“Call of Duty Vanguard is both a different and familiar entry…”
This year’s Call of Duty has a lot to live up to. Cold War was well received and continues to be a popular, shining example of the genre, whilst Warzone persists in its free-to-play dominance. Needless to say, Vanguard hits the market with an added necessity to add something new, fresh and special to attract gamers unto the annual release hype train once more. With a traditional mix of campaign, multiplayer and indeed a new take on Zombies, does the game have what it takes?
“…the Vanguard campaign is a solid mix of perspectives, people and paces.”
The new CoD campaign returns to a WWII setting and takes on board the war movie trope of “rag tag team of specialists”. This isn’t a comedic tale, though, but rather a tale spanning nations, battles, and sincere, personal stories. Soldiers from across the Allied Forces nations, each with their own motivations for the mission, give a sense of purpose to an already purposeful endeavour. They are humans, subject to the stresses of their situation but bound together through need, kinship, and common interest. As the story progresses and the backstories of each character unfold, these relationships and motivations become ever more present and pertinent. It is easy to feel, from the point of an onlooker, a sympathetic and empathetic connection to the characters, which exemplifies the overall storytelling.
Naturally, a strong dose of action comes along for the ride as players would expect from the franchise. There is a very strong mix of high-octane scenes, along with some excellent stealth-action and the aforementioned human moments. The action sequences do not hold back, as many players will be thrilled to know. From the opening train heist mission to obtain secret Nazi documents, to playing as Arthur, your team’s illustrious leader, as he attempts an against-the-odds mission to disarm the sea batteries ahead of the infamous D-Day landings, to dive bombing Japanese aircraft carriers with ace pilot Wade Jackson at the notorious Battle of Midway, there is a strong variety of settings, paces and gameplay in the campaign, each executed to the usual, high Call of Duty standard. Personally, I found the aircraft piloting to be a little too challenging (see awkward) to be fun. I was mostly swerving wildly at times when trying to fire upon enemies and frequently leaving the not-too-obvious mission boundaries. That being said, acquaintances of mine did not have the same issue, so players more experienced in video game flight may not experience this issue.
Stealth action makes an aforementioned return in Vanguard, harkening back to the early Modern Warfare days. This time we are not in the snow, though, but stranded as Wade on a tropical island, deep into enemy territory. WWII Japanese soldiers are notorious for laying traps and using their environment to their advantage, this mission is thrilling and intense. It changes the pace of the game dramatically and offers a lesser-seen perspective of the war. In broad daylight, stranded alone with an ally to locate, you have only your heightened senses to see you through and find a way to call for help. It is an unusual take for the CoD teams, but one which they should consider utilising more frequently, as the mood and atmosphere bring the intensity of the situation to life.
As for the quieter, more human moments, none is more profound than a unique view of Russia from the eyes of eminent young sharpshooter Polina Petrova. Growing up with a talent for riflework but unable to practice her skills in the war as a Russian woman, Polina’s story starts humbly with her father and brother as she prepares to head to her role as a medic. When Nazi forces attack her home, Polina is forced to focus and utilise her talents in an effort to rescue her brother and the soldiers he has been training. Suddenly, the peaceful and friendly atmosphere and inhabitants of her home evolve before our eyes into a battleground, and truly make you feel the pain and suffering that has led Polina to join the story’s team of talented misfits.
Some of the other human moments of the game are less family-focused and concentrate on the attitudes, actions, and mindsets that we have come to know of the Nazi’s evil. The main story taking place towards the end of the war means that desperation and power-struggle are key themes in the game, which in turn develop rash actions and hateful inclinations from a pressured losing side. As our perspective as players is from that of a now group of prisoners, we are directed to spectate the true harshness of the world’s greatest villains. The game executes this largely believably, albeit with a few unnecessary and direct statements made about race which are at first implied, and subsequently directly stated in a blunt and grating manner. True, these views are genuine of the high-ranking party members as the history books portray, but to explicitly throw certain terminology around in a modern video game ignores somewhat the impact these views had on people both at the time and still, now, in the present.
Overall, the Vanguard campaign is a solid mix of perspectives, people, and paces. A variety of locations and situations from around the war are bound together by a group of believable characters, each with their own compelling, albeit challenging and troubling, stories that led them to this endgame. It is the most fun I have had with a CoD campaign in many years, and I felt attached to the story and its characters throughout. More of the same in the future, please, as if this is the new, focused direction for the war stories then I am all in for the experience.
“Vanguard’s multiplayer is a fairly standard Call of Duty affair with a few welcome additions.”
