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Call of Duty: Vanguard debuts today on PC and consoles, and we’ve taken some time to dig into the details of the single-player campaign.
While the upcoming Battlefield 2042 is multiplayer only, Vanguard carries on the tradition of telling a story about the sacrifices of soldiers and the “boots on the ground” experience of gritty combat.
I’ve played through the campaign and enjoyed the details that are told not only in the dialogue but the visuals and the action. This tale balances history, a fictional narrative with characters modeled on real heroes, and a lot of action. The story chronicles the rise of Special Forces teams across multiple nations in WWII as the Allies combat the Axis threat in battles that were turning points in the war.
After finishing the story, I caught up with David Swenson, campaign creative director at Sledgehammer Games, to talk about the story and its characters. Vanguard delivers a tale of four different Special Forces soldiers from different countries, genders, and races. That could have been a mess if it weren’t for the narrative threads that tied everyone together.
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The game starts out in Germany toward the end of the war, when a team, dubbed Task Force One, goes after the Nazi’s most fervent extremists as they try to execute Project Phoenix. The team has to figure out what’s going on in the belly of the beast, the heart of Nazi-controlled Berlin. They’re captured and come face to face with a pretty good villain in Hermann Wenzel Freisinger, an ambitious and arrogant Nazi officer working at the Gestapo’s headquarters. He is the chief interrogator of the SS and the secret architect of the mysterious Project Phoenix. The acting performances are top notch.
As each of the Special Forces soldiers are interrogated, we shift into their shoes and play through the campaign chapters that flashback to the crucibles of fire that turned them into fierce soldiers worthy of the Special Forces. Not only do you get to fight in battles that were the turning points of WWII, you get to see them through the eyes of a multinational group of soldiers who start the Special Forces.
You fight as each of the characters and then the narrative returns to Berlin at the end of the war, where you have to unite together and fight as a team against the Nazis as they make their last stand. It’s a compelling story that will give you the necessary motivation to play multiplayer — and that’s the purpose of a good single-player campaign story.
The campaign takes place across four major theaters of war: the Middle East (with the Battle of El Alamein and more), the Pacific Ocean (with the Battle of Midway and fighting for Bougainville), Berlin, Stalingrad, and Normandy (in the lead up to the D-Day invasion).
You play four major characters among the group of Special Forces operators. The game starts out with Arthur Kingsley, a Black soldier in the British Airborne forces who parachutes into France. You also play as Lucas Riggs, an Australian soldier who fights in the Middle East as one of the rats fighting against Rommel’s forces.
You also assume the role of Polina Petrova, a Russian nurse who became a sniper fighting in Stalingrad. She was modeled after real female soldiers who were the Soviet Union’s best snipers in the war. And you play Wade Jackson, a cocky pilot who fights in the Battle of Midway and also sees combat on the ground in Numa Numa, Bougainville. He is also based on a real character who helped sink two Japanese aircraft carriers and was downed on Bougainville. There, we run into the Black soldiers of the 93rd Infantry Division, a historical unit that didn’t get much recognition in history. I enjoyed talking about these things with Swenson.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
[Spoiler alert: This review has mild story spoilers for the campaign].
GamesBeat: I played through the campaign now, so I had a bit more focus as far as questions. The Midway thing is an interesting story. It’s very different for Call of Duty, since it’s air combat. I wondered how you thought about telling that part of the story in particular.
Dave Swenson: Obviously as we’re making the game, telling the story, we’re doing a few things at the same time. One is we’re telling a compelling story, introducing our audience to the characters, understanding what makes them tick. At the same time we’re trying to have unique and interesting gameplay. As you know now, having played the campaign, each character has their own unique attributes in gameplay. One thing that was important for just the character of Wade — he’s a Navy pilot, and it felt like there was no way to be able to tell the story without getting into Wade’s shoes and fly a plane like he would have. That was a lot of the crux of it.
