Call of Duty: Vanguard review
It feels like a stop-gap year for Call of Duty. Developer Sledgehammer Games finds itself sandwiched in-between the mega sub-brands that are Modern Warfare and Black Ops, and has produced fun filler for fans to be getting on with. There’s nothing wrong or bad or off-putting in this return to World War 2, but Vanguard does nothing exceptionally.
That return to World War 2 feels like a boring choice of setting. Sledgehammer’s excellent Call of Duty: WW2 opened the door to the long-running shooter series for me, and after walking through I’ve spent thousands of hours in this new Call of Duty metaverse (sorry). But I struggle to get excited for another Call of Duty set in World War 2 – despite Sledgehammer’s best effort to put a spin on storytelling.
The story, this time around, revolves around a handful of World War 2 heroes plucked from various allied nations that combine to form Task Force One – a fledgling spec ops team that acts as a precursor of the special forces we know today. The campaign begins near the end of World War 2, with the Nazis defeated and in disarray. There is a secret plot to see the Third Reich live on, and Task Force One is sent in to infiltrate Germany on the quiet in order to put a stop to it.
The characters here – all inspired by real-life World War 2 heroes – are supported by decent dialogue and vociferous voice acting – but there’s no subtlety or deftness to proceedings. The leader of the unit is a British war hero called Sergeant Arthur Kingsley. He’s on a “crusade”, another character says.
The meat of the campaign is told through flashbacks – each character in this special unit gets their turn. These flashbacks are missions set during prior World War 2 conflicts, and act as origin stories. Kingsley’s is Operation Tonga, which saw paratroopers land in France ahead of the D-Day invasion. Polina Petrova, the Russian sniper inspired by real-life Soviet sniper Lyudmila “Lady Death” Pavlichenko, has a flashback to the Battle of Stalingrad. The flashback mission for American ace Wade Jackson is the Battle of Midway. We also get to visit the Numa Numa Trail, Tobruk and even the Battle of El Alamein.
Each campaign mission is gorgeous, with incredibly detailed environments, impressive visual effects and the roar of a World War bursting through the speakers. But the gameplay is too by-the-numbers for it to make an impression. It’s all crushingly linear. There is little to think about beyond pointing and shooting. Occasionally – and it’s only occasionally – you can task your squadmates with directing their fire at a particular target. One set piece involves a frustrating sniper battle that descends into a pantomime boss fight. Another tasks you with using explosives to blow stuff up. There are stealth sections that offer a change of pace, but these are rudimentary. Each character has a unique ability, but they’re medicore. Wade’s, for example, is “focus”. This super power lets him see enemies through the Bougainville jungle, making for easier silent takedowns. That’s about as sophisticated as stealth gets in Vanguard.
I was excited to play the Battle of Midway mission but it’s a letdown. Piloting a WW2 plane, shooting down enemies and bombing warships sounds like a blast, but the mission is too restrictive, too on-rails to give the player the freedom needed to express themselves in the sky. The play space is surprisingly small – you need to turn back if you hit an edge – and there’s not much more to the dogfighting than moving a bit and shooting.
In truth, there’s nothing in the Vanguard campaign we haven’t seen in Call of Duty before. There’s nothing here that comes close to the nerve-shredding Clean House mission from Infinity Ward’s 2019 Modern Warfare. Even Black Ops Cold War tried something new, with its Hitman-esque infiltration of the KGB headquarters in Moscow, hideout hub area, side missions and even intel gathering and puzzle solving. From what I can gather, the Vanguard campaign doesn’t have any collectibles.
Vanguard’s campaign deserves praise, however, for tackling the racism and prejudice of the era head-on. Arthur Kingsley is a black man and the Nazis do not like that one bit. The British mistreatment of Australian servicemen is also dealt with. I enjoyed the mission that involved teaming up with the 93rd Infantry Division, the real-life “coloured” segregated unit of the United States Army that fought in the Pacific campaign. The mission is well-executed, and educated me.
Ultimately, though, Vanguard’s campaign feels throwaway. I suspect interest in it will focus on how it all ties in with the on-going Call of Duty cinematic universe, which now features a unified timeline that pulls in the worlds of Modern Warfare, Black Ops, Warzone and zombies. Yes, zombies.
