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Call of Duty: Vanguard Review
Sledgehammer's second take on WWII is a step in the right direction.
The past years have been a return to form for the Call of Duty series, with Activision revitalizing its staple subseries and pushing the series in a new direction. 2019 saw Infinity Ward’s reboot of Modern Warfare, last year Treyarch released a new Black Ops game set in the same continuity, and the mega-hit battle royale Call of Duty: Warzone saw a free release on top of those major titles. Now, it’s Sledgehammer Games’ turn at the helm. Call of Duty: Vanguard is a return to the series’ WWII roots, but it somehow manages to feel fresh despite treading old ground.
As always, this year’s Call of Duty is split into three components. There’s a blockbuster single-player campaign, a fully-fledged multiplayer suite, and a side mode. The campaign and multiplayer components are what you’d expect, but this year’s side attraction is a Zombies mode developed by Treyarch in a franchise first crossover. A month after release, a huge WWII Warzone update is releasing. Call of Duty: Vanguard may have a ton of content, but how does it compare to the previous entries in the series?
The single-player campaign is never the main focus of a Call of Duty game, but the developers have been giving more and more attention to the series’ stories over the past few years. Modern Warfare and Black Ops Cold War had great single-player offerings, but Call of Duty: Vanguard falls a bit short in the narrative department. The story is centered around Task Force One, an elite unit of global operatives that hail from different fronts of the war. It’s definitely a character-focused story, but it doesn’t give its characters much time to shine.
The bulk of the story is told through flashbacks, putting you in the boots of one of Task Force One’s operatives before they joined the team. The problem is, you only get one or two missions with each soldier, leaving very little room for growth or character development. That’s not to say Vanguard’s cast is entirely flat, but the entire campaign feels very rushed. It’s trying to get you to care about all of these people without giving you much time to get to know them. The team had the right idea with the flashback formula, but it ends up feeling like all setup and no payoff.
The best parts of the story are when Task Force One is together, working alongside one another, but these moments are very few and far in between. The narrative is actually interesting when it’s Kingsley, Polina, and co. battling Nazi squadrons as a team, but when it breaks away from that to try and flesh out each individual operative and their cast of side characters that will never come up again after that level, it quickly loses steam. Vanguard’s single-player would have fared much better as a standalone 20 hour FPS campaign, but instead, it crams hours and hours worth of setup, team building, and exposition into a short 6-hour period.
The main problem is that nothing really happens. Modern Warfare and Black Ops Cold War had stakes and consequences as flawed as their campaigns were. Call of Duty: Vanguard’s campaign just feels like an episode of The A-Team. The villain is just a generic Nazi leader, the McGuffin doesn’t really matter, and there are zero consequences once the credits roll. It’s just good guys shooting bad guys. Just when the characters start to show depth, just when you start to get attached to the squad, the story ends. It really feels like the first half of a great campaign.
Thankfully, the campaign makes up for it in the gameplay department. Each operative has a unique gameplay mechanic to spice things up, and levels are surprisingly open and varied. Each level still features the same running and gunning that fans are used to, but there are quite a few options for stealth-oriented players. There are also objectives that you can tackle in any order and wide-open areas for players to sneak through, ideas that were tested in Modern Warfare’s campaign.
Polina, the team’s sniper, is the stand-out character both narratively and gameplay-wise. She can crawl through tight spaces, climb up walls Uncharted-style, and draw sniper fire with the glint from her knife. Her unique sniper rifle cannot be dropped either, allowing the developers to design levels specifically around her loadout and abilities. Her levels feel like some of the most tightly designed levels in COD history, and there should have been more of her in the campaign.
There aren’t any levels that break the stereotypical FPS campaign mold like there were in Sledgehammer’s previous WWII endeavor, but Vanguard knows what it is and what players want. It rarely holds your hand. It lets you run free, shooting Nazis as you please. It’s short and doesn’t have much to offer on the story front, but if you just want to shoot Nazis and blow stuff up, you could do far worse.
The main draw of the campaign is the graphical presentation. As per usual, Call of Duty: Vanguard runs at a buttery smooth 60 FPS at 4K on next-gen consoles, and you can even bump the framerate up to 120 FPS at the cost of resolution. It’s clean and very pretty to look at, as one would expect from a game with this budget.
The cutscenes are the standout feature, however. They appear to be pre-rendered 30 FPS videos, but they can look photorealistic at times. The illusion breaks during conversations or when the camera zooms in on a character’s face, but in wide shots of scenery or buildings, it’s hard to tell. Someone could walk in and genuinely think you’re watching a Netflix show or a documentary during some scenes, it’s absolutely phenomenal. Call of Duty has always been known for pushing visual and performance boundaries, but the technical prowess put on display here from Sledgehammer Games cannot be overstated.
The multiplayer is what 90% of the Call of Duty fanbase buys the games for, though, and Sledgehammer Games has done a decent enough job with balance and map selection. Maps have been pretty hit or miss these past few years, especially in Modern Warfare, but there isn’t a standout bad map in Vanguard. The worst ones are just average, while the best ones are really good.
Hotel Royal, a map featured in the Vanguard beta, is among the best of the best, while Red Star, an outdoor map centered around a Stalingrad courtyard, can be a tad frustrating. Still, there aren’t any maps that are going to make most players abandon a match. Sledgehammer has provided the longest launch map list in series history, with 16 6v6 maps available on day one, and none of them are bad.
