The past years happen to be a return to form for the Cod series, with Activision revitalizing its staple subseries and pushing the series inside a new direction. 2022 saw Infinity Ward’s reboot of contemporary Warfare, this past year Treyarch released a brand new Black Ops game set in exactly the same continuity, and the mega-hit battle royale Cod: Warzone saw a totally free release along with those major titles. Now, it’s Sledgehammer Games’ turn at the helm. Call of Duty: Vanguard is really a go back to the series’ WWII roots, however it somehow seems to feel fresh despite treading old ground.
As always, this year’s Call of Duty is split up into three components. There’s a blockbuster single-player campaign, a fully-fledged multiplayer suite, and a side mode. The campaign and multiplayer components are what you’d expect, but this year’s side attraction is a Zombies mode developed by Treyarch in a franchise first crossover. Per month after release, an enormous WWII Warzone update is releasing. Call of Duty: Vanguard may have a ton of content, but how will it compare to the previous entries within the series?
The single-player campaign isn't the main focus of a Cod game, however the developers happen to be giving more and more attention to the series’ stories over the past couple of years. Modern Warfare and Black Ops Cold War had great single-player offerings, but Cod: Vanguard falls a bit short within the narrative department. The storyline is focused on Task Force One, an elite unit of global operatives that hail from different fronts of the war. It’s definitely a character-focused story, but it doesn’t give its characters much time to shine.
The bulk of the story is told through flashbacks, putting you within the boots of one of Task Force One’s operatives before they joined they. The problem is, you simply acquire one or two missions with every soldier, leaving hardly any room for growth or character development. That’s not to say Vanguard’s cast is entirely flat, however the entire campaign feels very rushed. It’s looking to get you to care about all of these men and women without providing you with enough time to get to know them. They had the best idea with the flashback formula, however it winds up feeling like all setup and no payoff.
The best areas of the story are when Task Force One is together, working alongside one another, however these moments are extremely few and far among. The narrative is actually interesting when it’s Kingsley, Polina, and co. battling Nazi squadrons together, however when it breaks away from that to flesh out every individual operative as well as their cast of side characters which will never show up again after that level, it quickly loses steam. Vanguard’s single-player would have fared much better as a standalone 20 hour FPS campaign, but rather, it crams countless hours price of setup, team development, and exposition right into a short 6-hour period.
The main problem is that nothing really happens. Modern Warfare and Black Ops Cold War had stakes and consequences as flawed his or her campaigns were. Call of Duty: Vanguard’s campaign just feels like a chapter from the A-Team. The villain is simply a generic Nazi leader, the McGuffin doesn’t really matter, and there are zero consequences once the credits roll. It’s just good guys shooting bad guys. Just once the characters begin to show depth, just when you begin to obtain connected to the squad, the storyline ends. It really seems like the very first 1 / 2 of an excellent campaign.
Thankfully, the campaign comprises for this within the gameplay department. Each operative has a unique gameplay mechanic to spice things up, and levels are surprisingly open and varied. Each level still features exactly the same running and gunning that fans are utilized to, but there are a number of options for stealth-oriented players. There are also objectives that you can tackle in almost any order and wide-open areas for players to sneak through, ideas which were tested in Modern Warfare’s campaign.
Polina, the team’s sniper, is the stand-out character both narratively and gameplay-wise. She can crawl through tight spaces, ascend walls Uncharted-style, and draw sniper fire using the glint from her knife. Her unique sniper rifle can't be dropped either, allowing the developers to create levels specifically round her loadout and abilities. Her levels feel like probably the most tightly designed levels in COD history, and there must have been much more of her within the campaign.
There aren’t any levels that break the stereotypical FPS campaign mold like there were in Sledgehammer’s previous WWII endeavor, but Vanguard knows what it's and what players want. It rarely holds you. It lets you run free, shooting Nazis while you please. It’s short and doesn’t cash to provide around the story front, but if you want to shoot Nazis and blow stuff up, you could do far worse.
The main draw from the campaign may be the graphical presentation. As per usual, Call of Duty: Vanguard runs in a buttery smooth 60 FPS at 4K on next-gen consoles, and you can even bump the framerate as much as 120 FPS at the expense of resolution. It’s neat and very pretty to check out, as one would expect from a game with this particular budget.
The cutscenes are the standout feature, however. They appear to become pre-rendered 30 FPS videos, however they can look photorealistic at times. The illusion breaks during conversations or when the camera zooms in on a character’s face, but in wide shots of scenery or buildings, it’s hard to tell. Someone could walk in and genuinely think you’re watching a Netflix show or a documentary during some scenes, it’s absolutely phenomenal. Call of Duty has always been known for pushing visual and performance boundaries, but the technical prowess placed on display here from Sledgehammer Games can't be overstated.
The multiplayer is what 90% from the Cod fanbase buys the games for, though, and Sledgehammer Games has been doing a decent enough job with balance and map selection. Maps have been pretty a guessing game these past few years, especially in Modern Warfare, but there isn’t a standout bad map in Vanguard. The worst ones are simply average, while the best ones are really good.
Hotel Royal, a roadmap featured within the Vanguard beta, is among the the best, while Red Star, an outdoor map centered around a Stalingrad courtyard, could be a tad frustrating. Still, there aren’t any maps that will make most players abandon a match. Sledgehammer has provided the longest launch map list in series history, with 16 6v6 maps available on the first day, and none of them are bad.