Multiplayer is better. Vanguard is built upon the wonderful technological leaps Infinity Ward achieved for 2019’s Modern Warfare, rather than the tech that powers Black Ops Cold War. It moves and shoots more like Modern Warfare and Warzone, which is a good thing for the upcoming osmosis with the all-encompassing battle royale.
So, mechanics from Modern Warfare and Warzone make it into Vanguard, such as weapon mounting, double sprinting and bursting through doors. But there are some additions. There is a smattering of destruction in multiplayer. Some maps have boarded up windows and walls that can be smashed apart to create new gaps you can move and shoot through. The Eagle’s Nest map, based on Hitler’s famous alpine base, is the poster boy for this new destruction, with one outside lane passing by boarded up windows that, once blown to bits, provide new angles of attack on enemies inside. But don’t go in expecting Battlefield-esque chaos. Vanguard is Call of Duty, at the end of the day.
And with that comes superb gun feel. Vanguard feels great to play on a fundamental level. It whizzes past at a blistering 60 frames per second. It plays fast and frantic. It’s lethal – not quite as lethal as Modern Warfare but not far off – and movement is more lightweight than in Infinity Ward’s game. Vanguard occupies a space in-between Modern Warfare and Black Ops Cold War, a shooter searching for a sweet spot. That Call of Duty vortex – the gameplay loop that’s so hard to escape from – is present and correct here.
The new Combat Pacing feature lets you define the number of players in a match. Tactical increases time to engagement and is meant to create an “intimate and intense” combat feel – this is what you want for that classic 6v6 experience. Assault targets an average time of engagement, with “high action” combat for more players on maps big enough to house them. And Blitz shoots for extremely high action and chaotic combat, with loads of players crammed into maps. You know Shipment from Modern Warfare? Blitz Combat Pacing turns every map into Shipment. What’s nice about this system is it makes it easier to get to the kind of experience you’re in the mood for, and makes all the maps potentially viable.
There’s plenty here for Call of Duty 6v6 fans – hey, that’s me! Vanguard launches with an impressive 16 standard multiplayer maps, two of which are remakes of maps from Treyarch’s World at War, and most don’t get in the way of that classic COD run and gun action. Where Modern Warfare was a sort of war-torn sludge, Vanguard’s colour palette is a little more vibrant, offering decent visibility on all but the snow-drenched maps. The new Patrol mode, which charges each team with capturing and holding a moving zone to earn points, is an early favourite, and I can see myself spending even more time with it in the months after launch.
Elsewhere, Champion Hill is a new mode that offers a natural next step for Modern Warfare’s popular Gunfight mode. Here, eight squads of two (in duos) or three (in trios) go up against each other in head-to-head matches set on four dedicated maps, with the last team standing winning. There are light battle royale elements here. In-between rounds you can use buy stations to purchase weapons, equipment, perks and killstreaks. You have a set number of lives to rinse before you’re eliminated. If you can get to the final three, things get quite tense. I think Champion Hill is a neat idea, although the fun is directly tied, as you’d expect, to your teammates’ willingness to play ball.
There are some concerns with Vanguard’s multiplayer, however. Via the Gunsmith, you can equip each weapon with 10 attachments by default. I know the goal here is to increase the potential customisation, and I like that there are ammo type, proficiency and kit slots, but I can see guns turning into super weapons sooner or later, with builds that are extremely powerful.
Vanguard doesn’t have a ping system at launch, which is criminal (I’m told it’s coming). The audio sounds surprisingly flat, including for weapons fire (Modern Warfare’s guns really pack a punch!). And I’m not thrilled by the return of Killstreaks after Black Ops Cold War’s Scorestreaks. Killstreaks are all about getting kills, as you’d imagine, so there’s less incentive to play the objective. Killstreak progress resets on death, too.
I imagine some of the thinking here factored in feedback on Black Ops Cold War’s divisive Scorestreak system. When that game launched last year, it suffered from Scorestreak spam at roughly the same points in time during a match. Vanguard, whose Killstreaks includes the likes of attack dogs, an emergency airdrop that chucks three care packages onto the battlefield, and the devastating Flamenaut protective suit and flamethrower (with unlimited fuel!), does not suffer from this. But you have to work really hard to get your Killstreaks.
