Video games, like all other art forms, are ever-evolving. As technology advances, we’re able to put more time, effort, and energy into our gaming experiences, leading to the continued growth of the medium as a true art form and storytelling medium. As anyone who’s ever played any of the high-prestige games of the last several years (Last of Us 1&2, Ghost of Tsushima, Red Dead Redemption 1&2), in order to maintain your status as a truly genre-defining game, you have to embrace the new technological capabilities of each system while still dedicating time and energy to making a game that’s not just beautiful, but that people want to play.
In their early days of the franchise, Activision sought to distinguish itself from other first-person shooters like Medal of Honor by providing a deeply impactful story and coupling it with the best multiplayer experience out there. They became so big and so good at what they did, that they figured out the formula…
...and then never moved past it.
After playing the online beta, I was hopeful that they would correct the early errors present in the online experience and deliver a story worth playing in the single player game. Sadly, they didn’t seem to hear my request.
The single player campaign is a quantum leap forward for the franchise. I always enjoyed the single player game (I think I’m the only one who even plays it anymore), and they’ve always been...good. Modern Warfare 2 terrified me with a modern conflict that was all-too-real, and WWII was a nice dipping of the toe back into the original setting, but it didn’t quite have the emotional punch that I’d been hoping for (and that other games of late have delivered). I stopped playing Call of Duty altogether until Modern Warfare (2019), and while that was a good game, revisiting the same characters in an unexplained setting made me spend more time looking up what the timeline was supposed to be, and less time focusing on the story itself.
Vanguard, however, distinguishes itself by creating a team of characters that is diverse, distinct, and, for the genre, defining. As I loaded it up and started playing, I could already hear the trolls and haters complaining about having to play as a woman (and a Russian woman, at that!), and having to play as a Black man -- but the diversity is long overdue, and I welcomed it wholeheartedly and found that the stories they told were heartfelt and realistic. They were people I could embrace, and want to spend time with, and it made the emotional stakes of the game that much higher.
On the multiplayer side of things, they grant you such a wealth of options for weapon configuration and loadout that players of any style can find combinations that will work for them. Vanguard was built on the same gameplay engine as Modern Warfare (2019), but they’ve expanded the capabilities to create a more unique gameplay experience in that players can tailor their loadouts and equipment in far more specific configurations. Additionally, they make some of the best weapons in the game available right up front instead of forcing players to grind through levels before they can unlock the best guns (a welcome change from the days of Black Ops and Modern Warfare 3).
Gameplay-wise, there were a handful of moments where it would have been nice for the game to remember the rules that they set down (more on that when I get to multiplayer); one particular boss fight had me ready to throw my controller across the room when instructed to melee someone to death -- and then the game changes the rules of melee attacks without telling you they’ve changed them. Similarly, while it’s very realistic, it’s never fun to get shot by enemies you can’t see or hear or know where they are, and have no warning that they’re there. Worse yet, towards the endgame, you’re thrown into a fight and told “defeat X type enemy” without also being told “and while you’re doing that, your squad will watch you get shot by supplemental enemies we’ve placed at random which you can’t see, can’t detect, and can’t kill.” It was like the walls themselves were killing me, and it required far more patience to finish the mission than it should have.
The multiplayer situation similarly suffers from a lack of instruction. While it’s wonderful to have a completely open toolbox, they don’t bother to ever tell you how to use those tools, and the trial-and-error aspect is far more tuned towards veteran hardcore players, and less welcoming to new or casual players. It’s so bad that even my wife, watching me play from the couch, has taken to shouting at the screen “How many times you gotta shoot a mofo!?” when I’ve put anywhere from four to six rounds from an SMG into someone, and then they turn and one-shot me from twenty yards away with a shotgun.
Similar to the beta, the spawn points are easily campable, with hardcore players knowing to stake out key areas and simply wait and mow down your whole team as they appear on screen, only to die almost immediately. On the smaller maps, this is particularly troublesome as, with limited real estate available, you’ll find yourself spawning directly in front of an enemy, then spawn somewhere else...but still in front of an enemy. More than once I spawned and was cut down only to respawn somewhere else in front of the same person who just shot me two rooms over.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that the multiplayer game no longer has “good guys” or “bad guys” on either side. There’s a set number of avatars/characters, and everybody picks from the same pool, making it more difficult than ever to distinguish between your own team and the opposition. There are add-ons for the guns that help with identification, but if you have to spend valuable resources in a game just to know who you’re supposed to shoot, then that’s just poor gameplay.
Call of Duty, as a franchise, is a money-printing machine. Activision/Blizzard has created a nice little rut for themselves and don’t appear to have any intention of getting out of it any time soon. And why should they? As long as they sell millions of copies every year, they have no incentive to improve. It’s been ten years since we last had an Elder Scrolls game (Elder Scrolls Online notwithstanding), and I’m certain that Bethesda is using that time to create something as equally groundbreaking as Skyrim. Similarly, Red Dead Redemption 2 took nearly eight years to create, and the time and effort is evident throughout.
But maybe that’s the trap set by first person shooters -- after all, how radically can you change an entire style of gameplay as that? As I mentioned before, the single player campaign is more of a supplemental tutorial than actual game anymore (which is a shame, because when they get it right, they get it REALLY RIGHT), and if they were to make anything truly new, they’d alienate millions of children screaming racist and homophobic slurs into voice chat (note: I try to mute every room I’m in almost immediately, as nothing good or helpful has ever been said to a room of strangers on the internet in a multiplayer FPS).
Call of Duty Vanguard isn’t a step back, necessarily, but it certainly isn’t a step forward. As before, if you’re already a fan - you’ll find some enjoyment in the game, I’m sure. If you’re not, then this won’t be the one to win you over.