This article first appeared in PC Gamer UK 347 in July. To read more magazine features and stare at our beautifully glossy covers, keep in mind Subscription.
There were two Infiniti wings. First to Invent Call of Duty; The second saved her from diminishing returns. In the middle was a catastrophic event in game development, an event that took place in public places that left a world-famous studio that changed forever.
The point of origin in Call of Duty, when you get there, was actually Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. While the Infinity Ward team is still sponsored by a company called 2015 Games, they created a new paradigm for first-person shooters. Where the previous decade’s FPS heroes were unstoppable steam trains firing rods, Allied Assault’s Lt Mike Powell was an alarmingly humorist – all very vulnerable to machine-gun and mortar nests, which seemed to tear the air in two.
That sentiment only doubled for the first Call of Duty game – it released amazingly only the following year. Its quintessential moment, snatched directly from the enemy at the gates, saw your Russian hero armed only with a strip of Mosin Nagant ammunition, commanding a pistol from the condemned comrade’s hands in front of him cold. During a campaign marked by ears banging and crawling through the mud, stupid luck has played as big a role in your continued survival and promotion as a player’s skill. Infinity Ward balanced this Infernal Lucky Game with a grim tone and sense of nobility inherited from Spielberg, the original architect of the Medal of Honor.
This tone wouldn’t be what the studio took to the later games. Instead, the most important part of Call of Duty proved to be its changing perspective. These early games were exchanged between British, American and Russian soldiers to cover as many fronts of World War II as possible. But the ability to live with different bodies opened up new narrative possibilities, which paid off in shocking terms in 2007 Modern Warfare.
Call of Duty 4 assumed that the shooter did not need to hold onto any single hero. In fact, Infinity Ward decided that the player characters don’t even need to survive the mission: The second set of eyes you occupy in the game has a direct red bullet in between shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, the cold water moment in Modern Warfare directly simulated radiation death.
The idea introduced Tarantino-style narrative instability into the FPS genre – no character was at risk, lending Infinity Ward stories unparalleled energy. Even as Modern Warfare 2 pushed the boundaries of flair with terrorist atrocities against the Bond-ian World Tour, it was this enduring sense of volatility that won the day.
Then the sky fell. Activision fired studio heads Vince Zambella and Jason West for “breaching contract and disobedience,” and in the aftermath, the Infinity Ward core team followed them out the door. Founded West and Zampella Respawn Entertainment, developer of Titanfall, which with the launch of Apex Legends would become Infinity Ward’s main competitor.
The remaining Infinity Ward team was left with a gap in the hull and chain to stay afloat. Sledgehammer Games helped rectify the grip and develop the ModernWarfare 3 campaign, while Infinity Ward engaged with multiplayer, paving the way for collaboration across the studios that Call of Duty relies on today. When Infinity Ward released their next solo project, the audience was finally able to assess the damage: With the Ghosts, the studio lost its voice, keeping the spin-off piece from Modern Warfare but none of its purpose.
The glory days of Infinity Ward might have been over there, had you not been within commuting distance from Naughty Dog. In the studio’s creative leadership void, stepped up Taylor Kurosaki and Jacob Minkoff, veterans of Uncharted and The Last of Us, who reformed Infinity Ward’s approach to the story. Instead of relying on explosive plot twists, which may become predictable, they instilled a new focus on slow character arcs. The result was Infinite Warfare, which divided fans in its place in deep space, but told a bold story about the cost of driving from the perspective of a battleship captain. When Infinity Ward came to restart Modern Warfare, it did so from a position of strength rather than despair.
The difficulty was to reconcile these new and old successes. In Modern Warfare 2019, Infinity Ward returned to a story with a split perspective, diminishing its strong character – players simply couldn’t spend enough time with each hero to invest in their struggles and goals. Meanwhile, Modern Warfare’s well-known realism fears formed an uncomfortable backdrop for its shocking ensembles. It is impossible to separate a gas attack in the midst of his campaign from the Gulf War environment that it reproduces so meticulously.
However, the new Infiniti Ward triumphed in one area it had never seen during its previous iteration: de-escalation. As each entry in the original Modern Warfare trilogy attempted to level up its predecessor, the reboot lowered the volume. One mission asked players to distinguish between a terrorist and an innocent in a London home, while the Gunfight online mode asked them to only follow in the footsteps of two enemies.
That intimate relationship informed Warzone, which despite the sweeping battle royale, is often confined to cat and mouse fights inside cramped buildings. The studio seems to have learned that a lot of movement comes at the cost of stress.
As Warzone’s player base grows, the plan is to manage the battle royale as a cutting edge story, with Treyarch’s Black Ops replay characters and events folded. Infinity Ward now faces the same challenge it did before this split: to keep its stories connected, and to resist the urge to make each explosion bigger than the previous one. At least it has seasoned storytellers and a rival to keep it sharp: Even from afar, at the helm of Respawn, Vince Zampella is helping keep the studio he co-founded on the right track.