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Call of Duty: Vanguard Review

Call of Duty: Vanguard is another solid entry in the popular franchise, but far from an excellent one.

Call of Duty is in a strange position at the moment. Obviously, the series is still wildly successful, with each new entry seemingly becoming the best-selling title of that year. However, with the absurd popularity of Warzone, it feels like the need for an annual entry is slowly diminishing. The franchise could probably move to an “every other year” schedule and still make money hand over fist. But that’s clearly not the case with Activision, so the machine continues to roll on. For this year’s entry, we are heading back to World War II with Call of Duty: Vanguard.

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Building off the IW 8.0 Engine that powered 2019’s Modern Warfare, Vanguard immediately feels better than the last entry, Black Ops Cold War. Features such as mounting weapons and tactical sprints make their return, and environmental destruction has been upped even more. I can understand the frustration with some of these additions, as they can lead to some unfortunate multiplayer strategies. However, as an old man with poor reflexes, I need every advantage possible in order to survive on the battlefield. If I have to post up somewhere and blast through a flimsy wall to take someone out, I’m going to take advantage of that.

Multiplayer is always the big draw of Call of Duty, and with the latest Warzone map still a ways off, the regular suite of options will need to do for now. Vanguard features a whopping 20 maps at the time of writing, with 16 of them available for just about every mode. The remaining four are exclusive to the new Champion Hill mode. Speaking of modes, a new multiplayer option comes in the form of Patrol; a variation of the classic Hardpoint. The classics such as Team Deathmatch, Domination, and Kill Confirmed are obviously still here as well. Looking at it from just a consumer standpoint, this is one of the more stacked multiplayer offerings in recent memory.

As mentioned, my reflexes aren’t what they used to be. This is very much an issue with Call of Duty, which is, of course, a very fast-paced shooter. Unfortunately for me, then, it feels like these maps are smaller in scope than past ones. I wish I wasn’t so terrible trying to fight my way through these locales, as I think the actual designs of them are pretty solid. Maps such as Gavutu and Decoy take full advantage of the game’s engine both in visual design and destructibility. Considering my dislike of close-quarters combat, I’m also not too fond of Champion Hill. Whether in solos, duos, or trios, I just haven’t been able to acclimate myself to the pace it takes to succeed here. I’ll continue to hone my craft in the assorted multiplayer modes available, though, and perhaps my mind will shift on these issues in the future. If you’re a fan of tighter, more intimate combat, though, you’ll probably get a kick out of them.

Arguably, though, the best multiplayer addition of Vanguard doesn’t even directly concern the gameplay. New for this year’s release is Combat Pacing. This is a new option afforded to players so that they can filter matchmaking based on what they are looking for. Three different options are currently available: Tactical (6v6), Assualt (10v10 or 12v12), and Blitz (24v24). All 16 core maps are included in each of these options, so you don’t need to worry about certain ones being excluded. I’m a big fan of this feature, even if it seems rather minor. If I’m taking time out of my day to hop on for a few rounds, I want to make sure I get what I want. Combat Pacing gives me that option while making sure that I avoid the things I don’t feel like doing. It’s a smart addition for the franchise, and one that I hope gets carried into future entries.

The third pillar of the multiplayer experience, Zombies, is alive and well in Vanguard. As someone who has never really gelled with the mode, I’m not going to pretend that I have any idea of what is going on plot-wise. Based on what I have seen online, this apparently builds off of the story found in Black Ops Cold War. There are demons and Nazi scientists and portals to different dimensions. It’s a lot to deal with, and I wasn’t really up for feigning interest in whatever is going on here. What mattered more to me was whether or not the mode could buck the trend for me and actually become enjoyable.

As of the moment, I can say that the mode is fine if lacking in some aspects. At the start of each game, you’ll be transported to a hub world known as Fountain Square. You are free to explore this area, and as you progress through the mode, it’ll become more fleshed out with unlockable areas and powerups. This is also where you’ll upgrade weapons, access mystery crates, and check out the Altar of Covenants. Visiting the Altar will allow you to equip unique abilities that offer a wide variety of stat boosts. Once you are set for a run, you can choose one of three portals to venture into. These portals lead to missions with one of three specific mission types. Blitz is the traditional survival challenge, Transmit tasks you with escorting a zombie head as it seeks out a certain artifact, and Harvest has you collecting runestones from fallen zombies in order to feed to an obelisk.

My issue is that with only three mode types currently available, Zombies tends to get boring rather quickly. All of the crazy weaponry and horrific settings can’t make up for the fact that there just isn’t a ton of variety. With the gunplay being as solid as it is in Vanguard, though, there are worse ways to spend some time with your friends. The addition of the Covenant upgrades gives the mode a more rogue-like flavor than it had in the past. Treyarch is planning on introducing a bigger quest next month, and while I don’t care about the overarching story, I hope they continue to expand upon the customization options. More power-ups, weapons, and mode variety would go a long way towards making this a more palatable experience.

Finally, there’s the traditional Call of Duty campaign mode. Kudos to Activision and the rotating team of developers for continuing to churn out stories despite the franchise mostly being known for its many multiplayer options. For Vanguard, we are introduced to one of the first Special Forces teams in history. Led by British paratrooper Sergeant Arthur Kingsley, this six-person squad includes soldiers from across the Allied forces. Members include Red Army medic Polina Petrova from the USSR, and Lieutenant Wade Jackson from the United States. The group is put together in order to locate Project Phoenix, a Nazi program that could swing the tide of war back to the Axis powers.

Admittedly, I’m torn on Vanguard‘s campaign. On the one hand, the actual missions are a blast. There are some incredible set pieces featured this year, and I was constantly engaged by the action. There are some issues with the game forcing you to follow a linear path, which can be a tad annoying. However, the writing is lackluster throughout. No one on the team, or the Germans hassling them, are fleshed out besides whether they are good or evil. That makes it tough to care about what happens to them when the shit does hit the fan. There are also some real clunkers of dialogue during a few of the chapters that sully the mood. Ultimately, I do think the action is strong enough to overcome the weak story, but there’s a more interesting campaign buried in here somewhere.

Call of Duty has always been a franchise to deliver on the visuals, and Vanguard is no different. From a technical perspective, this is one of the best-looking titles released for current-gen consoles yet. The cutscenes are stunning in their ability to render characters, and the in-game graphics are almost as good. Levels are brimming with details, and the destructibility possible through the IW 8.0 Engine gives them a whole new layer of depth. That being said, the graphical horsepower on display may have come with a small catch. Although not present in multiplayer, I did get hit with noticeable slowdown during the single-player campaign. This was most apparent during the opening mission and the first mission centered around Polina Petrova. I’ve been playing on the Xbox Series X as well, so I was not expecting this to be an issue.

Call of Duty: Vanguard is about what I expected coming into the sequel — a solid if unspectacular sequel that doesn’t try to rock the boat. The new additions to the multiplayer options don’t all land, but some, such as Combat Pacing, absolutely need to be brought into future entries. Zombies does turn somewhat of a corner but could use some additional fleshing out in future updates. And the campaign delivers some excellent set-pieces but struggles to tell an interesting story. As much as I wish that Activision would just let this entry marinate for the next year, the relentless march of the series will no doubt continue in 2022. I just hope that the lessons learned here will be used to deliver a sequel that’s a little more consistent in terms of quality.

This review was based on the Xbox Series X version of the game. A copy was provided to us by Activision.

Call of Duty: Vanguard
Call of Duty: Vanguard is another solid entry in the popular franchise, but far from an excellent one. The campaign struggles in the story department, but a good base of multiplayer options and a fun, if under developed, Zombies mode help save the day.

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