Call of Duty vanguards multiplayer is the same, high-octane action that I remember from over a decade ago. It is consistently fast-paced, brutal and tactical, with another strong variety of maps for players to enjoy. Many of the fan favourite game modes are present, from the traditional Team Deathmatch and Domination, to the slightly more objective-based Kill Confirmed and Hardpoint, and not forgetting the brutal yet tactical one-life wonder that is Search and Destroy. These modes will be familiar to returning fans and offer a mild but accessible point of difference to wider shooter games for new players of the franchise.
The big, new game mode for Vanguard’s multiplayer is Champion Hill. This mode offers a little more complexity into the proceedings, taking on a squad-based battle royale-like structure in which teams of players compete in a cross-map, winner-takes-all deathmatch. Champion Hill is precise and tactical, requiring less of the more common running and gunning playstyle and demanding teamwork and communication. It is a strong addition given the widespread and continued popularity of Warzone and was by far the most interesting mode to play. The only downside? It is certainly best played with friends with whom you can speak and strategise, as the approach is as critical as individual skill. That being said, if you have a friend or two to play with, Champion Hill offers a swifter, smaller Warzone-esque experience that blends traditional CoD multiplayer with a pseudo-royale experience.
One of the smaller changes to multiplayer in Vanguard is a different size and pacing options for the game. Whilst a standard (traditional CoD multiplayer style) mode still exists, Blitz and Tactical are going to be terms to get used to. Blitz mode, as the name might suggest, offers high-paced, high-capacity gameplay with all-out action for a more intense experience. Tactical, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. Less frequent encounters and lower player counts make your decisions matter and your aim more critical. This was my preferred option by far, not just because it felt more engaging to me but also because it made my pre-game loadout decisions seem more meaningful and important to my chances. It also increased the viability of some weapons, such as sniper rifles, which felt like they had little place being present in the chaotic Blitz matches I played. The ability to decide how to play, however, offers this same opportunity to all players. Everyone can turn up and play how they want, which can only be good for both accessibility and choice for players.
Other returning pros of multiplayer include rewarding gunplay in general, which is exemplified by an extensive arsenal of weaponry to choose from, as well as the ever-tactical loadouts and gunsmith system. The latter allows you to craft a weapon that suits your personal playstyle and needs, with a focus on weapon parts as well as the base firearm itself. SCAR with ACOG has long been my weapon of choice in CoD, and the addition of a long barrel and extended mags still seal that deal for me today. Whilst other franchises have caught up to CoD’s customisability of weapons, Gunsmith still offers an intuitive, interactive experience of making your weapon your own. A weapon is only as strong as the player’s perks in CoD though, with the perk system also making an expected yet welcome return once more. Critical choices between speed, visibility, durability, and the like, along with the necessary tradeoffs involved, has always been a very personal, strategic and crucial of CoD multiplayer which heavily influences playstyle and prowess. Getting your perks right is a wholly personal experience and a small yet game-changing mechanic which is consistently welcome in the multiplayer mix.
Vanguard’s multiplayer is a fairly standard Call of Duty affair with a few welcome additions. There is limited new content to talk about, but a choice has been made key and the popularity of battle royale-style gameplay has been notably recognised by the development team. Long-time fans of CoD multiplayer will likely still enjoy the offering at face value, though I do have some minor gripes. I didn’t feel as “at-home” learning and running the maps in this game, and the frequency of getting killed with seconds of spawning felt high. The maps themselves are not “bad” so to speak, but do not quite match up to the top franchise offerings to-date. More frustrating and unnecessary in my opinion is the shoehorned-in Battle Pass and progression. In the past, CoD progression has felt fluid, enticing and meaningful, but in this game, it comes across as little more than a money-spinner. The rewards are not overly inspired when compared to other popular titles such as Halo Infinite’s multiplayer or Rainbow Six Siege, and the path to attaining the gear within feels long and arduous. Paired with independent progression for each individual weapon, the Vanguard multiplayer progression and rewards will feel overwhelming to some and are too widespread and varied to meaningfully track and work towards.
