Sledgehammer Games' newest Call of Duty does a lot of things right - but you have to wonder if this entry in the series is going to stand the test of time and be remembered as one of the greats in a few years time. Vanguard has everything you want from a Call of Duty multiplayer experience and then some, but Treyarch's latest Zombies mode feels lacking and the single-player campaign is simply too short.
With that being said, the narrative that plays out during the single-player campaign is excellent, if flawed. It's a fantastic starting point, but you have to wonder if the things that Vanguard needs are coming in a future update or not. Overall, our thoughts on Vanguard are mixed.
CAMPAIGN - Vanguard offers a fresh look at the Second World War
Over the last few months, we've seen a lot about the narrative being explored in Call of Duty Vanguard - whether that's through the single-player campaign or the Operators being added. It turns out there was a good reason for Sledgehammer Games' focus on this part of Call of Duty Vanguard. The campaign, including the story being told, is fantastic - in fact, it might be one of the best yet!
Vanguard's campaign mode is a blockbuster in every sense of the word and it does a lot of the things you'd expect a Call of Duty campaign to do.
You play as a series of superhero-like Second World War soldiers fighting across the world against the Nazis and Axis forces. There are explosions, death-defying moments of heroism, and heart. You kill a lot of Nazis in this one, which is sort of part-and-parcel of a Second World War shooter, right?
Vanguard, though, takes a step away from the well-trodden path Sledgehammer Games explored through their previous Call of Duty title (WWII) and shines a light on the lesser-known heroes of the Second World War... sort of.
Characters like Arthur Kingsley, Polina Petrova, and Lucas Riggs offer more of a unique perspective on the Second World War - something Call of Duty doesn't do very often. As a White American male, Wade Jackson's story is one we're a little more familiar with. However, he's got heart and a knack for Nazi killing - he fits into the cast of characters well.
There are moments in his individual character missions that touch on the experiences of African American soldiers in the Second World War, and Vanguard does make note of highlighting the disparity between Wade's experience and those of the African American soldiers that end up rescuing him. However, it feels superficial and is ultimately overshadowed by the caricatured racism shown by the named Nazi villains throughout.
That being said, Vanguard's campaign is still a lot better than other recent Call of Duty campaigns. Lucas Riggs clashes with British Command - an exploration into how the Commonwealth nations were treated by their British "superiors" during the Second World War.
Polina Petrova watches Stalingrad's besiegement - a more grounded look at how the war affected those living on the Eastern Front and how many of those Russians stood up against all odds against the invasion. Arthur Kingsley is thrust into leadership, despite his background - the cutscenes with Vanguard's main Nazi antagonists are quite openly racist.
Wade Jackson comes across as a man out for himself, but quickly finds himself laying his life on the line for others when they need him - his personal arc is the weakest of the bunch, but ties in nicely to the overarching narrative being explored.
Vanguard's fantastic character work continues into its multiplayer too. Padmavati Balan is an Indian "warrior poet" fighting against British occupation during the Second World War, Daniel Yatsu is a Japanese American born to immigrants incarcerated by the US Government after Pearl Harbour, and Halima Zambardi is a Somali-Italian who fights against her father's fascism and for Somalian freedom under Italian occupation.
These are all a part of what sets Vanguard apart from the rest. However, their stories feel a little brushed over due to the fact they're solely Operators. These aren't stories explored in Call of Duty Vanguard's campaign, just in small introductory cutscenes.
Call of Duty Vanguard is doing a lot of things differently this year - as you'll come to realise when we talk about Multiplayer and Zombies later - but this is something they're still missing the mark on. Arthur Kingsley is the first Black protagonist in Call of Duty history - which is a fantastic step forward - but there are so many more stories to explore and limiting these experiences to one paragraph of biographical information doesn't seem like enough.
MULTIPLAYER - Innovation refines classic Call of Duty experience
For the last several years, it would be safe to say that Call of Duty's core multiplayer gameplay hasn't changed too much. Even a "Jetpack Shooter" like Infinite Warfare feels painfully familiar to a "Boots to the Ground" Call of Duty experience like Modern Warfare 2019.
Vanguard's multiplayer is unmistakably a Call of Duty multiplayer experience, but that doesn't mean it's a bad one. Sledgehammer Games has thrown together a handful of innovative features that set this iteration apart from the last. However, they're largely superficial and you have to wonder if they'll make a lasting impact on the series going forwards.
Vanguard has made a few alterations to the way customisation works, for example. Weapons can now have ten attachments, without limitations, and you can now equip Operators with unique Quips. Each multiplayer match also ends with an MVP vote - which is a nice touch but ultimately meaningless beyond a measly 25XP.
