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It is that time of the year again; the bitter cold starts rolling in, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” is constantly played on repeat in most convenience stores, and another Call of Duty is released. Just like the Gregorian calendar that we base our entire life around, Call of Duty cycles back to the World War 2 setting where we get to revisit the concept of kicking Nazi ass, and it has never looked this good before. While Call of Duty: Vanguard doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head when it comes to historical accuracy, it sure is an enjoyable, bombastic time.
As I previously mentioned, we go back to the World War 2 setting where we play as a series of war heroes that have come together like some sort of wartime Avengers. Together, they attempt to put an end to the Nazi’s newest mysterious weapon, “Project Phoenix.” After the rather boring intro mission, the team is captured and most of the members are sent to a jail conveniently located under a Nazi S.S. headquarters. There we have this interesting Tarantino-esque story play out where Lieutenant Arthur Kingsley narrates why he chose each of his teammates.
While each member of this team is dragged into an interrogation, Arthur will narrate a brief description of why he chose that hero, and we get to play that event. Each solider (including Kinsley) is based off a real time war hero whose name has been changed most likely due to the historical inaccuracy of Vanguard’s events. Each member of this team also happens to come from a different part of the world, embracing the idea that this is an alliance set to take on the Nazi regime; it is a “World War” after all.
The characters include British born Arthur Kingsley (Chiké Okonkwo) is based on Private Sidney Cornell. Lucas Riggs (Martin Copping) resembles New Zealand hero Charles Upham and Wade Jackson (Derek Phillips) is an American pilot based on Vernon Larsen Micheel. Polina Petrova (Laura Bailey) seems to resemble Lyudmila Pavlichenko, famous Russian sniper with 309 confirmed kills, giving her the nickname of “Lady Death.” While you play this roulette of characters between jail scenes, you learn more about them and how they why they were chosen. Personally, I could have gone with an entire game centered on Petrova as her segments were my absolute favorite.
While the situations are loosely based on real world events, everything else surrounding them is inaccurate, but that doesn’t take away from this core experience. Vanguard is as over the top and ridiculous as any Michael Bay movie, but it also has way more character. Each member of the team has a specialty that we learn about within their background, and each character is fun to play. Their segments introduce new concepts that elevates these characters and makes you understand why they were chosen. It isn’t all just machismo yelling while hip firing LMGs the entire game. There is nuance and slow builds to these rather explosive set pieces. It makes me wish the intro mission was better. There are a couple of lines about leadership an what it means to be a soldier, but the game doesn’t outright make that the central idea like in past games, which is a plus because it sends a message without repeating it needlessly.
Vanguard might also feature some of the most natural voice acting I have experience within a shooter. Every character is expertly voiced and fits the profile of the characters quite well; it helps that the models closely resemble the voice actor one way or another. Even side characters with default names give it their all. Dialog gets cheesy occasionally, but it does offer a couple of good laughs, especially when you run into the 93rd Regiment.
While this A-plot is unfolding there is an equally compelling story is taking place in the B-plot. We get these incredibly tense scenes revolving around Nazi generals as it is revealed that Hitler is dead which you would know if you paid attention to the dates flashing on the screen. This changes the entire concept in which these characters operate, especially Jannick Richter voiced by Dominic Monaghan, who goes from tough interrogator who thinks he has the upper hand to a man fearful for his own life. While I don’t sympathize with his character (and you shouldn’t) I can’t help but revel in this sudden realization as it pushes new events forward.
Graphically, it is possibly one of the most impressive shooters I have played to date. Light reflections gleam off wet surfaces that add an incredible sense of realism to the environments. At one point, I was hiding in the moonlight glazed bushes and soldiers marched past me, their silhouettes were picked up on my rifle barrel. Other moments in the game had me in these ship hulls that we would only see once for about fifteen seconds, but they were expertly crafted to a level of detail that wasn’t necessary but became essential for that sense of depth and immersion.
Explosions shake the battlefield, and in one scene incoming aircraft sent a sense of dread to the pit of my stomach, and later lead to one of the most intense moments of the game filled with a literal ton of environmental detail. The only downside is the drop in framerates when some situations became too graphically heavy. Other odd situations included bodies just flat-out disappearing like some sort of magic trick.
There is an amazing depth of sound involved as well. Most guns sound different when fired and have a pattern that only becomes louder and more intense when fired indoors. With my Sennheiser EPOS GSP 600 gaming headset, I was able to clearly hear every explosion, footstep, and enemy soldier as they attempted (and mostly succeeded) in rushing me with a bayonet. Grenades bounced off the walls with clanks, and the ringing made my tinnitus act up. Even the music score really helped immerse me into the tense scenes that played out and helped motivate me as I ran down hills and dived into enemy foxholes. It even brought up the intensity in those scenes between the Nazi generals.
Gameplay is standard, if you have played a Call of Duty game before, expect more of the same in sense of controls. Tons of accessibility options are available as well, allowing you to fine-tune your control experience including the option to use mouse and keyboard (at least on Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5). The only time I had an issue with the controls was a brief flying segment (I said there was a pilot on the team) that was just completely awful, I couldn’t wait till it was over. If that is how WW2 planes handled in real life, I’d hit the water and die instantly after takeoff.
While Call of Duty hasn’t necessarily landed for me within the last couple of years, Vanguard really stuck out of the pack for me. Each character was incredibly interesting, the length was just perfect at around 6 hours. The amazing set pieces feature scripted events and some predictable segments, but it didn’t take away from the overall experience. There is emotion behind each character, and even a couple of nods to past Call of Duty games. It takes a lot of what makes a good campaign and strips it down to the essentials that landed for me by the time I was finished with the game. It’s worth visiting if you strictly play Call of Duty for the multiplayer modes.
I really do hope we get to see these characters again in the future, or at the very least get more consolidated stories with these characters and learn more about them. Again, I would be totally down for a Petrova-focused story. Here’s to hoping.