Updated: November 21, 2021 10:11:02 am
Another year, another Call of Duty game… Ever since its initial reveal, Activision has been hyping its latest entry into their annual FPS franchise, ‘Vanguard,’ as “The Best WWII Game”. And honestly, at this point, I have lost count of how many times they have done the same thing before. Judging by the trailers, I got the impression that the game was just trying to bait nostalgia points and had actually run out of ideas. Which would make sense, considering they are known for somehow churning out a new title every year.
Rightfully so, the longtime fans weren’t excited for this one, and neither was I. But having enjoyed a decent amount from their previous iteration, ‘Black Ops Cold War,’ I decided to jump in with a reasonably open mind.
Call of Duty: Vanguard review – Story
Throughout its marketing campaign, the developers were heavily banking on Vanguard’s “gripping” narrative, that’s told in a non-chronological order. Being a fan of disjointed stories, where you have to sort out the puzzle pieces to get a clear picture, I was intrigued by this take. So going in, I was expecting something like Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk.’
Like most other Call of Duty games, the campaign here isn’t quite long, and you can breeze past it in about 5 to 6 hours, depending on what difficulty you choose. Our plot revolves around a group of soldiers, codenamed Vanguard, as we hijack a train to Hamburg, Germany, at the end of World War II. The mission is to find intelligence regarding Project Phoenix, a secret Nazi programme that will ensure the rise of the skinheads even after Hitler’s death. As we fight our way through a submarine base, the squad gets captured and taken into questioning by Hermann Freisinger, a fictional successor to the Führer. And from this early point on, the story starts to lose its footing.
For starters, the non-linear narrative in this game is flawed. Instead of building suspense with the given characters and set pieces, it prefers to fiddle around with memories. Once our heroes are imprisoned, the game shifts focus from the situation at hand to a series of flashbacks where you play through your team members’ pasts. The point being, character development for a sequel. The only issue is, as a player, you don’t care about them.
As part of these sequences, you step into four major war fronts, spread across Europe, the Pacific, and North Africa. The events here are pretty cliché and follow the generic Call of Duty formula of large-scale dramatic moments and heavy plot armour, sprinkled with a tiny bit of stealth. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, and they practically serve as filler content. For the record, this is where 80 per cent of the war or gameplay segments take place. The other 20 is just you sitting inside a cell, waiting for the next cutscene where all the fun and innovative things happen.
In total, there are only two missions that take place outside the flashbacks – the first and the last. Everything else in between is just a sorry, uninspired attempt at forcing you to care about these one-note characters. That being said, I did enjoy playing as the silent but deadly Soviet sniper, Polina Petrova; though not by a wide margin. Her lore was plagued with its fair share of predictable moments, but I was more invested in her rise to glory, from being a field medic to a skilled marksman.
As for the villain, Freisinger, his motivations aren’t fully clear. The game introduces him as this ruthless dictator who doesn’t mind bludgeoning someone to death with their bare hands. But then, in less than an hour, they reduce him into a soft-spoken confused dimwit, and it almost feels like a cartoonish parody of Hans Landa from ‘Inglorious Basterds.’
Now, an average general would eliminate a group of infiltrators, no matter the context. Freisinger, on the other hand, prefers taking them on tour through his top-secret base and holding them captive, all because he finds the unit “fascinating”. Keep in mind, none of them has uttered a word about Project Phoenix either. So, it’s not like he has any obligation to keep them alive. It’s a stupid plot convenience that the game builds upon to a crescendo, only to end on a poor cliffhanger and bait a sequel.
Call of Duty: Vanguard review – Gameplay
Campaign: The gameplay here is mediocre at best. Despite adapting and reusing mechanics from older COD titles, it has somehow managed to make things worse. For starters, the levels are way too scripted and restrictive, where you could run into invisible walls or even fail the mission, just because you weren’t playing it the way the developers intended.
