Call of Duty: Vanguard review

A clever yet bumpy return to WWII

Call of Duty Vanguard
(Image: © Activision)

TechRadar Verdict

Call of Duty: Vanguard uses the last days of WWII to present a promising single-player campaign that ultimately feels half-baked in execution. Thankfully, developer Sledgehammer Games ensures online modes include enough refreshing ideas to keep them from coming off as just another yearly coat of new paint.

Pros

  • +

    Refined core shooting mechanics

  • +

    Audio and visual presentation

  • +

    Zombies is more streamlined

Cons

  • -

    Disappointing campaign mode

  • -

    No gunfight mode

  • -

    Combat Pacing is a wonky addition

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Activision Blizzard lawsuit

Publisher Activision Blizzard, responsible for the game this article refers to, is currently embroiled in ongoing litigation in regards to claims reporting a workplace culture that allegedly enabled acts of sexual harassment, abuse and discrimination. Read our Activision Blizzard lawsuit timeline of events for ongoing coverage of the events.

Despite utilizing modern military conflicts, secret government conspiracies and even future wars in space as inspiration, Call of Duty will forever be attached to its WWII beginnings. To date, fans of Activision’s yearly military shooter franchise have digitally participated in everything from D-Day invasions to various Pacific Theater romps. But, with Call of Duty: Vanguard, developer Sledgehammer Games shakes things up a bit, providing a look into World War II stylistically through the lens of Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare reboot.  

Set within the shared WWII, Modern Warfare and Black Ops Cold War universe, Call of Duty: Vanguard introduces a narrative based around the first special forces team created near the end of WWII. Following an explosive introductory mission with the cast including Black British paratrooper Lt. Arthur Kingsley, American Naval pilot Lt. Wade Jackson, Australian demolitions expert Lucas Riggs and Soviet sniper Polina Petrova, the crew are eventually captured by Nazi soldiers. This is where players are introduced to the story’s villains Hermann Wenzel Freisnger and his underling Jannick Richter. What follows is a story that sets an incredible tone before separating the cast into mostly forgettable flashback missions that attempt to display their individual personalities.

Call of Duty: Vanguard’s main dish, multiplayer, places some of the best attributes of Modern Warfare and Black Ops Cold War’s competitive online offerings within a WWII context. With more of an emphasis on destructible environments, the addition of pacing filters, and a more approachable, central-hub-like design for Zombies mode, there’s enough here to make the latest Call of Duty online experience feel fresh.

The end result is a Call of Duty title that introduces some unique ideas within its single-player campaign, multiplayer and highly celebrated Zombies mode. Though multiplayer and Zombies feature acceptable refinements despite some issues, the replay value is as good as ever. However, its six-hour single-player campaign is the weakest link due to an undercooked story and mission design that doesn’t make good on its premise. 

Call of Duty: Vanguard price and release date 

  • What is it? The 18th annual installment in the Call of Duty franchise
  • Release date: November 5, 2021
  • What can I play it on? PS4, PS5, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One and PC 
  • Price: Standard edition on PS5/Xbox Series X is $69.99 / £69.99/ AU$109.95

An uneven single-player campaign

Call of Duty Vanguard

(Image credit: Activision)
Review Information

Time Played: 15 hours

Platform: PC

Vanguard’s campaign story focusing on a rag-tag international special forces team led by a Black Brit feels somewhat progressive, as do the portions of the narrative that focus on female Societ sniper Petrova. However, the beautifully pre-rendered cutscenes can’t mask a fairly hollow dialogue that doesn’t fully lean into the gravity of the narrative at times. For example, during Lt. Wade Jackson’s Pacific Theater missions, when he and his partners are saved by a Black platoon, there’s little acknowledgment of the importance of this moment given the time period.

However, the biggest problem with Call of Duty: Vanguard’s campaign is that the story lacks cohesion, and doesn’t make sense narratively or gameplay-wise until the very end. Once the leads, inspired by real individuals who fought in WWII (opens in new tab), are captured and players are introduced to each of their individual stories leading to the game’s events, Vanguard becomes a fairly redundant shooting gallery with slight variations that don’t work most of the time. Firefights feel great regardless of these failures which makes the campaign tolerable, while the return of mounting weapons from Modern Warfare and the ability to blind-fire add some interesting combat options that may or may not be useful, depending on how you like to play. 

