Call of Duty: Vanguard Review (PS5) – Leading By Following
Another year, another CoD. Can Call of Duty: Vanguard lead the line or does it fall by the wayside? The Finger Guns review.
Oh Call of Duty. Ever the dutiful provider, you arrive every year without fail to deliver more rootin’, tootin’, shootin’ action. It’s kind of difficult to review the CoD entries now, given there’s just been so many of them on such a consistent basis it’s hard to even know what to say that hasn’t already been repeated multiple times, but we’ll give it a go for the latest entry in Vanguard. Returning to the well-worn and battle-stained era of World War 2 after the modern escapades of… well, Modern Warfare 2019… and last year’s 1984 era Cold War, Vanguard is another effort at boots on the ground action from Sledgehammer.
I’ve played a lot of the CoD titles of the past, including dozens of hours of Modern Warfare 2019, but I skipped last year’s iteration due to fatigue of the series. Coming into Call of Duty: Vanguard I was fully prepared for more of the same, which is exactly what it provides. If you like CoD, you’ll like Vanguard – you don’t need to read the rest of this review (though please do anyway!). But, if you’re on the fence, your enjoyment of this entry will depend on what type of CoD experience you’re hoping for. So, without further ado, let’s get our hands muddy and rifles tarnished in the trenches of World War 2.
Misfits – World War 2 Style
Vanguard’s valiant effort to deliver a campaign follows a cobbled together group of expert allied misfits, forged from each of the allied nations into an elite spec-ops team. Opening near the end of the global conflict, your squad is on the hunt for a Nazi project being kept under wraps as the German war machine faces impending defeat. It’s a decent set-up, with the concept of each allied nation being represented providing an opportunity to explore various backgrounds and conflict zones throughout the war.
Which is precisely what Call of Duty: Vanguard does. 1-2 story missions are allowed for each member of the team, transporting you to battlegrounds of Russia, Africa, Europe and the Pacific. Imagine if there was a version of the “NOW” CDs for Call of Duty and you’ll have the right idea. Each mission acts as a rehashed version of a greatest hit from a previous CoD entry – from surviving the onslaught of Normandy, desperately staving off Japanese ambushes to sniping your way through Stalingrad and charging up tank colonies in Africa.
I couldn’t shake the feeling I’d done, and seen, all of this many times before. The missions are polished, well developed and solid, there’s just so little here to surprise you or deliver any fresh ideas. If you’ve played a number of CoD campaigns before, it’ll feel like you’re running through a highlight reel of the best concepts with a new coat of paint.
That’s not to say it’s bad, because it’s not. It’s actually quite good. Just don’t expect anything particularly surprising or new to sink your bullets into. Sledgehammer, to their credit, do attempt to weave a theme of racism throughout its narrative to give it some element of life. Nazi officers frequently spew derogratory and undermining comments to Arthur, the squad leader, while one mission has you battling through a Pacific theatre with the 93rd battalion, a segregated troop of soldiers who provide context of less favourable treatment during the conflict.
On the whole, it’s handled moderately well. It’s not overbearing on the overall narrative and it earnestly attempts to show the level of discrimination experienced on both sides of the conflict. Sledgehammer don’t necessarily do much with the theme apart from surface level comments and moments in cutscenes, but it was nice to have a theme throughout to ponder, even if it is only for a moment.
Other than that, the campaign is what you’ve come to expect. Russian Polina (voiced by Laura Bailey) is by far the most interesting of the squad, with a couple of others coming off more as caricatures than actual people, but it’s a fun enough time to carry it through the 3-5 hour runtime. Objectives and gameplay are repeated from previous campaigns, from defending points, to stealthing through areas and even an aircraft dogfighting level, it’s all here and accounted for. I don’t personally think the campaign alone is worth the asking price, especially given how short it is, but I appreciated having it to experience and some effort was clearly put in.
Bullets, Bombs and Bloodshed
Which brings us to the second of Call of Duty: Vanguard’s trilogy of modes: multiplayer. Sledgehammer’s last outing in WW2 tried to return the series to a more gritty, focused experience while introducing a couple of new ideas in the War mode and having a central HUB world. It didn’t all stick, with some uninspired level design and questionable microtransaction systems. Vanguard follows a similar trend, only with fewer creative ideas. Once again though, if you spend dozens of hours in the CoD multiplayer ecosystem, you’ll have no reason to skip Vanguard.
