America - Front
America - Back
By Lee Mehr 08th Dec 2021 | 2,795 views
Reviewer's Note: Since I have some heavy storytelling criticisms for Vanguard, I can't avoid mentioning SPOILERS altogether. Read on at your own risk.
Another year, another Call of Duty (CoD) washes ashore. Even though the epoch depicted by lead developer Sledgehammer Games (& a gumbo of supporting teams in tow) is familiar territory, perhaps newer tech can bestow greater innovations. For the 18th mainline entry in this series, that's a tremendous gamble to take with fans' patience. And given a title like Call of Duty: Vanguard, it's all the more ironic that this is one of the series' most obsequious foot-soldiers to date.
April 1945. The first-ever special operations task force, call sign "Vanguard," is onboard a train to Hamburg, Germany. This elite team comprised of several nationalities – British, Russian, American, Australian, and Czech – goes behind enemy lines to gather more information about Project Phoenix. After their plans go to hell, they're captured by the Nazis and brought back to Berlin for questioning. Their subsequent interrogation sets off a series of flashbacks depicting each member's previous war stories, spanning the European, Russian, North African, and Pacific theaters.
Even among recent entries, this ranks as one of the series’ most uninspired narratives. Flashback-heavy stories tend to be a personal bugbear of mine due to their frequency in hitting the worst pitfalls. But even the most elementary of them implicitly justify that structure. Oberst-Gruppenführer Freisinger – the head of the Gestapo – has his most dangerous enemies by the neck and carts them further into the lion's den (Berlin) because he... wants to know what they know about his secret project? How's that worth the risk while The Allies are on the verge of taking Berlin anyways? Considering how disposable he and desk lackey/chief interrogator Jannick Richter (played by Dominic Monaghan) consider them anyway, this haziness around the antagonists' motivations is never properly clarified.
It's also hilarious how abruptly some of the flashbacks arrive too. When some of the squad act embittered towards the American pilot for supposedly ditching them, the team leader (Arthur Kingsley) breaks it up by essentially saying "let me regale you with a tale about why he's actually a good chap." And since Arthur’s a reliable narrator, we already know he’s mapped out a plan and his team is immediately onboard. Any betrayals are just an obvious façade. Imagine if we weren’t told this and genuine tension of Arthur’s leadership came into question with his newly-formed squad; instead, this story’s stripped of such interesting dynamics because of course the Allies have to remain resolute all the time. Those examples of poor management lead to a perpetual mismatch of what the audience already intuits and what the writers think is a big revelation.
Stepping beyond the tawdry plotting, virtually all characters are banal inserts outside of the haughty Russian sniper, also known as "Lady Nightingale." She's the only one given succinct characterization; she's seen the Nazi’s despotic bloodlust against civilians first-hand and players experience a little slice of her pre-combat life too. Outside of that scintilla of credit, the rest of the main ensemble struggle to appear more authentic than certain NPC teammates. It's just that dire. Mix in cringe-inducing dialogue and you have Vanguard's characters in a nutshell.
When taking a wide-scale view, it's disconcerting how tonally vapid World War II feels as a setting here. "Histrionic history" is how I'd put it. On its own, there's nothing inherently wrong with pulpy sensibilities written into this subject matter (see also: modern Wolfenstein titles); further, this series has happily indulged in that numerous times. The issue becomes stranger when lip service is paid to real-world people whom inspired your characters, but the framing relies on the safest context imaginable. Just imagine if Chloe Price (Life is Strange) was a creative executive pitching Vanguard: "war is hell... but it could be hella fun.”
To the surprise of no one, CoD has another dud of a story. The shock here is that, even by lowered expectations of a blockbuster, the nonsensical structure and uncreative scenarios result in one of the series' most irrelevant campaigns. Sledgehammer (& co.) hire a surfeit of quality actors/voice actors, utilize excellent mo-cap technology, and then do nothing interesting with either. It's one of the dullest diverse team-ups against the Nazis of recent memory and it sequel-baits its best potential.
