Call Of Duty: Vanguard (campaign) review: war, war never changes
We've been here before
If you’ve played a Call Of Duty campaign in the last decade, Call Of Duty: Vanguard doesn’t bring anything new to the ride. This is a familiar World War 2 funfair, where you’re steered through artillery strikes and down swathes of enemies like its whack-a-mole. By the time you get off, it’s all blurred into one forgettable experience. How could you emerge shellshocked, when you’ve seen it all before?
The campaign sees a group of soldiers from various allied nations band together to form Task Force One, an unruly spec-ops unit brought to life by wonderful voice-acting and animation work. When things kick off, the Nazis are on the brink of defeat, but there’s this secret plan to keep the Reich alive. Task Force One are to unearth this plot and set these plans ablaze.
Each member of Task Force One is inspired by real-life World War 2 heroes. They are all strong personalities and check the boxes for an ‘entertaining cast of characters’: there’s the boisterous one, the level-headed one, the quiet one, and so on. There is banter and bickering and they each have a particular set of skills. In many ways, they’re reminiscent of the Guardians Of The Galaxy, only with far more mundane superpowers.
Although I wouldn’t say the story runs quite as smoothly as a Marvel film. As Task Force One inches towards its goal in the present, you’re reeled into each team member’s origin story at regular intervals. Without these flashbacks, the game wouldn’t last longer than 30 minutes; the past makes up the bulk of the story.
Of all the heroes, Polina Petrova, a Russian sniper, offers the most exciting tale. You’re transported back to the Battle Of Stalingrad where the comforts of family are quickly torn apart by the chaos of the German invasion. Wade Jackson, an ace fighter pilot, also has some standout moments in the Battle Of Midway. A mixture of dog-fighting, tense encounters in the jungle, and a great team-up with the 93rd Infantry Division, the “coloured” segregated unit of the United States army.
Vanguard’s campaign is at its best when it’s mixing things up with stealth sections and vehicular combat. Moments of quiet also help to humanise characters like Polina, her family, and the ordinary people trapped in the horrors of war. There’s this bit where you share some coffee with her family. One where you scramble across rooftops and bump into friendly neighbours. Another has you stalk a Nazi leader with just a knife in-hand, as you dip between broken book shelves and discarded mannequins.
Speaking of which, each member of Task Force One actually does have a ‘superpower’- I wasn’t kidding. Polina moves faster when crouched and can climb stuff well. Wade can activate a “Focus” mode that slows down time and auto-aims to enemies. Others like Riggs can swap between different explosives, and Kingsley can order soldiers to distract or attack things. They’re okay, just not that exciting, really.
Occasionally, the game gives you options. You can either go stealthy and backstab people, or you can go all guns blazing. But that’s as far as the game will let you push its constraints. This is a campaign that’s as linear as it gets. There’s no light backtracking or optional objectives or even collectibles to find here. I’m all for a smooth ride, but this is one that has you buckled in too tight. The environments are genuinely beautiful, and yet it’s a shame they don’t let you explore them. At times I was ahead of the objective marker, waiting for my allies to catch up. It was like I’d caught the earlier train.
And even when Vanguard’s mixing things up, it’s doing them in ways we’ve seen countless times in past Call Of Duty games. When it wants to slow things down, your character will get caught in an explosion and awaken to a soldier dragging you to your feet. Or you might have to follow someone’s lead as you skulk around some enemies. If there's a budding bromance, it'll likely end with your mate taking a bullet to the chest. Tick, tick, and tick.
This is a shame, as Call Of Duty has shown it can deliver interesting twists on military missions. Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare has that brilliant Clean House level, which transforms an ordinary home into a tense exercise in trigger discipline. Black Ops Cold War has a branching story, with key decisions that lead to different endings. Vanguard seems disinterested in taking on the baton, if anything, it’s comfortable skipping the race entirely.
Call Of Duty: Vanguard’s campaign has its moments, but ultimately, it feels rather forgettable. This is cookie cutter COD held together by a cast of strong characters. Fine if you’d like a few hours of rough and tumble through World War 2, but that’s your lot.