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Call of Duty: Vanguard review-in-progress — Aligning history, narrative, and gameplay

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Call of Duty: Vanguard is a decent game that balances a love for history, a strong fictional narrative, and familiar and fun gameplay. You get a lot of variety in this game that chronicles the rise of Special Forces in WWII.

And one of the hallmarks of Vanguard is that it is filled with diversity. You get to play the single-player campaign with a tightly woven story and diverse characters from different nationalities and backgrounds. You can engage in multiplayer across 20 different maps and multiple modes like the new Champion Hill tournaments, and you fight the undead in intense and unique Zombies co-op action.

That diversity is an odd feeling, because Sledgehammer’s parent company, Activision Blizzard, is embroiled in sex discrimination litigation, as the state of California has accused the company of having a “frat house culture” unequal pay for men and women. The game comes out on November 5 on the consoles and the PC. I’ve played through the entire campaign and have had a taste of Zombies and multiplayer. But I’ll withhold providing a score until I’ve had more time with the launched game. I appreciate the game and the artistry behind it, but I’ve got some strong opinions as a veteran of every single Call of Duty game that’s ever been made.

Above: Laura Bailey is the voice actor for Polina Petrova in Call of Duty: Vanguard.

Image Credit: Activision/Sledgehammer

This is a very well-balanced game that hits a lot of points on the checklist for a good game. As you can see from the videos, the imagery is beautiful, for a war game, with realistic environments, lifelike characters, and fast gameplay.

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But it isn’t my favorite Call of Duty game for reasons that I would explain below. That said, I wouldn’t want Call of Duty haters — seems like there are lot of people who love to hate the most popular game every year in a franchise that has sold more than 400 million copies — to get the impression that I’m on their side. I expect to pour a lot of time into this game’s multiplayer combat as well as the upcoming new Pacific theater map for Call of Duty: Warzone.

[Spoiler alert: This review has mild story spoilers for the campaign].

A strong story

Call of Duty: Vanguard

Above: Wade Jackson is a pilot who survives Midway in Call of Duty: Vanguard.

Image Credit: Activision

When I look back at Electronic Arts’ rival games like Battlefield 1, I really disliked the narrative of telling vignettes from soldiers in faraway battlefields of World War I. It gave us a variety of gameplay, but there was no compelling story that tied all of the narratives together.

In the single-player campaign built by Sledgehammer Games, Call of Duty: Vanguard delivers a similar tale of four different Special Forces soldiers from different countries, genders, and races. That could have been a mess if it weren’t for the narrative threads that tied everyone together.

The game starts out in Germany toward the end of the war, when a team of special soldiers goes after the Nazi’s most fervent extremists as they try to execute Project Phoenix. The team has to figure out what’s going on in the belly of the beast, the heart of Nazi-controlled Berlin. They’re captured and come face to face with a pretty good villain in Hermann Wenzel Freisinger, an ambitious and arrogant Nazi officer working at the Gestapo’s headquarters. He is the chief interrogator of the SS and the secret architect of the mysterious Project Phoenix. The acting performances are top notch.

As each of the Special Forces soldiers are interrogated, we shift into their shoes and play through the campaign chapters that flashback to the crucibles of fire that turned them into fierce soldiers worthy of the Special Forces. Not only do you get to fight in battles that were the turning points of WWII, you get to see them through the eyes of a multinational group of soldiers who form Task Force One of the Special Forces.

You fight as each of the characters and then the narrative returns to Berlin at the end of the war, where you have to unite together and fight as a team against the Nazis as they make their last stand. It’s a compelling story that will give you the necessary motivation to play multiplayer — and that’s the purpose of a good single-player campaign story.

Strong characters

Call of Duty: Vanguard

Above: Polina Petrova is a Russian sniper with record kills in Call of Duty: Vanguard.

Image Credit: Activision

The campaign takes place across four major theaters of war: the Middle East (with the Battle of El Alamein and more), the Pacific Ocean (with the Battle of Midway and fighting for Bougainville), Berlin, Stalingrad, and Normandy (in the lead up to the D-Day invasion).

There are four major characters that you play among the group of Special Forces operators. The game starts out with Arthur Kingsley, a Black soldier in the British Airborne forces who parachutes into France. I like the fact that Kingsley, who is subjected to the usual Nazi racism under interrogation, is the leader of the unit — something that galls the racist villains. The character had historical roots in a real person.

There’s also Lucas Riggs, an Australian soldier who fights in the Middle East as one of the rats fighting against Rommel’s forces. He and his fellow troublemakers don’t follow orders well. But they fight with ferocity and achieve the best results when they attack without permission.

