When I was first shown Call Of Duty: Vanguard back in August, I went with a quote from former English prime minister Winston Churchill for my subtitle given his importance to the war efforts. The above subtitle is another quote from World War II, spoken by General Douglas MacArthur, but I’ve omitted the last part. He continues on to say, “…they just fade away”. Call Of Duty has returned yet again to the setting which gave it birth eighteen years ago, to the dismay of some hoping for something different. After spending some time with the long standing blockbuster, I’m happy to report Call Of Duty: Vanguard hasn’t faded away, but gives a pretty strong performance, which continues a run the series has been on since the reboot of Modern Warfare in 2019.
The simplest place to start is with the campaign, an oft afterthought of many players, and completely passed over by Treyarch in Black Ops IV. I for one always jump into the campaign because it’s a great place to get your bearings on how to play before jumping into multiplayer where everyone’s gunning for you. Here you’ll not only build a foundation, but hopefully see the loving care of a studio given it’s so easy to just throw something less polished together. Sledgehammer has really pushed their commitment to this alternate history take on World War II, and it honestly shows throughout the quick running story.
When I say quick running, I really mean it. I’m not sure if it was just me, but it was over in a flash, with me clocking in about five hours of gameplay into it. This includes several times where I kept trying to brute force my way through a section, only to die because I shouldn’t run at machine gun nests. The narrative definitely feels like it’s over too soon, but I’m also not sure it’s a bad thing. Too much padding and I may have been frustrated with it, so this probably falls under not overstaying its welcome.
As for the content of the story, it goes surprisingly deep for a five to six hour jaunt. Sledgehammer wanted to give us a taste of the very beginning of the special forces, which was formed shortly after the second World War. To do this, they’ve dived into the history books, identifying the tales of several special individuals involved in WW2, and using those as a foundation for the characters. We’re introduced immediately to Sgt. Arthur Kingsley of the British 9th Parachute Battalion, Lt. Wade Jackson, a Navy pilot, Pvt. Lucas Riggs, an Australian Army demolitions expert, and Lt. Polina Petrova, a sniper in the Russian Red Army. Everything starts with them boarding a German train to a secret Nazi depot, shooting up a bunch of soldiers, and then getting surprised and captured by Nazi Officer Hermann Wenzel Freisinger as they try to steal some intel.
While the team is trapped in a Nazi jail cell, we get a good look at the them, not just getting a quick rundown, but playing through each of their backstories and learning what makes them tick the way they do. Arthur is a leader, not only of this group, but one made through the perils of war he has endured. Wade is a heck of a pilot, maybe a bit reckless, but what he’s been through has taught him the value of working together instead of having to play the role of lone wolf. Lucas, well, he’s a trip. I’m not sure why they let someone so hot headed handle the explosives, but oh well. Polina is bae, and is definitely my favorite of all the crew. She’s based on Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a famous Russian sniper whose kill count of Nazis was over 300. I love the history behind her, and her missions in the Russian front are a joy to play, especially her journey into a snow covered Stalingrad. Watching all of them fight through these moments, and in their current situation still stick together is really heartfelt.
Every one of the characters gets their time in the spotlight, giving you an amazing view of all four fronts of the war. The Northern conflict in Russia, the battles of the Eastern Pacific, the Western fronts of France, and the Southern wars in Northern Africa are all represented, and Vanguard is strongest when it’s in these levels. These harken back to my cherished memories of playing Medal Of Honor: Frontline, especially with several of these either directing you or encouraging you to play stealthily. The way each of these locations changes the environments completely is also amazing, showing that Sledgehammer’s extra effort to give us every front of the war was a great decision.
Where the game surprises is in the weaker main narrative behind the entire campaign. I know that this team has been assembled to figure out what the Nazis are up to, but I’m not completely sure why or by whom. I don’t expect a big government agency behind them, but I figured there has to be someone. I also don’t have a very clear view as to the whole “Project Phoenix” thing the Nazis are starting in the wake of Hitler’s demise. It seems very few know what it exactly is, besides the survival of the Nazi party.
That being said, the underlying plot does come together quite well in the culmination of events that is the final mission. There are abilities each of these operators have that gives them a hand in combat. It’s not very impactful, but Arthur as a leader can call out to his team to lay down suppressing fire on specifically marked fortifications or people, Lucas can bank multiple types of lethals (grenades, dynamite), and so on. While they don’t make a large difference in the individual stories, this final level has you jump between operators in a frantic chase to take down Freisinger. It’s one of the best moments of the main story, and it’s only error is it comes in too late. Given there are obvious hints here at the end of a continuation of Vanguard, along with Sledgehammer saying they aren’t done, we could very well see more of this idea explored once we get there.
