Call of Duty: Vanguard Review
Two steps forward, one step back
It’s hard to get excited about the release of a new Call of Duty game these days. Fifteen years ago, the franchise was at the bleeding edge of game development, but recently, the series has gotten stale. With every passing year, the slew of developers behind the world’s favourite shooter have done less and less to evolve the formula that Infinity Ward perfected with 2007’s Modern Warfare. While there have been a few fringe instalments over the past decade that added a double-jump or a unique story to mix things up, the vast majority of the 13 mainline games since 2007’s title have been little more than “just another Call of Duty game”, and 2021’s Vanguard is no exception.
This year, the series is set at the tail end of World War Two. Each one of the game’s three modes (mostly) take place around 1945, and focus on “the world’s first special forces team” taking down the last remaining Nazi holdouts throughout the globe. It’s an interesting concept, but it’s also one that the game wastes in favour of being a bog-standard Call of Duty experience.
As always, that experience starts with the game’s single-player campaign. The four-ish hour long Nazi shooting gallery centers on a group of operators from around the globe who are trying to track down a batch of Germans that are about to make their way to Argentina. Or, at least it starts out that way, but after a brief mission where those Nazis are tracked down and the team is captured by the most comically evil German since Hans Landa, the rest of the campaign focuses on telling the origin stories of each one of its four playable team members.
This is where the game gets its “a campaign set on every continent” marketing slogan from. Each one of your team members is from a different country, and as such their origin stories have you fighting through every theatre of World War Two. The American guy’s missions take place in The Pacific, the Australian’s are set in North Africa, the British bloke’s backstory is all about D-Day, and the Russian’s are set in...well, you get the idea.
Like Vanguard itself, this is a cool idea but it’s also one that fails because it takes place within the Call of Duty universe. The operators’ missions are too short, too linear and they never connect in an interesting way. The Russian sniper’s backstory lasts less than an hour, and although it’s interesting and has some of the best gameplay elements the franchise has featured in years, it doesn’t give players nearly enough time to get invested.
The same is true for the other three operators’ missions, whose stories culminate with a generic chase sequence that ends with a brief cutscene that’s far more interesting than the game’s actual story. While Vanguard’s single-player is far from the worst in the series, it doesn’t take any risks and ultimately is a huge narrative step back for the franchise that was one of the best anti-war war games just two years ago.
Fortunately, the same can’t be said for zombies, which at this point is almost as fleshed out as the franchise’s signature multiplayer. Each round, you’re put in a giant arena that lets you buy upgrades and weapons before you’re sent on mini-missions that task you with killing a certain amount of zombies or escorting an orb to get points in separate areas of the map. After you do that until you’re almost dead, you can extract and get experience points to progress you in the main game’s multiplayer, while also earning weapon XP that can be used in multiplayer as well.
It’s refreshing to be able to experience the vast weaponry of Vanguard without having to play against other players, and the one map included at launch is great as well. As you play through the mode, more and more of the main hub is unlocked, and ultimately it’s tons of fun to try and survive while having a tangible sense of progression both within rounds and after a match is completed.
While it would’ve been nice to have a more traditional World at War-styled arena map, Vanguard’s zombies ditches the puzzle boxes of more recent instalments and gives something for casual players and veterans to enjoy in between committing war crimes in the single-player and grinding in the multiplayer. It’s a true step forward in a game that otherwise does little to evolve the traditional Call of Duty formula.
And speaking of a lack of evolution, the final part of Vanguard is its traditional multiplayer experience. Like in every Call of Duty since Call of Duty 4, the mode is simple: You kill enemy players to unlock new guns, then use those guns to kill more players to unlock new guns. It’s fun, straightforward, and in Vanguard, it’s as enjoyable as the mode has always been.
Although the game doesn’t change that up in the slightest, there are a number of additions that make it the best implementation the series has had to date. There’s a total of 20 (yes, TWENTY) maps at launch, a ton of weapons and an astronomical amount of attachments for those guns. Whereas previous Call of Duty games have suffered from a lack of all those things until post-launch content released, it’s hard to get bored in Vanguard when it takes hours to play through the map rotation and even more time to unlock everything it has to offer.
The time-to-kill is also better this time around, with most players taking only a few hits to go down. It’s more akin to Modern Warfare 2019 than it is Cold War, and like the former, the weapon balancing is absolutely on-point this time around. There aren’t any comedically overpowered guns at launch, either, so this is the first time in, well, about a year, that Call of Duty is properly fun to play on launch day.
This is something that should only get better with time, too. Warzone, Call of Duty’s battle royale mode, is expected to get a World War Two-themed map later this year. There’s also a slew of post-launch content planned for the multiplayer including new maps, guns and cosmetics. Unlike the Call of Duty games of old, Vanguard is a game that you can properly sink your teeth into for the next year.
It helps that the game looks, sounds and runs great too. While there are still plenty of drab colours and depressing music to listen to, this year’s title is technically immaculate. It runs phenomenally well on PC as well as console, and people in the community seem to be having a great time across formats. Being able to run the game at a solid 60FPS without any crashes or server hiccups means that there’s more time to grind levels, and that’s always a good thing.
So, even though Vanguard’s campaign is lacking, it’s hard not to recommend this year’s title. The zombies mode is great, the multiplayer is almost perfect and it all runs phenomenally well. Fans of the franchise’s single-player will be disappointed this year, and anyone who didn’t like 2019’s Modern Warfare won’t have fun in this title either, but for fans of the franchise, Vanguard is a worthwhile purchase that has enough content to keep you engaged until next year’s title.
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