Call of Duty Vanguard (PS5) Review – Stopping The Fourth Reich
Call of Duty VanguardNovember 5th, 2021
In a cycle that feels much shorter than four years since the release of Sledgehammer Games’ Call of Duty WWII, this year’s iteration returns players once more to the trenches and ruined streets of World War II. Despite the decades of technology separating Call of Duty Vanguard from the Black Ops lineage, there’s still much to this year’s iteration that feels instantly familiar to longtime fans. Has the diminishing allure of The Third Reich and Nazi Zombies put the Vanguard on retreat?
Call of Duty Vanguard retains the three core pillars of modern Call of Duty titles: Campaign, Multiplayer, and Zombies. The fourth pillar of Warzone is still to come, with a new Pacific map set to launch sometime next month. As Vanguard won’t be necessary to jump in and play in Warzone’s Caldera map (save for a 24-hour early access), let’s not consider that to be a part of Call of Duty: Vanguard. Of the three main pillars, multiplayer remains the primary reason to want to pick up Call of Duty shortly after release, while Zombies is its most lifeless iteration to date.
Starting with Zombies, returning players will immediately realize that there are no Easter Eggs or unique unlockable challenges in this year’s iteration. Der Anfang is another entry in the Dark Aether story introduced in the Black Ops Cold War, but aside from the strange mythical voices chattering over the comms, you might not otherwise know the correlation. Based in a small city center of Stalingrad, players routinely come back to this hub level to resupply, upgrade their weapons via the Pack-a-Punch, pick up new relic perks, and venture out via one of the randomly generated portals that appears. For each round, players choose a portal at random that offers one of three gameplay modes across the four maps (Stalingrad, Hotel Royal, and two others): Blitz, Harvest, and Transmit. Blitz has players survive for a certain amount of time, while Harvest tasks players with collecting runestones and feeding them to a Sin Eater obelisk three times throughout the mission. Transmit is your standard ‘protect the payload’ sort of mission and has players actively move throughout the level to move the empowered zombie skull to its destination. In between rounds, you’ll return to Stalingrad as the level slowly opens up, providing access to side areas with clusters of enemies and loot boxes scattered throughout.
Powering up to survive future waves comes in four forms: picking up new weapons off corpses or the Mystery Box and taking them to a Pack-a-Punch machine, investing cash into the Demonic Fountains/relic machines (the first sip of each are always free), sacrificing hearts for passive boons or crafting upgraded armor or throwables. Your initial loadout consists of whatever gun you’ve leveled up and attachments are on it (plus one artifact such as Ring of Fire, Frost Blast, and others) and will quickly get outclassed by Mystery Box rolls unless you pay the cash to enhance your weapons at a Pack-a-Punch terminal. However, if you simply want to make a mockery of the Zombies mode, just grab the Combat Shotgun and PaP that bad boy as quickly as you can. Not even on waves 20 and beyond will standard enemies really take more than one shot. Couple that with the Covenants you’ll unlock by sacrificing hearts to increase damage when standing still and reloading two bullets back into the clip for a critical kill and you can just stand back in the corner of a map and click on zombie skulls the entire round without ever really having to move. Beyond the standard zombie fodder are only a pair of special infected types to worry about: the Boom-Schreier suicide bomber type and Sturmkreiger, machine-gun-toting heavy types.
The lack of variety is what drastically hinders Call of Duty Vanguard’s Zombies experience from being more highly rated. Still, in some ways, it’s better for the casual player like myself. No EE quests, no Wall Buys, no Wonder Weapons, and a hub experience that doesn’t challenge the player beyond the odd shambling group of zombies here and there. In its current form, there isn’t much to keep veteran Zombies fans playing more than a few hours of mindless slaying with friends, but for those that only dip their toes into the Dark Aether from time to time, the current mode isn’t so bad. You still have the incremental upgrades into feeling all-powerful and the few game modes present help players feel like they’re doing more than just racking up kills counts without the confusion of trying to piece together whatever Easter Egg Treyarch or Sledgehammer Games have snuck into their Zombies experience.
Next is the Call of Duty: Vanguard campaign, the second major pillar to each year’s title (minus Black Ops IIII where it was a glaring omission). The campaign revolves around a ragtag bunch of some of the world’s best gunfighters from a diverse number of countries all working together to infiltrate a Nazi stronghold and come away with whatever Project Phoenix may be, intel, zombie technology, or something else entirely. The story is told from several varying viewpoints, first starting with a raid on a Nazi submarine for these elusive documents before the team is captured and subsequently brought to a jail cell where a number of the main characters meet an untimely end. After capture, the story bounces between interrogation sequences in the current timeline and historical missions of the great war that explain the motives behind each character’s burning hatred for their German foes. Take those backstory missions out, and you’re left with a campaign that only lasts an hour or two while barely pushing the narrative forward. Aside from the characters who succumb to brutal and visceral injuries, the narrative as a whole feels relatively low stakes for a Call of Duty story. When all is said and done, just before the end credits begin to roll, the game namedrops moments and nefarious plots from subsequent Call of Duty games as a way to make Vanguard fit into the narrative that ultimately feels like it was thrown in last minute to give a wink and a nod to longtime fans of this warfare series.
Each character in the campaign has a unique skill to one another that breaks up the moment-to-moment gunplay with some minor twists. Kingsley can suggest targets of opportunity for AI companions to strike, while Wade can slow down time and focus fire on enemies for a brief period. Polina, the Russian sniper of the group, had the more interesting missions to play through if you’re a fan of stealth like myself and her gimmick was being able to draw out sniper fire and then sneak away through vents or knee-high crawl spaces. In addition to the boots on the ground warfare, there are a few rare moments of hopping into vehicles and turrets for on-rails sections that give some diversity to the gameplay. There’s a specific moment (two of them, actually) in Wade Jackson’s story missions where you pilot and fly a bomber plane and dive down straight into the flak of a Japanese warship. There’s a trophy associated with clearing one of these bombing runs without taking a single point of damage and I still have the radio comms chatter burned into my subconscious from the hour plus of continuous restarts trying to get that perfect dive.