We looked at Midway — part of what you saw in the campaign was us telling a story while taking these characters and understanding what we call “tide-turning battles,” battles that reshaped World War II and changed history. They were often the domino that tipped over and took the war in a different direction. Midway was one of the most impactful moments of the war, turning the tide in the Pacific. Being able to play that was important.
With all of our characters, though, we wanted to see it through their eyes. We wanted to experience it as they would experience it. We could have made the character, say, a tail gunner, something like that. But we felt like flying the plane and having that experience — one of my favorite moments in the campaign is walking through the carrier, going up the stairs, coming up the elevator, being on the flight deck. For me that was a dream as a kid, to be on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. Climbing in and the whole experience of taking off, the anticipation of it, that was a powerful moment.
GamesBeat: That felt more like visual storytelling, as opposed to — they weren’t bantering so much at the time. There are no big spoken story points. You’re showing us what it was like to be on that aircraft carrier.
Swenson: That’s right. A lot of that was to build up and introduce the audience to the Wade character and what made him tick. As you saw in the prison sequences — what was his personality? He was a bit of — I don’t want to say he was arrogant. But kind of the firecracker of the bunch. The team wasn’t sure sometimes whether they trusted him or not. A lot of that character building, understanding why he would go rogue sometimes, because he was such a hotshot pilot, that’s the build that we’re doing in Midway that pays off later in the story as we get to know how Wade ticks and see how that impacts his actions in the rest of the campaign.
GamesBeat: What were the historical scenes for both Wade and then — was the 93rd rooted in history as well?
Swenson: Bougainville, right? In the war there was obviously segregation in the military. The famous group that everyone’s heard of is the Tuskegee Airmen, the black Air Corps unit. As we were talking and doing some research going into the game, we were looking at the Solomon Islands. We knew we wanted Wade to fly in the Solomon Islands. Our historical advisor, Marty Morgan, told us the story of this group, the 93rd Infantry Division. They were fighting along the Numa Numa Trail in Bougainville. I’d never even heard of Bougainville, so he started off. “Oh, I’ve been there, let me show you pictures!”
It seemed like such an amazing story. It’s something that I’d never been told before. I’d never heard about it, never seen it in any movies or games that had told the story of the 93rd Infantry Division. So we knew we had to tell this story, where Wade crashes and gets picked up by this group of awesome soldiers fighting in Bougainville.
GamesBeat: That seemed worth it, then, even though it pulls you away from the battle in Midway? You were interested in telling the story of multiple battles.
Swenson: It’s interesting. All of these are fictional stories, right? But we pulled inspiration from real people. In the case of Wade Jackson, we were inspired by this man named Vernon Micheel. Vernon was interesting. He flew off the Enterprise at Midway. He was attributed with sinking two of the Japanese carriers. Later, in the Solomon Islands campaign, he was flying a scouting mission and ended up having to crash-land. He got out, picked up a rifle, and said, “Well, I don’t have a plane anymore, so I’m joining up with you guys on the ground.”
When we heard that, of course, it was an amazing story for a pilot to do all that. When you see Wade Jackson, it’s very similar. It wasn’t unheard-of for pilots to be shot down or have to land on these islands and then just get out and fight. We take a lot of inspiration, and for us, being able to be inspired — like with Lyudmila Pavlichenko, who was the Soviet sniper. She was an incredible woman soldier. She did start as a nurse, ended up being pulled into battle, and was naturally talented. That’s really inspiring to us. Although that’s not exactly the story we tell, you can see a lot of parallels in our character.
We take a lot of inspiration from these real-world heroes because for us, even though it’s a fictional story, we want it to feel authentic. We don’t want it to feel crazy, like none of this could ever happen. In reality, a lot of these things did happen. The truth is better than what we can invent for ourselves. It’s powerful to look at those real stories.
GamesBeat: It does seem like the Rainbow Six nature of this group, the multinational special forces soldiers — it seems like there’s competing interest. One is that gamers want to have a wide variety of things to play from World War II, lots of different parts of the world, lots of different theaters and battles. That’s appealing as a game. But then you have to find some way to tie it all together.
