Call of Duty Vanguard Review: A Decent Entry in the Series, But Far from its Best

So close to being truly great, yet quite far.

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COD Vanguard

Call of Duty, as a franchise, is one that has seemingly always found a way to end up on top of the yearly sales charts despite being the target of much ridicule and hate. The game, even before launch, had its work cut out for itself as Call of Duty Vanguard’s open beta opened the floodgates for hackers and cheaters, and Activision‘s much-touted anti-cheat system, Ricochet, failed to keep the hackers at bay. So it’s pretty safe to say Vanguard’s path to success was going to be an uphill battle, but now that the game is here, does it do enough to dispel the air of anti-trust around the game’s multiplayer and provide the blockbuster AAA experience COD has been known for?

In many ways, Call of Duty Vanguard represents the best aspects of the franchise and provides the answers as to why COD has been so unbelievably successful for all these years. The presentation and effortlessly earnest charm of the campaign does enough to disarm any critics and non-believers right out of the game and the multiplayer throws enough chaos towards the player to keep them busy for hours on end – and the final blow is provided by the surprisingly fun Zombies mode that remains a highlight for these games. This tried-and-tested formula is one Activision and the studios responsible for the games are well aware of, but at some point, the chaos, the presentation, and the carless fun of each individuality wears off, and the player is left with an unfortunately disposable entry in the series.

Call of Duty Vanguard – A decent but ultimately forgettable entry in the series

Campaign

Call of Duty Vanguard

One of the many things players and critics often get wrong about Call of Duty is the fact that each individual entry has the capacity to be someone’s first COD experience. To that end, this is the first and only time I’ll ever make this comparison – a new iPhone and a new COD have a lot in common. The changes made to the new device, or game in this case, are only incremental developments from the past release – as opposed to each new entry being a generational leap that blows the previous release out of the water.

In the comparison with the rest of the series, Vanguard’s campaign doesn’t have a “No Russian” moment or the Clancy-levels of cold-war paranoia of Black Ops, or the moral greys that Modern Warfare (2019) explored. What it has is a sort of a refreshing story in the WWII era, one that is more personal, and because of that, a lot more effective, purely in terms of storytelling. The campaign kicks things off rather well with an explosive opening that has a rather genuinely surprising conclusion, but it fails to keep up the tension and personal stakes of the opening throughout the story. Mostly the story pulls its punches in key, pivotal moments and there is a severe lack of the campaign bringing anything new to the table, both in terms of mechanics and perspective.

COD Vanguard

The game tries very hard to sell the big bad Nazi as Call of Duty’s version of Cristoph Waltz’s Hans Landa from Inglorious Basterds, but that clearly doesn’t work out. While being a decent and fun campaign, Vanguard’s single-player experience isn’t one that will be talked about 3 months down the line, which is a shame, since it does have its moment of genuine brilliance – but ever really follows through with its best ideas. I’ve always maintained that there hasn’t been a single conventionally “bad” campaign in COD’s history, only “good” to “great” ones, and those that are “forgettable”. Vanguard is sadly very close to being “good”, but ultimately falls more line with COD: Ghosts and Black Ops III  in the “forgettable” pile.

Multiplayer – Call of Duty Vanguard

COD Vanguard

There’s very little that Call of Duty can do at this point to genuinely “surprise” fans of the series as the COD formula leaves very little space for exploration and experimentation. If one were to increase the map size to allow for more kinds of play-styles and approaches, they’d end up with a game that resembles EA’s Battlefield or some other game that is not COD – if one were to not change anything radical, and simply polish and refine key aspects – the changes would be far less dramatic, but ultimately, it will remain the COD people fell in love with nearly 2 decades ago.

While the Campaign has the freedom to genuinely subvert expectations and surprise audiences, the Multiplayer, sadly, doesn’t have that luxury. Call of Duty Vanguard’s multiplayer is exactly what fans think it will be like – except for this new, neat, little toy that Vanguard has in its pocket, Combat Pacing. Essentially, Combat Pacing allows players to add additional filters that determine the kind of matches players are looking for. There are 3 distinct preferences – Assault, Tactical, and Blitz. As the names might suggest, each filter offers a different kind of experience, and therefore, players will have a much higher of degree of control over the kind of matches they end up in.

Call of Duty Vanguard
Combat Pacing is a welcome addition.

What it really does is that it will limit the number of players in a match, allowing for those that want to simply get in and blow stuff up can opt for Blitz, while those that enjoy a more methodical can experience can opt for Tactical – and those that like balance can try Assault. This is a neat addition to the series and something that might eventually be iterated on to become even better in future release.

Apart from Combat Pacing, Multiplayer remains pretty much untouched from Black Ops Cold War, but that isn’t a slight – because why fix what’s not broken? The maps are fairly decent, with a couple of great ones that really stood out such as Das Haus and Tuscan. Another thing of note is that the multiplayer is a lot quicker and frantic that Sledgehammer’s previous title – Call of Duty WWII. Despite the aged weaponry, the combat comes hard and fast, and feels more in line with modern COD games than the games of the past.

Zombies – Killing Nazi zombies remains endlessly fun

Call of Duty Zombies

For the past few years, I have remained sort of on the outside of the whole Call of Duty Zombies excitement and have only managed a few quick glances through the looking glass. Ever since their introduction in Treyarch’s World at War, the Call of Duty Zombies have been embraced with open arms by the community – to the point where they are now one of the biggest reasons why the game sell as well as they do.

Over the years, the Zombies mode has grown increasingly ambitious, to the point where it has an insane amount of lore and backstory, as well as brilliant story campaigns that do a great job at being more than just a distraction. Zombies remain endlessly fun in Vanguard as well, and it’s only going to get better post-launch. WWII shooters and Nazi zombies is a match made in heaven, and Treyarch, being the pioneers of the pairing, know exactly how to deliver a solid experience each time around.

Final Score – Call of Duty Vanguard

Call of Duty Vanguard

The “don’t fix what’s broken” approach to Call of Duty is here to stay, and it’s impossible to wrestle the stench of mild complacency away from the series, but ever so often, the franchise puts out a truly remarkable title that stands independently on its own two feet as a truly brilliant game – which Vanguard is not. It is, however, a fun AAA experience that despite the odd texture pop-in remains visually astounding and a masterful technical experience.

The multiplayer adds Combat Pacing, which arguably, does the most amount of leg-work in terms of changing things up, and remains the highlight of the show. Zombies is an effortlessly fun mode that’s only going to get better post-launch, and is arguably the best way to experience Vanguard. The game manages to hit a number of high notes, especially in the campaign, as the story brings the scale down to individual characters, which makes for more effective campaign. However, Vanguard’s choice to colour within the lines and not take any risks is what keeps it from being considered amongst the best games in the series.

Final Score – 7/10

 

 

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I possess the dexterity of a toddler when it comes to fighting games, but the confidence of a hundred Jay-Z's. Absolutely love narrative-driven games - with a particular obsession with indie side scrollers and retrowave scores. Currently playing: Disco Elysium for probably 5th time in the last 6 months.