REVIEW – Another year, another Call of Duty. Sledgehammer is back this time, with the studio’s first new Call of Duty since WWII in 2017. Returning to World War II, this time the development team puts the world’s theatres of war and a team of “daredevil” characters of multiple nationalities at the heart of the campaign, who, in Call of Duty Vanguard must uncover a secret hidden by the Nazis by engaging in a life-threatening – almost suicidal – mission.
Campaign, multiplayer and zombies: like most Call of Duty games, Vanguard offers these three prior experiences. (The fourth will be the upcoming Warzone Pacific). It now also offers a wide variety of content for all types of gamers, whether they want to experience an epic and bombastic campaign or to get to the top of the leaderboards in the latest Call of Duty multiplayer section by giving out virtual headshots to other gamers or to enjoy the sheer catharsis of blowing the skulls off Nazi zombies.
Extra menu, PS5 freezes – complaints from a poor little tester
I’ll say right off the bat that it’s not just us, but the creators who are harking back to the previous Call of Duty, with four games squeezed into the brand new menu system – Call of Duty: Vanguard, Warzone, Black Ops Cold War and Modern Warfare. Now, I understand that there must be huge, rabid COD fans out there who love having all four games on their console. Still, I’d venture to guess that most console gamers don’t use roughly half of their storage capacity for this (and I’m talking about those with a 1-terabyte drive, the 512GB HDD on the primary PS4 probably won’t even fit all four games) when most gamers are playing one COD at a time, not four. In short, there are a few things Activision could have invented that are as unnecessary as this four-game menu system.
As for the testing conditions, I had to wait a few days before starting the game because, on my PlayStation 5, the game just wouldn’t start: the menu or campaign always froze with the usual error message. So I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Hungarian distributor Magnew for getting me an Xbox Series X code – especially as the number of codes this year was quite limited. Although I later realized with great difficulty (or at least strongly “suspected”) that my European PlayStation account might have caused some database glitch at Activision (what exactly, I don’t know, and the helpdesk didn’t help me), so when, on a whim, I tried Call of Duty Vanguard with a US account I hadn’t used in a thousand years: the miracle of miracles, it started! So I was finally able to test the game on PlayStation 5, which I was happy about, as the PS5 takes advantage of the ultra-realistic force feedback via DualSense and the extra power of my old Sony 3D headset, which really added a lot to the gaming experience.
Well, I’ve stopped talking about my own misadventures, as you’re not here to be bothered with that, so let’s jump into Sledgehammer’s Call of Duty: Vanguard and all that it has in store for you at launch.
Inglorious Basterds indeed…
Vanguard’s campaign tells the story of Task Force 1’s mission to uncover the Nazi secret known as Project Phoenix towards the end of World War II, and Vanguard jumps back and forth between missions and flashbacks to specific World War II events and missions that made Task Force 1 team members heroes in the past. Each team member gets two missions (except Arthur, who only gets one), and the missions of the entire Task Force 1 team open and close the game.
Task Force 1 actually consists of six people, even though only four – Arthur, Polina, Lucas and Wade – are advertised as the primary characters and operators that will be infiltrated into the multiplayer mode, which makes it pretty clear which two team members are “expendable” (to quote a classic action movie series, haha). That said, the entire cast is fantastic, and there’s a great team dynamic between them that makes them really believable. Whether we see the whole team together or jump back and forth in time and theatres of war to learn about each person’s story, Vanguard’s campaign is exciting, intriguing and often quite human. Of course, there are plenty of clichés in the story, but I think the usual Call of Duty quality is still there.
Special mention should be made of Jannick Richter, the evil Nazi Major, brilliantly acted by Dominic Monaghan, who regularly confronts our heroes. I don’t want to be too much of a spoiler, but the campaign always presents Task Force 1 as a group with a plan, and that’s how the various characters regularly confront Richter. Monaghan is perfect in this role of someone rotten to the core, yet very human and often of a limited thinking villain as well, who is also plagued by doubts: as the war draws to a close, he has less and less faith in his boss and less and less faith in German victory.
Alongside Richter, the other main villain is Nazi leader Freisinger, Richter’s boss and the designer and director of the Phoenix project. Freisinger is smarter and more dangerous than Richter, and Dan Donohue, who plays him, deserves credit for his perfect portrayal of this sufficiently obnoxious and hateable character. And if that duo weren’t enough, there are also Nazis in the characters’ flashbacks, all of whom are equally obnoxious and hateful figures. Particularly powerful is Polina’s pursuit of a Nazi leader in the ruins of Stalingrad, which gives rise to an insatiable desire in “Lady Nightingale” to kill every Nazi she can find.
Call of Duty: Vanguard also raises some of the tougher issues about World War II that are not often discussed, including the US’s somewhat questionable use of all-black regiments. I’m sure it will be debatable how well the game handles these topics. Still, I felt that the developers at least did a pretty good job of being upfront about these things without trying to embellish or heroicize them overly.