Additionally, Sledgehammer has thrown together a new progression path called Operator Levels for players to work through. Now, you can earn XP and progress through your Prestige Levels, Battle Pass, Weapon XP Levels, and Operator XP Levels. Each Operator has a twenty-level progression path with a handful of customisable items in each and a few XP bonuses along the way. It's nice to have something else to work for alongside the Weapon Camo Challenges - but it's not something that makes a huge difference, really.
One thing that does directly impact gameplay is Vanguard's new destructible environments. You could always shoot through walls and windows in Call of Duty games, but now you can start to destroy parts of those walls and remove doors from the equation. In theory, these changes are good and an important step in changing Call of Duty's core gameplay experience - however, the destructible environments in Vanguard are a little annoying.
It doesn't take long for these wooden walls to be destroyed at the start of each Multiplayer game and, at the moment, bugs make them a pain. You can find yourself getting caught on a near-fully destroyed door, despite being in full sprint, or stuck while jumping through a nearly open window. This doesn't just ruin the flow of the game, it also gets you killed... a lot.
When you couple this with the expected teething issues - poor weapon balancing and spawn rotations - Call of Duty Vanguard's multiplayer is in a good place but has a long way to go. The next few weeks are going to be a crucial period for Sledgehammer Games - Vanguard needs refinement if it's going to be one of the multiplayer experiences people remember years from now, but it's far from the worst one we've played.
ZOMBIES - Treyarch's changes fall a little flat
Treyarch's latest entry into the pantheon of Call of Duty Zombies modes sadly falls short of what we hoped it would be - at least at the moment, anyway.
The Zombies mode in Call of Duty Vanguard throws everything out the window and completely re-invents the experience. It's no longer round-based, which has been the tradition since Zombies was first implemented in World at War, but it's not expansive and open like Black Ops Cold War's Outbreak. Vanguard's new take on Zombies is an awkward mash-up of the two with interesting ideas, but poor execution and a severe lack of content at launch.
One thing that's interesting is the changes made to how you get upgrades. Vanguard does away with the Aetherium Crystals introduced in Black Ops Cold War and completely scraps the Weapon Rarity upgrade system. Now, you can purchase Perk upgrades in-game and the Pack-a-Punch machine is the only real way to upgrade your gun.
In an effort to avoid complete over-simplification of the upgrade system, Treyarch has introduced the Altars of the Covenants. These aren't mind-blowing upgrades - as things like Brain Rot make an appearance - but you are limited to how many of these you can have. You can only ever have three at a time and they increase in effectiveness as you progress. This adds an interesting degree of strategy to Vanguard's Zombies - you have to pick and choose from a selection of upgrades that best suit your current weapon and your playstyle.
Sadly, though, Vanguard's Zombies experience is lacking. Der Anfang is a fine map - but it's far from what you'd expect as the main experience. Der Anfang is a mash-up of Red Star, Hotel Royal, a section of Shi No Numa, and another location that features in the Vanguard Campaign. It's several smaller maps linked together by Aether Portals to make one experience. This can work, as we've seen in Black Ops Cold War's Forsaken, but it's not as engaging in Der Anfang.
For a mode that's driven by the completion of objectives, there are only three kinds of objectives to complete and you will find yourself doing the same things in the same places after two or three trips into an Aether Portal.
Individually, these objectives work - Blitz is about survival, Transmit is an escort mission, and Harvest is about collecting Runestones from enemies - but they struggle to keep you interested for an extended period of time. On paper, it sounds like an improvement on the traditionally objective-less round-based Zombies experience. However, it just isn't as exciting in its current state.
It's heartbreaking, really. We wanted to enjoy Der Anfang and the new Zombies experience. The Dark Aether storyline is being continued and the introduction of multiple Dark Aether entities is an exciting one, but Der Anfang is slow to start and there isn't a Wonder Weapon or Main Quest to work towards. These are things that will change going forwards - Treyarch has confirmed the Main Quest is set to start in Season One - but at the moment it just leaves us disappointed.
Vanguard's Zombies mode will improve as more content is released - but it's hard to recommend in its current state and the innovations made to how it all works feel like a step backwards. Outbreak never lived up to the round-based Zombies experience in Black Ops Cold War - the best part about it was the scale. Taking this scale away and removing the round-based experience players have come to know and love was a risk and we're not sure it's paid off.
Call of Duty Vanguard has a lot going for it and we enjoyed our time with it. However, it suffers in crucial areas that leave it in a precarious position. The multiplayer experience is good but needs work, Zombies is promising but lacking in content, and the campaign is fantastic but too short.
In its current state, Call of Duty Vanguard isn't anything special. It's a Call of Duty game that long-term fans of the series will enjoy to an extent, but it's hard to recommend it to new players. We feel that Sledgehammer Games' Season One update is going to be important in deciding whether Vanguard has the legs to keep players interested for a whole year or more.
RealSport Rating: 3.5 Stars (Out of 5)
This review was completed on the PS5 version of Call of Duty Vanguard with a code provided by the publisher.