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Call Of Duty: Vanguard review – you know what to expect

This year’s Call Of Duty is a game that can’t be criticised in terms of the variety of content but what about in terms of innovation?

Internet commentators have always joked that each Call Of Duty game is the same, but largely speaking that’s never been true. Previously, each has brought a new focus and flavour that clearly distinguishes itself. However, as a package, they are now literally a homogenised product. If you load up a Call Of Duty game, you are met with a menu full of references to previous titles, each supported by the pillars of a Campaign, Multiplayer, and Zombies mode. The franchise’s structure and content has become ossified to the point where major change is beginning to seem almost impossible.

One thing Call Of Duty cannot be criticised for is a lack of content. Vanguard offers several different experiences and is essentially multiple games in one. It’s what makes the series such an appealing package, especially with progression tying into Warzone too. However, as this structure has been in place for the last few games, it’s becoming overfamiliar and there’s a feeling that something new is needed to recapture the series’ early reputation for being a trendsetter.

That is a lot to put on Vanguard’s shoulders. In theory, it should be judged purely for the game it is, but that’s impossible to do when you load up the game and are encouraged to also pick up the last few titles in the franchise. The series has begun to feel like it’s coasting on its success and, sadly, Vanguard has little ambition to change that. This is, for better and worse, another dependable Call Of Duty. A good game full of fun things to do, but with a lingering absence of greatness.

Call Of Duty: Vanguard story campaign review

With such a big package, it can be hard to know where to begin but the obvious place has always been the good, old-fashioned story mode. Vanguard’s campaign feels decidedly of the franchise. It’s loud, explosive, and full of blockbuster action, with enormous set pieces in a Second World War setting. That is exceptionally well-trodden ground for this franchise though, so the question was always going to be: what makes Vanguard distinct?

Vanguard’s campaign proports to tell the origin of special forces, which certainly did begin in the Second World War – albeit not quite in the way portrayed here. The story starts with a small team landing in Hamburg, to take on a covert operation to acquire important but unspecified information. As you might expect, it doesn’t quite go to plan. The game then splinters off into telling the origin stories of each member of your group. Each comes from a different pocket of the war, making sure you get to see a nice variety of Second World War battlefields.

From a fictionalised version of Operation Tonga to a sniper who becomes an inspiration to a war-torn Stalingrad, to an ace American pilot in the Pacific, and an Australian who finds himself on the nasty end of a disdainful British military, the game covers a lot of ground. Vanguard does find some interesting and atypical stories to tell but there’s still nothing here that feels like it hasn’t been done before. Ultimately, it’s still another Call Of Duty campaign set in the Second World War, offering exactly the sort of action and storytelling beats you’d expect.

Where Vanguard does find a little personality is its refusal to pull punches when portraying the Nazi regime. For one, Nazi iconography shows up all over the game, in part, perhaps, because there are fewer restrictions now on its use in Germany. The game also doesn’t dance around the racism and evil of Nazism. Several characters make it explicitly clear, in pretty nasty ways. It all adds to a refreshing feeling of directness, with developer Sledgehammer Games pushing the envelope on what you might expect from the franchise. It’s nothing past what you might expect from Hollywood, but it feels less coy than previous Call Of Duty games.

This includes interesting details that are surprising to see in a mainstream Call Of Duty campaign, such as a suggestion that Hitler’s interest in Madison Grant and early Americanism helped form his racist ideology. However, in the later stages, the tone of the campaign shifts fairly dramatically, descending into cartoonish nonsense that makes Wolfenstein seem like a documentary.

By the time the credits roll on the roughly five hour long campaign it almost feels like an Indiana Jones tribute act. Except, that sense of adventure is drowned out by a po-faced seriousness that treats the real-world details with the same level of solemnity as the fantastical elements, that seem to be intended to meld into the metafiction of the wider Call Of Duty universe.

Call Of Duty: Vanguard multiplayer review

Of course, Vanguard’s story campaign is only going to be a small part of the package for a lot of players. The multiplayer is what many are bound to sink tens, if not hundreds, of hours into. Which is just one reason why reviewing a Call Of Duty game is so difficult. The meaningful quality doesn’t reveal itself in its entirety until sometime after release, as the community gets comfortable with the experience and its triumphs and foibles become clearer.

However, what’s here is promising. The watchword with Vanguard, throughout all its modes but in particular multiplayer, is variety. The usual suspects are all here, with Team Deathmatch, Domination, Search and Destroy, Free for All, Kill Confirmed, and new additions like Patrol.

For each game type though you can choose what is referred to as the ‘Combat Pacing’, which essentially breaks down to how many players are in a game with you. Tactical is for more calculated experiences with the least amount of players, Assault is a middle-ground, and Blitz is a chaos-induced experience with as many players as can be packed into a given map.

