There is always a sense of deju vu with Call of Duty speletjies. For almost 20 jare, they have led us through so many bombed-out cities, treacherous canyon passes and collapsing multi-storey buildings, the whole run now merges into one apocalyptic mega battle. By taking us back to the origin of the series – the second world war – Vanguard hammers this sense of familiarity home. This is a very traditional, extremely familiar and almost nostalgic Call of Duty instalment.
For the entertaining Campaign mode, we’re thrust into a covert mission involving an international task force of six differently skilled soldiers attempting to infiltrate a German submarine base to uncover a Nazi plan known as Operation Phoenix. As this is taking place in Germany in 1945 and features rogue SS officers (one brilliantly played by Dominic Monaghan, the nature of a plan named Phoenix should not be too hard to guess, but we still have to fight through around six hours of hectic, bullet-riddled missions to get there.
In a twist of cinematic narrative grace, the squad – let’s call them the Dirty Half-Dozen – is captured early on, and most of the game is a series of flashbacks giving us the origin stories of each of the characters. There’s cynical Russian sniper Polina Petrova, gung ho American pilot, Wade Jackson and conscientious British special forces officer Arthur Kingsley, and with them we whiz through key second world war flashpoints from Tobruk to Normandy, ticking off staple CoD set-pieces as we go. There’s a last stand against waves of incoming enemies, a flight combat bit, a tank bit, and you get to try out a range of authentic period weapons. What keeps it all together is a tight script that keeps the noninteractive sequences to a minimum, explores issues of diversity and personal tragedy in war and actually makes us care about this band of inglorious stereotypes.
Alongside the single-player Campaign is the usual range of online multiplayer options. Team Deathmatch and Domination are here, alongside newcomers such as Champion Hill, a sort of mini team-based Battle Royale organised into short elimination rounds. The pace of combat is almost ludicrously fast, and for your first few days of play your average lifespan between respawns will be roughly two seconds. You arrive, look about a bit, take one step … and then a 14-year-old wielding a tricked-out MP 40 submachine gun will riddle you with bullets. Repeat. Repeat again. Die 20 or so maps are mostly very traditional three-lane set-ups, channelling the action through mountain-top Nazi meeting houses, north African villages and submarine bases – none have significantly interesting features or clever interactive elements, but they do the job.
The Zombies mode (another mainstay of the CoD series), takes the usual recipe – a team of players battling hordes of the undead – and makes changes. In previous instalments, the action was very round-based: you had to survive waves of progressively tough enemies. Now there are objectives to fight through, including patrol missions where you have to follow a glowing artefact, and a quest where you must harvest rune stones from fallen foes and feed them into the Sin Eater obelisk – the most literal interpretation of the “fetch quest” archetype that we’ve encountered in the series. It really messes with the rhythm and tension of the mode and you lose that pure sense of making a desperate last stand against the undead. You can still upgrade your weapons and unlock supernatural abilities, but the progression system feels a little lightweight and unfocused. There will be tweaks and new features in the near future, but it feels like they need to come sooner rather than later.
Call of Duty: Vanguard is the video game equivalent of an old war film that you’ve seen many times before, but still enjoy watching with a feeling of nostalgic comfort that armed conflict perhaps should not provide. It won’t set the world alight, but gives you the opportunity to blow a lot of it up – which is, na alles, what we want from this series.