This facsimile of a united team is also revealed through its gameplay. What does it say about your game when the most notable moments of cooperation are depicted during scripted events that can be triggered without your input or overly-produced cut scenes? Going back to a similar talking point, the over-emphasized flashback structure also reveals how dry and unearned the team's comradery feels in the present. You do more lobotomized Brothers in Arms' command inputs with random soldiers in the past than your ragtag squad in the present.
When looking at it on a purely mechanical level, Vanguard mostly keeps to the same script as its progenitors – for better or worse. The shooting template and production values have been transplanted, and subtly updated, from Modern Warfare's new engine. The cacophonous rattle of gunfire and combined visual feedback still successfully taps into those lizard-brain dopamine rushes. Adding to said template are modest-yet-functionally-useless tweaks like blindfiring behind cover and destructible walls that can be busted through with tactical sprint or explosives.
Familiar bugbears of Call of Duty's gameplay structure can't help but wrestle away most player expression too. Obnoxious "leaving mission" pop-ups emblazon the screen should you move a mere angstrom off the prescribed path, which isn’t always clearly sign-posted already; occasionally, nettlesome invisible walls will keep you corralled instead. This goes beyond level design too. Unconvinced players have any gray matter, The American’s unique ability is magically highlighting every enemy within a 12-block radius and auto-aiming at as many as possible (before the meter runs out).
Although a few of Vanguard's issues are uniquely annoying among mainline entries, I still went in anticipating some dissatisfaction by default. But that came with a trade-off: a predictable set of systems to play with in exchange for high-octane moments with better polish than any FPS competitor. I always thought aspects like a consistent 60fps & general polish greatly contributed to its 7th-gen success. Here? Floating objects, enemies I'd killed flying through the air, frequent texture pop-in, annoying framerate hiccups after loading in a level, and more point to this being a rushed release. Of all the criticisms I have to level against Vanguard, these are among the most surprising.
Coming up for fresh air, at least some credit is due to the Russian missions. Its boss & mini-boss bouts are rather predictable, but there's something to actually dig into. Polina's best combative arenas capture a stealth-action flow that pays off. You're either fluidly maneuvering under tables or platforming to higher ground for an advantage. Think modern Wolfenstein titles, but not quite as intricately paced. The stealth mechanics are incredibly basic, but it's nice to let a level breathe for once. It's also good because it captures the vicious reputation of Lady Nightingale through gameplay.
Overall, Vanguard's campaign is a decisive step backwards in virtually everything but tech. The story feels aimless to the point of straining mental faculties to make sense of it, gameplay relies on character abilities that vary from laughably bland to insanely unbalanced, and its unpolished launch state leaves a black eye on one of CoD's most consistent promises. Leave it to a concept focusing on the very first spec ops team to feel so disjointed and capricious in terms of execution.
Up next on the chopping block is the Nazi Zombies mode. Coming off of Black Ops Cold War and its subsequent DLC, Treyarch co-developed Vanguard's Der Anfang (currently its only map). The realities of game development are most readily apparent here, which will disappoint any hardcore fan.
The script is similar to any previous Zombies mode: survive waves of tougher and tougher enemies whilst traveling to portals scattered across the map that'll have a specific objective (protect a floating skull, survive an onslaught, or survive an onslaught and collect runes from those corpses). There is a story occurring in the background, one of the Allies and helpful demons trying to defeat Kortifex the Deathless and Oberführer Wolfram Von List, but the context isn't interesting. Its current "story" structure is like a worse version of Titanfall: various characters temporarily Facetiming you dialogue lines while the growling zombie horde is on your tail.
Given that my last Zombies experience was Infinite Warfare, I'm perplexed at how insipid and bare-bones this feels at launch. Instead of purchasing guns off various walls, you select a custom class with a different weapon and special power (such as a short personal ice barrier) at the start then roll the dice on RNG drops or the Mystery Box later. There are – currently – no mythical weapons, nor did I see any neat traps like in past offerings. It's the little details like zombies randomly spawning on the map or passing through a magical veil instead of ripping down a barricade that make engagements feel more bland. I like how threatening they seem when a cluster is viciously ripping off planks. By this point, I was surprised they remembered to include Pack-a-Punch weapon upgrading and passive buffs (either in the form of elixirs or Covenants).