When it comes to the look of the game, just as Black Ops Cold War and Modern Warfare before it, Sledgehammer has found that insane level of visual fidelity to go along with their fantastic game feel. Given the game is built on Infinity Ward’s engine from MW19, I’m not surprised at how good everything looks. The cinematics in particular are astounding, with an almost lifelike feel to them. Dominic Monaghan was a surprise player in this compact chronicle, and his likeness is almost one for one in Vanguard. Yes, there have been some great representations of popular actors and celebrities in the games before, but this one is crystal clear. This extends itself to the environments I mentioned earlier as well, with each of the trips to the different fronts carrying more and more graphical quality as you go through them. The lush foliage of the Pacific, the windmill ablaze with the fires of war shining in the middle of the night mission with Kingsley, the bright, sprawling desert you’ll visit with Lucas, all are beautiful settings worthy of your presence.
It’s all really pretty to look at, but there are some technical issues you might run into. There were several times I’d see pop in of foliage, as well as a decent amount of clipping, with clothes especially. The funniest glitch I saw was when walking Arthur towards the burning windmill, and on the tight path I saw a rabbit run in front of me. No, the hilarious part wasn’t the rabbit in particular, but his disappearing into the hillside to my right. There weren’t any holes, he just pushed past all boundaries and pulled a Martian Manhunter. This happened again with a second rabbit just seconds later, and while this might be patched day one, there are at least some minor problems that need attention.
Even though Warzone has taken quite a few players away from it, multiplayer continues to be the mode players buy Call Of Duty for. My last few years with Call Of Duty have been spent learning the ins and outs, figuring out the meta (most effective tactics available) when it comes to my loadouts, and scouring the internet for routes through maps to make Search and Destroy plays. I said it in our Black Ops Cold War review, the pandemic pushed my playing to new heights, and brings a group of friends together on a weekly basis. Even with that outstanding Treyarch feel, the lack of maps in the beginning really hurt the game, and as time went on my squad grew tired of the tactics we’d have to employ to clutch matches. We’ve been waiting for Vanguard ever since we saw it, and it’s easy to see the focus Sledgehammer has put into building a robust multiplayer system.
Let’s start with the maps, especially as Sledgehammer went absolutely nuts in their offering this time around. There are twenty of them. Yeah, you heard me right, TWO-ZERO. What’s even more impressive about that stat is that sixteen of them are 6v6 (with the other four in the new Champion Hill mode), and of those only two are remakes. Even those are far out of most people’s memories, hailing from the days of Call Of Duty: World At War, which are *checks calendar* over a decade old.
So far, I’m enjoying all the maps. Each one flows well, and for my short amount of time with them, most feature plenty of power positions along with flanking alleys to make sure those aren’t infallible. These work similarly to the campaign in that the team has taken advantage of a wide variety of locales to build out the library of maps. When I can play one match on a Pacific island, and then suddenly in the next be infiltrating a rooftop hotel you’re doing something right. The fact that you can have that many maps without a bunch of duplicates is an incredible feat; it says something that I played for five hours and still missed playing a few maps. I know many don’t like Red Star (the large snow covered city square) from what I’ve read, but now that Sledgehammer has done a bunch of tuning maybe it will creep back into players rotations.
Speaking of tuning, the devs have definitely been hard at work after the beta to address many of the issues people have had with it’s first play sessions. This includes everything from visibility complaints, audio tuning (which still needs some work), and even nerfing the sun. For example, Ninja is back, so creeping around to your heart’s content without your steps being heard is back on the menu. This does force you to make serious decisions with your perk loadouts, given your choice of Ninja means the flak jacket perk equivalent won’t be available to you, but it’s a worthy trade off. Dead Silence is also still on the table as a field upgrade, so I’m excited to see how this might affect Search and Destroy.
What may unfortunately affect some of these modes to a high degree is the lack of trophy systems as a field upgrade. I’m not annoyed with it, I used to never run one back in Modern Warfare, but as I’m a hardcore player I do wonder if I should expect some nasty losses due to a team chucking as many grenades as possible to a particular spot. There were several matches I played where multiple grenade indicators would show up as I sprinted towards the map’s center, and usually ended with me splattered across the floor. As trophy systems didn’t exist in this era (and they weren’t available in any of the other WW2 COD games), it’s something players are just going to have to learn to get used to again. That and pass up Ninja for Flak Jacket. The good news is you have plenty to work with when building out your perk & field upgrade loadouts; eighteen perks and nine field upgrades will be online for launch.