Gamers who have followed the series’ single-player offerings have seen Call of Duty experiment with light RPG elements, aerial combat and real-time strategy before. For Call of Duty: Vanguard, each of the four leads are placed within standard franchise gameplay shooter loops with slight variations based on these experiments from previous games. This “something for everyone” approach doesn’t necessarily stand strong in any area though. 

Players put in the boots of Lt. Arthur Kingsley are given the ability to have accompanying soldiers concentrate fire so he can flank at the touch of a button. It’s a fairly useless feature outside of moments when it becomes important for progress to the next combat scenario. 

The same goes for Lt. Wade Jackson. Besides a fairly boring dogfighting moment, once Jackson’s plane crashes in enemy territory it becomes the worse display of stealth ever seen in a Call of Duty game. Inspired by The Last of Us’ Listen Mode, Jackson can focus on enemies around him in the thick jungle and see behind walls. Later, he can use his focus to slow down time and auto-aim on enemies, similar to Red Dead Redemption’s Dead Eye ability. The problem is that the stealth engine isn’t dynamic and enemy A.I. isn’t smart enough to provide the same tension that The Last of Us delivers. Also, having a bullet-time auto-aim ability simply isn’t needed outside of clearing a room quicker. By the time players step in the shoes of Lucas Riggs in Northern Africa, the campaign does a poor job of utilizing his demolition skills outside of his ability to hold more than one piece of offensive equipment at a time.

Polina Petrova’s section has the best single-player campaign moments of the game, besides suffering from stealth issues similar to those that hurt Jackson’s portion. The Soviet sniper is not only awesome with the scoped rifle but has some improved movement controls that’ll remind many of Doom Eternal. Combat scenarios with her usually involve a blend of all-out action and stealth that works respectably well. Not only is she nimble, but Petrova can also hide in small spaces and climb designated parts usually highlighted by a yellow cloth. Though the enemy A.I. isn’t the smartest, as previously mentioned, it’s pretty cool to sweep around office buildings and destroyed residences picking out enemies one-by-one. Her portion also has the most emotionally impactful story moments too.

Refinements to multiplayer and Zombies 

Call of Duty Vanguard

(Image credit: Activision)

As with previous Call of Duty entries, Vanguard’s replay value lies in its online modes. Multiplayer and Zombies offer great competitive or co-op opportunities for players at launch, outside of post-release content. Regardless of problems presented in both, they’re generally fun experiences that make up for the disappointing single-player campaign. Sure, it’s more of the same, but that doesn’t mean that the “if it ain’t broke” approach can’t see refinements with the fresh coat of paint. 

Those already familiar with the multiplayer mechanics from Modern Warfare and Black Ops Cold War should have an idea of what to expect from multiplayer, including mainstays like Team Deathmatch, Domination and Hardpoint. Those modes are still a blast to play over the 20 maps available at launch. Like single-player, the shooting feels great and the addition of destructible environments does lend itself to more aggressive tactics. Killstreaks and weapon customization go far in ensuring the experience is personalized to one’s playstyle. 

Two of the newer multiplayer modes are Patrol and Champion Hill. Patrol is essentially Hardpoint with an added layer of mobility as the point moves around through the map. The added movement does present new tactics and insuring the point is protected as opponents swarm from various directions. Champion Hill allows players to play deathmatch-style round-robin tournaments in close-quarter arenas until one person or squad remains. These can be played in 1v1, 2v2 or 3v3. Though it’s not the absolute best replacement for the popular Gunfight modes featured in Modern Warfare and Black Ops Cold War, it’s still a blast. 