A brief but a solid cinematic experience
Despite the fact that this is the campaign that Vanguard was most heavily promoted with, it’s a pretty short experience – you can finish it in about six to eight hours. While it boasts a grand narrative, excellent characters and undeniable cinematic epicness, Vanguard’s gameplay once again uses the Call of Duty formula we’ve been getting for a decade. So much so that I often even had moments of deja vu. For example, one of Polina’s boss fights was essentially the same as in Modern Warfare 2019, when she had to hide with little girl Fara from a bad guy chasing her and stab him with a knife at just the right moment. (I also didn’t quite understand why Polina didn’t shoot the Nazi bastard when she had him in her crosshairs four or five times.)
Vanguard’s campaign is also a relatively linear cinematic experience. Throughout the game’s story, there are no collectables, notable alternate routes or choices. Some levels can be a bit right-and-left, but then the scripted events quickly steer you in one direction, so you can quickly find the limits of the campaign. I played on Hardcore (one level below the hardest), which was a pretty average difficulty level, but I had absolutely no desire to play through the game on another more challenging level because it doesn’t change the experience much other than making it easier to kill while enemies get a little tougher.
The campaign also brings the usual bombastic Michael Bay style, which is still a great experience in a video game. You can take part in missions, experience moments such as jumping on two trains hurtling towards the heart of Nazi Germany, playing deadly hide-and-seek and firefights with German soldiers, or bomb aircraft carriers in the Pacific. Exploring the various theatres of war and the character stories accompanying them is enjoyable, with a great pace, although they are all relatively short overall. What makes Vanguard’s campaign stand out is undoubtedly its story and characters, which present a unique and more character-centric approach to the Second World War. The gameplay, however, despite looking beautiful and having a great story, offers nothing that we haven’t seen in years. That’s not necessarily bad, but there’s a noticeable lack of actual gameplay innovation in the campaign.
War… war never changes?
Sledgehammer wanted multiplayer arenas to alleviate the old battles’ chaos by returning to the Second World War. Yet the question arises, how can you recreate the feel of a less tactical war battle, where soldiers (gamers) charged in waves and were massively mauled by bullets and explosions while still retaining the more tactical, modern gameplay that gamers love? One big answer to this question is ‘tactical environmental damage’. It breaks down the environment by opening up entirely new vistas in the single campaign and removing particular walls and cover as the game progresses.
The other significant change is the ability to choose the pace of combat, which will amplify the number of players for each map size. Tactical retains the classic Call of Duty 6v6 gameplay, while Assault and Blitz maps allow you to fight in chaotic arenas that can be played against up to 24v24 players. This dynamic setup also means that you don’t simply have to settle for a set number of players but can play in modes that change dynamically based on the experience you want.
Vanguard is a marked departure from Treyarch’s forward-thinking approach to the Call of Duty franchise. Still, it’s also not really similar to Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare, despite being based on the same technology as the latter. Coming out of Black Ops Cold War, I was quickly defeated when I tried to fight with the same frenetic intensity in Vanguard. Vanguard is still fast-paced, but the way the maps are designed (and the destructible walls, doors and cover) definitely means you have to be a little more careful with your tactics. But even so, you can still be taken down quickly if you’re shot at from the side and the back – at least on some maps, while others are designed with a more classic three-lane design with their own destructible environments.
Once I found out what the maps supported, I started to adapt much better. I moved closer to walls and objects, checked corners and perhaps played a little more patiently than I usually do. Honestly, it was a lot of fun to find a different style of play for myself, not to mention adapting to whichever map was next.
Starting with 20 maps across four theatres of World War II, 16 multiplayer and four separate arenas in Champion Hill mode – there’s a huge variety to ensure the game looks different from moment to moment and match to match. This is a massive plus for COD multi fans. And we’re only just at launch: new content is coming later this month, with three more maps coming in Season One on December 2.
Lots of customizations
In Vanguard, players can extensively customize their weapons with ten different accessories and perk slots never seen before, creating a massive variety of ways to get your weapon to work exactly the way you want it to. Different ammunition types have varied effects, and players no longer have to worry about which accessory to get rid of to use another. Additional accessories can even change how the DualSense adaptive triggers react when the gun is fired.
In-game progression has also been improved, including the ability to level up individual Operators (who have favourite weapons that give XP bonuses when used together), alongside weapons, Battle Pass and your own player level. It’s an even more exciting competition for those who want to do everything through the multi as well.
Sledgehammer has also decided to leave the Nazis out of the operators – perhaps for understandable reasons. With the relatively recent “Operator” system, which allows players to choose specific characters as well as character skins, it may not have been a winning idea to hype Nazi characters in today’s PC worlds, as the developer team of Battlefield 2042 was recently blamed for much less.
This means that all the Operators in Vanguard are good guys, either from Allied countries or Axis dissidents. Presumably, future Operators added via seasonal updates will follow this model, i.e. they will be all good guys, but the question arises as to how they will advance the story with post-launch content.