Sledgehammer offer up the usual variety of standard and hardcore modes – domination, search & destroy, team deathmatch and hardpoint all return. As has become standard from Modern Warfare and Cold War, there’s a rotating set of playlists offering certain modes and maps for limited time before shifting to new offerings. One new option allows you to decide between tactical, assault and blitz matches – effectively a tool to decide how many players each side has for each match. It allows you to tailor a slower, more methodical battle versus all out chaos and mayhem.
Speaking of, chaos, mayhem and all-out madness sums up Call of Duty: Vanguard’s multiplayer experience to a T. Exceptionally low time-to-kill is combined with little flinch and with Gunsmith returning allowing for recoil-controlling attachments, most players can laser each other with ruthless efficiency. Killstreaks return to replace score streaks, which are spammed virtually endlessly from the midpoint of any given match, causing explosions, dogs and recon drones to be unleashed at will. Explosives are given to everyone and are regularly spammed. Maps are designed to encourage frequent engagements with multiple avenues for encounters and lines of sight to deal death. It’s insane, fast-paced and twitchy action. Most importantly, it’s fun – there’s just little competitive design to encourage methodical or tactical play, if that’s your jam.
There weren’t any standout maps that hooked me and there’s a couple of traditional, three-lane offerings which become tedious due to the abusable explosive ordnance everyone has access to. I certainly enjoyed myself playing Vanguard’s multiplayer, but it loses any sense of the realism or grounded nature of its era due to its design philosophy, which I personally found a bit of a shame.
World War 2, With Red Dot Sights
Operators are once again brought in to provide “unique” personalities for you to role-play as. I’m not a big fan of this, as it means you’ll see the same character models 5-6 times in each match which makes it a bit ridiculous, but they offer unique progression systems for cosmetics, quips, end-game poses etc. Progression can also be earned through standard levels, for each weapon available to equip and through challenges. Everything in multiplayer and zombies contributes to your XP gains across all these elements so you’re constantly progressing and earning something, regardless of how you’re spending your time in Call of Duty: Vanguard.
I like the variety of unlockables and items you can earn in-game, but it comes at a cost, unfortunately. Acquiring skins for weapons that look completely out of place or having an actual red dot sight on an M1 Garand or PPSH just looks… ridiculous. I know, I know, it’s a nitpick and a minor thing to be going off about, but it utterly wrecks the aura of World War 2, undermining any sense of realism, place or time. Given CoD is a more arcadey, twitch based shooter, I guess it’s not unexpected, but for someone like me who appreciates historical accuracy, the multiplayer really undoes a lot of the great work Sledgehammer has done recreating the global conflict with some questionable cosmetic choices.
It’s worth mentioning too, that the perk system has seen something of a shift around. You still pick one perk from 3 separate lists to run on any given class, but what’s available in each list has been changed. The new system… well, isn’t great. All of the perks I like to run are in tier 1, with tier 3 offering nothing that suits my playstyle or customisation choices. Perks have always been somewhat contentious in the series, but I really do believe this system drastically hinders adaptability and personalisation for how any given player would like to loadout. A few other people have mentioned having similar gripes with how perks have been handled, so it’s worth being aware of.
In the end, the multiplayer is again left a bit rehashed from Modern Warfare and Cold War, using the same menus, Gunsmith, cosmetic options, Battle Pass etc from those titles, only some of it is done worse and to the detriment of the overall feel of the game. It’s absolutely fun and worth jumping into if you want some casual mayhem to partake in, but it’s just lacking that bit of life or identity to really keep me engaged longer-term.
Raise Some Hell
To my surprise though, the newest iteration of Zombies was a shambling great time. Admittedly, it’s been a long time since I actually played a CoD zombies mode properly (not since WW2, funnily enough), so bear in mind I’m fresh meat coming into Vanguard.
