Call of Duty Vanguard brings the juggernaut shooter series back to its Second World War roots for the first time since 2017’s creatively-titled Call of Duty: WWII. While I was initially disappointed to not be returning to the modern-day setting of the franchise’s most beloved entries, over the last few days Vanguard has completely won me over.
While the expected multiplayer thrills are here in abundance, and Zombies modes offer a fun (if a slightly half-baked) cooperative experience, my biggest surprise has been the single-player campaign mode. I tentatively jumped in expecting to bounce back to multiplayer fairly quickly, but instead found myself almost instantly engaged.
When Vanguard was revealed many, assumed it was inspired by director Quentin Tarantino’s WWII flick Inglourious Basterds. It's certainly not an inaccurate comparison point. Like the film, Vanguard at times offers a heightened take on WWII, with some comedic moments sprinkled in for good measure.
However, for much of its relatively short runtime, Vanguard’s single-player story plays out almost like a video game version of HBO’s 2001 mini-series Band of Brothers — and that’s a very good thing.
Short but plenty sweet
Call of Duty single-player campaigns are typically the video game equivalent of a summer blockbuster, and that’s no different in Vanguard. From the huge set-piece moments to the tendency for most encounters to end up with some form of explosion, Vanguard definitely doesn’t aim for realism.
It’s also a fairly short affair. Even playing at a leisurely pace you’d struggle to get more than six hours from the campaign, and those playing on an easier difficulty setting could quite conceivably be finished much closer to the four-hour mark. This isn’t actually an issue, the length feels appropriate all things considered.
In some previous Call of Duty’s the campaign has been a throwaway mode that seemed included only to tick a box. Last year’s Call of Duty Black Ops Cold War’s dour single-player offering is a prime example. I’m thrilled to report that’s certainly not the case with Vanguard, real care and attention have been put into the mode and it shows.
A new band of brothers
You might be wondering how a video game summer blockbuster compares to a critically acclaimed HBO show that lays bare the brutality of WWII. Well, the similarities come in how both ultimately focus on characters rather than the conflict itself.
As the name suggests, Vanguard is centered on a small collection of soldiers that work together to steal a set of top-secret Nazi documents. The story is certainly more outlandish than anything contained with the HBO series, but Vanguard, just like Band of Brothers, exposes the human cost of one of history’s most brutal conflicts and demonstrates the immense power of comradery.
The campaign follows four soldiers: Sgt. Arthur Kingsley (British, 9th Parachute Battalion), Lt. Polina Petrova (Soviet, 138th Rifle Division), Captain Wade Jackson (American, Scouting Squadron Six) and 2nd Lt. Lucas Riggs (Australian, 20th Battalion). In-between gorgeously well-animated cutscenes of them working together to locate the aforementioned secret documents, each is given their own dedicated set of missions that flesh out their backstories.
The sequences involving Lt. Polina Petrova (wonderfully voice acted by Laura Bailey) shine the brightest. Set within the Russian city of Stalingrad, she must face an invading force laying waste to her home, while also trying to keep her family safe. Sure, these efforts generally involve a lot of shooting, but there are well-written character moments interspersed with Call of Duty’s trademark gunplay.
Other campaign highlights include a sequence set in the Libyan desert, as well as an intense ariel dogfight during The Battle of Midway. Without delving too far into spoiler territory, the chaotic finale is also a high point, although it’s definitely more Quentin Tarantino than Steven Spielberg.
Vanguard is by no means as well written as Band of Brothers, but as with the HBO show, its narrative structure makes you genuinely care about each member of the team. By the end of the breezy campaign, I was fully focused on getting the entire cast through the final mission alive. That’s no small feat considering the main characters in Call of Duty campaigns are usually disposable.
Solo play still matters
It should also be noted that Call of Duty Vanguard is releasing at a time when its closest competitor, Battlefield 2042, has ditched any attempts at a single-player campaign in favor of switching exclusively to online gameplay.
Battlefield 2042 is not the first shooter to do this, Call of Duty itself skipped out on a campaign for 2018’s Black Ops 4, but it’s still disappointing nevertheless. It’s even more of a shame in light of Vanguard showcasing just how impactful single-player shooter campaigns can be. Not to mention, its inclusion really rounds out the game's content package. Battlefield 2042 could in contrast feel a little light without one.
There are, of course, recently-released shooters with bigger and more ambitious single-player modes, such as Far Cry 6. But when you consider that Call of Duty campaigns are often viewed as an afterthought by players, the developers of Vanguard deserves respect for their efforts.
I wouldn’t recommend Vanguard solely for its single-player campaign, if only because of its short length. But if you were already planning on playing the latest Call of Duty this year, don’t jump straight into the multiplayer. Give the single-player a chance, the stories of these four soldiers are worth experiencing.