The experience can vary wildly on these maps, however, and that’s largely due to Vanguard’s new Combat Pacing feature. This allows players to dictate the speed of matches. Those who like Modern Warfare’s slower 6v6 pace can opt for the Tactical playlist, while those that want chaotic fast-paced matches can choose Blitz. Combat Pacing can make a map feel radically different. For example, Dome, a returning map from World at War, feels okay on Tactical but is an absolute mess on Blitz. Some players like the chaos though, so it’s nice that the option is there.
Regardless of the Combat Pacing you choose, the spawns aren’t great. Bad spawns are a Call of Duty staple at this point, but they seemed especially bad in Vanguard. There were several occasions where I’d spawn directly behind people or enemies would spawn next to me. This is a notable problem on smaller maps and when you’re playing the Blitz mode.
Weapon balance also seems to be a slight issue, but the Gunsmith system returns, so players could be able to kit out certain weapons to break up the meta. Each weapon can have a whopping 10 attachments, so weapons are more customizable than ever. I felt that the MP40 dominated the SMG category during the review period, and the same could be said about the STG 44 in the assault rifle category. That being said, the other weapons didn’t exactly feel weak, so the meta could shift in the weeks after launch.
Regardless of how you feel about balance, the game looks and sounds amazing. Unlike last year’s Black Ops Cold War, Vanguard runs on the Modern Warfare engine, so you’ll be getting highly-detailed maps and models with best-in-class sound. Weapons won’t sound as punchy or impactful as they did in Modern Warfare, but the arsenal on display in Vanguard is much older and weaker than today’s best firearms. This allows for more close-range interior firefights, and it’s indoors where the sound design really shines.
There is a new mode called Champion Hill, which is touted as the evolution of gunfight. It pits multiple teams against one another in timed rounds where each kill takes away from a team’s pool of lives. After a round ends, you’re matched up against another random team with your weapons, cash, and upgrades remaining constant between rounds. The last team standing with any lives wins. It’s an interesting spin on the 2v2/3v3 formula, and competitive players will enjoy it. It’s not as fair as gunfight since each team doesn’t start with the same loadout and it’s very easy to steamroll other teams with upgraded weapons if you get a ton of kills early on, but it’s still a surprising amount of fun.
The problem with Vanguard’s multiplayer is that it doesn’t excel in any one way. It feels perfectly standard. It looks and sounds great and the maps aren’t terrible, but there’s not much here that will keep players hooked longer than a few weeks post-launch. The new Warzone map and post-launch updates could remedy that, but as it stands, Vanguard MP doesn’t have much going for it other than it being just okay.
This year, Zombies is being led by a separate studio, which is a first for the series. Treyarch returns this year with a follow-up to Black Ops Cold War Zombies, and the result is going to divide the playerbase.
As it stands, there are no traditional round-based Zombies maps in Call of Duty: Vanguard. Instead, Der Anfang is the only available map. This is a modified version of the Red Star multiplayer map. Players won’t spend most of their time there, however. Instead, there are portals to other areas spread across the map, and that’s where most of the action takes place.
Entering a portal will transport you to another part of the Red Star map or another map entirely, from Vanguard’s Hotel Royal to World at War’s Shi No Numa. There, you’ll be given a short objective to complete that can range from surviving for a set amount of time or escorting an orb to a certain point. After leaving a portal, the game advances to the next round. Entering a portal is the only way to progress to the next round.
The only purpose the main area of Der Anfang serves is to provide players with perks and upgrades. It’s essentially a hub area that players can use to Pack a Punch and hit the Mystery Box in between objectives. Round-based diehards will be upset with this change, but it’s ultimately for the better. I wish Vanguard launched with a round-based map alongside Der Anfang, but this iteration of Zombies feels like the logical progression of what Treyarch was trying to do with Onslaught and Outbreak in Black Ops Cold War.
The team states that they took inspiration from roguelikes, and it really shows. Instead of running trains through the same hallways, Zombies is now comprised of short excursions into small areas with a hub area in between. You can hit the Mystery Box, Pack-a-Punch, and buy perks in the hub area, but more Zombies spawn the longer you stay there. There are special infected types to mix things up, and you can buy random passive perks in between rounds as well. It’s a more focused experience, but diehard Zombies veterans will lament the loss of round-based maps.
Overall, it’s hard to tell how Zombies will pan out from here. Der Anfang is a strong beginning for Treyarch’s new Zombies vision, but with only one map at launch and only a handful of portal zones, it feels like Black Ops Cold War’s launch all over again. The main quest/easter egg for Der Anfang will arrive post-launch, so I can’t comment on that right now. Still, there’s no doubt that Vanguard Zombies will eventually evolve into a mode packed with content, but as it stands, there’s not a lot to do.
All in all, Call of Duty: Vanguard is a solid yet unremarkable entry into the long-running franchise. On a technical level, it’s one of the most impressive games out there right now. On a gameplay level, it’s nothing you haven’t seen before. Still, whether you’re in it for the single-player campaign, multiplayer suite, Zombies mode, or Warzone, Call of Duty: Vanguard has a lot to offer. It’s a step in the right direction for Sledgehammer Games, but it feels like it’ll take a second entry for the studio to really knock it out of the park.
Call of Duty: Vanguard
- Score: 4 / 5
- Available On: PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S
- Published By: Activision
- Developed By: Sledgehammer Games
- Genre: First-Person Shooter
- US Release Date: November 5, 2021
- Reviewed On: PS5
- Quote: "All in all, Call of Duty: Vanguard is a solid yet unremarkable entry into the long-running franchise. On a technical level, it's one of the most impressive games out there right now. On a gameplay level, it's nothing you haven't seen before."