World War II is rich with history so it makes sense film makers, novelists, and developers keep going back to it for the backdrop of their stories. Activision is no exception and they return to this tumultuous era after visiting it a few short years ago. Its campaign shows a war from different perspectives and makes for a solid few hours of combat and cutscenes.
- Polina Petrova’s campaign chapter;
- Lots of multiplayer content and pacing options;
- Beautiful cutscenes and photorealistic graphics.
- Barebones Zombie mode;
- Not enough standout changes.
Its bread-and-butter multiplayer also looks familiar with a few slight adjustments that make for a better experience compared to say, Cold War’s clunky mess. Even Zombies is back with some interesting changes that make it tolerable to a wider audience. Together all three aspects of Vanguard make for an entertaining experience that plays it but doesn’t take the risks you wish it would.
Call of Duty: Vanguard is a World War II game, but thankfully it doesn’t rehash the same tropes most WWII games go over. Yes, Hitler’s name is mentioned a few times, Normandy is a location you visit, and a U-boat makes an appearance. These tropes aside, Vanguard follows the fictional story of a band of multinational experts on a mission to uncover Project Phoenix, a secret Nazi operation. Things don’t go as planned and they are captured and interrogated by Nazi officer Jannick Richter.
Each character’s past unwraps in flashbacks during their interrogations, and you learn who they are and where they come from. What makes the narrative unique is that it takes you around the world and touches on themes you wouldn’t expect in a Call of Duty game.
Richter, for instance, shows contempt towards commanding officer Arthur Kingsley due to this race and even mocks him by recommending him a book written by white supremacist Madison Grant. Later on, the 93rd infantry, a segregated military unit, plays a pivotal role in the story as you learn how much harder they have to work to prove themselves. It may not mean much in a Call of Duty campaign, but these moments bring depth to an otherwise linear story mode that feels like any other.
Each character’s flashback takes you to their time in history and follows their own story during the war. This format works in providing them with their own spotlight and sets the stage for their mission whether it be a dogfighting at the Battle of Midway, blowing up tanks in Lybia, or sniping from the rooftops in Stalingard. Character development, personality, and humor are present here, but because you jump from one character to the next, it also creates a staccato effect in the story. From a gameplay perspective though, missions are mainly the same in format: kill enemies, reach a checkpoint, kill more enemies, etc. And so despite traveling the world, battles and shootouts feel the same.
Highlights of War
The one standout is Polina Petrova’s chapter that shows various degrees of action, conflict, and even emotion and could very make for its own standalone game. From the beginning of her story, you get to see some beautifully rendered cutscenes of her daily life with her family in Stalingard that are later juxtaposed by the explosion and destruction that you see following a Nazi bomber attack. Polina’s flashback even includes parkour and stealth sections that offer some variety from the other character missions that are just shootouts. The acting is top notch, the sniping sections make for tense moments, and the music works to deliver this effect.
Visually, each chapter is beautifully rendered with photorealistic cutscenes that are weaved into the experience. It’s jarring, though, going from 60 fps to then a slower cutscene that has audio syncing errors, but this problem managed to correct itself on its own after a couple of chapters. A notable issue was the controls in Wade Jackson’s dogfighting mission that made it stand out for all the wrong reasons. Wonky flight controls don’t belong in a Call of Duty game.
Overall, the campaign is good but it could have taken bigger risks in its mission variety. Giving each character a unique ability during their chapter also seemed like a good idea, but it comes out gimmicky more than anything especially when you randomly give someone the ability to see enemies around him without any explanation as to why that is. Its themes and acting make it stand out from other past campaigns, and its characters are ones that grow on you.
Multiplayer is similar in that it gives you the tried-and-true Call of Duty experience, makes a few slight tweaks to it, but generally feels the same as years past. The overall speed of matches feels fluid, spawn points in certain maps are questionable if intentional, and certain guns feel overpowered compared to others. As always, multiplayer feels easy and fun to pick up but difficult and rewarding to master.
Some notable improvements this year include the ability to make Game Pacing adjustments when searching for matches. In addition match types, you can also select three pacing categories, Blitz, Tactical, or Assault, based on your playstyle or mood that day. Blitz lets you find matches where you constantly hear gunfire and where the kills are higher and the maps are smaller. Tactical mode gives you some time to breathe and spreads everyone out more while Assault is the middle ground.
New this year is also Patrol, a mode that acts as a moving hard point to protect. It’s a neat addition this year that can lead to some tense moments of defense and offense, but time will tell if it will make a mark and return in future titles.
Champion Hill mode is another new addition, but it acts like Gunfight did in previous titles. Teams of two or three face off against each other in a round robin until each team’s lot of lives goes down to zero. In between round you can also purchase guns and equip better defense to stay alive longer. It’s fast-paced, and the peer pressure of not dying so your team has a chance to move on is what will force you to play smart.
Other series staples like Domination and Deathmatch are obviously present, but now you also get 20 maps with more on the way. While quantity is always good, this selection is a mixed bag as some maps feature too many camping spots that get annoying after a while others feature degrees of verticality that are perfect for more planned Tactical runs. What’s great is that some maps also feature multiple destructive environments that change the look of a match the more people start shooting up the place but also add for some strategy and dynamism.
Call of Duty: Vanguard is built like a rollercoaster so you have your highs, your lows, and moments that flatline. There’s no question its three modes are fun to play and offer fans enough content to keep them busy for some time, but this is Call of Duty, after all. Until Activision does something completely different with the series, don’t expect it to feel too different each year.
Zombies also returns with some changes that players will either love or hate. Instead of a round-based mode, Zombies now revolves around completing objectives. Waves of zombies will still constantly be swarming you and your team, but you also have to be worried about collecting rune stones or escorting a floating skull to a destination. Once you complete an objective, you warp back to a hub location where you can upgrade yourself until your team decides on the next map to warp to.
This more simplistic approach to a mode that is so different from everything else makes Zombies easier to swallow for those needing a break from the usual multiplayer fare. It borders on barebones to an extent as you don’t really have any overarching main quest to complete – just round objectives. The Easter egg won’t release until December so you have until then to level up.
Playing it Safe
Call of Duty: Vanguard is built like a rollercoaster so you have your highs, your lows, and moments that flatline. Its campaign has a few highlights and tries to achieve something past stories haven’t been able to do, but you probably won’t remember more than half of what you played through as it doesn’t take enough risks to take it to the next level.
Our reviews are featured on Metacritic.
Playing it safe again, multiplayer is solid but gives you much of what you’re used to with the exception of filtering options it should have always had. Zombies is fun every now and then, but it also doesn’t feel complete. There’s no question all three modes of the game are fun to play and offer fans enough content to keep them busy for some time, but this is Call of Duty, after all. Until Activision does something completely different with the series, don’t expect it to feel too different each year.
Giancarlo Saldana | Gamepressure.com