The experience can differ wildly on these maps, however, and that’s largely due to Vanguard’s new Combat Pacing feature. This allows players to dictate the rate of matches. People who like Modern Warfare’s slower 6v6 pace can opt for the Tactical playlist, while those that want chaotic fast-paced matches can pick Blitz. Combat Pacing can make a map feel radically different. For example, Dome, a returning map from World at War, feels okay on Tactical but is definitely an absolute mess on Blitz. Some players like the chaos though, so it’s nice that the choice is there.
Regardless from the Combat Pacing you choose, the spawns aren’t great. Bad spawns really are a Cod staple at this point, but they seemed especially bad in Vanguard. There were several occasions where I’d spawn directly behind people or enemies would spawn alongside me. This is a notable problem on smaller maps and when you’re playing the Blitz mode.
Weapon balance seems to become a slight issue, however the Gunsmith system returns, so players might be in a position to kit out certain weapons to interrupt up the meta. Each weapon can have a whopping 10 attachments, so weapons are more customizable than ever before. I felt that the MP40 dominated the SMG category throughout the review period, and also the same might be said concerning the STG 44 within the assault rifle category. That being said, the other weapons didn’t exactly feel weak, therefore the meta could transfer of the weeks after launch.
Regardless of how you feel about balance, the game looks and sounds amazing. Unlike last year’s Black Ops Cold War, Vanguard runs on the Modern Warfare engine, so you’ll be getting highly-detailed maps and models with best-in-class sound. Weapons won’t sound as punchy or impactful as they did in Modern Warfare, however the arsenal displayed in Vanguard is a lot older and weaker than today’s best firearms. This allows for additional close-range interior firefights, and it’s indoors in which the sound design really shines.
There is really a new mode called Champion Hill, that is touted because the evolution of gunfight. It pits multiple teams against one another in timed rounds where each kill diminishes a team’s pool of lives. After a round ends, you’re harmonized against another random team with your weapons, cash, and upgrades remaining constant between rounds. The final team standing with any lives wins. It’s a fascinating spin around the 2v2/3v3 formula, and competitive players will enjoy it. It’s not as fair as gunfight since each team doesn’t start with the same loadout and it’s very easy to steamroll other teams with upgraded weapons when you get a ton of kills in early stages, but it’s still a surprising amount of fun.
The problem with Vanguard’s multiplayer is that it doesn’t succeed in any one way. It feels perfectly standard. It looks and sounds great and also the maps aren’t terrible, but there’s not much here that will keep players hooked more than a few weeks post-launch. The new Warzone map and post-launch updates could remedy that, but because it stands, Vanguard MP doesn’t have much opting for it apart from it being just okay.
This year, Zombies has been led with a separate studio, which is a first for that series. Treyarch returns this year with a follow-up to Black Ops Cold War Zombies, and also the result is going to divide the playerbase.
As it stands, there are no traditional round-based Zombies maps in Call of Duty: Vanguard. Instead, Der Anfang is the only accessible map. This is a modified version of the Red Star multiplayer map. Players won’t spend many of their time there, however. Instead, you will find portals with other areas spread over the map, and that’s where the majority of the action happens.
Entering a portal will transport you to another area of the Red Star map or any other map entirely, from Vanguard’s Hotel Royal to World at War’s Shi No Numa. There, you’ll obtain a short objective to complete that may range from surviving for any set period of time or escorting an orb to a certain point. After leaving a portal, the sport advances to the next round. Entering a portal is the only way to advance to the next round.
The only purpose the primary section of Der Anfang serves would be to provide players with perks and upgrades. It’s essentially a hub area that players can use to Pack a Punch and hit the Mystery Box in between objectives. Round-based diehards is going to be upset with this particular change, but it’s ultimately for that better. If only Vanguard launched with a round-based map alongside Der Anfang, however this iteration of Zombies feels like the logical progression of what Treyarch was attempting to do with Onslaught and Outbreak in Black Ops Cold War.
The team states that they took inspiration from roguelikes, also it really shows. Rather than running trains through the same hallways, Zombies has become made up of short excursions into small areas having a hub area in between. You can hit the Mystery Box, Pack-a-Punch, and purchase perks within the hub area, but more Zombies spawn the more you remain there. You will find special infected types to combine things up, and you can buy random passive perks among rounds too. It’s a more focused experience, but diehard Zombies veterans will lament the loss of round-based maps.
Overall, it’s hard to tell how Zombies will pan from here. Der Anfang is really a strong beginning for Treyarch’s new Zombies vision, however with only one map at launch and just a handful of portal zones, it seems like Black Ops Cold War’s launch all over again. The main quest/easter egg for Der Anfang will arrive post-launch, so I can’t comment on that at this time. Still, there’s without doubt that Vanguard Zombies will ultimately evolve into a mode full of content, but because it stands, there’s not really a lot to do.
All in most, Cod: Vanguard is really a solid yet unremarkable entry into the long-running franchise. On a technical level, it’s probably the most impressive games available at this time. On a gameplay level, it’s nothing you haven’t seen before. Still, whether you’re in it for that single-player campaign, multiplayer suite, Zombies mode, or Warzone, Call of Duty: Vanguard has a lot to offer. It’s one step within the right direction for Sledgehammer Games, but it seems like it’ll have a second entry for that studio to actually knock it out of the park.