Call of Duty: Vanguard Review
Just like the NBA’s and FIFA’s of the gaming world, one of the many things you can expect every year is a Call of Duty game. Shifting between World War II and modern-day scenarios, the franchise almost always delivers a worthwhile experience. Between its best-in-class gunplay paired with meaty multiplayer offerings, the franchise has seen unchallenged dominance over the past few years.
This year is quite different because the battle for FPS supremacy has never been hotter as 2021 comes to a close. Sledgehammer’s Call of Duty: Vanguard strikes first, taking players back to World War II while introducing an all-new single-player campaign, a multiplayer offering headlined by a new mode in Champion Hill, and a Zombies mode by Treyarch. Add Warzone integration later this year and it seems like another solid outing for the franchise.
There are players that look forward to the yearly Call of Duty offerings because of their single-player campaign. I’m one of them, and I do my best to play all of the story modes year in and year out, which I thoroughly enjoyed in Black Ops Cold War. You could say I was excited heading into Vanguard because the World War II setting always piques my interest despite it being something that’s been used over and over again.
Call of Duty: Vanguard tells the story of a special force made up of the best soldiers that the war has to offer – British Arthur Kingsley, Australian Lucas Riggs, American Wade Jackson, and Russian Polina Petrova.
Task Force Vanguard, as their group is called, sets off on a top-secret mission that sees the group hijacking a train to find out the existence of a secret Nazi operation called “Project Phoenix”. The group is eventually captured, and the campaign is played through a bunch of flashbacks of each operator showing a bit of backstory that cements their reputation as the best at what they do.
Call of Duty: Vanguard lets players enjoy a couple of levels each for each of the operators, which highlights their special abilities. Kingsley, a fearless leader, can command troops to attack certain targets. Jackson is an ace pilot, which puts you in an aerial mission that leads to a crash landing that allows you to use your heightened senses to spot enemies. Riggs is a demolitions expert and is the only one in the group able to carry multiple rounds and types of explosives.
Perhaps the best of them all is Polina, as performed by Laura Bailey, whose ability allows her to crawl in and out of tight spaces with ease, catching them by surprise to deal the killing blow. She also has the best missions and moments out of the group, which reaches its height in the “Lady Nightingale” mission and puts her in stand-offs against sniper-filled terrain, a department store complex littered with Nazis to eliminate, culminating in a stealth-based boss battle that feels satisfying from start to end.
While each of the levels showcasing the operators are great individually, you’ll never really get to use their special abilities outside of these missions (including the last level), so the addition of these makes it feel quite shallow. Polina is the only operator that has a significant change to playstyle due to her enhanced agility, making the others pale in comparison.
On top of this, Call of Duty: Vanguard‘s single-player campaign ends just a quickly as it begins, wrapping up in about 6 hours, a bit more if you’re keen on accomplishing the trophy challenges tied to each level which have no collectibles to speak of. This doesn’t do the operators any favors despite how interesting their backstories are since it ends just as things get interesting.
Only the first and last missions of Call of Duty: Vanguard (9 in total) take place with the whole group together, with everything else being flashbacks, save for the cinematics in-between levels that serve to elaborate the current-day story, introducing the highly-effective antagonists in Hermann Freisinger and Jannick Richter, who both have fantastic standout performances.
I can’t help but feel that the single-player campaign missed opportunities to make it really shine. Despite an interesting premise, all of the protagonists could have used more time in the present-day setting to strut their stuff. Call of Duty: Vanguard makes it feel like they are superheroes, being the best at what they do, but doesn’t really put them in enough positions to be one.
I could easily imagine a full-fledged campaign that spans 10 or so hours that will let players go through different operator scenarios in a single level – Polina sneaking her way into the Nazi archives similar to the Lubyanka mission in Black Ops Cold War, all while Jackson and Riggs leveling the place and Kingsley leading the charge. The story mode in Call of Duty: Vanguard is serviceable but doesn’t mix it up enough, lacking the oomph it needs to push it over the top that would have made it a memorable outing.
