The original Call Of Duty, released 18 years ago, was a game that gave a shit about the Second World War. To play it today (and you should, it remains excellent) is to experience fear, disorganization, confusion, and horror. A bunch of barely-trained teenagers are thrown into a situation beyond their comprehension, trying not to be killed by another bunch of barely-trained teeangers. It, and its first sequel, remain extraordinary depictions of the horror of war, based on the anecdotes of those who survived it.
Call Of Duty: Vanguard’s campaign, released last week, is a game that couldn’t give a shit about the Second World War. To play it today (and you shouldn’t, it’s dreadful) is to see the conflict used as a backdrop for a woefully inept attempt at exploiting the valuable notion of a diverse, modern-minded game. A clandestine group of the world’s most elite soldiers attempt to infiltrate the Gestapo, before uncovering conspiratorial gibberish akin to the plot of a Wolfenstein game. And it is very little fun to play.
As the franchise returns to its WWII origins, it’s absolutely fascinating—and deeply demoralizing—to see just how much its sensibilities have so radically changed. While the worst excesses of the COD campaigns were firmly established many years ago, they are far more starkly and grimly revealed when more easily comparable with the series’ own heritage. But the extremes to which it goes to fail to be progressive in any meaningful sense are even more spectacular.
Activision’s series is, without question, extraordinarily successful. A multi-billion dollar franchise, dominating mainstream sales every year, primarily bought for its multiplayer, and depicted with world-leading graphics. That it even bothers with its campaigns any more is surprising, let alone that it spends hundreds of millions of dollars, hires A-list Hollywood actors, and crafts dozens of photorealistic cutscenes. All for six hours of following some impossibly elite NPCs through increasingly tight, generic corridors.
Vanguard continues the trend, focused on a secret group of best-of-the-best soldiers, via a combination of shallow, dreary target ranges and astonishing tech. The cutscenes are a phenomenon of art. I have never, ever seen graphics like these, locations that look photorealistic, characters so meticulously, perfectly created that despite occasionally looking as if they were filmed, somehow avoid the uncanny valley. They are, visually, a masterpiece. And they are all for absolutely nothing.
There’s not a moment of intrigue, pathos, wit, surprise, even rudimentary drama. The story of “Task Force One” is made of empty, tedious sequences, where moustache-twirling Nazis sneer vindictively at stoic, unbreakable Allied soldiers, one where people look momentarily a bit sad at the deaths of their loved ones, before gritting their teeth and carrying on. It all looks a bit like war movies you’ve enjoyed, whether that’s Saving Private Ryan or Downfall, and Activision so clearly believes that this was all that was needed. Remind players of something bombastic or dramatic, and then assume the work is done.
What was once a series about the brutal, tragic reality for the war’s infantry has become a bizarro-world power fantasy about its greatest imaginary heroes. And with this, ironically, it has lost all its power, all its ability to say anything of worth. This latest entry’s narrative is only about how desperately it wants to ride the zeitgeist of progressive representation, without ever giving a moment’s thought to just how poorly it rewrites the reality of marginalized people involved in the war.
Call Of Duty: Vanguard is all about a time-travelling group of six elite soldiers, sent back to the 1940s to save the war effort. Now, I should say this is not explicitly stated, but there’s no other workable explanation for this wokest group of sensitivity-trained, progressive millennials to exist in the time period. They’re there to thwart the Nazis in the very tail-end of the war, to infiltrate Gestapo HQ and secure some secret files on conspiratorial nonsense Project Phoenix, and spread their message of tolerance.
Let me attempt to dissuade the notion that I’m some sort of alt-right whingebag, and unequivocally state that I am delighted to see a multi-billion dollar franchise centering a Black man as its lead character. There was a time when major publishers truly believed that featuring a person of color most prominently on their box art would be a sales disaster, and while he’s teeny-tiny on Vanguard’s plastic case, he is the one nearest the front. That’s important. Meanwhile, the role of people of color, of women, of basically not-white-men in the Second World War has been grossly underrepresented across all media, and kudos to Activision for attempting to step up. Except, well...
Rather than attempt to actually confront any of the relevant issues that would have been faced by anyone at the time, the game instead takes the most pusillanimous route possible. You’ll never believe this, but, right, the Nazis were pretty racist. I know! The game’s cartoon villains snarl their bigotry, while our heroes are all dreadfully offended on behalf of each other. We know the Germans are the baddies, because they’re the naughty racist ones. The very notion would never cross the indefectible minds of any of the Allied characters.
Things venture more daringly when it comes to sexism, because of course they do. The female character, a Russian sniper, gets to say, “Because I’m a WOMAN?!” most of the times she gets a line, and here the game is so brave as to put some of the misogyny into the mouths of her teammates. Sorry, not mouths, mouth. The Australian one. Because we all know they’re a bit like that, eh? Them and their Sheilas. Bunch of drongos.
