You dock on an asteroid orbiting dangerously close to the sun. You’re here to investigate an outpost on the rock, one of the micro-settlements set up to extract the resources humans have long since plundered to extinction on Earth. The residents of the outpost are not at all happy about your presence; they’ve already declared their desire for independence from their former home, with its insatiable demand for ore and minerals. Resources are limited here, as they were on Earth, and owning them is more important than human alliances.
While Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, published this month by Activision, is set far in the future, the year’s other major first-person shooter, Electronic Arts’ Battlefield 1, takes place on the front lines of the Great War. Both titles expose the roots of some of the direst geopolitical problems of the present. ISIS may keep ideology in the headlines, but from the Syrian conflict to the Mexican drug wars to the South China Sea dispute, resource control is always there, lurking behind the rhetoric and cranking up the war machine. The battlefield and the technology may change, but the human motivation for war rarely does.
“Fighter-jet pilots will talk to us, and they’ll point up,” says Infinite Warfare narrative director Taylor Kurosaki, describing the research process. “They’re not pointing to the sky; they’re pointing beyond the reaches of the atmosphere and telling us that the next theater of war is beyond Earth. I could absolutely see Infinite Warfare’s future as a plausible one.”
Down here, oil is a central concern of Battlefield 1, with a particular focus on the national borders that make the resource abundant for some and virtually nonexistent for others.
“World War I wasn’t just fought in trenches,” says Lars Gustavsson, the game’s design director. “We tried to portray different locations—the expected ones along the Western Front, where there was a lot of trench warfare, as well as the Italian Alps and the battle for oil in the Middle East. The British Empire building dreadnoughts meant there was suddenly a need for oil to feed war machines. As such, the Brits and the Ottoman Empire clashed.”
Battlefield 1 shows how the creation of oil-dependent vehicles and weapons signaled the end of horseback cavalry and man-pulled artillery. When you’re riding a horse that’s toppled by a tank or staring down the approach of a well-thrown grenade, you sense the futility experienced by armies relying on old-world approaches—and the narcotic high that comes with advanced weaponry. Then, as now, those in control of the resources vital for the latest technologies would come to rule the battlefield, and the world.
Politics aside, both games deliver the goods—Infinite Warfare with its stunning set pieces and zero-gravity gunplay, Battlefield 1 with its massive array of combat options. Gamers will argue over which is king of the genre, but they’re best consumed together. If you want a vivid picture of today’s world, how we’ve arrived here and where we might be going, this is a good place to start.