2021 marks the tenth anniversary since the release of my beloved Modern Warfare 3, and while many will guffaw into their neckbeards and say that not much has changed for the franchise since that time, anyone who has played Call of Duty every year for a decade knows differently. But even if I can see that the juggernaut FPS franchise has changed significantly, it’s me that’s changed the most. I’m no longer the sweaty trash-talker I once was, hooked on SMG and shotgun rushing, able to play for days on end while smashing six-packs of Highlander Scotch and Cola like my KD depended on it. These days I’m a little more mellow, but my love for the series has never waned. Only one instalment in the past decade made me feel like perhaps the series was going places I couldn’t follow it, and that was 2019’s Modern Warfare. The map design, the goddamn doors, the femtosecond time to kill, it just didn’t jive with me or hold my interest. It did however feature a stellar campaign, a decent enough consolation prize in the scheme of things. It’s unfortunate then that Call of Duty: Vanguard basically robs from Modern Warfare wholesale and shoehorns it into WW2, but at the same time forgets to steal the stellar campaign. The multiplayer component (the important bit) is an improvement on that title, with some decent map design and a fantastic continuation of the Gunsmith system, but the same frustrations rear their head as they did in Modern Warfare.
Vanguard’s campaign is as safe as they come, telling the story of a crack team of operatives from across the globe investigating the mysterious Project Phoenix, at a time towards the end of World War II. If you recall, things weren’t too rosy for the Third Reich in 1945, but even with their empire falling down around their ears, Project Phoenix seems to suggest that they perhaps aren’t down for the count. It’s got a slight alternate history slant, letting the writers take liberties with the historical narrative a bit, but it’s certainly not on the level as something like Wolfenstein. The bulk of the short 6–8 hour campaign actually concerns itself far less with the present fall of the Nazis, and more with the individual stories of the people within the special unit trying to uncover the mysteries of Project Phoenix – the trials and tribulations they’ve faced, the losses they’ve suffered and their motivations forged in the fires of war.
Proof that renewable wind energy is dangerous
I like the idea of the personal stories, but in execution the characters teeter dangerously on the precipice of caricature in their depiction. Despite their various backgrounds, they basically boil down to being a brazen, arrogant bunch who have all seen some shit, are tough as nails but have hearts of gold. Given that the gameplay is barely any different no matter who you’re controlling, it’s all a bit tired, and not quite as engaging as it perhaps thinks it is. Not even the lamington-loving Australian (I’m not making this up) can rescue the experience from an overwhelming sense of tedium, and the whole shebang just lacks punch. I do appreciate the inclusion of my countrymen, and the Rats of Tobruk section is probably one of the strongest, but despite some authentic voice acting behind the Aussies who feature, they are responsible for some extremely ordinary lines of dialogue that are cringy at best (calling a plane a ‘sky wanker’ is a highlight), and treasonous at worst (misusing the idiom ‘not here to fuck spiders’…carn mate).
But while you may feel like you’ve played this campaign and its ilk many times before, it is at least quite beautiful to look at. Steamy jungles, barren moonlit deserts and the crumbling ruins of Stalingrad are all wondrously brought to life with meticulous detail. Particle effects are amazing, and perhaps it is the pyromaniac in me but the fire effects in particular (it’s war, everything’s on fire) were especially pleasing to behold. I also loved the facial capture, even if those wonderfully animated faces were predominately strapped to one-dimensional characters. The notable exception is the skittish German interrogator Richter, a sub-villain played to perfection by Dominic Monaghan and captured perfectly in ell written cutscenes. He steals the show on several occasions in tense sequences that are almost Inglorious Bastards-esque in their execution. These sequences take their time to organically showcase Richter’s deep-seated insecurities as he clings to borrowed power in the twilight of a dying regime that would put him up against a wall in a heartbeat once his usefulness had run dry. It made me yearn for more of these sequences, as the character vignettes that take up the bulk of the runtime weren’t nearly as compelling.
Is that a clip in your Sten or are you just happy to see me?
But while you may feel like you’ve played this campaign and its ilk many times before, it is at least quite beautiful to look at. Steamy jungles, barren moonlit deserts and the crumbling ruins of Stalingrad are all wondrously brought to life with meticulous detail.
As mentioned, Vanguard bears overwhelming similarity to Modern Warfare, both in a good and bad way. If you liked that title then you’ll find more of the same here, but I think it does successfully tone down some of the less palatable features. My main bone of contention with Modern Warfare was the map design, whereby maps were horrendously cluttered, and lacked logical flow. With so many blocked sight lines, confusing levels of verticality, countless nooks and crannies to camp in, and more openable doors than you could poke a claymore at, Modern Warfare’s multiplayer was a sheer paranoia simulator. While the doors still feature to some extent in Vanguard, they’re not overly obtrusive, and the new pieces of destructible bits to the environment actually work pretty well. While it’s certainly not on the level of Battlefield, it’s a nice touch to have pieces of the walls and floors able to be to be blown up or punched Kyle-style after necking a few Red Bulls, and they introduce new sightlines and paths through the maps. While maps are more complex in terms of layout and size compared to the standard Call of Duty fare, they mostly have a relative flow that makes the good ones easy to read. Some do fall victim to having far too much going on, and Sub Pens and Tuscan feel unfocused and frustrating to fight on. Maps in general do suffer from the classic brown and grey WW2 filter so popular in the FPS sphere of yore, and I don’t feel like any of them have a distinctive character that makes them truly memorable.