In its desperate attempts to avoid controversy, the game grabs at armfuls of it, and then defies reality in response. Having a Black British soldier take the lead demands so much interesting commentary, of which there is absolutely none. At the time of WWII, there were no more than 10,000 Black people living in Britain, in a population of 46 million. And while Britain was a relatively more tolerant country at the start of the war, initially very welcoming to the 150,000 Black American soldiers arriving in the U.K., in 1942 the British government directed that “it was desirable that the people of this country should avoid becoming too friendly with coloured troops.”
The British, sometimes reluctantly, started to integrate the segregation America brought with it when 1.5 million U.S. troops arrived in the country. Formerly integrated businesses introduced segregation in order to maintain white American soldiers’ custom. America imported its own brand of racism to Britain during the time this game so flagrantly pretends none of it was an issue.
Meanwhile, Britain itself was spectacularly awful. Some 600,000 Black troops were recruited from Africa and the West Indies, brought to fight for the country, and then immediately sent back once the war was over, with one-third of the bonus paid to white soldiers. And while Britain was surprisingly lacking in racism during the war years (although institutionally, more often as a matter of convenience), it quickly stepped up once the effort was over, with tidal waves of discrimination arriving.
Black British soldiers like Vanguard’s Arthur Kingsley have been grossly underrepresented by history books and war movies. There was Johnny Smythe (on whom I suspect Kingsley is partially based), Ulric Cross (who is likely also a source), Sidney Cornell (from whom Activision says they drew inspiration), and Billy Strachan, but that we know them by name is perhaps indicative of how unusual it was to see Black soldiers in prominent positions. That Vanguard acknowledges this, makes an amalgamation of these real people into its lead character, is wonderful. But it does it with so much fear, such clear terror of criticism, that it ends up just feeling uninterested.
Private Sidney Cornell was a runner, his primary role in the war to parachute in and deliver messages. He was an astonishingly brave man, and an incredible war hero, wounded in action four times, regularly injured while running through machine gun fire to ensure vital messages reached their destination. For this he was given the Distinguished Conduct Medal, and promoted to Sergeant, with an extraordinary citation. He went on to face a great deal more combat, until he was killed aged 29, in 1945, when a couple of 15-year-old German soldiers blew up a bridge. His is a story that deserves telling. (It almost was, but sadly a film about him seems to have vanished during the pandemic.)
Kingsley is…I have genuinely no idea. His flashback mission sees him assume authority in the middle of a battle, to no objection from anyone, based on nothing at all. He seems like a very nice guy, and is extremely well voiced by Chiké Okonkwo, but there’s never any clue what path he took to being in charge, how he became recognized as one of the most elite, and certainly not a single glimpse of any racism, let alone even hesitation, he might have faced at any time in his army career. That’s all left to those boo-hiss Nazis. Which is a lovely idea, but not the reality of any soldier of color. Vanguard is so deeply in denial that its idealistic fantasy just feels disingenuous, dishonest.
Elsewhere the game attempts to have its cake and shoot at it, with its incredibly clumsy inclusion of America’s 93rd Division. Rather than saying anything meaningful about racism, about the abysmal treatment of Black American soldiers for instance, it glosses over the entire matter. Its effort to portray Black Americans’ role in the war, with the 93rd Division fighting in Japan, exists only to teach the bolshy white American player character (Wade Jackson) a valuable life lesson. I cannot stress enough how woefully this is done: It’s not all daredevil stunts in the sky, Wade, but about getting muddy on the ground too. As if that was what made the experience unique to Black infantry divisions. “Down there,” we’re narrated, “he learned the only way to win was to have each others’ backs.” And if that weren’t already the most patronizing, end-of-He-Man lesson from the wizard, in doing so it reduces the role of this division to being there to teach the white man the error of his ways. These simple folk, fighting in the mud, have so much to teach us. It leans about as far into the Noble Savage trope as you could imagine.
The whole game reeks of “even though”ism. “Even though she’s a woman…” “Even though he’s a Black man…” Rather than saying anything honest, its painful attempts to be right-on, to do everything short of punching a fist in the air and shouting “BLACK LIVES MATTER!” or “GIRL POWER!”, make it all far more offensive. There’s no truth here, but instead an attempt to wokewash history, make it feel palatable and progressive, thereby denying the reality of those it so grimly patronizes.
Activision has made much of how the characters in the game are “based on” real-life soldiers. Russian sniper, Lieutenant Polina Petrova, is based on several different Russian women, for instance, “whose confirmed kill count was in the hundreds.” But this only makes where the game ends up going even worse. Because—and if you can call anything that occurs in this half-assed drivel a spoiler then be warned—by the end things enter such a realm of stupid fantasy that it demeans anyone by whom they were inspired.