Zombies… zombies everywhere…
Developed by Treyarch, Vanguard Zombies is an exciting mix of previously-used ideas – a cocktail of turn-based maps, plus Outbreak and even the previously PlayStation-exclusive Onslaught. A prequel to Black Ops Cold War’s Dark Aether Zombies story, Vanguard focuses more on the occult and the supernatural than on the technological exploitation of the Dark Aether.
Players start at the central base of Stalingrad, adapted from the Red Star multiplayer map. Here you can pack your weapons, build equipment and choose which objective to pick next.
By taking a path to a portal, you can take on one of three objectives in another area, which are often further zombie adaptations of familiar multiplayer maps. In Blitz, players spend a limited time trying to survive zombie waves. Transmit forces players to move around with a protective ball while killing zombies. And the final Gather objective asks players to collect runes and bring them back to a central column, which changes each time they are filled.
After the finish, you are teleported back to Stalingrad, which is often overrun with more zombies to kill. Grinding on the cube… After each wave, you’ll receive sacrificial hearts, which you can exchange for Covenants at Alter of Covenants, which are game modifiers and power-ups. You’ll also slowly unlock areas that allow you to drink from Perk Fountains and gain things like faster movement and more health.
The most disappointing thing for me in Zombies is that there are no constant player upgrades to fight for, which is a massive change from Black Ops Cold War. In last year’s game, one of the goals was to get Aetherium crystals for permanent upgrades to skills and perks, which was a great idea as it encouraged players to play another Zombies game, just a bit more amped up than before. Vanguard Zombies has loaded perk upgrades directly into the gameplay, with additional levels of perks being points and completely lost when starting a new match.
Background, audio and… bugs
Although Call of Duty: Vanguard was released for previous generation consoles, the visuals, in general, are not much to complain about. The textures of the various surfaces, the detail of the enemy units, the detail of the human faces in the walkthroughs are all top-notch. Unfortunately, unlike Black Ops Cold War, Vanguard doesn’t use ray tracing on next-gen consoles, but the graphics are still excellent. Incidentally, NVIDIA’s DLSS and AMD’s FSR technologies are used in the game on PC.
As for the music and the sounds, we can only write superlatives. The game’s music was composed by Bear McCreary, who also composed the music for Battlestar Galactica and Agents of Shield, among others. The musical interludes are primarily upbeat, exciting, adrenaline-pumping or dramatic at the right moments. The weapon noises sound authentic (as far as I could tell, I’m not a weapons expert), and the synchronized voices or other noises are also lifelike – the death screams, for example, are particularly so.
Unfortunately, it’s not all plain sailing in the last COD either… The mess is now being made worse by nasty insects – or rather, dogs, at least of the hovering variety, as two dead dogs were left floating in the air after the explosion in part of the campaign.
On another occasion, the occasional German sniper using a smoke trap made himself disappear so cleverly that he was still shooting out of nowhere after the smoke had disappeared. I had to add that the version I play is 1.06 quickly, and 2-3 patches must have come out since the game was released.
What to expect after the launch of Vanguard?
The real test for Vanguard will be the post-launch content offerings, like all Call of Duty will continue to receive active – and free – support for the year after launch. The post-launch content model began with 2019’s Modern Warfare, Vanguard’s first season launches on December 2. It will feature three new maps in multiplayer – in addition to the previously added content, unannounced Zombies content, and Warzone integration (as well as an all-new Pacific map called Caldera coming to Warzone).
The only thing that will almost certainly stagnate in the post-launch funding period is the Vanguard campaign. It’s a shame, and in a world these days where we have “live” games-as-a-service titles like Destiny 2 (to stick with Activision) that regularly deliver seasonal story content and missions throughout the year, it would be interesting to see what Call of Duty could do with a similar approach.
Still, the plethora of content, modes, maps, events and other surprises we’ll get for the multiplayer and zombie game, not to mention the Warzone integration, will keep Vanguard alive and well for fans. With the way Call of Duty publishers have been ramping up their seasonal content offerings since Modern Warfare 2019, Sledgehammer is expected to throw everything into Vanguard, along with the Zombies mode, with the help of Treyarch.
Bringing the usual COD standard
Overall, Call of Duty: Vanguard brings the usual COD standard from Sledgehammer, which takes a new approach to World War II. Although the campaign is short and a bit too linear, and the bugs are a bit of a nuisance, the cinematic narrative and diverse and likeable (or hateable) characters make for a satisfying experience. The multiplayer part is also fun, with unique Sledgehammer-style features such as new game modes and destructible environments for maps. Treyarch’s Zombies gameplay is relatively fun but not polished enough, and the lack of upgrades – a step down from Black Ops Cold War Zombies – is frustrating, but post-launch content and changes could improve things.
Thanks to Magnew Ltd. for the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series codes!
+ Call of Duty quality has long since shone as brightly as in this episode
– Great graphics
– Multiple maps and destructible environments in multiplayer
– A bit of a zombie clash
– One or two other boss fights stolen from COD
– Bugs, PlayStation account problems
Developer: Sledgehammer Games
Release date: 5 November 2021.