Launching with one map available – Der Angfang – you’ll traverse a central hub which slowly expands as you enter time-altering portals to complete objectives. Surviving a wave for X amount of time, harvesting 15 runes to power up an obelisk and following a floating orb head to the end of a set pathway is how you’ll spend your time. Mowing down the hordes gives you points to use the mystery box and upgrade your weapons, the usual stuff.
I played a few rounds solo and with other like-minded zombie hunters and thoroughly enjoyed grabbing power ups, experimenting with weapons and cracking out headshots galore. You can trade demonic hearts for buffs and craft different ordnance to eradicate the flesh-eaters too. Initially it felt slightly overwhelming, but after a game of it I was fully up to speed and if anything, it was much easier than the older iterations of Zombies I played back in the World at War and Black Ops days.
There is, apparently, a story the mode is following, but in truth I really can’t comment on the legitimacy or quality of it given I’ve not engrossed myself in the history of it. Call of Duty: Vanguard’s offering was definitely limited though, with each round dishing out the same lines of dialogue and repeating half-threats of what’s to come. To be honest, I didn’t know anyone played this mode for the story, but if you’re interested it looks like it’s continuing that trend, so have fun with it. I had no idea, but it was a great time shooting zombies.
Beauty Blooms on The Battlefield
Modern Warfare (2019) completely revamped the graphics engine for the series, introducing the intense and detail-rich IW8 engine which provided some breathtaking moments. Vanguard is built on this same engine and, for the most part, looks stunning. Facial capture and animation are incredibly detailed, creating some of the most realistic facial movements seen in the medium, especially in cutscenes.
Lighting effects, level geometry and explosions look spectacular in places, allowing for gorgeous open vistas to pop and more intense, moody atmospheres to envelope as you play. The campaign, expectedly, looks the best of the three modes, with some texture and detail lost in the transition to multiplayer which is noticeable. Character models, destructive environments and general effects all look great though and I stopped more than once to soak in the brilliant work Sledgehammer have done with this engine.
That’s not to say it’s all complimentary though. Twice during cutscenes the game stuttered and chopped which caused the audio and dialogue to desync with the visuals which was jarring. Texture and object pop-in happened frequently in more detailed locales like the Pacific and African sections. More annoyingly, lag and framerate drops hit a handful of times on the multiplayer and zombies modes. Not just minor slips, actual grinding halts and freezes until it caught up to itself. I have an excellent internet connection and I checked it wasn’t an issue on my end, so a bit more polish and optimisation may have done some good for the game’s wellbeing.
Despite these issues though, Vanguard looks stellar. I preferred the aesthetic direction of Modern Warfare, but given Vanguard provides so many different locales and stages from all over the globe, there’s clearly been a lot of heavy lifting to make it so graphically impressive, which deserves praise.
Leading The Well-Trodden Advance
All in all, Vanguard is another Call of Duty, albeit a solid, gorgeous and chaotic one. The campaign, while short and lacking in creative ideas, has some decent moments throughout its globe-hopping escapades and in Polina has a character that deserves much more of the spotlight.
Multiplayer will depend very much on how you like your CoD experience. If you’re into a longer time-to-kill with more methodical gameplay, Vanguard is going to be a nightmare for you. For the twitchy adrenaline junkies out there however, it offers a thrilling time of carnage and mayhem complete with ridiculous cosmetics and never-ending lists of things to unlock. Zombies is another solid addition which will hopefully be expanded with more content over time, but the basic structure has enough to enjoy for a few rounds with friends.
Vanguard ends up in the middle of the pack – not quite creative or mesmerising to cement its place at the top of the Call of Duty hierarchy, but with enough content and satisfying gameplay to easily raise it above the lesser titles. It was nice returning to the series again after a couple of years, let’s just hope next time Sledgehammer can be a little more adventurous in the campaign and iron out the minor issues with the multiplayer offering.
Offering a trilogy of solid content offerings with campaign, multiplayer and zombies, Call of Duty: Vanguard is a valiant attempt from Sledgehammer which maybe plays it a little too safe in the end. Despite the messy, disjointed design choices for online, Vanguard still proves to be a satisfying experience. It may not lead the line of CoD entries as its name suggests, but it nestles nicely in the middle of the pack.
Call of Duty: Vanguard is available now on PS5 (review platform), PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S and PC.
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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