The thing to say about Vanguard’s multiplayer is it’s a lot of fun, but it doesn’t do anything particularly exciting with the Call of Duty formula. There are loads of maps and plenty of modes and that’s great, but the obsession with content has come at the cost of innovation. As a big Call of Duty 6v6 fan, I’ll move on from Black Ops Cold War to Vanguard, but it has yet to blow me away. Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare, for all its launch flaws, certainly shook the foundations of Call of Duty multiplayer back in 2019. Perhaps we’ll have to wait until next year for a similarly seismic shift.
Bigger, more meaningful changes come via Vanguard’s Zombies mode, although I suspect some fans won’t be thrilled by them. Zombies here ties into the ongoing Dark Aether storyline, set within the World War 2 era. There are brand new characters, each of whom offers more of an insight into the demons that exist in the Hell dimension itself. In fact, it’s the demons who are the stars of the show. There’s a big bad demon who fuses with a Nazi, and four other demons who hate the big bad demon enough to work with the players to defeat it.
What this means for how Zombies works at launch is this: Der Anfang contains a hub area set on the corpse-littered streets of Stalingrad. There, you can spend resources leveling up your weapons and perks between rounds. Portals lead to objectives, which, once completed, return you to Stalingrad. As you complete these objectives, which are set in the likes of Merville, Paris, and Shi No Numa, more of the hub opens up, leading to new areas.
At launch – and there’s a lot of “at launch” about Vanguard’s Zombies mode – there are only three different types of objectives. One sees you escort a floating zombie head while fending off zombies. Another sees you survive until the end of the time limit. And the final objective type tasks you with feeding special objects with a unique drop you occasionally get from a dead zombie.
There’s more than a whiff of the rogue-like to Vanguard’s Zombies mode. During my time with it I was reminded of Supergiant’s wonderful Hades, which is a comparison I never thought I’d make of a Call of Duty game. After you complete an objective and return to the hub area it’s changed slightly, which makes it fun to explore new, unlocked areas. Via the new Altar of Covenants, you spend a resource to obtain one of three randomised abilities. There are 11 unique Covenants, as they’re called, at launch. One makes your melee attacks do more damage and heal. Another makes you revive allies faster. One even gives you a chance to turn enemies to your side.
With each return to the hub, you’re presented with a different set of three abilities to pick from. You can carry three at a time, so you need to think about crafting your build as you play through your run. And, as you complete objectives, the rarity of the abilities made available to you improves. You can end up with extremely powerful abilities from the Altar of Covenants which, if used in the right build, can make you a zombie-killing machine.
I quite like this new Zombies experience. It’s accessible, slick and fun. But with only three different objectives to play, and only three AI types (regular zombie, red exploder, and a heavy zombie with a machine gun) to fight, it gets repetitive after a while. And this ties into the big problem with Vanguard’s Zombies: unfortunately there is no main quest or traditional round-based Zombies mode at launch. There is this hub area and three objectives to play through over and over again and that’s it. Activision promises more is coming, but the next main quest in the current Zombies storyline doesn’t arrive until after season one ends, which is a shame.
It’s all a bit flat, isn’t it? That’s how I’d describe the majority of my time with Call of Duty: Vanguard. I enjoy playing it, but it rarely impresses me. It feels like a game that could have been much more. With more development time? Perhaps. Treyarch created Vanguard’s Zombies mode hot on the heels of leading development of last year’s Black Ops Cold War. Sledgehammer once co-led development of 2020’s Call of Duty game, but reported tension between it and Warzone custodian Raven Software meant Treyarch was drafted in to save the day. All this upheaval, exacerbated by the pandemic, must have made Vanguard’s development particularly difficult for the people at the many studios now devoted to keeping the Call of Duty machine running.
And it’s impossible to forget the awful allegations that cast a long shadow over any game made by Activision Blizzard. The despicable company culture revealed by those brave enough to come forward to speak about it is a blot on Call of Duty’s service record – even though it is Blizzard that has come under the most intense fire. The decision to buy or not to buy over all this is a personal one. What I will say is I have found it increasingly difficult to get pumped for Call of Duty in the way I once did.
Vanguard, I suspect, will do well – Call of Duty does well! Its in-game store will sell silly outfits for its World War 2 operators. Pricey weapon skins will keep the money rolling in. As the Call of Duty menu screen swells, adding a new front to fight on even as we head into what’s sure to be a difficult winter, Vanguard will do its bit for the war effort. But unlike the source material, Vanguard won’t live long in the memory.