It’s probably still too soon to go back to WW2. At least, that was our thought when Call of Duty: Vanguard was first announced, and its setting was revealed.
However, by focussing on a cast of characters that are easy to enjoy, despite their best efforts with some cringe dialogue, developers Sledgehammer have put together a campaign that just about held our attention for the 4 or 5 hours it runs for.
The campaign opens with an incredibly cinematic sequence that sees our group of elite soldiers from across the world, the Vanguard, attempt to high-jack a train. It’s here where you get your first glimpse of how visually impressive the game is, particularly when it comes to lighting, weather, and facial animations.
The rain is overwhelming as it batters against you as you make your way through the various carriages. The lights that line the track cast impressive shadows, and the animations from your team as they methodically take down guards are great.
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What is less impressive is the very buggy AI that lost focus on our team members and allowed us to stand in front of them without them so much as blinking. The AI is strangely bad across the whole campaign, which is a real shame. They’ll shoot you if you’re practically dancing in front of them, but they seem to have the object permanence of an infant, as even the slightest flank sends them into a panic.
After taking control of the train, and then trying to steal a U-boat, because it’s a WW2 story, so U-boat adjacent missions are a legal requirement, the Vanguard is captured by the Nazis and is interrogated by Jannick Richter, played with impressively repulsive sleaze by Dominic Monaghan. They each then take turns telling their story of how they joined the squad, and it’s these flashbacks that form the majority of the campaign.
Each character has a mechanic that is unique to their mission. Arthur, the leader of the team, can instruct the AI to perform actions while in a mission, such as focussing on a specific target. Another mission sees the group’s explosive expert be able to carry significantly more grenades and other throwable sidearms than the others.
But it’s in the story of “Lady Nightingale” that the campaign reaches its high point, and actually overshadows the rest of it. Polina Petrova, played by The Last of Us Part II’s Laura Bailey, is a former nurse, turned elite sniper that has to make her way out of Stalingrad as the city makes its last stand against the Nazis. Her skill is the ability to distract enemies, drawing their fire and allowing her to line up better shots.
This whole mission, from the stark, snow-kissed environment, to the brilliant performance from Bailey, and the most challenging and fun enemy encounters in the game, makes us wish that Lady Nightingale was the sole focus of the whole campaign.
“It’s in the story of Lady Nightingale that the campaign reaches its high point, and actually overshadows the rest of it.”
The dialogue in the campaign starts off as if the whole team is trying to compete for who is going to be the “funny one”, which is extremely grating, but it manages to ease off on it towards the back-half, making the cutscenes far more enjoyable, and by the end, we felt like we’d more than happily see another adventure with this group. That may be due to the fact that the 9 missions in the game feel like they end before ever really get started.
Turning to multiplayer, Vanguard’s suite boasts a vast number of returning modes that have been series staples for over a decade. There are 20 maps, 16 of which are featured in regular rotation, while the others are reserved for Champion Hill, a new mode that mixes elements of Gunfight into slightly larger team sizes.
The maps are pretty good, save for the Call of Duty tradition of many game modes having issues with spawning you directly in the path of the enemy team, which at this point feels like a feature, rather than a bug.
The best addition to Vanguard’s multiplayer, and the thing that makes us want to stick with it for longer than the powerfully underwhelming Black Ops Cold War multiplayer, is the ability to search for matches based on the intensity of the game. Basically, you can choose to search for games that are classed as Blitz, Tactical, or Assault.
These will determine how many players are in the games you are searching for, as well as the size of the map. So if you don’t want to deal with the hyper-twitch rounds that feel like everyone is playing inside of a one-bedroom flat, picking tactical will give you a traditional 6v6 Call of Duty experience. However, if you pick Blitz, you’ll be thrown onto the biggest maps, with the most players, reducing your life span to that of the average village fete goldfish.
Zombies also returns and with it comes a new chapter in the surprisingly deep lore behind the horde mode. This story serves as a tie-in to Black Ops Cold War’s undead narrative, however, it’s the kind of thing you can totally ignore like we did if that’s not what you came to zombies for.
“Together, the three pillars of Call of Duty Vanguard make for a game that we’re frankly surprised is as cohesive and enjoyable as it is, considering the circumstances it was developed under”
What we were there for is to run laps around the map with a powerful shotgun, until we’re overwhelmed and call it a day. We’re sure there are ridiculous Easter Eggs to be found, as is Call of Duty zombies’ tradition, but considering the absolutely ridiculous series of events that are typically required to trigger them, we didn’t manage to find any, as we wanted to post this review before 2022.
At launch, Call of Duty Vanguard feels like a solid step-up from Black Ops Cold War, but falls short of the benchmark that was Modern Warfare 2019.
The campaign is an action film that you’ll only half remember after you finish it, but for the few hours it has you, you’ll have a great time. Lady Nightingale is a highlight that should have been used more, and feels like a character that Call of Duty could easily hang a spin-off from.
The campaign also benefits from some tremendous visuals, and a focus on cinematography that adds to the feeling that you’ve just sat down in a dark room with a hugely overpriced bag of sweets and a drink that’ll rot your teeth.
The multiplayer suite is packed with things to do, and the addition of playlists based on pacing seriously reduces the stressful, offputting swings between games that feel manageable and games that feel like you’re against 2000 enemies.
Zombies is still great, even if following the story now feels like watching the 50th episode of a show you’ve never heard of. Together, the three pillars of Call of Duty Vanguard make for a game that we’re frankly surprised is as cohesive and enjoyable as it is, considering the circumstances it was developed under.
At launch, Call of Duty Vanguard feels like a solid step-up from Black Ops Cold War, but falls short of the benchmark that was Modern Warfare 2019. Together, Vanguard's three pillars make for a game that we’re frankly surprised is as cohesive and enjoyable as it is.
- Fun, if forgettable campaign with great performances
- Visually stunning, especially in facial animation
- Multiplayer is fun, and more accessible for the non-hardcore
- Campaign is the shortest it has been in a while
- Consistently poor AI
- The WW2 setting still feels overdone