Swenson: Again, there’s truth to it. That’s what makes it so compelling and interesting. At the end of World War II, that’s when special forces were born. It’s akin to the Revolutionary War, when you had these armies with lines of soldiers in red, shooting in waves. And when it changed to something more like guerrilla warfare, running through the trees, that changed the way wars were fought. This was something similar. In World War II you had huge battles. How many men, how many vehicles can you throw at it? But toward the end of the war, you had these missions — sometimes these soldiers were troublemakers, but because they worked in unorthodox ways, they were specifically chosen to be part of these groups to do special missions.
GamesBeat: I do wonder where the creative part comes in. Were there actually international special forces groups?
Swenson: In talking to our historical advisor, it was really the SAS and the SOE, the British who started this. It was the allied nations. By default you had many nations working together in many facets of the war. These were areas where they would bring people together for their language skills, for whatever abilities they had. For example, Arthur Kingsley, one thing we showed in the campaign was that he was multilingual. He spoke German and Russian. That was a real thing. Soldiers would be chosen specifically because they could communicate and understand the enemy. Because you had these allied nations, they would pull from multiple groups. Ultimately it was the British that led the charge on a lot of this.
GamesBeat: Was there a root in history as well for Freisinger and the attempt to take the Nazi movement underground after the war?
Swenson: Absolutely. We learned about so many — you’ve seen movies like Valkyrie, for example, that showed there were often attempts at overthrowing Hitler, trying to assassinate him. Often those were from within the Nazi party, people who disagreed. The actual background of Freisinger, he was a member of what was called the SA, a group that competed with the SS before the war started. Hitler ended up killing a bunch of the SA guys. If you pay attention to his costume, the uniform he wears, it’s the black coat with the brown shirt. He was showing, and this was common — the SA who survived and remained part of the party would wear that just to say, “I’m an old SA guy.”
Factions like that, toward the end of the war, when things weren’t going well, were often part of those plots. Marty Morgan would tell us all kinds of stories about groups that tried to overthrow Hitler, so we thought that was interesting. That internal chaos at the end of the war, people trying to gain control, people trying to figure out how to prolong the Nazi movement, that was interesting. And the Allies would want to stop that. It was critical to root it all out once and for all.
GamesBeat: Polina’s story seemed quite interesting. I felt like the gameplay there was also — I don’t know if it felt longer? But maybe it was more grueling. I also thought it was interesting that Zombies was set there. I don’t know if you had a specific reason for that.
Swenson: In addition to her story just being very powerful, losing her family and how she reacts to that, then you incorporate gameplay mechanics that are really interesting when they come into play. I think that combination makes for a compelling game, yeah.
GamesBeat: As far as what you hope players come away with from the campaign, what were some thoughts you had there? I’ve always thought of the campaign in some sense as a reason to play multiplayer. With no story at all, I don’t feel as invested in multiplayer as much. I’m not as compelled to go back and play just for the social part of it.
Swenson: It’s the heart and soul of it. Without that it feels a bit empty. But when we have the story and get you invested in these characters — that’s why we were so excited to be able to use these operators in the main team to continue on and get to play as them in multiplayer, and then get introduced to more new people.
One reason why multiplayer is such a great combination with the campaign in this game is that there were so many stories we couldn’t tell in the campaign. There were hundreds of stories that we ultimately narrowed down into the narrative that would work in the campaign. Multiplayer allowed us the opportunity to follow the storylines of the different operators, introduce new operators throughout the live season. We’ve invested a lot into telling their stories as well.
It’s not quite the same way as in the campaign, but we’ve created material that allows the players, as they start using the new operators, to understand who they are and get a bit of background about who they are. You start to get even more sense of how diverse and how global World War II was, how many people it impacted. That’s one way we’ve one-upped and expanded on what we’ve done in the past.