Call of Duty: Vanguard Review
Four years after Call of Duty World War II brought the series back to its original setting for the first time in nearly a decade, the series returns to that conflict with Vanguard. While Vanguard shares its time and place with World War II, in spirit it is more akin to the series’ recent releases. This is because rather than focusing on frontline warfighters engaged in the war’s most iconic battles, it is a game about the origin of the special forces operative. World War 2 gave birth to the small, clandestine, non-traditional units that would quickly evolve into what we know as special forces today. While this theme runs through all of Vanguard’s playable modes, to fully experience the story that the game is telling you’ll want to play through the single-player campaign mode.
The Vanguard campaign opens in Germany in April of 1945 during the final weeks of World War 2. A team of operatives known as Task Force One is hijacking a train in Hamburg, Germany as they pursue a set of mysterious Nazi documents known only as Project Phoenix. You’ll quickly see that this is no ordinary squad of soldiers, but instead is a team drawn from different service branches and Allied nations, each chosen for the special abilities that they can bring to the team.
Sergeant Arthur Kingsley is the group leader, a highly educated Cambridge man originally from Cameroon who serves in the British Army, and who is a master tactician and a natural-born leader. Lieutenant Polina Petrova served behind the lines of the Eastern Front as a nurse in the Red Army’s medical core until the front came to her home in Stalingrad. With her sharpshooting skills and her father’s sniper rifle, she became a scourge of the occupying army who dubbed her “Lady Nightingale.” Lieutenant 1st Class Wade Jackson was piloting a Dauntless dive bomber for the US Navy before being shot down over Bougainville. Teaming up with the Marines on the island, his experience in battle with them gave him a chance to show how well his aptitude for daring feats translated from the air to the ground. Private Lucas Riggs is an Australian who joined the team after serving with the SAS in North Africa, bringing with him his extensive experience in covert operations. Rounding out the team is Sergeant Richard Webb, another British soldier who is more of an intellectual than a warrior and serves as Kingsley’s second in command.
The campaign opens at the end of the war because it follows a narrative that begins at the end. Over the course of the campaign, you’ll be introduced to each character’s backstory (with the exception of Webb) through a series of what are essentially mini-campaigns inserted into the main campaign’s narrative. While prior Call of Duty games have featured one-off, flashback missions, the character backstories in Vanguard feature a series of missions that are an integral part of the overall narrative structure. It’s a welcome change from the usual strictly linear narrative of shooter campaigns, and it also serves to provide for a diversity of mission types. Jackson’s story gives you the chance to participate in aerial battles and to drop bombs right through the decks of aircraft carriers, and then when he’s grounded to use his special focus ability to detect the locations of enemy soldiers. Petrova gives you the chance to mix stealth and athleticism as you use the environment of a Stalingrad reduced to rubble to pick off Nazi soldiers one-by-one. With Kingsley you will parachute into Normandy to pave the way for the invasion, and fight in larger scale battles that give you command of other soldiers. The four playable characters in the campaign are also among the twelve multiplayer operators that will be available at launch, so playing through the campaign also gives you the chance to connect with each one more so than you can with the short introductory video that plays when you first select an operator in multiplayer.
The story in Vanguard delivers a deeper narrative than is typical for the series. The time spent with each operator really helps to develop their characters, and helps give insight into the transformative experiences they had earlier in the war that led them to where they are now and that made them an integral part of the team. It plays out more as a war movie – albeit an action one rather than a historical account – and doesn’t feature the usual Call of Duty over-the-top moments and curveball plot twists. While there are some of the trademark Call of Duty sequences in the campaign, I can’t really say that there was one particular battle or mission that really stood out and stuck with me the way some missions have in Call of Duty games past. Perhaps this is due to the nature of focusing on special operations, but I do miss the amazing battle sequences that were always a part of Call of Duty games set in World War 2. Don’t get me wrong, though, I still had fun playing through the campaign and you’ll probably enjoy it as well.