“The soul of Zombies has, ironically, been extinguished…”
Zombies, for me, has always been a huge highlight of Call of Duty. The couch co-op approach has been my traditional entry point, but in Vanguard I instead opted to play online. What became immediately apparent is that Vanguard’s Zombies mode is drastically different to the norm, and in many ways just not as enticing or cool… Over time I became accustomed to the new model, but at no point did I feel the same immersion, excitement, intensity or sense of comradery that endless waves of increasingly angry and brutal zombies have provided in the past. Instead, what feels like a last-minute decision to craft a mystical plot and a ham-fisted attempt to add some level of decision making and big-ness to the mode has, in reality, removed what once made this the best part of CoD for me; against the odds survival…
Over a few hours of Zombies, only 2 players out of the 4-person squads I played with ever went down. This, for starters, felt wrong. Zombies is meant to be HARD. It is supposed to increasingly up the ante in a harsh but fair attempt to overwhelm the team, placing you further against the odds the longer you hold out. In Vanguard, it transpires that you can actually “win” or complete the Zombies mode, and with relative ease… This, too, felt both unusual and far, far too easy. Indeed, the longevity of a Zombies matches now relies on the players choosing to draw out the affair, rather than any real long-term objectives or a simple but effective fight for survival. The soul of Zombies has, ironically, been extinguished; and for no clear reason at all…
So what remains of the mode? Well, there are still waves of increasingly dangerous zombies, though some variants now bring a Left 4 Dead-style feel as the waves go on. You can also still collect your drinkable power-ups, as well as using the mystery box to obtain a wide array of weapons with varied usefulness for zombie killing. Pack-a-Punch also ensures the long-term usefulness of your favorite zombie-killing tools by providing powerful, and occasionally outlandish, upgrades and power-ups to your arsenal. Some zombies still drop the traditional bonuses too, such as instakill, max ammo and, of course, the nuke. Some of the classic and well-loved Zombies structure is still present in the game, then, but it is how you play that feels deeply removed from a traditional, working and popular model.
Vanguard Zombies begins and revolves around a central hub-style location, but throughout the game players will be transported to other sub-locations via portals. Through these portals, players will complete a minigame-like task in order to return once again to the hub. These tasks merit currency for completing them, as well as for defeating the hordes within, but add very, very little to the “story” in play in the game. For example, a task might as you to gather and deliver dropped items to an altar, but there is no story progression from this action; you merely return to the hub after the task is completed and choose whether to follow another portal or activate the endgame. Between each portal visit, a wave of zombies is present at the hub. These can be defeated or entirely ignored at the players’ leisure, with the option to enter another portal being almost immediately available. The hub is also useful for the mystery box, Pack-a-Punch, drinkable perks and crafting or upgrades, but offers little more than this on the whole. There is no element of building defenses of heavy progression here; it is more of a means to an end.
Activating the endgame of Zombies does not provide an epic boss fight or challenging final task. It merely spawns a wave of zombies along with an escape portal which, when reached, ends the game. It is an uninspired and anticlimactic ending to a wholly meaningless and grindy affair which lacks the increasing and impending threat and intensity of classic Zombies and is liable to leave long-term fans highly disappointed. Zombies is far overshadowed by the Campaign in Vanguard, and the multiplayer, too, tops it for entertainment value. It is perplexing that such a popular and working model for the game mode has been hastily abandoned in favour of a lackluster reimagining which detracts from the essence of what has consistently made Zombies exciting and fun to play. If you are going in for Zombies alone, Vanguard might regrettably be a game to skip…
Call of Duty Vanguard is both a different and familiar entry in the wider franchise with stark pros and cons for players to consider before purchasing. The campaign offers a grand and enticingly spectacular, well-produced, action-focused war story which takes the time to provide human moments and visit some of the most epic and terrifying moments from throughout WWII. A movie-like adventure following a well-though-out team of Allies provides outstanding entertainment and emotional resonance, an is well worth every Vanguard player’s time. Multiplayer is a largely familiar affair for fans, with some welcome new additions which help you choose how you wish to play. Predictably, paid progression shows its ugly face at almost every turn, but there is plenty for the casual player to enjoy in what is offered for free, should you be able to decipher it. Zombies, on the other hand, is very much a swing and a miss. A futile effort to change the long-time model of the game mode has left it lacking the experience which made it so vastly popular over that last two decades, instead providing a convoluted and largely meaningless side to the game in its stead.
It is also worthy of note that the production of Vanguard in terms of aesthetics and immersion are spectacular and a true example of next gen gaming. The visuals are stunning and a special mention must go out to the extraordinary lighting and sounds of the campaign. A little texture pop-in does occur at times and some grid-mapped graphics are notable in the oceans, but otherwise the spectacular epic of Vanguard is very much brought to life by its production value. The same is true of both multiplayer and Zombies, both of which benefit from stunning detail the and careful attention paid by designers in crafting everything you see, hear, and indeed feel.
A vast mixture of fantastic pros, a familiar body and a flurry of unignorable cons make Vanguard difficult to rate overall. For me, the epic Campaign outweighs the lackluster choices elsewhere, and I would still urge people to play the game on that basis if it interests them. If you are going in for Vanguard’s other aspects, maybe take the time to wait for a sale or free play weekend before making your final decision.
The game was reviewed on the Xbox Platform
This game is available on PlayStation, Xbox and PC
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