Call of Duty: Vanguard (PC) review: Good presentation and Multiplayer isn't quite enough to save it
Excuse me, what?
Note: This review was first published on 18 October 2021.
For the record, I really, really wanted to like this game.
And yet, the more I played it, especially the new-fangled Zombies mode, the more I also wanted to lock it up and throw away the key. But first, a little context. 2021's annual CoD entry, which was developed by the team over at Sledgehammer Games comes in the form of Call of Duty: Vanguard, and it's set in a fictional universe where World War II never really ended.
If you've been keeping up with all the marketing and interview opportunities that the development team has been throwing out in the months leading up to release, it's only normal that you'd have had high hopes for this one. After all, there was perfectly good reason to think that they would do a relatively bang-up job like they did for CoD: WWII, and both games even take place within the same chronological window, so it's not like they had to draw up everything from scratch.
However, reality is a fickle thing, and many of our hopes simply did not come to pass. Apart from the Multiplayer and certain flavour-related aspects of the Campaign that I felt they managed to get right, Vanguard has ended up as one of the most...I would say, "divisive" CoD entries we've ever had, for the sole reason that it's either very good or very awkward depending on what you look out for in one of these titles.
If looks could kill, we'd be dead
Visually, the game doesn't disappoint, but then again, recent entries to the franchise haven't let us down in terms of aesthetics either. Even so, I will admit that the animations feel much more real than before, and the addition of actual, destructible environments in both Campaign and Multiplayer really adds depth to the punchy shooter experience the series prides itself on. I'm not going to deny it - I enjoyed most of the gunplay, and to a large extent, the characters too.
Apparently, the one thing Sledgehammer certainly didn't stinge on in the Campaign was the talent budget. Generally, I think the performances were marvellous across the board, and as you know, CoD cinematics are probably among the best, and they make for some very impactful sequences. Needless to say, Laura Bailey's flawless performance of Polina Petrova is right up there for me, though Dominic Monaghan's Jannick Richter comes in a very close second.
Speaking of impact, Vanguard also does a pretty good job setting the wartime atmosphere, and sometimes it really feels like your metaphorical boots are on the ground. Case in point, during one of your missions playing as the Russian sniper Polina, you're tasked with killing a Nazi officer that you've cornered on the top floor of a ruined complex in Stalingrad.
Sounds pretty easy, except there are two problems. The first of these is that he's armed and you're not, meaning you'll have to sneak up on him. The second problem is that you'll have to take him down in a room loaded with mannequins, and if a claustrophobic room filled with dolls and a crazed guy with a gun isn't eerie in the slightest, then you've got absolute nerves of steel, my friend.
Outside of ground combat, it's also quite enjoyable taking control of ace pilot Wade Jackson in the skies. During his arc you'll be placed squarely in the cockpit of a WWII fighter jet, and although it's not as refined or intense as a dedicated aerial combat game like Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown, it's still well within expectations for a CoD title. All in all, it hits the visual bar across the board.
Looks aren't everything, though
As for why Vanguard is getting the middling score it is, the short answer is that the game doesn't have a very strong hand of cards outside of all that.
First of all, the narrative, which is supposedly Vanguard's greatest trump card doesn't quite hit as hard as Sledgehammer was marketing it to be. Granted, it starts off relatively strong, with Kingsley and his team literally taking on an entire Nazi submarine base, but from then on everything just goes downhill and feels rushed, which is really disappointing considering that CoD: WWII was an absolute masterpiece of storytelling.
Hey, I've got no gripes with them taking the whole flashback route and showing how each of the game's protagonists come into their own. However, the problem is when it makes a beeline for the endgame immediately afterward without actually addressing any of the remaining elephants in the room. As such, it comes across as disjointed in this respect - there's no answering how or even why the oh-so-awesome Task Force One came to be. Quite frankly, it's like teaching your kid how to ride a bike and then immediately signing him up for the Tour de France - success stories don't work that way.
As for Multiplayer and Zombies, this is where we really see the good and bad bits about the game. The former is arguably the one thing about Vanguard that's keeping it on my desktop, while the latter is the why I'd like to delete it as well.
Multiplayer as a whole hasn't changed too much, with the only noteworthy addition being the implementation of Combat Pacings. Essentially, these refer to the intensity of the firefights, and players can select or deselect them depending on the experiences they're looking for. Personally, I prefer the split-second decisions in super high-intensity games, and thus I usually opt for the Blitz pacing. For those who want less "in your face" matches, you can opt for Tactical or Assault pacings - it's entirely up to you, and I think it's quite a welcome addition to spice up the formula if you'd like to take it a little faster or slower that day. Oh, and the Battle Pass carries over from Cold War and Warzone too, so you won't be starting from scratch in Vanguard if you've already gotten to work on it. In fact, you might even have unlocked some weapon blueprints along the way, like this one for the STG-44.