Zombies mode returns in Vanguard with “Der Anfang” (“The Beginning” in German), which despite its title is actually a continuation of the Dark Aether storyline that was started in Black Ops: Cold War. It’s a “beginning” because it takes you back to where the experiments with the Dark Aether gateway began with Projekt Endstation. In the war-torn ruins of Stalingrad, Oberführer Wolfram Von List has used artifacts plundered from around the world by the Die Wahrheit battalion to raise the Nazi war dead killed during the Battle of Stalingrad, giving you your first opportunity to fight Nazi zombies in Call of Duty in a few years. Seeking to stop what he was forced to help happen, demonologist Professor Gabriel Krafft has sent out a distress call that’s been answered by a team of four operatives.
Don’t worry if you haven’t spent much time with Zombies mode in Black Ops Cold War, or any other prior Call of Duty game for that matter. The background that I’ve given you is all contained in the video that plays the first time that you access the mode, and it’s all that you need to jump into the mode and begin enjoying it. The mode’s developer, Treyarch, wanted to make the mode more accessible to first-time players and those who’ve only casually played the mode in the past. While there are plenty of references for veterans to enjoy, the deeper lore behind the Dark Aether story will be introduced through content updates.
The greater accessibility extends beyond the story to the structure of the mode as well. In the past, there was an emphasis on solving a series of puzzles in order to continually open new areas of the map while surviving what was essentially a round-based horde mode. Vanguard instead starts you off in the center of a city square that serves as both a base and a hub of sorts. Here you’ll find a weapon upgrade station, the mystery box, crafting bench, and the new Altar of Covenants. You’ll also find a few portals, each of which leads to an objective-based game mode on a self-contained map. You may find yourself on a patrol mission similar to the multiplayer mode’s new match type of the same name (more on that later) or collecting shards from fallen zombies to deliver to a glowing pylon which has an annoying habit of periodically teleporting to a new location. Successfully completing a mode will return you to the hub and increment the round counter, making the zombies more plentiful and harder to kill, as well as introducing unusual zombie variants that are as deadly as they are hard to kill.
There are other things that will occur should you survive your journey into a portal. First, you’ll be awarded with a Sacrificial Heart that can be exchanged at the Altar of the Covenants for a perk. There are a variety of perks such as one that gives you a chance to freeze zombies when you shoot them. My personal favorite is Brain Rot, which has a chance to turn a zombie you shoot into an ally that will begin attacking its former undead comrades. You can carry up to three of these perks at once, and as you get deeper into the rounds you’ll find that the quality and rarity of the perks will increase as well.
Another thing that will occur when you return is that a barrier around the hub zone will be removed, opening access to more of Stalingrad. The hub is not a safe zone, and you’ll have to contend with zombies that become more plentiful as the rounds increase and that have an annoying habit of infiltrating the center of the square as you are trying to purchase upgrades. It pays to spend some time exploring the hub zone and clearing it of zombies because there are things for you to discover in Stalingrad. Zombie nests will often be placed around a loot chest or crystals that can be broken for loot, and you’ll sometimes find that these will yield a nice weapon or lethal. There are also wells to discover, and each one will yield a specific stat boost when you drink from it. You’ll also find audio recordings that will reveal more of the story. Lastly, the hub zone is where you can initiate an exfil. Survive the zombie onslaught that comes when you decide to exfil and you’ll be able to exit the mode with a nice experience boost.
It’s easier to progress further in Der Anfang when you first begin playing the mode than it has in Zombies mode in recent Call of Duty games. Part of this is due to the mode design, but other balance tweaks such as better weapon accessibility and upgradeability and more plentiful ammunition lower the initial curve of getting into this mode. I can see how some gamers may not welcome the changes, but personally I found that they made the mode more fun for me. The objective-based design adds variety and freedom of play to the mode, whereas in the past it often felt like you were being forced to execute a choreographed set of actions while being mobbed by zombies. I’ve spent some time with Zombie mode in the past, but it was always soon after I started playing the game and I usually reached a point where I lost interest in it. This time around I can see myself returning to it periodically whenever I play Vanguard.