There's a distinct sense of patchwork game design anywhere you look. Each of the portals just transports you to a sliver of a multiplayer arena, an old Zombies map, or even a section of the Stalingrad hub world. You could literally take a short portal ride back to the starting area! You can't make this stuff up. All they did was drape a different visual filter over these spots, erect some artificial barriers, and call it a day. Even useless alterations like the Borderlands-esque number-vomit indicators feel so lifeless here. The only hint of dynamic tactics comes from machinegun-toting Sturmkriegers mixed with melee variants, but it's nothing to oversell either.
I was losing interest in this mode a half-hour in. Hell, I barely squeezed an hour out until dismissing it altogether. That admission could draw some ire; some may say I ought to further investigate the ins-and-outs of its design. You can take me at my word for this: my lack of play time emphasizes how quickly you burn through the meat of this particular mode and how stale it tastes. In its current form, I'd rather go back to World at War's DLC maps with friends.
The only aspect that comes away less-bruised by comparison is the competitive multiplayer. As easy as it is to go after the social Darwinism baked into its DNA, CoD has weathered an incredible number of me-too shooters over the years. From the fun personality of your nametag and emblem to tactical customization of your preferred materiel for combat, the panoply of options can feel overwhelming. There's a subtle level of fun in seeing standard-issue WWII classics being dressed to the nines with unexpected grips, sights, and colors. Even after so many tries, it's tough to find a direct competitor that matches it.
Complimenting that customization is a surfeit of maps and modes. The vast majority of Deathmatch and Objective-based variants remain stalwart, but all are influenced by a new all-encompassing matchmaking feature: Combat Pacing. Each standard map can have a designated pacing of Tactical (6v6), Assault (10v10/12v12), or Blitz (24v24). I think Blitz is an absolute nightmare, but I can get the appeal of scoring insane streaks in a fragfest like that. Tweaking Modern Warfare's Gunfight mode is the new "Champions Hill", which is structured like a round-robin tournament against multiple teams at once. Whether playing Solos, Duos, or Trios, each team has a set pool of lives and the last team/person standing wins the tournament.
As nice as it is to enjoy a panoply of options across looks, modes, and pacing options, the needle doesn't move far without solid maps and gameplay systems to compliment them. In this regard, there's work to be done. One of the easiest ways to emphasize this is the quality disparity between new and refurbished maps (16 regular, 4 for Champions Hill). An old World at War map like Dome, which was already a clusterfuck to begin with, being transplanted here with the new killstreak options is borderline insane to me. Contrast that with Hotel Royal, a lavish area that utilizes destructible objects in smart ways, and you can immediately tell Vanguard's gameplay systems were wholly considered while crafting it. The quality inconsistency, especially with regards to spawn points, makes fun contingent on the dice roll from the automated map selector.
If you'd already made up your mind about the hyper-active spawn/kill/die template this series popularized then there's little done here to convince you otherwise. If you still get your dopamine fix from this set-up, know that it's also seen better days. Not least of which is thanks to previously mentioned issues, inconsistent weapon balancing (akimbo sawed-off shotguns say hello), and rare audio queue issues. Considering how often Call of Duty: Warzone (a separate free-to-play game) and its Pacific map are intertwined with Vanguard's advertising, and how progression is linked with it, it's hard to say how quickly the necessary TLC will arrive.
Leave it for a subtitle like "Vanguard" to be attached to such a safe title – even by Call of Duty's own standards. Aside from select tweaks to competitive multiplayer, you see this play out across all fronts; there are brief intimations of an interesting idea before the game retreats to a comfy routine. What sours this even further is the clear decline of polish alongside these expectations. WWII has seen better days.
Despite being one of newest writers on VGChartz, Lee has been a part of the community for over a decade. His gaming history spans several console generations: N64 & NES at home while enjoying some Playstation, SEGA, and PC titles elsewhere. Being an Independent Contractor by trade (electric, plumbing, etc.) affords him more gaming luxuries today though. Reader warning: each click given to his articles only helps to inflate his Texas-sized ego. Proceed with caution.