Getting used to the game again is definitely how I feel while playing Vanguard. As mentioned in our campaign section, Call Of Duty: Vanguard is running on the Infinity Ward “IW8” engine from Modern Warfare 2019. It’s visually impressive no doubt, but I have a special place in my heart for the gameplay. It’s really smooth, especially for someone who prides himself in moving around the map cleanly. After playing so much of Black Ops Cold War, the basic muscle memory is there, but the finer details of movement are still kicking in. One thing that you’re going to have to get used to is how reloading slows you to a crawl, something I wish had been retained from Cold War. I try my best to stay away from reloading in plain sight, but being able to still sprint to a degree while reloading was a fantastic part of Cold War, and here I seem to hit reload at the worst time right before making it to cover. Once again, this is a habit you’ll have to break, but it’s definitely worth it when you’re enjoying the best feeling combat in a Call Of Duty multiplayer. My only disappointment so far has been the missing ping system, a nice inclusion in Warzone and Cold War, but it sounds like Sledgehammer is looking to find a way to bring it back.
Movement is one thing, but this isn’t Mirror’s Edge, and you’re going to have to pick up a gun and shoot someone. The weapons just feel so good to fire, whether the MP40 submachine gun, STG 44 assault rifle, or the Type 11 light machine gun. Even further, your attachments are going to give guns a different feel. For instance, I changed my STG to a blueprint to see if it was any good, and I could immediately tell my fire rate had dropped, which it had indeed because of an attachment. Little attention to detail is always appreciated, and I’m not sure how most of the Call Of Duty series manages to capture these weapons in as fine of detail as they do. There is a ton you’re going to be able to do with what’s available, with thirty eight weapons to equip, and over two hundred attachments for them. The best part is that not every weapon shares the same kit, unlike Cold War being largely the same across categories, this harkens back to Modern Warfare and each gun feeling unique to build out.
Something we haven’t really seen in Call Of Duty before is destructibility, and while it’s nothing on par with what you’ll find in their competitor Battlefield, it’s a neat addition that can give creative players an edge. On the maps, with some having more than others, you can see sections of wall that look weaker than others, and glass or boarded up windows. Meleeing or shooting these can give you extra sightlines, or, if you’re feeling like the Kool-aid man you can run straight through them to catch someone by surprise. The best thing I’ve found about them while playing the multiplayer is that they don’t cause issues in core gameplay. It’s a usable tactic, and not something that feels cheap.
The last two things I want to touch on are the modes and pacings, and the future, the latter which has already been addressed by the teams recently in the launch roadmap. There are seven modes hitting launch, including the new Patrol mode. I’m a bit disappointed in the lack of these, with notable omissions, like Control. I’m sure we have more incoming soon, they’ve already mentioned two are around the corner, but at launch the more ways to play the better. I am quite happy that Hardpoint will be playable as a hardcore mode, giving my bois another mode to jump into.
Champion Hill is another mode that makes its way over, but as a duos or trios version of Gunfight, with teams competing against each other to get the win. You get twelve lives between your team and have the opportunity to buy new randomized equipment every couple of rounds, giving it a somewhat Warzone-like feel. It can be thrilling to play, with the feeling every lost life matters without having to sit out the round as soon as you’re shot. It’s a welcome switch up for Gunfight players, and hopefully more will be added as the seasons go on.
As for pacings, I’m still a bit hesitant on them, just like I was during the beta. The worry is still there that dividing players even further isn’t going to help people find matches, and I don’t see that changing. Further still, the idea is that you could use Blitz to make “every map feel like Shipment”. Playing with a ton of players on Das Haus for example, a tiny recreation of the White House West Wing by training invaders was not a bunch of fun to me. Spawning right in front of the guy who just shot me isn’t fun, and I’m sure the feeling is mutual when it happens to them. I’m withholding most judgment until I’ve played a 12v12 Search and Destroy on Red Star, but largely I don’t think this addition was worth the inclusion. This also leads into the spawns in general, which have been tuned for sure, but as with most Call Of Duty releases they’re going to need some time in the wild for them to be refined correctly.
With the future, there’s a lot to like already. Similar to the launch of Black Ops Cold War, there are already promises being made, but it’s encouraging what’s being talked about. We know maps, weapons, modes, and more is going to be included in seasonal content, but with a WW2 version of the Shipment map loading in on November 17th, and the first season dropping December 2nd in not even a month after launch is a testament to the commitment Sledgehammer is making to its players. Knowing I’ve got plenty to look forward to in a game generally flush with content makes me happy, and I’m sure most players will feel the same. Besides this, we’re already hearing about ranked play in collaboration with the Call Of Duty League, so that is a promising development as well.
