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Robust Call of Duty Vanguard Delivers More of the Same

By now, the “Call of Duty” franchise is quite literally too big to fail. Yes, people complain about the repetitive nature of a series that seems to barely alter what it delivers year after year, and those same people typically go out and buy it every single year. There has been a “Call of Duty” game every Fall for a generation now, and the franchise shows no signs of tiring in terms of its pop culture footprint. Even action and horror films have consistently replicated the first-person chaos of the series, recently evidenced by Timo Tjahjanto’s segment in “V/H/S/94,” which feels like it could be a “Zombies” expansion pack in a “CoD” game. Every year, “Call of Duty” slightly alters its multiplayer section, adds a few maps (although the “remastered” old ones often seem the most popular), and tacks on a 6-7 hour campaign. All of this is true of the newest, “Call of Duty: Vanguard,” which returns the series to World War II, drops 20 multiplayer maps with a traditionally deep level of customization, and even presents a cinematic, progressively cast campaign with recognizable stars like Dominic Monaghan, Laura Bailey, and Martin Copping. People will play it until next November, even if the wear and tear is starting to show on the treads of this franchise’s tires a bit.

The general response to the reveal of “Vanguard” was “World War II, again?” There have been a great deal of shooters set during WWII and fans of 2020’s “Black Ops Cold War” lamented going back to that particular drawing board. Naturally, this one has more in common with and was developed by much of the same team behind 2017’s “Call of Duty: WWII,” which wasn’t particularly popular with critics or fans, but it also owes a great deal to bombastic war movies like “Saving Private Ryan” or “Hacksaw Ridge” with its explosive, unrealistic set pieces. No one expects realism from a series like “Call of Duty” but “Vanguard” feels like its wants to dip its toe in real-world issues like racism and sexism in combat but then chooses to just do a cannonball into a nearby pool of excess.

With a campaign that jumps around chronologically, the “present day” material of “Vanguard” takes place near the end of World War II, introducing us to six elite soldiers, whose backgrounds are basically filled in via playable flashbacks. The games have gone so far into bombastic action that fans may have forgotten that this series started with attempts at fidelity to history, even interviewing WWII veterans for "Call of Duty 2." Even the real breakthrough of the series, "Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare," came about via consultation with U.S. Marines who had recently been in combat. That's all long gone, and the writing in this edition is particularly frustrating.

The game's Sinister Six are basically the only ones who can stop a Nazi monster (Monaghan) from keeping the Third Reich in power even after Hitler dies. But none of them feel remotely like actual people who served in World War II, even though the writers inch toward telling stories of that conflict that don't center traditional white male protagonists. The center here is held by a heroic Black British soldier named Arthur Kingsley (Chiké Okonkwo), but he's a non-character, an avatar instead of someone who feels like a real human being. 

The game's awkward, modern dialogue doesn't help, but the dropped opportunity to really tell stories of non-white and female characters in World War II feels like a wasted opportunity for genuine representation, a problem that has plagued the games industry. And the writers makes half-hearted stabs at history that only make its overall hollowness more apparent. The only real nod to history is when a character named Wade Jackson (Derek Phillips) meets up with the 93rd Division in Japan and gets most of the game's conversations about race in combat, which basically boil down to the trope of "everyone was equal on the battlefield". Yes, even games can decide to tell historic Black stories through the eyes of white characters.

Even if the storytelling is forgettable, “Vanguard” looks great. It’s a true PS5 campaign with stunning effects and that dangerous sense of chaos that makes for exciting action. I will say it feels a bit more constrained than the best recent campaigns—you’re typically following behind another soldier from point A to point B and killing anything in your way—but a few sequences involving an ace sniper stand out as must-plays for anyone who like war games.

Now a lot of gamers won’t even touch the campaign in “Call of Duty: Vanguard,” diving only into the deep multiplayer portion of the game. They will skip right to 20 maps on launch with more promised soon, spread out over traditional modes like Team Deathmatch, Domination, and Hardpoint. There’s a new mode called Champion Hill, which is a variation on Gunfight, a “last man standing” kind of gameplay. The most interesting addition here is something called “Combat Pacing,” wherein the same map could have three different speeds—Tactical, Assault, and Blitz—distinguished by how many players are on it at one time. For example, 6x6 will give you a slower, tactical pace than the blitz of 24x24.

Other than that, the multiplayer in “Vanguard” feels pretty traditional although variations on the last game include a return to kill streaks instead of score streaks (so they reset after a death) and the ability to mount a gun. There are also more destructible environments than usual for “Call of Duty” as some levels will be reduced to rubble by the end of a match. Most of all, the multiplayer is smooth and addictive once again. And it really feels like it’s just getting off the ground with new maps, operators, weapons, etc. all promised once the first season kicks off in December.

What can one say about a game like “Call of Duty: Vanguard”? It is arguably more critic-proof than any other blockbuster series of games or even films. However, even fans would admit that these games haven’t really wowed players in some time. They get the job done, never pushing the envelope enough to disenfranchise the annual buyers or bring in new fans. Will that approach eventually run out of steam? Probably. But not this year.

Activision provided a review copy of this title.

 

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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