Call of Duty Vanguard Campaign Review: "Stagnates The Franchise"
The Call of Duty Vanguard campaign is in an interesting spot when you compare it to the ongoing sub-series within the overarching franchise, because both Modern Warfare and Black Ops have fan-favourite characters that players have developed an affinity for over about a decade and a half. Whether Vanguard is the start of a new plotline or not, the campaign begins in the thick of the action with a diverse cast of characters that you have no reason to love or hate.
- Are you playing multiplayer? Check out our guide to all the Vanguard weapons
This means that while Modern Warfare 2019, for example, could rely on the return of ol’ Captain Price to take series veterans by surprise, Vanguard has to rely on pure storytelling and groundbreaking missions to make the 2021 instalment one of the all-time greats. Returning to World War 2 is no easy feat for a series you’d be forgiven for thinking had exhausted everything the era has to offer, but Vanguard certainly gives it a shot.
Not Penny’s Boat
The Vanguard campaign follows the tale of a diverse squad embarking on a covert operation to turn the tide of the battle. You’re introduced to Arthur Kingsley and his band of merry soldiers on a train hurtling through the night. It’s a tutorial level trope seen plenty of times before - narrow and linear so there’s nowhere for you to get lost, with numerous devices to interact with and teach you about the various mechanics at play. This is where you discover the unique personalities of your team too, such as the gung-ho Aussie, Lucas Riggs, and the mean but keen Polina Petrova.
Without spoiling it too much, this opening mission on the train and infiltrating a U-boat is one of the only occasions throughout the entire five-hour campaign that you’ll complete a mission with your entire team together. If that runtime sounds short, that’s because it is. The Vanguard campaign can be beaten in one afternoon, which means there is not much time at all to get to know the cast. A significant chunk of it is also spent in cutscenes, albeit impressive ones.
Perhaps the most interesting character throughout the story is actually the main bad guy, Jannick Richter. Played by Dominic Monaghan (Lost, The Lord of The Rings), Richter is never encountered in-game - his every appearance comes through cutscenes where he plays an evil, manipulative Nazi officer hellbent on breaking Kingsley and co. The story is worth playing for his performance alone, although it’s vastly different to the Merry or Charlie you’d associate Monaghan with.
- Want to complete the entire Vanguard trophy list? A lot of them are found within the campaign
This Is Call Of Duty, Not Splinter Cell
Part of the Vanguard problem is that with such a big cast of protagonists and the ridiculously short runtime, all bar one mission is spent introducing their personalities, quirks, and gameplay abilities. The majority of the campaign is spent in flashbacks and while these missions take you all over the world from snowy Russia to sandy North Africa, it’s so narratively disjointed you’re never really sure what’s actually going on.
When it comes to stealth missions in Call of Duty, there are some brilliant examples; All Ghillied Up is perhaps the most iconic and memorable first-person shooter single-player mission of all time. The problem is, Call of Duty has been trying to match it - and failing - for far too long. The Vanguard campaign is so oversaturated with missions that leave you with just a knife and an overwhelming number of enemies to sneak past, they quickly lose their weight.
What makes Call of Duty campaigns so impressive is the balance in mission types, because you can go from ridiculous Michael Bay-esque theatrics in one to a lowkey crawl through a snowstorm in the next. While Vanguard does have one stand-out mission when playing as Polina, there are no huge, earth-shattering moments that leave you astounded at what just happened. While it’s unlikely we’ll see anything like No Russian again, nothing you do in Vanguard leaves a lasting impression.
Where’s The Innovation?
Perhaps the only diversion from the cookie cutter Call of Duty template is that four of the characters in Kingsley’s squad have unique abilities to utilise when you play as them. The aforementioned Lucas Riggs, for example, can hold four different types of lethal grenade at once, switch between them at will, and has a guiding arrow to show the arc when you throw them. Wade Jackson, pilot extraordinaire who ends up in a sticky situation with both feet on the ground, can activate focus to one-hit-kill enemies and snap onto them like Dead Eye in Red Dead Redemption. Meanwhile, Polina can hold up a knife to draw sniper fire and scramble through crawl spaces almost faster than she can sprint.
- Want more info on how long the single player is? Our Vanguard campaign length guide is what you need
While these abilities add some depth to combat, the campaign is too short for them to have much impact. With such lengthy cutscenes and each mission only taking 20-30 minutes at a time, there’s not enough time to properly utilise them, nor is there much freedom whatsoever. Call of Duty campaigns have always been linear, but this is nothing more than a corridor shooter, even during the more open battlefields you encounter.
It’s evident to see that while a lot of focus was placed on building hype for the characters and narrative in Call of Duty Vanguard, it was quite clearly an afterthought during development. Last year, Black Ops Cold War introduced puzzles, side missions, and optional things to complete and although the campaign there was still short, it was an evolution of the formula. Vanguard does nothing of the sort, reverting to the sort of campaign you’d expect to see from a 10-year-old game in the franchise. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel, but offering something unique or impressive would’ve been welcome. Even the one memorable mission as Polina finishes with a boss battle that is almost a carbon copy of a fight in Modern Warfare 2019, albeit this time you’re not stabbing someone as a literal child.
Clearly An Afterthought
There’s no denying that multiplayer is by far the biggest selling point for Call of Duty and the mode that makes Activision the most money through both sales and microtransactions - heck, Black Ops 4 launched without any single player offering whatsoever - but this showing is poor from Vanguard. It’s fun enough at surface level, but it fails to provide a captivating narrative or any stand-out moments that could attempt to elevate it as one of the greats. It’s also shockingly short with zero replay value, which means the Vanguard campaign only helps to stagnate the Call of Duty franchise. With that in mind, if we are to get Call of Duty Vanguard 2 a few years down the line, this has laid a solid foundation to build upon.
Reviewed on PC. Code provided by the publisher.