If it’s a Call Of Duty game, you generally expect a Zombies mode by now, and with the exception of most Infinity Ward titles, you usually get one. This rendition of Zombies has a bit of a twist to it, with Treyarch assisting in the first collaboration between games, both with partnering studios and Vanguard’s Zombies being a prequel story to the Dark Aether account we’ve witnessed in Black Ops Cold War. In my time with it I found that the changes made give Zombies a more enticing feel for casual players, and it also seems a bit more fresh as a result.
The setting for your evil outing is the Red Star map, but at night and with a much darker tone all around. There are all kinds of occultish symbolism, bodies piled around the location, and several portals to use to progress onwards. Instead of killing Zombies over rounds to earn the points necessary to unlock, things play out closer to a mix of that and Outbreak, a phenomenal mode from Cold War. Opening different areas of the map is still relevant, but you’ll do it by going through said portals to different locations (other spots in Red Star, the classic Shi No Numa, and others) to complete specific objectives. There are three of these, a Blitz objective that is just surviving the zombie onslaught in a tight area, Harvest, which involves killing zombies and picking up the runestones dropped to feed them to an obelisk, and Transmit, where you follow a floating zombie head around the map under its bubble of protection (like in Onslaught mode from Cold War). All of the objectives run relatively quickly, at no more than five minutes a pop, but they’re fun and mix up the formula.
Even further, you have a few Pack-A-Punch upgrades, an altar to sacrifice hearts you earn in order to pick up random perks, and basins you can drink from for health, speed, damage, and other upgrades, similar to the juggernog. There’s a rogue-like element that’s being followed here, inspired by games like Hades, and I don’t mind that being stirred into my Zombies coffee for some extra flavor. Besides those, you also have a few “field upgrades” available similar to the ones found in Cold War.
In this story, there are several “demons”, who are entities taken and corrupted by the Dark Aether, and the evil one, Kortifex the Deathless, has made a covenant with the Nazi occult leader Wolfram Von List. In order to combat them both, and their undead army, you in turn make an agreement with the other entities, who help you with said field upgrades bound to artifacts. They’re useful, like the purple ring of fire that damages zombies that go through it, or a shroud of invisibility to help you get away during intense moments. In the end they aren’t anything really new, we explored comparable ones in Cold War, but it’ll be interesting to see where things go in the story and what new Dark Aether abilities are added down the line.
I noticed as well that I don’t feel as panicked as usual when in the starting area. Round based zombie maps just have a constant flow of zombies hitting you almost at all times, and here I feel a little time to relax. This will definitely give newer players a bit of a break, and I think is a beneficial addition to Zombies.
Even though I enjoy what’s here, I can’t help but feel like it’s lacking in comparison to its predecessor. Sure, Cold War has been out a year, so it should be more complete, but we also had Onslaught on PlayStation along with Dead Ops as additional Zombies modes in there. I totally understand the effort a studio undergoes to get a game like this out the door, I mean, they had to get Treyarch’s help on this one. But I would have hoped to see more available at launch. Besides that, there’s also only a few zombie types to shoot: regular, ones that explode, and a big one wielding a death machine. If Treyarch’s track record is anything to go by, we’ll see plenty of content incoming, and after all Der Anfang translates to “The Beginning”. We’ve got a long way to go with this mode, so it’s best to give the benefit of the doubt. In the end, it plays like a Zombies mode, and it hopefully will hold us over until the next thing comes around.
Some other good news before we wrap this thing up, both crossplay and cross progression return. This was one of the best parts in my opinion that Black Ops Cold War implemented, and any time I can earn experience points no matter where I’m playing, whether multiplayer or Zombies, it’s a win. Not only that, it’s truly an amazing age of gaming we live in where I can play on PC with my PS5 and PS4 group, and if we want to invite someone over from the Xbox ecosystem we can. It also runs almost flawlessly, with mixed multiplayer lobbies a large part of my review process. I was even earning battle pass XP for Cold War and Warzone while playing a different game, which is astounding. Take notes, other competitive games, this is how you make your game more inclusive.
Call of Duty: Vanguard
War never changes, and Call Of Duty is in fact still Call Of Duty. Sledgehammer Games however has happened across an intriguing formula, connecting what has worked in previous games and integrating it into their own. The campaign is stunning, and while short lived has a ton of heart, Zombies is as fun and maybe more inviting than it’s ever been, and the multiplayer hard carries this entry to a round 11 victory. This culmination of all things Call Of Duty has resulted in something the entire series can look to, a blueprint on how to build a meaty and superb first person shooter experience.