Because the “twist” at the end of this campaign reveals that after Hitler’s death, the game’s fictional baddy, SS officer Hermann Wenzel Freisinger, steps up to be the new Führer. He always thought Hitler was too weak, and now he can finally instigate his secret plan, the Fourth Reich. I’m not fucking kidding. He plans to take over the world with all his secret projects, including psychic super-soldiers, but fortunately our heroes all step up to boss-fight this previously unknown Ultro Hitler to death. It is genuinely surprising he doesn’t don a giant robot suit.
Even without this weird-ass progressive rewriting of history, it would still be an atrociously written game. Dialogue is the most hackneyed rubbish from start to finish, with lines as clichéd as, “But if you fly too close to the sun, eventually your wings will get burnt,” delivered as if they’re groundbreaking insight. It’s incessant. There’s a scene where someone is injured on the field, and attended by a fellow soldier. “Your bedside manner sucks,” says the wounded man, oh-so humorously. His buddy replies, “I don’t want you bleeding out and missing all the fun.” Where do they get these ideas from?!
Moments later a character being tortured utters, “You tried to break me, but you failed.” Just how did a room of writers get to that line and say, “Yup, we’re there!”
My focus here is so heavily on the narrative, because what you actually do is almost a parody of the descent of this franchise. Where 2003’s Call Of Duty has you free to explore its open areas, even allowing you to run and hide to escape the terrifying combat, Vanguard’s very first mission immediately flashed up a warning on screen that I’d ventured three paces too far to the left, and should I not return to the prescribed route I would be killed. I was chasing an enemy soldier.
So often during the game your actions—following the enemy, hiding behind the path a tank is taking, going over to a building to look for enemies—result in your being angrily told to get back to your mark. And that’s only in the very rare areas that aren’t literally walled corridors, not even giving the illusion that you might be able to go left or right if you wanted to.
As ever, the NPCs want to play the game instead of you, unless it’s about killing the enemy. Constantly shoving to the front, and when they can’t, literally teleporting ahead, your place is always at the back. They have to get there first so they can…not do anything. They all stand next to the German soldiers like old friends, oblivious to how these opponents are shooting only at you with psychic precision.
Get in the route of a teammate’s scripted pathway and they’ll genuinely push you out of their way. I was shoved out of windows, pushed into the path of tanks, pinned against doors while being shot at. It’s just embarrassingly bad. For the majority of the game, between shooting through the pop-up rifle ranges, you’re just following NPC’s bottoms.
Again, go back to that first COD and your mind will be blown. No matter how its graphics have aged (and honestly, they’re still great), the experience is so much more frightening, moving, horrifying, because the NPCs around you are constantly dying. The enemy fires at them as much as you, and should you sneak cowardly behind a building and wait it out, your company will shoot the enemy too. You’re not the star. You’re another grunt, another nameless uniform, just trying to stay alive. The impact of this, combined with its simple diary entries, tells a story orders of magnitude more powerful than Vanguard’s woeful mess.
In the first game, in the level based on the Normandy beach landings, you play an American soldier tasked with clearing out German bases that could respond to the landing soldiers. You are doing essential behind-the-scenes work that will hopefully ensure a smoother passage for Operation Overlord, in the background, unknown, modest. I cannot imagine a modern COD having a fraction of the confidence to depict such a thing.
When Call Of Duty 2 was in development, I spoke to Activision writers who had spent months interviewing surviving soldiers from around the world. This was 2004, soon before that generation all but died out, and they solemnly recorded the untold stories of veterans, with a promise to retell them in their game.
It makes me so sad that what was once a heartfelt attempt (alongside a desire to blow shit up and make loads of money) to honor those who fought against tyranny, often themselves subjected to it, has become...this. A loud, stupid, ahistorical exercise in bombast, that neither represents the truth of the war, nor meaningfully explores the realities of those whose lives they so clumsily loot. And, perhaps rather importantly, is dull and tiresome to play.
Both Call Of Duty and Call Of Duty 2 are available to buy and play via Steam. There’s a quick hack to get them running in widescreen, and no need to add so much as a texture pack. Almost immediately, on replaying to ensure I wasn’t remembering with rose-tinted hindsight, I was consumed by the frenzy, panic, and madness of its depiction of the conflicts, and especially at its peculiar modesty in doing so. You weren’t Earth’s greatest elite hero. It didn’t need that.
Call Of Duty: Vanguard is probably the most visually astonishing game I’ve ever played. It’s also one of the ugliest. It’s a tragic depiction of the descent of a franchise, a game which simultaneously hides from the true horror of WWII and yet for which that horror is not nefarious enough, replaced with childish action heroes and humiliating worse-than-Hitler cartoon villains. It takes real people’s lives and experiences, and reduces them to simplistic stereotypes, delivering moth-eaten cliché, with the sophistication of a flannel, and absolute cowardice in the face of saying anything of worth.