A great addition is the ability to use a filter during matchmaking to tailor the intensity of the fight to your preferences, choosing between Tactical, Assault or Blitz pacing. This controls the amount of players on a map, and if you enjoy target-rich environments and want twenty players duking it out in a map the size of a shoebox, then Blitz has you covered. On the other side of the spectrum, I definitely found that Tactical had a much better feel, as the subtleties of artisanal map design felt like they were crash-tackled out the window when they were over-populated as in the other pacings, but this is all down to personal preference, and I’m glad the option was there. One of the benefits of Call of Duty is the large player base, such that if you like a particular blend of modes and pacings, you’re not going to have a hard time finding like-minded individuals. I will say that no matter the pacing, Dome sucks (sorry World at War diehards), with some of the most awful spawning I’ve ever experienced in a Call of Duty game.
The Gunsmith system returns and is still excellent. There are ludicrous amounts of attachments to be unlocked and tinkered with for a characteristically huge array of weaponry, and there are now helpful numerical indicators that show exactly how a given attachment will affect a weapon. With many attachments and combinations thereof radically affecting how a gun behaves, there’s a great sense of personalisation once you’ve found a tool of death you particularly like. Another returning aspect that I like is eliminations rather than kills (an elimination is awarded as long as you contribute to the death of an enemy), as it completely does away with kill stealing and encourages teamwork. Killstreaks over scorestreaks is also a solid choice in my humble opinion. I’ve never loved the concept of scorestreaks, and a simple 10 kills to unleash the dawgs suits me down to the ground.
Still got it
The operators you control in multiplayer currently need a bit of life injected into them, as they’re all a bit plain and samey. There is some limited cosmetic customisability to each, but it’s currently very shallow, with only a couple of options available to make you stand out from the plebs. This is painfully highlighted by the game’s insistence on a voting round at the end of the match for a team MVP out of three potential players. One of two animations for each nominee is played out one after the other in what is an excruciatingly drawn-out sequence that makes you sit there and do nothing for far too long. I’m sure the inexorable march of the Battle Pass will have us all dabbing and flossing in no time, but I’d be happy if the end of the match voting system got taken out back and unceremoniously retired.
A new Call of Duty title will generally experiment with the introduction of a new mode, and in this spirit Vanguard introduces Champion Hill. If you don’t know what Champion Hill is, then the over-the-top gruff narrator will explain it to you at the start of the match…every single fucking time. Basically you can play solo, or in a team of two or three, with a limited pool of shared lives to conserve in short timed rounds against one of seven other teams on small maps. You can earn cash in each round for various feats which can then be spent on upgrading your arsenal, buying perks, support items and the like. Your objective is to be the last team out of the original eight to have lives left, and given the intimate nature of the maps and small player count in each round this one is definitely a lot more fun to play with a mic’d-up and coordinated team. The sparse handful of maps are a little bland, but it’s a tense mode that provides an alternative to the timeless classics of Team Deathmatch, Domination and Kill Confirmed. Even if I don’t see it being a mainstay for the franchise as a whole, its existence does nothing to harm the multiplayer experience.
The ever popular Zombies mode returns, but even though I’m not a Zombies aficionado, even I can tell that it’s a little barebones at launch. With no real Easter eggs or weird obscure progression through the level to pursue, Der Anfang boils down to a series of very simple objective-based sections (of which there are only three flavours) accessed through portals, and then an optional exfil once you’ve done enough of these (or you can just keep going until you die). There’s a fanatical Zombies community who are no doubt a little disappointed by what’s currently on offer, but there’s a promise that the experience will begin to be fleshed out (pun!) starting next month.
It’d be silly to expect radical innovation from a Call of Duty game, and in general no fan has such expectation. Vanguard’s multiplayer though is so similar in feel to Modern Warfare that one wonders if it really needs to exist, and its campaign fails to excite on top of that. The multiplayer is certainly fun and functional, but the whole experience feels like it’s in a holding pattern, borrowing heavily from the past and failing to forge a sense of identity. The mighty Call of Duty machine will continue to march on, but you wonder if a few soldiers might start getting left behind if the series fails to reinvigorate itself.
Reviewed on Xbox Series X // Review copy supplied by publisher
- Sledgehammer Games
- PS5 / PS4 / Xbox Series X&S / Xbox One / PC
- November 5, 2021