Some of that is in how Infinite Warfare, for perhaps the first time in series history, has presented a single, unified and coherent storyline, which is held together by a core cast of characters and provides actual context and continuity for what you're doing in your missions.
Which... isn't a very high bar to clear, but this is Call of Duty we're talking about, so it's been a pleasant change to be engaging in coherent dialogue between the major setpieces for once, instead of suffering through some identikit soldier men say "OSCAR MIKE RTB ECHO CHARLIE 7" over and over while a map of Europe flashes.
Speaking of set pieces — remember, explosions are this series' bread and butter — this game has more memorable ones than the last few Call of Duty games combined. My favourite is crashing a space jeep onto the surface of the moon while everything around you explodes.
But I'm also partial to good Macross impersonations.
What I'm most liking, though (and is the point of this whole post), is the game's art design, which at first glance looks like "generic 2016 video game sci-fi", but gets better and better the closer you look.
Call this a weird fetish if you must, but I like my science-fiction to have some science in it. And I don't mean long-winded names for laser fire. I mean fiction, set in the future, that looks like it actually works.
I love Star Wars' aesthetic (classic trilogy, at least) because it looks real, and busted, and old, and like people have actually been using it for decades. I like Battlestar Galactica's remake because in addition to showing that even in make-believe worlds stuff needs to be repaired all the time, they bothered to deal with the logistics of the situation, from water supplies to re-arming the ship to the fate of the last tube of toothpaste in the universe.
Infinite Warfare's Jackal fighters were influenced not just by the F-22 Raptor and F-35, but the F-14 and Space Shuttle as well.
This commitment to a fictional sense of authenticity is something that can really help the visual aspect of a property endure independently of that movie or game or comic's central story or characters.
And so it is with Infinite Warfare, which is forgettable in so many ways, but whose ships (in particular the game's focus, the massive space carrier SATO Retribution), bodysuits, weapons and starfighters look as fantastic as they do functional. Not like they jumped straight off an artist's fanciful pen, not like they're a high school artist's homage to a Syd Mead brochure, but like they were the end result of human engineering and will actually work in the manner for which they were designed.
"It was always critical to stay as close to reality as possible", says Mike Hill, an artist who worked as a production designer on the game. "Moving Call of Duty into space was a big step for the series, so it was essential that the design values were anchored in existing technology, rather than fantastical concepts."
An example of the "1980" design goal: the Raven's cockpit looks more like the Cold War than Star Wars.
"Even technology that already exists today, such as holograms for example, were intentionally kept to a minimum so that the world would feel like a real, tactile place. Ultimately, it needed to feel closer to 1980 then 2080."
Some of the best examples of this can be found onboard the Retribution, the starship the player spends much of their time on during the game. Take a look at the background of this screenshot, for example:
And this one.
And this one.
And this one.
This is my jam. I love how this is at once a futuristic slick sci-fi starship, with its 3D displays and dropships, but also something that speaks to a more contemporary design language, reflecting in this vision of the future how the ships of today's navy work. The corridors and rooms of the Retribution aren't cavernous, well-lit areas with smooth white walls. They're cramped, functional spaces, covered in vents, pipes and power outlets, all of which makes the ship feel much more alive, and its crew's situation and living conditions something we can actually relate to.
None of which makes the shooting in Infinite Warfare any more fun, or the starfighter battles less repetitive, but like I said, within the boundaries of this fetish (and this is very much my fetish), it counts towards making this one of my favourite games of the year, to the point where my most memorable moments have been the ones between missions where I've been free to wander the Retribution's halls and hangar bays.
In these snippets of downtime there isn't much to do. You don't get to play minigames, or change outfits, or romance crewmates. But that's OK. It's been a pleasure enough just sticking my head into every corner of the Retribution (or any other big ship or facility in the game) and seeing how stuff works, because it's not every day I get the chance to see the inner workings of a giant starship that doesn't actually exist.
An early design concept for the interior of the Retribution.
"The Retribution was based primarily on real aircraft carriers - with the obvious adjustment that it goes into space", Hill says. "This meant the flight deck had to be internalised, creating exciting opportunities for the launch and return sequences that were critical to the seamless in-game experience."
Which certainly explains why not just the appearance of the ship feels real, but the feel of walking its corridors as well. "Everything in the Retribution is legitimately a real physical space. No phantom elevators. The only way to get the game's seamless load times practically was to do it properly... that ship could theoretically be built".
The video above is an overview Hill put together showcasing the designs he made for the game, comparing them to the final cutscenes and in-game sequences. Below you'll find some images. You can see more at his ArtStation page.
Fine Art is a celebration of the work of video game artists, showcasing the best of both their professional and personal portfolios.
"The Jackal's air frame was based loosely on the F-22 Raptor - but was adjusted to factor in the practical systems required for what it needed to achieve", Hill says. "The engine configuration was adjusted for vertical take off and landing, similar to the F-35. Disposable rocket boosters were integrated for orbital launches, and the wing profile was made adjustable for atmospheric re-entry, which was influenced by the Space Shuttle and F-14 Tomcat. The Jackal really is four vehicles in one, which made it a lot of fun to develop."
"The Raven is an odd combination of V-22 Osprey, space shuttle and C-130 Hercules", Hill says. "These inspirations were only valuable for their functional principles though, such as aerodynamics, materials, powerplant placement etc. You can't just mash three vehicles together, it's important to carefully integrate their various systems into a harmonious whole - a process that is surprisingly logical, even though the emergent result seems aesthetically driven."
"The Raven and Jackal vehicles were developed simultaneously with the Retribution as they needed to be compatible with its flight deck - a complex animated space with return and launch bays", Hill says. "The three vehicles were designed as one logistical system - my job was to communicate this overall function through animatics, models and concept art."