As for matches themselves, I'm not really sure what I should say. Vanguard is far from the only WWII-inspired shooter we've seen, and it's functionally still a CoD title, meaning the gunplay isn't going to knock you out of the park or anything in terms of novelty. I did still enjoy it, however, and I will note that the movements, especially tactical ones like mantling, reloading and all that feel a lot more realistic than those in Cold War. The sprint speed seems to have been dialled back a notch too - you won't be seeing seemingly-superhuman soldiers zipping around like flies any time soon, which is good.
The increased realism gives players, especially rookies an easier time of figuring out and understanding what they can and can't do at a given moment, and in that way it feels like Sledgehammer is lowering the skill floor a little while keeping the skill ceiling where it is. As such, I think it's one of the better games to start picking up the Multiplayer if you're new, and by that same token, it's still par for the annual CoD course if you're already an experienced player.
Some undead should stay dead
Now, as for the supposedly reinvented Zombies experience - oh my goodness, where do I even begin?
If you've ever heard the term, "you had one job", then Vanguard Zombies is the one scenario you would say it. All the developers had to do was take the Zombies formula from Cold War, which is in itself a surprisingly good one, fine tune it a little and send it on its merry way. We didn't ask them to reinvent the wheel, but unfortunately that's what they decided to do.
In the first place, I don't think the flavour is all bad. Delving into Nazis and their occult experiments is a really cool direction to take the franchise, and my opinion is that Der Anfang would actually be a pretty solid map if they used the regular round-based formula. I mean, it's got the eerie vibe down pat, and has lots of corridors and open spaces that would be great for high score runs.
But no. Apparently the developers felt that the best way to go about things was to try and fuse Outbreak and classic round-based Zombies together, for whatever reason, and split the perk system into two halves while they were doing that. Sometimes the whole is much less than any of its individual parts, and in this case, the result is a weird and extremely one-dimensional Zombies mode that quickly devolves into having players complete mundane tasks while waiting for the correct Covenants to show up. Oh, and you'll have to try and survive with the extremely barebones Perks too. Honestly, I could go on, but that would take the entire article and then some.
In fact, I'll even go so far as to say that I don't know how people can even go all the way to round 100, because I got bored after ten minutes, went right back to Cold War and that's where I'll be staying for Zombies. Vanguard's iteration of the mode is a sheer and absolute disappointment, and they're probably going to need a miracle to change my mind, not to mention the rest of the community's on that.
The long and short of this war
For lack of a better description, Call of Duty: Vanguard feels less like an emotionally impactful story about heroism or vengeance amidst the horrors of war and more like a Saturday morning Power Rangers episode simply masquerading as one. Although it certainly delivers in terms of presentation and atmosphere, seeing the entire narrative try to speedrun itself without bothering to fully develop the context of Task Force One is jarring and really, really awkward. As far as I'm concerned, you've just got a bunch of soldiers who are especially good at putting Nazis six feet under, and have a reason to do so - okay, but so what? Join the queue.
Speaking of putting Nazis into the ground, Vanguard also doesn't present that new and excitingly different Zombies experience that it was touted for - trying to combine classic round-based Zombies and Outbreak made the mode an even unholier mess than the walking cadavers in it. I will admit the occult premise did excite me at first, but that was before I actually played it. Much like the rest of the community, I thought there was great potential for Vanguard to lead up to the Dark Aether storyline that Cold War explored, and now I'm pretty sure I'll only be playing the latter if I want to shoot zombies. It's a sad truth, but one that we Zombies fans will simply have to accept.
As for the Multiplayer, I would argue that this is probably the most satisfying part about Vanguard, but that's not nearly enough to save the rest of this relatively underwhelming CoD entry. To give credit where it is due, though, I will admit the combat experience feels punchy and exciting across the board, but at the end of the day, it's like the game doesn't really know what it wants to achieve. For one thing, it isn't really sure how to fuse and the backdrop of each character into the "greater narrative". As it is now, it just feels like a bunch of pretty-looking short stories bound together with duct tape, and to call the Zombies experience intriguing would be giving it way too much credit. So, unless you intend to go all in on the Multiplayer, which is technically still worth playing for a bit, I think your money would be better spent on another title this holiday season.
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Excellent presentation and atmosphere
Gunplay feels punchy and realistic
Relatively fun and versatile Multiplayer, especially for rookies
Decent mix of environments
Narrative is rather short and grossly anticlimactic
Zombies experience is generally awful and unsatisfying
Doesn't really feel value-for-money
The NPC AI can sometimes be a little dumb
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