Call of Duty Vanguard Review: Big on Cinema, Short on Play

Call of Duty: Vanguard rubs and polishes the trite World War II theme to cinematic brilliance. What follows, though, is an epic story that never quite reaches a crescendo. The enigmatic heroes that knock your socks off in carefully imagined cutscenes render into one-trick-pony operatives for the most part. Call of Duty: Vanguard injects the biggest flights of World War II into a spin-off story about the mythical Fourth Reich, which is worthy of a big round of applause. But the 18th instalment of Activision’s priced series suffers from the consequences of its lofty intentions.

The single-player campaign developed by Sledgehammer Games spends so much time in defining its four prime characters — and two Nazi shmucks — that the story wraps up before it can get going. The gameplay is classic CoD: fast and dynamic like an elite obstacle course, with a few party tricks that make the experience less humdrum.

Call of Duty: Vanguard multiplayer mode gets more attention. The expansive mode has 20 maps at launch and a new ‘Combat Pacing’ matchmaking that lets you control the pace of the game — you can choose the number of players vis-à-vis the map size — and not be forced into a sniper contest or a bloodbath where you only survive for a few short breaths. While the game controls are the same, the experience is markedly different (not worse, not better) from Call of Duty: Black Ops – Cold War.

The Zombies mode in Call of Duty: Vanguard, though, is in its infancy compared to the last instalment. Treyarch Studios claims to have a clear roadmap, but one that is yet to take a formidable shape.

The gaming experience in all three formats begins with a lot of excitement — thanks to a great storyline, beautiful cinema, next-generation graphics, and steady marketing — but it becomes pretty obvious that something has gone amiss as the game progresses.

Call of Duty Vanguard PC Performance Review: Can a Budget Gaming Rig Handle It?

Call of Duty: Vanguard single-player campaign review

Call of Duty: Vanguard campaign is roughly a six-hour run. For a hugely anticipated game that was advertised to capture the whole world at war, it’s unsettling. What’s worse, though, is that it’s pretty great. So, you’re left wanting more, but not in a good way.

My other major grouse is that the game’s difficulty setting is lopsided. There are four levels to it: Recruit, Regular, Hardened, and Veteran. And the six-hour run I mentioned was on Hardened. It’s uncanny how not hard it was to speed run through the campaign, especially if you have played other titles from CoD Black Ops or Modern Warfare series that are less forgiving. The storyline does not help either. Since all of our heroes get their own introductory missions before they come together as Task Force One to force the Nazis to skedaddle for good, the difficulty remains almost flat throughout.

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A still from Call of Duty: Vanguard
Photo Credit: Activision

On the subject of heroes, you play as five characters. There’s the level-headed Brit leader Arthur Kingsley (voice of Chiké Okonkwo), the foul-mouthed Aussie Lucas Riggs (Martin Copping), the American show-off Wade Jackson (Derek Phillips), and the Russian straight-faced killer Polina Petrova (Laura Bailey). It’s a pleasure to watch and play such fleshed-out characters in a first-person shooter (FPS) campaign. Each has a back story, a specialty, and a special ability in combat.

Kingsley is a natural leader and can direct troops to focus fire on a particular target when you play him. Riggs is a demolition expert who can lob grenades with a precise aim. Wade, the American dive bomber pilot, has a Max Payne-esque focus ability to slow time but also see enemies through walls and obstacles when on the ground. Lastly, the Russian sniper Petrova can climb walls, crawl through debris and tiny spaces, and whistle an enemy sniper into wasting a shot who will then probably die reloading.

This mix of eclectic characters, individual missions, and a non-linear storyline adds variety and dynamism to the gameplay that makes Call of Duty: Vanguard stand out. I just wish the gameplay was a little less predictable.

The abilities are heavily prescribed, which means you’ll still be following a linear path laid down for you. You as Kingsley, for instance, are given a maximum of two targets to choose from where others can focus fire on your command. What you choose makes little difference and it can get repetitive. Focus fire, subdue a sniper or an SMG bunker, gain some ground, and do it again. All windows Petrova can climb into are marked with a yellow cloth, and so on. You begin the story with a sense of control — playing different characters, making use of new controls — like mounting weapons on flat surfaces or blind firing from cover — that eventually fades away. The world’s a stage, we’re all actors.

Call of Duty: Vanguard campaign is fresh. The writing is smart, the characters are defined — Petrova takes the cake here — and the cinema is worth the experience. It’s a little disappointing that it rushes into a heavily scripted climax before you can feel like you were challenged.

Call of Duty: Vanguard multiplayer review

More games each day are dropping the pretense of putting the single-player campaign at the centre of the experience when online multiplayer is where the big money lies. Call of Duty: Vanguard tries to balance the act by giving more attention to characters that accentuate both modes. Even the operators (or skins) that have nothing to do with the campaign get their own cutscenes in multiplayer. But with a short campaign, it’s largely the online multiplayer mode Activision hopes will keep the game alive beyond a year.

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A shot from Call of Duty: Vanguard
Photo Credit: Activision

It’s the 1940s, the world’s at war, and the setting is mostly bathed in shades of green and brown. It’s not the most palatable choice of colours, but one that does justice to the combat of its time. Can’t be said the same about the pace though.

Call of Duty: Vanguard multiplayer gameplay feels a lot faster than CoD: Black Ops – Cold War as well as Call of Duty: Warzone that is set to discourage new or less-experienced players. It’s also heavily customisable — guns now have 10 attachments. Too much to do might also put some people off who are just trying to get into quick matches and learn things on the fly. There’s a bit more strategic thinking in terms of maps, pacing, and loadouts that are needed to survive CoD Vanguard than the other titles in the franchise.