As is par for the course for a Call of Duty campaign, expect the nine-mission campaign to last you an afternoon, perhaps longer if you play through on Veteran and try to earn all of the trophies (no collectibles, but there are a few trophies associated with each chapter). The cinematics themselves are among some of the most polished in Activision’s long-running FPS franchise and some of the star power such as Dominic Monaghan (Richter) and Simon Quartermann (Webb) pull off both voice and facial capture with well-polished talent. There’s even the talents of Laura Bailey and Derek Phillips, both of whom last worked together on The Last of Us Part II.
And now the Multiplayer, the third pillar and perhaps the main reason players keep coming back to the Call of Duty franchise as a whole. If you had caught our preview coverage of the Closed Beta tests or even took part in them yourselves, chances are you know exactly what you’ll be getting into with Call of Duty Vanguard’s competitive component. The Operators of the campaign are back as the playable roles to jump into the multiplayer with, some unlocked out of the gate and others requiring X number of kills with a certain weapon (they’re also unlockable for Zombies, so try earning Shigenori there if 25 Finishing Moves isn’t a goal you can see yourself accomplishing). Unlike Battlefield 2042’s Operators, these characters are purely cosmetic with no gameplay differences or special abilities, save for an XP boost for using their preferred weapons.
The weapon customization is the star of the Call of Duty Vanguard experience. Each weapon can be equipped with up to ten points of customization, changing your average assault rifle from a close range bullet hose to perhaps a longer-range semi-auto sniping tool depending on the particular map and your playstyle. As a longtime fan of LMG’s, I fell in love with the MG42’s massive ammo pool and extended barrel setup that would allow me to snipe players out with two or three shots. Slap on the Piercing Vision perk to see suppressed enemies through obstructions and walls with some high-penetration rounds and you’ll be able to shoot enemies through walls and hear those constant calls of being marked a hacker when those brief seconds of enemy comms come through your headset. In the current meta, you’ll see the same four or five guns out of the 30-plus available at launch, with two of them being the starting SMG and AR to play with.
At launch, Call of Duty Vanguard offers the modes that have been a staple of the series: Team Deathmatch/Kill Confirmed, Search and Destroy, Domination, Hardpoint, among others. Patrol is the new game mode for Vanguard and involves controlling a roaming hardpoint that constantly moves around the map. The Patrol mode is far more enjoyable than the version playable at beta with spawns actually fixed in a working state. For those that prefer a more personal encounter, Champion Hill mixes together Gun Fight with Deathmatch in 1v1, 2v2, and 3v3 settings. In each round, you’re matched up against an enemy team at random and given a pool of lives that’s intended to last you the full match. In between rounds (and during matches in some instances), you can cash in money earned towards upgrades and killstreaks to give you a fighting edge. It’s an interesting spin on Gun Fight from previous entries and could be one of the more exciting modes if players want to go heavy into the 1v1 aspect.
Call of Duty Vanguard certainly has a lot of room to grow if it wants to catch up and be remembered like its contemporaries. At launch, players only have access to the Pre-Season battle pass (which shares progression with Black Ops Cold War’s Season 5), with fairly limited rewards there. Each Operator only has a laughably minimal amount of cosmetics: a couple of palette swap costumes and one for maxing out the level of each Operator in a given group, as well as two Finishing Moves, quotables, and post-game showcase taunts to unlock. Call of Duty Vanguard might have the highest number of maps available at launch, but unless you’re constantly jumping between the three different population sizes for maps, you might only see the same four or five in constant rotation.
This year’s Call of Duty release has been the quietest in a long time and it’s not necessarily because Sledgehammer Games doesn’t have confidence in Vanguard. If anything, what’s available is a good framework for how this year’s entry can grow and improve over the coming months and seasons. However, with a campaign that won’t be remembered beyond its opening weekend and a Zombies experience that’s the weakest opening act in years, it’s tough to recommend Call of Duty Vanguard as anything but a launcher for this year’s WW2 themed competitive multiplayer. The multiplayer remains a fantastic main pillar for the shooter fan and is a good successor to anyone that’s held out from picking up a new Call of Duty since the launch of WWII.
Reviewed on PS5 (code provided by the publisher).
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Perhaps the softest launch in Activision Blizzard's historic FPS series, Call of Duty Vanguard shows that there's much potential for this year's entry to grow. However with the weakest Zombies mode in series history, a shortage of cosmetics and upgrades for anything save your primary loadout, and a Campaign that could've offered so much more, Vanguard is a tough sell if you're looking for anything than your next TDM fix at the moment.
- Multiplayer, Campaign, Zombies, Champion Hill, and soon Warzone all in one package
- Thirty-plus primary weapons to level up and customize
- Easiest Zombies mode to progress through
- Maps scale from small skirmishes to big team battle depending on how many players you want to match up against
- Largest number of MP maps at launch
- Lack of customization options for anything except primary weapons
- Campaign is mostly reminiscing on previous fights rather than pushing a compelling narrative
- Many unlocks still broken and unable to earn even weeks after release
- Weapon balancing still has a long way to go (STG-44 with Vital proficiency remains best in class)
- Some maps likes Castle (World at War) pop up too frequently in Blitz MP with no way to vote for the next map
- Der Anfang is weakest Zombies mode/map to date