Ten minutes into the Call of Duty: Vanguard campaign and you're jumping from rooftop to rooftop on a moving train. Yep, this is classic Call of Duty alright. Fast forward an hour and you're dogfighting in the air over the sea in a sky full of explosions. If all of this sounds fairly familiar then that's pretty much what to expect from the game. Instead of progressing the series forward, it instead feels much more akin to the best hits of what's come prior. If you were to pick up a Christmas compilation album, Call of Duty: Vanguard would be an assortment of classic Mariah Carey songs.
With this being said, Call of Duty: Vanguard is not a bad game. On the contrary, it's pretty enjoyable. Everything you've come to expect from the series is here, it's just that nothing truly sticks out this time around. Featuring a campaign, multiplayer and Zombies mode, none of the current offerings feel as though they'd reside in anyone's top five Call of Duty list. Instead, it's a solid offering that feels more or less a stop-gap to tide players over to next year's heavily rumoured Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.
Its sense of familiarity is immediately apparent in the campaign. Whereas last year's Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War took some great steps at adding some new life into the mix, including multiple endings and open-ended mission design, Call of Duty: Vanguard feels stripped back and more focused. In some ways, it works, as you're funnelled from one set piece to another, but ultimately you feel as though you're a passenger along for the ride, rather than someone who is controlling the action.
All of this doesn't help when the campaign primarily plays out in flashbacks, bookended by events in the current-day storyline. It gives players the opportunity to experience a wide range of events but lacks the ability to make the player engaged with its diverse set of characters. The standout amongst the offering is Polina Petrova, a devastating sniper who is given the nickname of Lady Nightingale. She's cold, ruthless and packs the best backstory out of the group.
Call of Duty: Vanguard also attempts to add some cultural relevance by bringing modern-day issues into the narrative such as racism and sexism. It has the perfect outlet to reach a wide audience with these topics but ultimately feels too on the nose to have any real effect. Characters often stop in pretty intense situations to address these issues and it never feels natural and more of a detriment to the storytelling. There's something there, however if any future instalments want to attempt at discussing diversity, it perhaps needs to be handled a little better.
With all this being said, the actual gameplay of the campaign can be tremendous fun and never keeps you doing one thing for too long. Mixing action-packed set-pieces with a surprising amount of quiet moments, Call of Duty: Vanguard's story has a great pace that never outstays its welcome. As great as she is in the narrative, Polina's missions are arguably the best. Each character has a unique skill, such as being able to focus and see enemies or hold more explosives. As for Polina, she's able to scurry through gaps and fences quickly, making her very agile. The standout moments are definitely the large combat arenas that have you using the environment to your advantage as you utilise every nook and cranny. This is something we'd love to see introduced in future instalments.
Despite how enjoyable the campaign is, most people are probably here for Call of Duty: Vanguard's multiplayer, which functions absolutely fine. That's probably the best way to explain it. Nothing considerably exciting is offered, but it feels refined and packed full of content. With 20 maps(!) available at launch, it already trumps last year's entry in terms of content and there's a wide selection available. Unfortunately, they all feel rather similar to past games in the series, and you'll quickly be picking each map apart to decipher what its previous influences are. There's even a few maps from Call of Duty: World at War which you'll instantly recognise if you're a long time fan.
At present, the multiplayer is extremely hectic and feels as though Sledgehammer Games could have spent a little more time fine-tuning it all. One noticeable negative is the number of explosions on a map at any given time. It honestly feels as though your controller is constantly vibrating due to the onslaught of grenades and killstreaks which go on for way too long. It's extremely disorientating and you'll most likely wind up dead more times due to not being able to react rather than being killed by pure skill.
Spawn points are noticeably poor too, especially in objective-based modes such as Patrol where it feels as though you barely move a few steps before someone puts a bullet in your head. Thankfully, when you do get the go-ahead, the multiplayer feels great and has a much better selection of maps and weapons compared to Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War. While it doesn't compete in any way with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare or Warzone, anyone looking for a solid WWII themed multiplayer shooter will no doubt have a good time.
Putting these two modes to one side, we finally reach Zombies, and honestly, there's not really much to say about it. It's largely similar to past entries and feels more like a new map rather than an entirely new experience. A game mode known as Der Anfang mixes things up a bit by bringing objectives and round-based survival, but all-in-all, don't go in expecting a revolutionary new take on the Zombies formula. If anything, the entire mode feels like something of an afterthought compared to everything else.
It may sound like we're being a bit down on this year's Call of Duty, but it's only because we know the franchise has potential. Warzone has proved it with multiplayer and Black Ops Cold War showcased it with its campaign. We hoped this would build upon those foundations, but instead it steps back into familiar territory. It's not a bad game by any means - in fact, even at its worst it's better than most first-person shooters out there - but as the games industry evolves, it's time for Call of Duty to bring something new to the table, and this isn't it.