Platforms: PC, PS4, PS5 (reviewed), Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S
Price: $60 ($70 on PS5/XSX)
Release Date: November 5, 2021
Call of Duty: Vanguard has something to offer both returning players and those who may have walked away from the popular first-person shooter franchise. The game provides an exhilarating campaign and an iterative-but-fun multiplayer suite.
The single-player story casts players as multiple characters, who relive tide-turning World War II battles in the wake of their collective capture. Similarly, multiplayer matches play out across 20 locations from the same era, while introducing a few new modes to shake things up. Developer Sledgehammer Games capped off the experience with a new version of the beloved cooperative Zombies mode, which continues the story that started in last year’s Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War.
In this Call of Duty: Vanguard review, we’ll take a look at how these components combine to create a cohesive whole that you won’t want to miss.
Call of Duty: Vanguard review: Campaign
Set during the final days of World War II, with the Nazis all but defeated, Call of Duty: Vanguard’s story sees a group of soldiers from multiple allied forces come together to foil a Third Reich plot. Even if the campaign doesn’t do much that we haven’t seen before, it's nevertheless one of the series’ strongest efforts in years, thanks to its exceptional cast, gripping action and breathtaking spectacle.
The campaign starts off strong, with an opening mission that introduces our heroes as they hijack a moving train during a torrential rainstorm in Hamburg, Germany. They find themselves intercepted by Nazi forces, and subsequently imprisoned for interrogation. However, de facto main character and group leader Arthur intends to manipulate the Nazis into sharing information about their plans, too.
As the team endures relentless cross-examination, Arthur reflects on notable battles from each character's past, presented to us as playable vignettes. These make up the bulk of the five-hour campaign, and give us glimpses into what makes the characters tick. But in-between these recollections are stunning, almost photorealistic cutscenes featuring phenomenal performances from every cast member. The downright bone-chilling dual antagonists, sadistic officers Freisinger and Richter (Dominic Monaghan from Lord of the RIngs), deserve special mention.
The character backstories aren't particularly profound on a narrative level, but they all offer visceral, emotionally affecting portrayals of war. Vanguard frames impactful sequences beautifully, such as a midnight approach towards a burning windmill that lights up the night sky like a beacon, or peaceful moments with the citizens of Stalingrad directly before they hear the sound of incoming bombers on a fateful day. Bear McCreary’s riveting score further accentuates the atmosphere, underscoring the tension and lending a cinematic energy to every heart-pounding moment.
Each character has an exclusive gameplay gimmick to use in their missions. Arthur can command other soldiers to move obstacles or lay down covering fire. Lovable hothead Wade can heighten his senses to see enemy outlines in the distance. Demolition expert Lucas can carry up to four types of lethal equipment. Russian badass Polina’s increased mobility is the best of the bunch, though, granting her the ability to fit through tight spaces and scale walls as she navigates the crumbling rooftops of a devastated Stalingrad. It’s hard not to miss these one-off perks as you move between characters, but the game’s nonstop action ensures that the disappointment doesn’t linger.
Indeed, the actual gunfights in Vanguard continue to be as exciting as ever. Some play out as slow-paced breach-and-clears through tight corridors, where only snappy reflexes stand between you and restarting a checkpoint. Others are large-scale battles in historic locales, which effortlessly blend shooting galleries with epic set pieces that feel more authentic than in any other Call of Duty game in recent memory. The only rough patch along the way is an aerial mission, where poor fighter plane controls dampen the intense and visually dazzling dogfights. But that's a minor blemish on this otherwise-remarkable World War II adventure.
Call of Duty: Vanguard review: Multiplayer
If you’ve played Call of Duty games for a while, you've probably developed strong opinions regarding whether the newer entries have improved or worsened the multiplayer formula. I’d argue that the series began declining around the time it introduced excessive verticality and special abilities that didn’t mesh well with strictly skill-based gunfights. Either way, while Vanguard’s multiplayer isn’t transformative, it does at least take moderate steps toward better map design.
The best offerings among the 16 base maps are moderate in size and embrace the classic three-lane style, which caters to competitive players seeking fair fights. My favorite map, Hotel Royal, is a great example of this traditional layout. It features two long, somewhat open rooftop lanes on either side for medium-ranged encounters, as well as great sightlines for sniping. A crowded interior lounge emphasizes close-quarter showdowns, with tons of strategic cover placement.