All combat pacing can be applied to any game type, so if you want to play an intimate game of Team Deathmatch, you can. If you are bonkers and, for some reason want to play Blitz Search and Destroy, you can do that too. The ability to tailor your experience so specifically is great and given the size of the Call Of Duty audience there’s also a good chance there are enough other people wanting to play the way you do.

Adding to the variety, there is also an impressive 16 maps across all the modes. Each feels lively, showing off somewhere new affected by the destruction of the war in beautifully, carefully sculpted scenery.

There are a lot of reasons to stay playing Vanguard online, with several tracks to keep pouring experience into. There is a general experience bar that feeds into levels that unlock things like operators, gun skins, tactical abilities, and perks. Then there is a Battle Pass, if you decide to pick it up, which offers all sorts of goodies in vaguely confusing but beneficial fashion.

However, perhaps the most compelling track is the armoury unlocks for each weapon. The Gunsmith is one of the coolest things about Vanguard, as it allows you to go deep on the customisation of your weapons. As you use any given gun, you unlock new muzzles, barrels, optics, stocks, rear grips, magazines, ammo types, and underbellies.

This allows you to transform a weapon from one purpose to another, with powerful combinations just waiting to be found with a little creativity. An all-killing LMG that wants you never to run? A long-distance SMG? A sniper meant to be readied fast from sprinting? A shotgun that fires like a rifle? With enough time to unlock all the parts, all are possible.

That being said, the sheer number of experience tracks and unlocks you are working through can be overwhelming. With three or four overlapping each other, especially early on, there is so much to keep on top of. You are opening up builds and possibilities far before you can really grasp all the options. That said, it is, of course, better to be overwhelmed with choice rather than desperate for more.

Vanguard’s multiplayer seems like it’s in a promising starting place for a new release. There’s no massive reinvention here, the systems aren’t revolutionary and it’s still just more Call Of Duty multiplayer. However, it’s built on solid foundations of good map design, player choice, and enough tracks and unlocks to keep the carrot on the stick for a long time to come. It’s impossible to say how the game’s multiplayer will evolve in the long term, but for now, Vanguard’s multiplayer feels good.

Call Of Duty: Vanguard Zombies review

The final pillar of the Call of Duty experience is Zombies. Zombies has always felt like a weird, under-loved sibling to the campaign and multiplayer structure and that certainly hasn’t changed this year. There have been great iterations, but even at its best, it has always felt like an also-run to the other two core modes.

That is especially true in Vanguard’s outing. Frankly, it’s not a great experience. It plays out on a map called Der Anfang (The Beginning), where you and three players choose between several portals. Each portal brings you through to a new area (after an annoyingly long load screen) and plops you into a small map to complete an objective.

That can be defending a moving target, defending a space for a set amount of time or harvesting crystals. After that, you then teleport back to the main hub area with any spoils to buy perks, upgrade guns, or drink from fountains that give you bonuses. That counts as one wave. You then repeat the process by choosing a new portal, as each time objectives get marginally harder.

If your main interest in Call Of Duty is Zombies then the simple advice is not to buy Vanguard. It’s not awful, but it is disjointed and lacks fluidity. It’s also confusingly presented and feels like something stitched together from leftover body parts. It might be okay for a mild distraction but runs feel like they take an age to get through. It doesn’t even have a fun, drop-in, drop-out kind of frivolity to it and while there is perhaps some room for growth right now, at launch, it’s a bit of a dud.

Even without Zombies the amount of content in Vanguard is enormous and as familiar as it might be the experience is never boring. However, that does come with a predictable caveat. There is a lot of good stuff in Vanguard but it leaves you longing for something truly great. That has felt like the case for a while too. As each new Call Of Duty gets added to the homogenised UI the hope for any genuine innovation or surprises seems increasingly forlorn.

Call Of Duty: Vanguard is still a very good video game, but there’s a definite scent of staleness in the air. The franchise feels like it needs a new jolt of life and this is not the game to provide it. Vanguard is more interested in maintaining the status quo than creating anything truly new and that’s what’s holding it, and the franchise in general, back.

Call Of Duty: Vanguard review summary

In Short: A reliable entry full of variety and worthwhile content, that simultaneously leaves an aroma of staleness that is beginning to taint the whole Call Of Duty franchise.

Pros: A massive gameplay package, with an uneven but engaging campaign and the foundations of an enjoyable multiplayer. Solid graphics, good map design, and Combat Pacing is a great introduction.

Cons: Few new ideas or surprises. The campaign’s tonal switch is bizarre and Zombies mode is simply not very good right now.

Score: 7/10

Formats: PlayStation 5 (reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S, and PC
Price: £69.99
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Sledgehammer Games and Treyarch
Release Date: 5th November 2021
Age Rating: 18

By Patrick Dane

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