Call of Duty: Vanguard might not reach the lows of 2017's World War 2, but it certainly doesn't meet the expectations of its marketing material which proudly boasts it to be "the best WWII game". Now, whilst a slogan like this elicits the same laughability as Activision Blizzard's failed attempt to improve its reputation in the wake of sexual discrimination allegations, you do have to feel a little sorry for the developers here – those are some really big expectations, aren't they? Well, whilst Vanguard isn't "the best WWII game" ever, it certainly isn't the worst, though its campaign does suffer under the weight of those lofty expectations.
In my four-to-five hour playthrough of Sledgehammer's latest Call of Duty campaign, one question couldn't leave my mind: when is this bloody thing going to kick-off? The idea of five brothers in arms taking on the Nazi regime has been done to death in games and films alike, but there is something uniquely appealing about the way that they set up the game's campaign in its marketing material. The problem, though, is what results is an experience that fails to deliver on the character development it promised, whilst simultaneously failing to deliver the memorable set-pieces we've come to expect from a Call of Duty game. Honestly, who is this even for?
CoD Vanguard Campaign Review: Heroic Heroes & Villainous Villains
When playing the Campaign portion of Vanguard's various offerings, you dive in with a certain expectation: a typical Call of Duty campaign with some top-shelf character development, and a loveable band of world-weary warriors. The problem is that, during the four to five hours it takes to reach the end of this on-the-rails experience, Sledgehammer Games does little but present as with a team of caricatures, none of whom could be mistaken as interesting. The whole thing is, admittedly, a lot of fun, but it does leave you wondering "what the hell happened"? It all feels far too over-the-top, almost cartoonish, and fails to create any feeling of connection to the characters.
The highlight of the campaign is, as we all expected, Laura Bailey's Polina. Her opening sequence, in which you meet her brother and father to enjoy a little supper, is the closest that Vanguard comes to impactful storytelling. When everything inevitably falls apart, you feel it, and Polina's quest for vengeance takes on a stronger and more believable note. It's just a shame that her second character-focused mission ends in one of the most ill-conceived, irritating, and pointless boss battles I have ever experienced in a Call of Duty campaign. It's just frustrating, and undercuts what is, certainly, the strongest storytelling to be had in Call of Duty: Vanguard.
You see, apart from Vanguard, every other character in the game serves to form an almost cookie-cutter approach to your classic B-Grade WWII flick. There's the arrogant pilot, the all-too serious British paratrooper, his best mate, and the serious Russian. Most egregious, at least to me, was the insufferable Lucas Riggs, who embodies every annoying Australian stereotype you could thing of, as well as one of Vanguard's biggest weaknesses: it's writing.
The constant references to wanting Lamingtons upon his returning to Australia, the constant (and often incorrect) Aussie slang he adopts, and his stereotypical 'larrikin' attitude towards his superiors make Riggs yet another example of why American companies need to leave us Aussies alone. Look, I might seem to be bashing on Vanguard's campaign a little too harshly here, but the whole thing was marketed on character development, and when most of the game's characters are nothing but one-dimensional caricatures, that's a little bit problematic.
In the game's first mission, Polina utters the line: "I shoot Nazis. They die. That's my plan." To me, this embodies one of the game's biggest weaknesses. The aforementioned writing is at times so laced with clichés and awkwardness that you could easily mistake it for a game from 2005. I understand that this is Call of Duty, you can hardly expect it to be Shakespeare, but we moved on from this half-assed approach to dialog a decade ago. Surely we shouldn't be going backwards?
Another highlight of the game's campaign is Dominic Monaghan's villain. Jannick Richter is the Nazi Officer who interrogates the crew throughout the campaign, and is possibly the most interesting character Vanguard has to offer. Played brilliantly by the actor behind Merry in Lord of the Rings, Richter's struggle to please his superiors contrasts fascinatingly with the brutality of his actual deeds. As the game progresses, and Berlin is caught in the death-throws of German Nazism, the changes in his character, and his reactions to the goings-on around him, actually play out in a really interesting way. It's just a shame that, in the end, you're left facing off against the far-less interesting arch-villain, Hermann Wenzel Freisinger.
CoD Vanguard Campaign Review: Where Are the Set-Pieces?
The campaign we are presented with in Call of Duty: Vanguard is certainly trying to be epic, and whilst it has its moments, it seemingly manages to avoid the massive set-pieces we've come to expect from the series. There's nothing egregious here, for sure, but also nothing particularly interesting. Highlights include both of Polina's missions (excluding that awful boss fight we mentioned above), and the penultimate mission (titled "The Battle of El Alamein) – if you can suffer through Lucas Rigg's incessant yapping, that is.
On the flip side, the aerial "Battle of Midway" mission offers a little bit of the spectacle we usually expect from CoD missions, but it's completely on-rails and the game's Aeroplanes control about as well as a cow's rear-end. The ensuing Numa Numa Trail is just an irritating slog through the jungles of Bougainville, the largest of the Solomon Islands, and is clogged by an ill-conceived stealth section. In Black Ops Cold War there were some really strong stealth sections, but in Vanguard it just feels slow, heavy, and dull. Lord help us if this is a representation of what we can expect from Warzone's new Caldera Map...
Still, there is a lot of fun to be had in Call of Duty: Vanguard's Campaign, especially on some of the harder difficulties. As usual, the map design is on-point, and there is tremendous fun to be had from running around some of the more open areas, figuring out how to utilize each of the characters' unique abilities to the best of their respective advantages. Whilst the abilities themselves all feel a little undercooked, they do provide a reasonable amount of differentiation between the missions and each characters' playstyles. It is a neat idea, even if it doesn't quite hit the mark.
Really, the main problem is that the campaign makes attempts at being "epic", but seems to get confused between its attempts at storytelling and its attempts to create engaging gameplay. The set pieces here are pretty minor, most of them miss the mark, and whilst the level design is mostly on-point, you won't enjoy many of those over-the-top moments we relish in games like Black Ops Cold War. What replaces them all-too-often, though, are glorified shooting galleries which feel tedious, dull, and straight out of the mid-2000s.
That's really the crux of the matter here, though, Call of Duty: Vanguard's campaign seems to forget that it's 2021. Gamers are no longer happy with cardboard cut-out characters and campaign missions that feel like a chore to play through. There are certainly some standout moments here, but they seem few and far between, especially compared to the last two years of CoD Campaigns. Modern Warfare and Black Ops Cold War both delivered far more effectively than Vanguard does in this department, and that's a great shame.
CoD Vanguard Campaign Review: The Verdict
Call of Duty: Vanguard's Campaign is a fun but confused experience, who's half-baked approach to storytelling ends up at odds with the game's entire premise. Cookie-cutter characters and dull levels make this the weakest CoD campaign since Black Ops 4 (if you didn't get the joke, BO4 didn't even feature a campaign), and certainly a forgettable experience. There might not be any out-right distasteful moments, like the Nazi Concentration Camp liberation that was featured in CoD WW2, but it also doesn't have any standout moments.
The game was marketed on a new approach to World War II, as "the best WWII game", but it fails to live up to either of these ambitions. Whilst it is certainly fun to play through, don't expect to care about any of the characters, and don't expect any big action set-pieces that will pull you to the edge of your seat. No, Call of Duty: Vanguard's campaign is as aggressively average as you can get, and that's a tremendous shame.
- Rating: 5/10
- Release Date: November 5, 2021
- Developer: Sledgehammer Games
- Genre: First-Person Shooter
- Players: Single Player & Multiplayer (Competitive & Co-op)
- Time to beat: 4-5 Hours
- Platform(s): PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PC