Of course, multiplayer mode is where most gamers will spend the most time with Vanguard. For veteran Call of Duty gamers, by and large the multiplayer experience will feel pretty familiar. The interface is virtually identical to Black Ops Cold War, so if you’ve been there you’ll be right at home here. Gameplay is both at once slower and faster paced than Cold War. Faster because the game has been streamlined to get you into matches faster and once you’re in, to start the action faster. Things really kick into high gear when playing the matches in Blitz mode. Higher player counts (24v24) on smaller maps lead to constant action, and the high kill counts (and deaths) that go along with it. Slower because you’re back to using weapons from over 75 years ago and the reload times and firing rates of these weapons can’t compare to those of modern weapons. There’s also a corresponding mode to Blitz, Tactical. Smaller player counts (6x6) on larger maps make for a slower-paced game where every encounter has a greater impact on victory and requires play that is, well, more tactical.
Vanguard ships with 20 maps at launch, and they provide for a variety of environments. The smaller maps stick to the three-lane design, so even the primarily room-to-room maps Das Haus, Hotel Royal, and Eagle’s Nest feature longer sightlines along the outer lanes. The maps represent a good variety of environments and so you’ll need to take different approaches to the battle on each and adjust your loadouts accordingly. All of the maps feature added destructibility, primarily when it comes to anything wooden like doors, window coverings, and fences. You can shoot through them, blow them apart with a grenade, or bash them down, which gives players the opportunity to gun down opponents through them or open up new sightlines on the maps.
Most of the game modes will be familiar to anyone who’s played Call of Duty before – Team Deathmatch, Kill Confirmed, Domination, etc. – and the modes stick to the core Call of Duty gameplay without adding any entirely different styles of play such as battle royale. A new mode has been added to the typical rotation, Patrol, that’s kind of like a mobile hardpoint mode. A circular patrol zone makes its way across the map and teams earn points by controlling it, which requires that there be at least one player from a team within the zone and no enemy players within it. I found this mode to be a good addition to the game. I tend to gravitate towards the objective-based modes in general, and I like the way that this mode draws the players toward a single area of the map as those modes ten to do. Patrol is a bit more challenging than Hardpoint because you’re contending with the fact that it is always moving and that you need to move with it. This makes it harder to defend your control of the zone since you can’t dig in and keep an eye on the approaches. The moving zone also makes it a little harder to grenade spam the zone, which occurred a lot on Hardpoint and Domination, especially in Blitz mode. Call of Duty periodically adds new modes and then drops them, but this is one that I hope the franchise holds on to.
The other new mode is Champion Hill, which is essentially an arena mode. This mode can be played solo, or with two or three player teams, but there are always eight squads. All players start with the same loadout, but the mode begins with a purchase round during which players can obtain weapons, gear, and perks. The game then moves to an enclosed zone where the game is played in rounds. Each squad has a limited number of lives, and once they are depleted the squad is eliminated from the game. During play, additional money is earned from kills or from finding it lying on the ground, and every few rounds the surviving squads return to the buy zone to purchase new items. It’s a fun mode that gets more intense in the later rounds when it transitions from a larger firefight to a game of cat and mouse.
As noted earlier, when you jump into multiplayer you’ll chose from one of twelve available operators – although you’ll have to do a little work to unlock them all. Your choice of operator won’t have any effect on gameplay as you can pick any loadout for any operator. Each has a favorite weapon class, though, and there is a weapon experience bonus for using your operator’s weapon of choice. Each operator comes with their own set of unique challenges and completing them increases your operator’s level and unlocks new customization items. This extends beyond skins to things like gestures and quips, so there are rewards for sticking to a particular operator. Seasons will return in Vanguard, giving you the opportunity to unlock even more customization options for operators.
There is a large selection of weapons in the game, and the degree of customization, both practical and cosmetic, is extensive. You’ll need to stick with a weapon to level it up and unlock the full collection of upgrades, as well as to access the weapon blueprints that will make them more unique. You can spend a lot of time in the gunsmith system tweaking your weapons to your playstyle, but the game makes it easy to switch attachments and see how each one impacts the weapon’s stats.
Overall, Vanguard is an incremental iteration for the Call of Duty franchise. It’s a solid entry in the series that does well what Call of Duty does well, but it doesn’t stand-out as a landmark release. If you enjoy Call of Duty, haven’t played for a few years, or are new to franchise, then by all means jump in. The water’s fine.
Final Rating: 85% - Vanguard keeps the Call of Duty franchise marching along.
Note: A review code for this game was provided by the publisher.