Call of Duty games can sometimes contradict themselves. The franchise dictates that each new game has a specific feel–things like quick kill times and consistent approaches to movement and weapons, and campaigns that mix a large sense of scale with an individual intensity of battle. Call of Duty: Vanguard maintains all of these things, but it also strains under the formula. There are times when Call of Duty’s underlying elements seem to hold it back, like in its single-player campaign. Other times, like with some of its multiplayer offerings, it takes useful steps forward in unifying ideas that push the series forward, albeit incrementally. Overall, though, the Call of Duty formula makes Vanguard feel uneven. It climbs to some excellent heights, but stumbles often along the way.
Vanguard returns to World War II but takes a fictionalized, exaggerated approach to the conflict. It puts you in the shoes of four veteran heroes as they come together to form the first modern special forces team. The story can be a bit cartoonish at times–it feels like Call of Duty’s take on something like The Expendables, as it brings together a team of unkillable action heroes, but it’s also fitting for a game where you single-handedly kill hundreds of enemies in each mission. These folks are the best of the best, and the story takes you through flashbacks for each one, establishing why they’re the best, and then letting them work together to hijack a Nazi train and smash a Nazi base.
Your special forces team is heading to Berlin near the end of the war, hoping to gain intelligence about a secret program before the Nazis bury it ahead of the Red Army’s approach. The team you play is matched by super-evil Nazis on the opposite side (Lord of the Rings’ Dominic Monaghan as a wormy Nazi nerd is particularly fun to hate), and most of the game is framed as a series of interrogations after the bad guys capture the heroes. It’s notable how much time Vanguard spends on cutscenes and character development, in fact. Creating memorable characters and leaning into storytelling is an area the franchise has often struggled with, and much of what makes the campaign fun is how hard Vanguard goes on building your team: it’s all character, all the time. That helps keep the story from getting disjointed as it leaps around both the timeline of the war and the globe, dropping you in major battles so you can see how each character got to where you find them.
But it’s in those moments of character development that the Vanguard half of the game struggles against the traditional Call of Duty half. The campaign is built on introducing each of your team’s characters with their own missions, sending you to various World War II theaters in an attempt to deliver a variety of experiences in a variety of locations. It’s hit and miss, however–Vanguard wants to make each of the characters feel like specialists by giving them different abilities, but not all of the ideas attached to them work especially well.
The standout of the campaign is Polina, a Russian sniper and hero of the Battle of Stalingrad. Polina is quicker and more agile than the other characters, allowing her to quickly sneak under tables and through tight spaces, or climb walls to get to sniper perches. When she’s not sniping, her missions are largely stealthy affairs as she sneaks through bombed-out buildings to slip behind enemy soldiers and knife them in the neck, before disappearing among the debris. They’re exciting and fraught moments, but her character-specific ability–flashing a knife to coax a sniper into wasting a shot so she can identify their position and finish them off–is only useful in very specific instances. It doesn’t give you an edge in a fight, but rather just allows you to kill snipers when they show up, and so feels less like a skill and more like a button you push at the designated time.
Other missions and characters are less interesting and less distinct, though. Lucas, an explosives expert fighting German tank battalions in North Africa, pretty much fights the same way as British team leader and paratrooper Arthur, or American pilot Wade Jackson. Lucas’s special ability is carrying lots of different kinds of grenades, and when it’s his time to shine, he mostly just…throws grenades. Similarly, Arthur can order other teammates to focus fire on different targets, sometimes suppressing them. There’s no real strategy involved; you’re pretty much in the right to keep having your team shoot at a target until you manage to flank and kill it, and when they stop shooting at it, you just order them to do so again. Most of the time you only have one option to direct squadmates to target anyway, and there are never more than two, so the right call is just to attack an enemy until it’s gone.
Wade’s chunk of the game is the weakest, with a digression to an airborne mission over the Pacific that mixes confusing objectives with loose controls and boring dogfights. When he’s not in a plane, Wade has the strange « Focus » ability that lets him detect enemies through walls and underbrush for a short period, but using it doesn’t afford you any interesting iterations on the combat you’ve been playing through for hours at that point. Wade’s ability is primarily deployed for sneaking past enemy combatants during one of his missions, but it’s never clear how or why enemies detect you, leading to a much more irritating stealth section where you just stay as far away from everyone as the linear path will allow.
It all amounts to a campaign that has its exciting highlights, but doesn’t really achieve the goal of making it feel like you’re experiencing different aspects of World War II, or taking on the roles of characters with particular skills. The opportunities to use specific abilities are heavily prescribed and the campaign itself is extremely linear in the usual Call of Duty way. What’s more, so many moments and elements are scripted in specific ways that if you’re not playing exactly as intended, you immediately see through the cracks in missions. In one moment as Wade, I turned a mounted machine gun on enemies clamoring toward my squad’s position, only for them to immediately respawn in the exact same places–indicating that I was not, in fact, supposed to be seriously trying to fight off the attack. In another, Arthur escaped into a cellar to evade Nazi troops, and despite the door they chased him through being wide open, those troops just…didn’t bother following him.