My favorite part of the game was playing as Polina Petrova, a Russian nurse who became a sniper fighting in Stalingrad. She was modeled after real female soldiers who were the Soviet Union’s best snipers in the war. Petrova has to fight in unconventional ways, climbing the walls of buildings and running on the rooftops as they come under aerial attack. She has to crawl through wreckage and hunt her quarry. And she has to escape when she alerts better-armed German soldiers trying to trap her. This cat-and-mouse game is quite satisfying.

And then there’s Wade Jackson, a cocky pilot who fights in the Battle of Midway and also sees combat on the ground in Numa Numa, Bougainville. He is also based on a real character who helped sink two Japanese aircraft carriers and was downed on Bougainville. There, we run into the Black soldiers of the 93rd Infantry Division, a historical unit that didn’t get much recognition in history.

Among the interesting things about the characters is that they’re not only diverse when it comes to national origin, but they’re also diverse when it comes to gender and race. That’s a big difference compared to Call of Duty games that we used to see.

One of the things that this international cast does is get rid of the American propaganda that has annoyed a lot of players in recent Call of Duty games. In fact, it’s a funny line when Petrova says she hasn’t decided whether to kill all of her Special Forces comrades yet.

Multiplayer

Champion Hill characters fight in tournaments in training maps.

Above: Champion Hill characters fight in tournaments in training maps.

Image Credit: Activision

There were many more stories and characters the Sledgehammer team researched, and more of them show up as characters in multiplayer, where Call of Duty always shines. This is why the game has sold more than 400 million copies over time and sells maybe 25 million to 35 million copies a year.

While Electronic Arts’ Battlefield has moved into modern warfare with Battlefield 2042 coming out on November 19, you would think that Vanguard would be at a disadvantage because it isn’t as fun to play with older weapons than it is to play with cool modern stuff. And that may be very well true for many shooter fans, particularly those who got hooked on Warzone.

But Vanguard presents a noble effort to make the multiplayer shine. The battle types include tactical with 6v6 human players, assault with 20 to 48 players, and Blitz with lots of (unspecified) players. One of the features is “tactical destruction,” where you can destroy wooden barriers or shoot through them, much like you have been able to do in the rival Battlefield series.

Vanguard features 20 multiplayer maps with new modes such as Champion Hill, where you fight Gulag-style in a small map with a limited number of players.

Each arena battle is a tournament with up to 12 squads, where players can play solo (1v1) or squad up in duos (2v2) and trios (3v3) to battle it out in an arena consisting of four maps. If you communicate well, you can be the last squad standing. I didn’t do all that well in this hyper-competitive mode, which I feel would be great for esports stars.

The Eagle's Nest from above in Call of Duty: Vanguard multiplayer.

Above: The Eagle’s Nest from above in Call of Duty: Vanguard multiplayer.

Image Credit: Sledgehammer Games

For multiplayer, one of the most interesting maps is Eagle’s Nest, which was Hitler’s secret gathering place on the cliffs overlooking Berchtesgaden in Southern Germany. It’s a big stone building on a mountaintop. As far as I saw, the game doesn’t have Nazi swastikas. Rather, it has iron cross symbols on Nazi-style banners, as a kind of compromise on modern sensibilities about the swastika. There wasn’t any actual fighting at the Eagle’s Nest during the war, though the Allies tried to bomb it.

The map itself is really small, with different lanes for running in the middle, on the sides, and on the exterior of the building. You can run down these lanes and charge into enemies head-on or try to circle around behind them. It has some doors that you can open or close as well as wooden window shutters that you can shoot through and shatter.

My favorite weapon in multiplayer remains the MG42 light machine gun. It can bring down enemies with a few shots at a great range, almost as if it were a sniper rifle. As you level it up, it becomes more stable, accurate, and faster to wield. And I’m happy to report that Sledgehammer fixed one of the big problems of the beta, where the gun kicked up too much smoke and dust that obscured targets. The fact that this gun functions as it should leads me to believe that I’ll be able to level up as needed. Sniping with the old-style 3-Line sniper rifle was also good, and the STG 44 assault rifle also felt nice for those trigger-happy moments.

Because these weapons were easy to learn and familiar to Call of Duty players, I felt like I wouldn’t miss the modern weapons as much. I liked the new Patrol mode, where you have to take and defend a hardpoint area and deny it to the enemy. The hardpoint moves and you have to move with it, exposing you to those who can plan ambushes as the circle moves around the map.

There’s also a lot of debris that flies around in maps like Hotel Royal, where you can charge through the middle into a bar and shatter everything from the glass decorations to the wooden bar. The bar is actually a great place to practice “blind fire,” where you can shoot blindly over a barrier in the hopes of hitting someone.

Between the beta and my review period, I’ve played a lot of multiplayer, and I believe that I’ll be playing a lot more after the game comes out. But what I’m most looking forward to is the intentional and not accidental integration of Warzone with the content of Vanguard. That’s coming after the launch.