One of the more subtle additions to multiplayer is the ability for players to select Combat Pacing. This reduces or increases the number of players within the core multiplayer modes including light through Tactical, medium for Assualt and Blitz if players want as many players as possible. Though this works to better personalize player experiences in regards to the density of players, it seems this wasn’t taken into consideration in regards to the actual maps themselves. Playing with Combat Pacing toggled all settings means that players might randomly fall into a smaller map with a lot of players. This means that players will die within seconds of spawning. On the flip side, larger maps with a smaller player size can become slow as players search for the next firefight. 

At the end of each match, players can select the match’s MVP out of the top three players. Whoever wins gets some XP bonuses which makes the process more involved outside of whatever algorithm usually makes that determination. As another added touch, every “best kill” and “MVP” selection gets its own fighting game-style celebration animation. 

While Vanguard sees both campaign and multiplayer undergoing some tweaks, Zombies mode has undergone the biggest revamp. Zombies is more approachable than ever thanks to its more central-hub-like design with clear objectives, though only one mode is available at launch: “Der Anfang.” There, players begin in a hub-like area with a handful of undead ready to be killed and where upgrades for things like weapons alongside perks are available. Littered outside of the hub are various portals that lead to objective-based missions once at least two other players agree on. This can mean powering up totems with a token-like item taken from fallen zombies or defending a moving position similar to Patrol. Compared to previous Zombies modes, this is definitely the easiest iteration to jump into from start. Though the many rounds we played were enjoyable, time will tell how long Vanguard’s zombies will last in regards to player count. Hopefully, eventual post-launch updates like a story mode or new field upgrades will keep things fresh. 

Presentation is a highlight

Call of Duty Vanguard

(Image credit: Activision)

Visual and audio presentation has always catered toward Hollywood style production values within the Call of Duty series and Vanguard continues that tradition. Unlike the gritty brown and muted colours of Call of Duty: WWII, Vanguard’s take on The Second World War is pretty colorful besides the more technical graphical feats pulled. 

The opening single-player campaign mission, which sees the crew hijacking a train heading to Hamburg at night, showcases Vanguard’s beautiful lighting engine coupled with speial effects like the pouring rain. Contrasting life before and after Nazis invade Stalingrad during  Polina Petrova’s section is wonderfully created with rich detail. Some of the best lighting moments occur during the boring Battle of Midway dogfight and the thick jungle moments of the Bougainville portion. Gunfire sounds authentic and punchy while helping reinforce the series’ signature hit registration when bullets land. 

Performances from the lead cast including Chiké Okonkwo and Martin Copping alongside The Last of Us II alums Laura Bailey and Derek Phillips, who provide great performances with the wonky material presented to them. Actors Dan Donohue and Lord of The Rings’ own Dominic Monaghan lend the story some serious tension as the main antagonists of the single-player campaign. Add composer Bear McCreary’s cinematically epic score into the mix and this becomes one of the best Call of Duty games to date on the presentation side.

All of the effects, explosions and every other visual wonder comes at a locked-in frame rate that never dropped during gameplay. The same goes for multiplayer and Zombies as well. 

Verdict

Call of Duty: Vanguard

(Image credit: Activision)

Call of Duty: Vanguard attempts to tell a mature WWII story past the franchise’s love of explosions and spectacle. Regardless of how interesting the prospects are for the world’s first special forces team, the campaign mode ultimately falls flat when it comes to both narrative and gameplay. Polina Petrova’s portion aside, the other three male leads’ moments are underdeveloped and feel redundant. It doesn’t help that players only see what the crew can do as a collective till the beginning and end. 

Though the single-player falls flat, multiplayer and Zombies help soften the blow. Multiplayer is more of the same outside of Patrol and Champion Hill. As a substitute for Gunfight, Champion Hill may come off as a controversial substitute for the more recent fan favorite. Zombies get a significant overhaul but having one mode available at launch may be a turn-off.  More of a side-step than step-back in the franchise, Call of Duty: Vanguard attempts to tread new ground for the series but seems held back by traditions. 

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Ural Garrett is an Inglewood, CA-based journalist and content curator. His byline has been featured in outlets including CNN, MTVNews, Complex, TechRadar, LA Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter and more.