Meanwhile, larger, more atmospheric maps, such as the snowy plaza of Red Star, eschew any sense of symmetry in favor of irregular map structures. Maps like this may not work for tournament play, due to the reliance on power positions and unpredictability. But it's still fun to learn all of the counter spots that can help you drive campers out of their hidey-holes. Luckily, the only downright exasperating maps are Numa Numa and Das Haus: tiny spawn-camping nightmares, which make Nuketown seem balanced in comparison.
Complementing the solid map construction is the all-new “Combat Pacing” feature. For the very first time, you’re free to choose from three different options for the amount of players you’d like in your lobbies. Tactical pacing is usually a standard 6v6 matchup, while Assault increases the player count a bit for some extra action. If you’re looking for some chaos and nonstop shooting, you can pick Blitz, which fills matches with up to 48 players.
As I’m not the biggest fan of being slaughtered mercilessly the moment I spawn, Blitz pacing is the antithesis of entertainment for me. But both Tactical and Assault modes provide decently balanced experiences that keep the adrenaline pumping. It’s best to stick to them if you’d like to consider your positioning and strategy for tackling the opposition.
Among the fresh additions to multiplayer is a mode called Patrol, functioning as an active clone of Hardpoint, where the point now moves at all times. More unique still is Champion Hill, a round-robin deathmatch where you choose and upgrade your loadout every few rounds, or else save up money to buy extra lives. It’s an amusing battle royale lite that requires a lot of skill and a smidge of luck. Impatient players may be annoyed at the amount of downtime involved in waiting for other teams to finish their fights, though.
It wouldn’t be Call of Duty without plenty of guns to unlock and kit out, but there’s nothing particularly revolutionary about the loadout system this time around. You still choose primary and secondary guns, a selection of three perks, multiple grenade types and killstreaks. Using a weapon consistently levels it up to unlock more attachments – optics, magazines, underbarrels, and so forth – which you can apply to improve stats. It’s essentially little more than a boring reskin of what we’ve seen in the past few years, but it gets the job done.
As for the guns themselves, none won me over entirely. As someone who has historically relied on a trusty assault rifle in all but the most claustrophobic maps, I’ve been fine using the STG44, with its low recoil and fast time-to-kill. Of course, some maps with open central locations, or corridors with long sight lines, can make LMGs and sniping a comfortable option, if that’s your thing. But there’s no denying that the mobility and versatility that Vanguard’s many small maps require could put SMGs like the M1928 and MP40 among the most sought-after guns.
Call of Duty: Vanguard review: Zombies
Thanks to a crossover with Treyarch Studios this year, Call of Duty: Vanguard brings with it a brand new, fully-featured iteration of the beloved Call of Duty: Zombies mode. Even more enticing for fans of continuity is that the story here is a prequel to the Dark Aether story introduced in last year’s Black Ops Cold War. This adventure takes players back to 1944 in an attempt to stop the Nazis from unleashing hordes of zombies upon Europe.
The biggest change in this installment is the incredible diversity of builds available. Players gain a new Sacrificial Heart item by completing objectives. These Hearts allow them to choose from a randomized collection of upgrades that increase in power as you progress through a match. Being able to make thoughtful choices about run-altering powers at the end of every showdown gives a sense of weight to each playthrough.
This sense of randomness adds to Zombies’ roguelite-inspired vibe, too. Maybe you’ll have a streak of bad luck that leaves you feeling a bit underpowered. But there’s also always the chance that you’ll snag a powerful upgrade early on, which could help you and your team overcome tasks with ease. Unsurprisingly, it's quite a rush to be the unstoppable force among your pals.
Otherwise, you’ll mostly upgrade your guns, pick up fresh perks and do whatever it takes to become the ultimate undead slayer. Vanguard’s Zombie mode is exactly what you’ve come to expect – gory and action-packed mayhem with friends. If you’ve already popped hundreds of zombie heads in past games, you’ll probably want to continue doing so here.
Call of Duty: Vanguard review: Verdict
Call of Duty: Vanguard’s campaign is the series' standout achievement this year, taking players on a gorgeous journey with incredible set pieces, compelling characters and fun shootouts. While the game’s multiplayer and Zombies modes are mostly enjoyable affairs, too, neither one does much to move the franchise forward. If you’re fine with that, you’ll find the whole package worth your time and money.