Combat pacing basically allows you to pick how many players are in a match with you. Choosing Tactical gets you in 6v6 matches where you can hang back; Assault will have you in with 20-28 people in maps that can give you a little less breathing space and more to kill; Blitz is the madness a lot of us love with 28-28 players shooting in every direction.

In our experience on an Xbox Series S with crossplay enabled, the difference with pacing was not as pronounced, but it at least gives you the option to not be in certain situations — big map, way too less players and vice versa — which keeps things interesting. Destructible in-game environments, which are basically flimsy wood panels that you can shoot through is also a lot less menacing than it sounds.

It’s a little more wall-banging than the last CoD title and you can inflict more damage if you know the map well, but you won’t be killing people unawares. Then there’s blind fire (firing from cover without aiming) and weapon mounting (placing your gun on flat surfaces to reduce recoil) that can be put to good use in Tactical pacing, rarely in Assault and not so much in Blitz.

Another great feature of Call of Duty: Vanguard multiplayer is the new Champion Hill mode. It’s a game mode that puts Solos, Duos, and Trios against other teams in a round-robin (elimination) contest. It’s obviously more fun to win in a team but Solos is also a great way to test how good you are 1v1 on a level-playing field. It’s highly competitive and has made me consider ditching the Xbox controller for a keyboard and mouse to even the odds. Win or lose, Champion Hill is mighty fun.

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Another still from the game Call of Duty: Vangaurd
Photo Credit: Activision

What’s off about Call of Duty: Vanguard multiplayer, though, is that despite it looking stellar on paper — expansive, customisable, and fresh — the game has quirks that severely alters the experience that Call of Duty: Black Ops – Cold War and Call of Duty: Warzone players have come to love. The colours, as mentioned before, don’t help the visibility. And keeping in mind that Vanguard’s multiplayer kicks the pace up a notch, the new, more animated hit marker sound and visual effects make it worse. You die sooner with less to learn from it.

Call of Duty: Vanguard multiplayer has a lot more content, plays faster, and is more challenging. You can customise the hell out of the weapons, choose your pace, study the maps, and dominate. The problem is that it’s a huge investment and there are plenty of FPS multiplayer games in the fray, including Call of Duty’s own accomplished titles in Black Ops – Cold War and Warzone, that might appeal better to casual gamers looking for quick matches where they don’t feel like cannon fodder.

Call of Duty: Vanguard Zombies review

Let’s keep this one short because that’s what Treyarch has done with it. Call of Duty: Vanguard Zombies has launched with just one mode for the pre-season (before Battle Pass seasons begin). It’s called Der Anfang. The mode is doom-sy enough as was expected from the studio behind CoD Black Ops – Cold War’s Zombies mode, but it’s not quite the Nazi slaughterhouse that I was expecting.

The melodrama is on point though. The Nazis were too proud to lose and went to the rotten ends of the Earth to look for an occult secret that would overwhelm the Axis forces. Enter ‘dark powers’ that manifest through an ancient relic and resurrect corpses to give the Nazi top-dog an army of the dead. And you can gleefully while away hours at it.

Zombies mode by definition is a Hold-style, repetitive game mode that thrives on our urge to be the ultimate apocalyptic survivors and our greed of upgrading weapons for the highly competitive CoD multiplayer. Killing undead Nazis is an altruistic bonus. But the game slips a bit here.

There are a lot of new elements in Call of Duty: Vanguard Zombies — like the new Covenant upgrades and the portal challenge of escorting a skull — but nothing can compensate for the lack of content at launch. Treyarch has alas just made small additions to the Call of Duty: Black Ops – Cold War Zombies mode instead of overhauling the experience to match the theme of CoD: Vanguard.

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A still from Call of Duty; Vanguard
Photo Credit: Activision

I was expecting the Nazi zombies to be more exciting, but all I met were hordes of skeletons that were different to tell apart from any other league of rising corpses. Treyarch has announced a roadmap that should bring more game modes to make the non-stop killing more interesting. That said, Call of Duty: Vanguard Zombies mode was subjected to a rushed launch and is no match for its predecessor’s now superbly evolved Zombies mode that is entirely worth spending money on.

Call of Duty: Vanguard review verdict

The services of Swedish cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Tenet) have paid off. Call of Duty: Vanguard is beautiful to watch and has a story and characters that will leave an impression. The Russian sniper Petrova’s story and missions is a standout example. The cinematic cutscenes make for a gripping story and the in-game visuals and graphics back it up. Even the depiction of World War II is better than anything we have seen in the Call of Duty franchise — Vanguard is the sixth title on the subject.

All of this is precisely why Call of Duty: Vanguard is a missed opportunity for Sledgehammer Games, Treyarch, and Activision. The game suffers from an uncomfortable contradiction: the campaign and its visual cues favour newbies, while its multiplayer and its cranked-up pace is a veteran extravaganza. The single-player campaign is also unsatisfyingly short, while Zombies barely qualifies as a full game mode.

That said, Call of Duty: Vanguard campaign has an undeniable visual appeal that makes it worth a run, and its multiplayer has enough newness to hold its own. Its potential is what makes the experience slightly underwhelming.

Pros:​

  • Beautiful cinema
  • Well-written single-player campaign
  • Great characters; interesting addition of special abilities
  • Champion Hill game mode and combat pacing in multiplayer

Cons​:

  • Single-player campaign is way too short
  • Campaign difficulty skewed towards easy
  • Multiplayer visuals and pace make it more challenging
  • Zombies mode is not ready yet

Rating (out of 10):​ 6

Call of Duty: Vanguard is out worldwide for PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S starting at Rs. 3,999.



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