Multiplayer fares better, although Vanguard’s attempts at focusing on character also struggle against the Call of Duty framework on that side of the experience as well. You can choose from a number of different « operator » characters to play in multiplayer, including characters from the campaign, but the nature of the Call of Duty player-vs.-player experience demands they all have the same capabilities. So the emphasis placed on the operators–they even all get their own special cutscenes when you choose them–really doesn’t amount to much more than opportunities to earn new character skins.
The additions to multiplayer, though, are positive ones, even if they’re mostly iterative changes to the familiar. Maps are littered with destructible walls to accompany destructible doors, giving you chances to bust out new sightlines or shoot people through flimsy cover. The destruction adds pathways and tactical options, while also increasing the overall chaos as bullets can fly from more places, forcing you to pay attention to how things are developing. That makes multiplayer matches feel like they change over time, which brings a fun dynamism to battles that requires you to think quickly and adjust your approach.
Vanguard also features some new modes and adjustments that enhance the usual multiplayer fare. The competitive menu includes a new option that lets you tune the kind of matches you want to play, leaning into either larger team battles on bigger maps or smaller, more intense firefights that get you into the action quicker. The Patrol mode is a highlight, adding mobility to the control points usually seen in Hardpoint matches, forcing you to constantly chase them around the map, which further adds to the dynamic feel of battles and also incentivizes out-of-the-box thinking to catch opponents unaware.
There’s also Champion Hill, which mixes the high-speed, low-player count intensity of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s Gun Game with elements of Call of Duty: Warzone. Champion Hill pits single players or teams of either two or three against each other in a round-robin competition, where each team has a set number of lives and earns money from kills. That money can then be spent on perks, new weapons and upgrades, and armor to give you an edge, but the speed of battle means that winning a fight often comes down to smart movement around the map and good team play. It’s a fun iteration on Call of Duty ideas that already work, which resulted in a lot of heart-pounding competitive moments in our multiplayer sessions.
Along with a heavy emphasis on building fun weapon loadouts with the Gunsmith menu, the tweaks here give Vanguard a feeling of heightened customization and fluidity, presenting you the chance to seek out the kind of Call of Duty experience you like. Weapon unlocks also transfer between modes, so there’s a good reason to dip your toe into everything Vanguard has to offer that also lessens the grind needed to expand your arsenal. A lot of Vanguard’s multiplayer offerings feel like the usual Call of Duty fare, so if you already like what you’ve been playing in Modern Warfare or Black Ops Cold War, you’ll probably like this. Though the tweaks aren’t all necessarily huge, they’re solid adjustments that bring new variety to the series overall.
Where Vanguard brings bigger changes is in the perennial Zombies mode–although part of that experience is currently missing. Zombies has been a fascinating addition to Call of Duty in the past as a sort of horde-mode puzzle box that players have to survive as well as solve. The problem has often been that the mode is opaque and tough to understand. Black Ops Cold War developer Treyarch, which created Zombies in the first place, returned to work on this mode and streamlined it significantly, in a lot of smart ways. You now load into the mode in a central hub area, where you can upgrade your character as you earn points from killing enemies. From the central area, you advance by activating portals that take you to areas with specific objectives: staying in a zone as it moves through a level like in the PvP Patrol mode; holding out for a few minutes in a tight room as it fills with zombies; and gathering runes that drop off dead zombies and returning them to a specific point in order to fill an objective meter.
The objectives are clear and well-defined–something that’s not always true in Zombies. As you clear objectives, you advance through waves of enemies, which become more and more difficult, while also unlocking more parts of the hub area so you can access additional upgrades. Vanguard’s take on the mode is friendly to new players interested in checking out one of the weirdest and coolest additions to the franchise, and the clarity brought to how to work your way through Zombies and excel in it makes it a lot of fun, even if you’re not a die-hard.
The trouble is that, at launch, Zombies lacks that puzzle box feeling that made the mode so enduring to begin with. The story-centric « Easter egg hunt » that has defined Zombies will apparently come with the launch of the first Vanguard content season on December 2. Until then, however, Zombies feels a bit lacking compared to past games. It can be fun to see how long you can last as the waves get tougher and tougher, but there’s nothing in the way of an overarching goal at the moment. That lacking element makes Zombies feel more like a passing distraction before you hop back into PvP or wrap up the campaign.
And that’s sort of the overarching issue with Vanguard; things often don’t feel like they quite synergize. The adjustments to Zombies make it more approachable, but the mode currently lacks the elements that make it worth diving into over and over. The campaign’s focus on characters gives the story some impact, but its attempts to portray the feeling of playing as several different specialists often fall flat. Competitive multiplayer brings some adjustments to the overall formula that make the game feel more dynamic, but they’re all mostly small steps forward.
The thing about Call of Duty games is that, with each yearly iteration, you pretty much know what you’re getting–and that’s largely the case here. It’s both a blessing and a curse for Vanguard, however. Elements of Vanguard feel like good additions to the franchise, but its ideas also don’t always mix well with the series’ framework. That framework is still strong, and the solid gunplay, exciting multiplayer, and inventive moments of the campaign are worth seeking out. But forcing those two parts together exposes the seams in Call of Duty: Vanguard at times, weakening both parts of the game rather than pushing either one to the forefront.