Zombies

Treyarch Studios is back with a new co-op Zombies mode (with up to four total players) that features a crossover narrative with Call of Duty: Black Ops — Cold War and the WWII-focused theme where the Nazis try to stir up the undead to turn the tide of the war.

I think this storyline fits well with the Nazis, who were in love with the occult and ran terrifying experiments. The visuals are quite chilling, whether you’re looking at creatures from the dark or the zombified Nazis themselves.

If you follow Zombies lore, this is about “Der Anfang,” the next chapter in the Dark Aether saga. Vanguard Zombies reveals that entities from the Dark Aether dimension had contact with humans, going back centuries.

Players will find out what was happening in the Dark Aether from past Zombies games. The Nazis create dimensional breaches to collect dormant artifacts, and the bad guy SS commander Wolfram Von List uses them to bond with a lord of the Dark Aether and single-handedly win WWII for the Third Reich.

Only a small band of Allied Special Forces soldiers who have forged a similar bond with their own Dark Aether entities stand in his way. That seems pretty motivational to me. And so the Vanguard Special Forces have come to Stalingrad in response to a distress call sent by professor Krafft, a demonologist blackmailed into the service of Von List. And then they fight and fight and fight, surviving each round and expanding the area where they fight around Stalingrad bit by bit.

A typical match starts in the center of Stalingrad. In a small starting area, you can fight zombies, access several upgrade machines, view the initial three objective portals, and encounter a few other surprises. The player’s first big decision is on which objective portal to interact with. On day one, three objectives will be available to the player: Blitz, Transmit, and Harvest. You can play shorter or longer missions. I played a session for well over an hour and wasn’t done when I had to exit.

Most matches can end with a successful exfiltration in about 20 minutes. This means completing four objectives and then surviving the Exfil event. From what I can tell so far, it’s a solid addition to the Zombies saga.

What you’ll like

Above: Birds flying across a destroyed landscape in Stalingrad.

Image Credit: Activision/Sledgehammer Games

The details are pretty amazing. There’s a point where you’re running through the hallways of a building under attack in Berlin. An explosion shakes the building and a big metal Nazi cross (not a swastika) falls to the ground with a clunk. There are also many breathtaking scenes in the landscape, where ambient life like flocks of birds made it seem so real. It can feel like a cinematographer created the game, and that’s true in part.

The gunplay is good, and I noticed the nuances when I used the Gunsmith in multiplayer to level up my weapon with new attachments. That’s extremely important for multiplayer, where it sometimes feels like it’s a long slog to get your weapons in good fighting order. The maps make sense, and the tie-ins with Warzone and Zombies do as well. I get the feeling that there is a kind of architect of the Call of Duty universe, and by some happy accident, this is all coming together. Now, all we need is a Call of Duty metaverse.

What you won’t like

Call of Duty: Vanguard

Above: Call of Duty: Vanguard’s Midway battle.

Image Credit: Sledgehammer Games

Flying wasn’t my thing in this game. I am generally pretty adept at flying games, as I used to be a joystick pilot in years past. And I can fly with a game controller as well. But I had an awful time flying in the Midway mission. I kept getting stuck in a rut, unable to turn and flying outside the boundaries. I played it again just to make sure. Dropping bombs while taking flak fire was also more annoying than it should have been because there was a lot of latency between pressing the controls and seeing things happen on screen.

It was also fairly difficult to keep the aim on the target because there was so much vibration that I couldn’t bring down enemy planes. I’d take out one or two in a dogfight and then move on to the next part of the mission. That was more realistic, but not so satisfying. It’s a shame because Call of Duty doesn’t try flying that much and has left that space to Battlefield.

I noticed that the PS5 also choked quite a bit on different scenes when there was a lot of action on the battlefield — yes, exactly those times when you don’t want that to happen. It felt like the game could have used some more polish to make sure those scenes didn’t stutter.

I wasn’t a fan of the final battle in part because I noticed this stutter quite a bit. On top of that, it was a bit too easy to take out some of the boss characters, like the Jagermorder. That was because my fellow soldiers — AI-controlled — were a bit too good at taking out the big guys. And I played it on the Hardened level, one step above normal. That last fight shouldn’t have been so easy or so scripted. I really wanted to earn my way to the ending, and it didn’t feel that way.

Conclusion

Call of Duty: Vanguard

Above: Call of Duty: Vanguard’s El Alamein battle.

Image Credit: Sledgehammer Games

Call of Duty: Vanguard is a balanced game across the vectors of historical interest, good gameplay, variety, and a strong narrative. It ties everything together in a competent way that makes sense. That doesn’t mean it’s a spectacular game on the order of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, which was a breakthrough game for the franchise because of its thoughtfulness and disturbing material. This is a good installment, but the stutter in combat makes me wonder if it’s as polished as it should be.

Call of Duty: Vanguard will be available globally on PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and PC via Battle.net on November 5. Activision gave me a code for the PlayStation 5 for the purpose of this review.

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