‘Call of Duty: Vanguard’ review: forgettable fun from the unseen side of WW2

An uneven bundle of fun

Another year, another Call Of Duty – this time we’re going back to WW2 for Call Of Duty: Vanguard with Sledgehammer Games taking the wheel.

Reviewing a Call Of Duty game is a real endeavour, especially for years when there’s the campaign, multiplayer and a Zombies mode on offer. It’s a lot of game, so each of the three elements will get their own chunk. These disparate elements are all their own thing, but they tie together into the big Call Of Duty burrito that you’re getting here.

Vanguard’s campaign does a lot right, but it’s often forgettable. A bombastic opening level that sees you running along two moving trains – jumping from one to the other while blasting Nazis – was nearly entirely forgotten by the time I’d rolled the credits six hours later. Vanguard delivers a lot of fun set-pieces, but without checking my notes, it’s a struggle to remember them.

It feels like a step back after the bombast of 2019’s Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare and Call Of Duty: Black Ops Cold War’s campaign which felt like it was taking genuine risks, but it’s worth remembering that every game in the series has a three year development cycle, so things filter down over time. However, there are clearly elements that have popped up from those games: one knife fight inside a burning building is almost identical mechanically to a segment in Modern Warfare – with the exception that you don’t have to stab someone to death as an actual child, this time.

What does stick in the memory, and is notably better than recent games in the series, is the story. The writing is great, and I got a real kick out of the narrative structure: the first-ever special forces team comes together for a seemingly impossible mission, they’re captured, and then you find out about their past through a series of vignettes.

Call Of Duty: Vanguard
Call Of Duty: Vanguard. Credit: Sledgehammer Games.

As you jump around the different characters, you find out more about them. It’s mostly cliché, but seeing some of the less-observed parts of WW2 is the real draw: rather than replaying the same rote WW2 Western Front touchstones, we get to see different angles of a conflict that affected the entire world. The characters are all fairly detailed too, although Arthur Kingsley (played by Chiké Okonkwo) is a real highlight as the leader of the team. He’s every inch the blockbuster action star, and he steals most of the narrative beats he’s involved in with deft ease.

You play as five characters – one for the prologue and then four for the rest of the campaign – each of the latter four have a special ability that makes playing as them very different, but they also have a unique style of gameplay: a highlight is Lucas Riggs, an Australian in Africa who spends all of his time blowing up bigger and bigger Nazi targets while his British squad leader whines and moans. This feels like “classic” Call Of Duty, but with the added benefit of Australians bickering at each other while you do it. Riggs’ special ability lets him carry several types of grenade and switch between them at will, and also see a predicted path for where those explosives are going to land, and it’s impressive how fast you adjust to just tossing things around.

Elsewhere, Russian sniper Polina Petrova has the ability to climb walls and can scramble through smaller spaces at speed. Her engagements swing between long sniper-duels watching for scope-shine and close-quarters guerrilla scraps that feel something more like Batman: Arkham Asylum, if the Dark Knight had decided to stamp out crime with a PPSH-41, instead.

Seeing the other sides of WW2 is the best part of the campaign, whether you’re fighting with the 93rd Infantry Division – a segregated division of the US Army – in the Pacific, or exploring Stalingrad before things go to pieces.

Call Of Duty: Vanguard
Call Of Duty: Vanguard. Credit: Sledgehammer Games.

The multiplayer is one of the better entries in recent years, but it’s hard to say yet how it’s going to develop over the next 12 months. There are issues at the moment: sometimes you spawn in front of bad guys with their guns trained at you and that goes about as well as you expect, unless perhaps you’re equipping a bayonet or using one of the many elements of the multiplayer that currently feel overpowered. Still, several times I spawned into the middle of an ongoing bombing run and turned to meat paste instantly. So I’m hoping that bit gets fixed, at least.

There’s a heap of maps – some of which are reworks of earlier WW2-themed Call Of Duty efforts – and all have some fairly tasteful use of destruction. There are immediately some power positions which you can see are going to be cheesy, but generally the maps flow well, although the same old Call Of Duty problem – where you can end up in a recurring loop of getting slaughtered – is still present and correct.

The multiplayer’s big feature this year is the combat pacing. A match with the regular amount of players on each team will be an Assault match, whilst Tactical will slow things down and put less players in for you to shoot at, and a Blitz will pour players everywhere until the map is bursting at the seams in the same way as a 24/7 Shipment bout. As every location is designed for a different amount of players anyway, this change in pace can mean that you’re having a tense sniper rifle fight in Stalingrad, or fighting back a tide of baddies in the cramping confines of a Nazi submarine base.

The combat is fast-paced and fluid and, while the WW2 weaponry is all present and correct, it doesn’t feel like you’re playing a WW2 game – those hankering for a return to the Call Of Duty 2 days of semi-automatic rifles and cautious movement are going to be disappointed.

Call Of Duty: Vanguard
Call Of Duty: Vanguard. Credit: Sledgehammer Games.

This is a complaint really across the board: Vanguard doesn’t feel particularly World War 2, with hybrid scopes, silencers, laser sights and even the stickers you slap on your guns, it’s indistinguishable from Modern Warfare or even Black Ops Cold War. Like those games, Vanguard is also full to bursting with things to customise, unlock and tweak, even so far as letting you customise the voice lines for when your characters run into friends online, pick up guns, or make a multi-kill. It’s all a bit too much, but will ensure Activision can sell you customisation options for an entire year players can imbue their operator in multiplayer with a splash of personality.

So far, so Call Of Duty. Perhaps the most surprising part of the bundle, then, is Zombies, which has morphed into a mode that has you returning to a hub world to upgrade your weapons, use the mystery box, or interact with a bunch of other interlocking systems, before jumping into a portal to be teleported off somewhere new to splatter some zombies.

Call Of Duty’s Zombies mode is often a little bit marmite, with players either adoring it or despising it. As someone that often finds themselves in the latter category, I found this grated a lot less: the hub world is also frequently invaded by zombies, so you’re spiralling around a war-torn square doing your errands as zombies try to pin you down and kill you, and then back into the portal to fulfil your next objective.

Zombies gives XP for the same overall level system that the multiplayer uses, but otherwise has a selection of its own unlocks and bonuses, meaning if you’re one of the golden few that can stomach all three of Vanguard’s different prongs, there’s probably a year’s worth of game here already – and that’s before we get into the year of content that’ll come as a side-effect of the game’s integration into Warzone.

Overall, this is a competently made Call Of Duty with a decent multiplayer, although some bugs need ironing out. It’s not the best CoD of recent years, but with a new Battlefield and even a shiny new Halo arriving within the next month, Activision will no doubt have been hoping for something a little more memorable. Still, for fans of the franchise, there’s plenty here to amuse yourself with.

Call Of Duty: Vanguard is available on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S and PC. We reviewed the game on PC, although we also played the PS5 version. 

The Verdict

This is a good Call Of Duty game, but outside of a cracking narrative it all feels rather safe. It’s a worthy purchase if you’re into the franchise, or just want a shooter to play with your pals, and the visuals are absolutely top-notch, but it does really feel like a filler year until we get the rumoured Modern Warfare 2 in 2022.

Pros

  • Thrilling, fast-paced multiplayer
  • Some fantastic standout characters in the campaign
  • innovative Zombies mode

Cons

  • Some major balance issues to be worked out in multiplayer
  • Vanguard is a good game, but not an interesting game
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