Perhaps the meat of the whole Call of Duty: Vanguard experience lies in its rich multiplayer offering set across 20 maps, which takes place over a variety of familiar modes like Team Deathmatch, Domination, Patrol, and Hardpoint among others.
In particular, Patrol became a personal favorite because it takes the action around the whole map via its constantly moving control point, ensuring that action is always present without restricting the map to certain choke points or camp areas.
All of this is capped off by Combat Pacing, which allows players to experience a multiplayer pace that fits their needs. All maps in multiplayer will have differently sized versions – Tactical, Assault, and Blitz – and each will vary in map and player size that greatly impacts how crazy it gets. If you want a slower-paced game, Tactical should be the choice to go for, allowing for 6v6 engagements. For extreme craziness, Blitz dials it up to 11, allowing as many as 28-48 players in a match.
Time to kill in Call of Duty: Vanguard feels faster than I would like, and sometimes you’re just dead in an instant, which can make things a bit frustrating. When you consider the spawn point problems prevalent in certain modes where you can just spawn right in front of an enemy that’s more than happy to put you out of your misery, the frustration definitely adds up.
Arguably the best addition is what’s called Champion Hill, where groups are divided into duos or trios, pitting everyone in a round-robin format to determine the best group. Battles are intense and highly tactical, with a premium given to a group that can communicate over the chaos of the other game modes.
Depending on your previous experience with Zombies, Call of Duty: Vanguard‘s offering is something you will either love because of its straightforward simplicity or hate because it flips the formula too much from its usual story-centric round-based style.
Treyarch’s take on zombies this year strips down a lot of fat and streamlines it into what’s basically a horde mode with specific objectives. You start in a hub area where you can improve your weapons and purchase upgrades with varying effects that lets you create builds of sorts. You’ll also enter portals that have objectives you have to clear – Transmit will have you follow around a roving control point a la Patrol, Blitz tasks you to survive an onslaught for a certain time limit, and Harvest will ask you to collect runes to fill up a meter.
This makes Zombies very easy to understand and something that newbies will appreciate. Veterans to the mode may find it a bit too simple and too straightforward due to the lack of objectives and easter eggs, something past iterations of the mode had in spades.
There is a promise of more updates coming in soon, so we’ll have to check it out to see how it improves the mode in the long run, but would it be too late?
Whatever the case may be with Call of Duty: Vanguard, you cannot deny that the franchise still has some of the best gameplay around. Gunplay is still superb and satisfying, with each gun having a distinct feel over one another. This is made even more noticeable with the DualSense controller of the PlayStation 5, having different adaptive trigger weights depending on your weapon of choice.
Call of Duty: Vanguard is also a visual treat, as showcased by the various levels in its story mode and multiplayer maps, sporting highly-detailed environments and stunning locations that are only made better by its soundtrack, brought to life by award-winning composer Bear McCreary.
What we liked:
- Combat pacing in multiplayer is a good and underrated addition.
- Solid and polished Call of Duty gunplay.
- Superb audiovisual experience.
What we didn’t like:
- Campaign wanted to highlight individual characters but ended up too short make the experience memorable.
- Zombies mode lacks depth.
- Doesn’t evolve the fomula too much.
Verdict: Wait for it.
Call of Duty: Vanguard, while another solid offering, doesn’t do enough to stand out and make it another must-buy compared to previous years. This has become increasingly important because of the fact that there are a couple of huge FPS games that will be releasing in the next few weeks that will surely give players something to think about.
Players looking for a great single-player campaign offering will find one here but to mixed results. On one hand, the personalities in the campaign have interesting background stories and the missions that accompany them are entertaining and varied. But all of it ends too quickly, making it a short-lived romp with added mechanics that don’t quite hit the mark.
Multiplayer is a mixed bag, and while the Combat Pacing feature does its job to funnel players into the specific experiences that they want, there isn’t enough evolution in this mode save for Champion Hill.
You can expect the whole experience to be solid, with gunplay that’s considered to be best in class, but Call of Duty: Vanguard sticking to a safe outing might have been to its detriment for this year, just when it needed to shine the most.
*Call of Duty: Vanguard was reviewed on a PlayStation 5 with a review code provided by the publishers.