Call of Duty: Vanguard

Available on: PC, Xbox Series X and Series S, Xbox One, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4

Developer: Sledgehammer Games | Publisher: Activision

Release: Nov. 5

When I started playing “Call of Duty: Vanguard,” I strove to be generous with my assessment. Call of Duty games have historically been approached skeptically by game reviewers — often for the games’ politics, but also because the franchise has reached such vertiginous heights that neither praise nor critique will materially affect its production or sales. Perhaps, I thought, that perspective was self-perpetuating and had outlived its usefulness. What if the conventional wisdom was making it harder to discern a Call of Duty game’s better qualities?

Unfortunately, I chose the wrong game in the wrong moment for my charity. A week after “Vanguard” came out, “Battlefield 2042′s” early access launched, followed shortly by the “Halo Infinite” multiplayer beta. It is hack to say what I am about to say. The next sentence is a throwback to a bygone era. And yet, while playing “Vanguard,” all I could think was that I’d rather be playing “Halo Infinite” or “Battlefield 2042” instead. The game, in action, is gorgeous. Which makes the truth so much more brutal. That this level of craftsmanship — not to mention the amount of money — was marshaled in service of “Vanguard” is a profound indictment of the creative culture at Activision and Sledgehammer, if it can even be called that.

“Vanguard” is bloated. With its mess of pop-ups and icons and menus, it reminded me of Facebook, thirstily serving up an avalanche of meaningless notifications. In play, it is smartly dressed but simple, like a child of wealthy parents who can afford to be a bit dim. When I think of “Halo Infinite” or “Battlefield 2042,” I can describe both games pretty vividly and concisely. It’s apparent, even after just a few hours, what kind of experience those games are trying to set up. But when I think of “Vanguard,” a beige blur comes to mind. Last year, in my review of “Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War”, I described that title’s Zombies mode as “a Frankenstein monster of features, an ugly snowball that’s been rolling for over a decade, more mud, stick, stone and old Band-Aids than snow.” All of “Vanguard” feels this way.

The ill will kicked in around the middle of “Vanguard’s” campaign. Early in the game’s second Stalingrad level, The Russian Female Sniper from the Gang of Protagonists catches the attention of Tertiary Antagonist Nazi. In an ensuing scuffle, The Russian Female Sniper’s Russian Brother dies while performing A Heroic Sacrifice. After a climactic confrontation, The Russian Female Sniper fatally wounds the Tertiary Antagonist Nazi and follows him to a rooftop where she kills him, throwing his body into the street below. Except in my game, she didn’t. At the last moment, the villain’s body vanished. The cutscene that was supposed to follow never played. No amount of checkpoint reloads fixed this. I would have to start the level over.

Just the idea of replaying that level drained me of energy. The problem is — how to put this delicately — there is nothing to like or celebrate about “Vanguard’s” campaign, even and especially when the game works as designed. Sledgehammer Games have mustered all the power of contemporary computing to tell a visually stunning story of how some unlikely friends got together to kill Primary Antagonist Nazi — a guy who we’re told is somehow even worse than Hitler because he betrays some of the Nazis in his employ. This is not a bad faith reading of the game; there is nothing there to read in the first place.

The game will tell you, over and over again, that its story is about trust. But telling is the only thing its good at. You’ll see doubters become believers, and those who remain doubters get proven wrong. That’s thin gruel. There’s a bit of parallelism where two guys tasked with shooting a flare across two separate missions die — a well-worn literary trick that might impress a child or a dumb adult. Meanwhile, traditional hallmarks of storytelling, like having characters who feel things, are shunted haphazardly into moments where you briefly lose your HUD and your vision gets a bit blurry. You know that you’re experiencing something with emotional gravitas when the game disables the sprint function.

I wasn’t the biggest fan of “Black Ops Cold War.” But in that game’s defense, it swung for the fences. Military shooters that try to do or say something are the breakup albums of the video game medium, and “Black Ops Cold War” fit that bill. It was paranoid and weird and rough around the edges — but crucially, afterward there was something to talk about. It had substance. “Vanguard” is nothing. The story is aspic, foul gelatin holding the set pieces in place.

So what’s the point of a campaign like this? It doesn’t have any evident artistic or storytelling ambitions. It also doesn’t serve as a good tutorial for the multiplayer, the game’s main attraction. The pace and scale are too different, and there are a number of mechanics in the campaign that never appear in the multiplayer (and honestly the less said about the game’s flying mission, the better). This is the part of the review where a writer might introduce the caveat: “I’m not saying ‘Call of Duty’ should become a [insert X genre here] …” But that’s actually exactly what I’m saying. Upper management at Sledgehammer should gift everyone in the office a copy of, I don’t know, “Wide Ocean Big Jacket”, so that they never have to embarrass themselves with an inert gameplay prompt like “Spend Time with Your Family,” for which the studio hired Russian-speaking actors to deliver banal lines like “It is so good ve are a family.” If the campaign doesn’t serve any good purpose as is, just go for it. Introduce a visual novel portion. Make a World War I game and add a deck-builder mission you can play in the trenches. Go nuts. No more half measures.

How’s the multiplayer? It varies (in a good way) thanks to the addition of a filter that allows players to opt into different size lobbies. Personally, I found the Blitz option (the busiest one) unbearable, but for the most part, I adapted to each mode and style of play without much difficulty. In that respect, it’s hard to evaluate the multiplayer. If you’ve enjoyed Call of Duty in the past, you’re likely to enjoy or at least tolerate this installment. Players tend to make a fuss over changes between Call of Duty installments, but so far the upgrades — chiefly the introduction of destructible environments and a feature that allows you to slide your gun on surfaces once you’ve mounted it — have felt pretty cosmetic.

That said, one of the best things I did early on was bind the “mount” function to a mouse button. A great way to rack up kills is to just become a turret on the fly and play tower defense. And because most players in “Vanguard” lobbies are run-and-gunners, the fast paced gameplay that Call of Duty is famous for remains largely on offer. Granted, much of how a game’s multiplayer feels and plays depends on the community and the players in each individual lobby. Habits and metas develop over time, and trying to assess that after two weeks is a slippery proposition.

One addition that almost doesn’t bear mentioning is Champion Hill. It’s a fun mode, which gives teams a limited number of lives that they must safeguard while whittling down their opponents’ reserve in matches structured by a tournament format. By granting players rounds in which they can upgrade their gear and buy buffs, Champion Hill forces players to think long term. But its big achievement is mostly infrastructural. By putting a bunch of players into one server and using the format to stitch together a bunch of relatively short matches, Champion Hill lets players spend more time competing, and less waiting for matchmaking. Shout out to Papa bogie, the first person I heard using a mic in Champion Hill and, consequently, the player with whom I caught my first dub.

If all you’re looking for from Call of Duty is an incremental change to the multiplayer along with a slate of new maps, “Vanguard” will do right by you. I can’t deny that the multiplayer is engaging, just as it was in the game before, and the game before that one, and so on. It is evident, also, that a lot of effort went into making the game look and feel good. But as a whole package, the game is a tremendous disappointment. Untold amounts of money, technology and talent were drained into “Vanguard,” a boring, joyless and pointless game. And for what? A profit, maybe. Beyond that, nothing.