There is a lot of handholding, especially in the second chapter, where you are dropped into the tropical island of Tonga. Your job is to avoid the enemy soldiers and regroup with your team. But the game doesn’t offer much room for creativity and forces you to finish it stealthily. Even if you do pick up an enemy’s gun and start shooting at them, the result is pointless, as more will keep spawning out of thin air.
Vanguard also introduces dogs that can kill you in one bite. Normally, on such occasions, the game is supposed to trigger an intense quick-time event, where you mash a specific set of buttons to punch or stab the attacking animal and free yourself. But here, Sledgehammer Games decided to take the lazy route and skip the process altogether.
The missions are boring as well, where it would ask you to hold a location for a certain amount of time or just move from point A to point B. Even that one time you get to pilot a fighter plane, the game decides to take partial control and ruin the experience. So, all you end up doing is just move around your mouse and click on stuff. Besides some cool single-shot camera work that ties into the gameplay, the campaign segment offers nothing worthwhile.
Multiplayer: Usually, the multiplayer section acts as the saving grace for COD games. It’s something the majority fanbase deeply cares about, while they treat the campaign as an appetizer. Unfortunately, this segment is bland as well. None of the maps or modes are innovative, you die way too soon, and basically play with the same set of guns as previous WWII-based games.
If anything, they are historically inaccurate as the game allows you to stick modern scopes and attachments onto these vintage weapons. This has to do with Vanguard’s “deep integration” with its free-to-play counterpart, where WWII weapons will soon be available to use in ‘COD: Warzone.’
The latest addition includes the Blitz Pacing mode, which essentially tosses big teams into smaller, contained maps. These levels seem thrilling at first, but soon you realise how chaotic, messy, and poorly planned it is.
The game also comes with special operators that you can unlock by completing a set of objectives. Each of them is equipped with distinct abilities that provide a tactical advantage depending on your playstyle. But in the long run, you hardly use any of them and resort to mindlessly running around the map and spamming grenades. The only good thing to come out of this is the free new map for Warzone in December.
Zombies: The Zombies mode is that one area where COD has full liberty to throw logic out of the equation and pull something absolutely insane. But Vanguard prefers to stick to the basics and deliver the most watered-down version of an average indie zombie shooter.
The mode almost feels unfinished due to a lack of story, unique boss fights, and even points with no background audio. The developers couldn’t even be bothered to add a “crickets_chirping.wav” file into their code. It strips away the most fun and memorable aspects of the mode, making it all too easy to finish in a single sitting.
Call of Duty: Vanguard review – Graphics and Audio
The visuals, for the most part, look hyperrealistic and gorgeous. Every location, be it the snow-covered trenches in Stalingrad to the humid forests of Tonga feel completely immersive. The extreme care and attention to character detail is also evident from the realistic skin texture, wrinkles, creases on their outfits, and even the way their hair reacts to wind.
The cutscenes, especially, look straight out of a movie, with all the dynamic camera angles and quick zooms that draw focus to key moments. This aspect was a stand-out feature and so well-executed, that it urged me to check out some developer interviews. As it turned out, Hoyte van Hoytema, Christopher Nolan’s go-to cinematographer served as a visual consultant for Vanguard. If it weren’t for his involvement and the cinema-derived ideas he brought to the table, I probably would have given up on this game early on.
The score in this game is intense and manages to do much of the heavy lifting in the narrative segment. During moments of tension, it imitates Hans Zimmer’s ‘Impulse,’ to create a sense of urgency through a rhythmic chime that constantly ticks in the background.
The sound design is outstanding as well, where the explosions feel impactful and you can hear your boots grinding against the gravel. My personal favourite has to be the one where the dead bodies flop to the ground. There is a certain level of heft and realism to it that’s unmatched by other newer games.
Call of Duty: Vanguard review – Verdict
Overall, ‘Vanguard’ acts as yet another soulless addition to the Call of Duty franchise that does not justify its $60 price tag. With a shallow narrative that runs for a minuscule amount of time, the game struggles to develop its characters and motives, and ultimately serves no purpose beyond sequel baiting. The multiplayer and zombies segment does not see any shift in gears either, making it hard for me to recommend, even at a discounted rate.
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