all-conquering first-person shooter's mighty fan-base took mass offence at its setting - in a future in which war rages across the solar system - perceiving its gameplay to be sullied by the presence of sequences in which you take the controls of a space-fighter.
So, is Infinite Warfare really unworthy of the Call of Duty imprint? Or does it have the chops to silence the nay-sayers?
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Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare review: Longer production, better results
Superficially, developer Infinity Ward and publisher Activision appeared to throw CoD fans a bone by adopting the mantra: "Never mind the quality, feel the width," since various versions of the game can be purchased as a package including Modern Warfare Remastered (an upscaled, better-looking version of one of the best-loved CoD iterations). Plus all versions come with Zombies in Spaceland, a reimagining of the zombie-wave-survival mode that usually comes with CoD games made by developers other than Infinity Ward.
But the message that should have put out more assiduously is that Infinite Warfare is the first Call of Duty game to enjoy the luxury of a three-year development cycle; previously Activision alternated between two developers who had two years each. That extra year makes a clear difference: Infinite Warfare, for once, has a pretty substantial single-player campaign, and is also incredibly slick and polished. It looks fantastic, and its performance-captured characters are way more lifelike and believable than they have ever been in a CoD game.
Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare review: Serious campaign
Infinite Warfare casts you as Nick Reyes, a Lieutenant in the UNSA (a multi-national, post-UN body that acts as a sort-of Earth's army), stationed on the spaceship Retribution. The UNSA has a rival entity acting as a thorn in its side, called the Settlement Defense Front, or SDF, which is headquartered on Mars and employs propaganda tactics along the lines of the average fascist dictator or so-called Isis.
Infinite Warfare begins with a UNSA military parade in future-Geneva, which the SDF attacks, triggering all-out war. Only two UNSA ships survive, one of which is the Retribution and, since the captain is killed in the SDF attack, Reyes assumes command. That's where you come in to take over.
Reyes isn't the sort of captain to sit around twiddling his thumbs and issuing orders. He's almost suicidally hands-on, and immediately embarks on a helter-skelter series of missions aimed at destroying the SDF.
He has a lively crew of sidekicks, notably fellow-pilot and general sidekick Nora Salter, marine Sergeant Usef Omar and a sentient robot designated E3N, and known as Ethan. The characters are every bit as memorable as the likes of Soap MacTavish and Captain Price from the Modern Warfare games, and the interplay between them is nicely observed, although bizarrely, what little humour there is in the game is provided by Ethan.
The Retribution could even be classed as a character – it operates as a hub and, through the course of Infinite Warfare, you get it to know it almost as well as the Normandy in the Mass Effect games – indeed, it's possible to detect echoes of Mass Effect in Infinite Warfare, which is surprising (or perhaps not given the space setting).
Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare review: A future classic?
Not that Infinite Warfare's gameplay resembles anything other than that of past Call of Duty games. The new elements which the future/space setting brings will probably divide opinion, but we grew to enjoy the space-combat.
Reyes' Jackal - that's the ship you can take command of - has a sublimely well-designed control system that assigns movement to the left stick and orientation to the right one; the Jackal's loadout of two guns and a small payload of missiles (which can be restocked mid-combat by a drone), all controlled by the same lock-on targeting system, also works well. At first, we tended to fixate on target-locks and suffered a few mid-air collisions, but we swiftly learned to eradicate those.
The zero-gravity shooting sequences, which are quite scarce, proved to be less successful, though: it's tricky finding cover when you're floating. But it turns out that zero-gravity shooting can be fun, as long as you have a sniper-rifle, as demonstrated by a sequence in an asteroid-field in one of the optional missions.
Yes, that's another first for a Call of Duty game: optional missions that emerge when you acquire a particular item of intel. They are pretty decent, providing a chance to visit exotic parts of the solar system, and generally reinforce the feeling that Infinite Warfare's single-player campaign is infinitely more satisfying than those of any recent Call of Duty games.
Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare review: Weapons from another world
There are plenty of those signature Hollywood-style moments that Call of Duty is known for, some great new enemies, such as the C12 mechs - these can only be damaged using rockets (which are in short supply), but can be temporarily crippled and dispatched with a knife if you have the bottle to climb onto them.
Two key elements that play a huge part in the campaign also bleed over into the multiplayer: the weaponry and the gadgets. Infinity Ward has gone to town with its future-guns, which are split between firing bullets and energy blasts (the latter effective against bots).
We particularly enjoyed a gun called the EBR-800, which can be switched between sniper and assault rifle modes, although it does chew up ammo in the latter configuration. There are some great sights to explore, with varying levels of zoom, and enemy-marking. Anti-gravity grenades are fine to behold in action, and the Seeker bots, which latch onto individual enemies, often come in handy - as do the drones which shoot at whoever you're targeting.
Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare review: Multiplayer
Multiplayer-wise, apart from the weapons and the huge double-jumps that the Boost kits bring, the main new innovation is the concept of Rigs, which are exoskeleton-style outfits that bring specific abilities and play-styles. For example, one is tailored towards agility, whereas another turns you into a tank.
There's only one new multiplayer mode, entitled Defender, in which both teams fight over a drone - which renders whoever holds it more or less immobile, so chucking it to team-members is a must - and the team which holds it for longest wins. All the old favourites - Team Deathmatch, Free-For-All, Domination, Search and Destroy, Hardpoint, Kill Confirmed and Frontline - are included, as you would expect.
Call of Duty's multiplayer fraternity is notoriously tricky to please, so it will remain to be seen whether it will take to Infinite Warfare, but the indications are good. The new maps are superb, and while the underlying gameplay remains the same, the new weapons and abilities render it an even more frenetic and fast-paced experience than ever.
Those unfamiliar with Call of Duty's multiplayer element will, however, die even more frequently than they would have done in previous iterations of the franchise. Which, conversely, should please the faithful.
Zombies in Spaceland, meanwhile, takes a thoroughly whimsical route: it's set in a space-themed amusement park in the 1980s, with David Hasselhoff playing a DJ. Despite possessing that familiar, taxing Zombies gameplay, it will have you chuckling with regularity. The ability to resurrect yourself by playing crap 80s arcade games is a cute touch.
And do we really need to say much about Modern Warfare Remastered? It's a stone-cold classic which, in this modern-technology reincarnation, looks considerably easier on the eye than ever before.
They may not admit it, but those who worked themselves into a lather about Call of Duty's expansion into space will surely feel a bit foolish if and when they actually play Infinite Warfare. It is a proper CoD game, unquestionably – even if the Jackal-flying and zero-gravity shooting doesn't float your boat.
When purchased with Modern Warfare Remastered, Infinite Warfare also offers fantastic value for money. As much as we would like to position ourselves as harbingers of doom and proclaim that, as a franchise, Call of Duty has had its day, Infinite Warfare is far too good a game for that. That extra year of development time has really paid off.
From £44, Amazon