The Call of Duty series presents an interesting paradox. To an outside observer, the franchise seems merely to tick along, with no particular instalment excelling or causing too much ire. On the other hand, the fanbase is very vocal and very opinionated (as, perhaps, one should expect from any fanbase), with each subsequent Call of Duty game deemed either to have saved the franchise or to have damned it for all eternity. Into which category, then, falls Call of Duty: Vanguard?
Sledgehammer Games began work on the Call of Duty franchise in earnest with Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, its first title developed without the collaboration of any other studio. Since then, Call of Duty has been on a three-year development cycle, with Vanguard representing the latest effort from Sledgehammer after 2020’s Black Ops Cold War was developed by Treyarch. Vanguard returns Call of Duty to World War II, a setting many would say is where the franchise has enjoyed its greatest successes.
After Black Ops 4’s flirtation with not including a single-player campaign, it seems Call of Duty has returned to accommodating those who want to play solo. Call of Duty: Vanguard has a fully-fledged single-player story mode that follows four operatives across four disparate fronts in the War. You’ll experience several major World War II battles, some of which are legendary (the Battle of Stalingrad) and some of which are more obscure (the Battle of El Alamein, for instance).
Despite admirable attempts to maintain balance and present these four stories as a comprehensive account of the Allied World War II experience, Call of Duty: Vanguard’s campaign comes across as mostly forgettable. There are a handful of highlight moments; British soldier Arthur Kingsley (yes, that’s his real name) is Black, and his experiences as a POC in World War II don’t get glossed over. Similarly, there’s a sniper based on the Russian “Lady Death” Lyudmila Pavlichenko, and her story is just as compelling as the men around her, suggesting that Sledgehammer and Activision are trying to grow up a little with their storytelling.
Unfortunately, that sense of maturity is undermined by Call of Duty: Vanguard’s insistence on nought but the most rote, arbitrarily-implemented gameplay for its campaign. It sounds churlish to criticise a first-person shooter for this, but there’s almost nothing to do in Vanguard’s campaign besides point at things and shoot them. Sometimes, the gameplay will vary a little; you’ll be asked to take part in a sniper duel, for instance, or pilot a vehicle, but this always translates to doing exactly what Vanguard wants you to do, with very little agency for you to experiment.
Of course, that’s not going to matter to most players, because the campaign in Call of Duty games is rarely more than a warm-up for the multiplayer for a lot of people. Happily, this aspect of Vanguard fares a lot better. The game looks gorgeous and runs like butter on the PS5; it’s able to maintain a silky 60fps across even the most demanding and busy action sequences, which is helpful when things get tense and multiplayer skirmishes become battles to the death.
Effort has been made on Sledgehammer’s part to bring Call of Duty: Vanguard more in line with the unified brands of Modern Warfare and Warzone, and it shows. The gun feel has been vastly improved since Call of Duty: WWII, and every weapon has its own sense of pop and vigour. There’s still a problem with the sound effects; a lot of weapons sound weak and weedy and lack the punch they feel like they should have. For the most part, though, the shooting in Call of Duty: Vanguard is exactly what you’ve come to expect from Call of Duty; well-executed and satisfying.
There’s been a bit of a shake-up in multiplayer structure thanks to the Combat Pacing feature, which allows you to dictate how many players you’re up against in any given match. Games range from tense 6v6 skirmishes all the way through to Shipment-style mass-scale blitz engagements, and Combat Pacing gives you much greater control over which one you’d like to indulge in at any given moment. It makes multiplayer Call of Duty feel natural, which is something that other instalments have struggled with.
Elsewhere, there are some new modes that should help shake up the formula a bit. The new Champion Hill mode is a natural evolution of Gunfight, in which teams must take each other down in rounds punctuated by the ability to buy new equipment and killstreak bonuses. Our personal favourite is Patrol, which sees players guarding a moving zone Overwatch-style from enemy attackers. There’s nothing revolutionary here, but Call of Duty: Vanguard puts in the work to make its multiplayer modes feel satisfying and interesting.
Zombies, too, has had something of an overhaul. You begin in a hub area, from which you can access portals leading to new objectives. Completing these objectives grants you access to more of the hub and allows you to expand your skillset. At launch, Zombies feels a little bare, with just three objectives to take on and a limited range of enemy types. That’s bound to expand, though, and what’s here is promisingly fresh, with each return to the hub area granting new areas to explore.
Of course, we need to address the elephant in the room here as well. No matter whether you want politics to be part of your games or not (hint: it always is), Activision Blizzard is currently embroiled in a series of lawsuits pertaining to its purportedly hideous work culture. This is serious business; a woman committed suicide as a result of internal workplace bullying at the company, and these issues aren’t going away just because Bobby Kotick mutters some platitudes to a journalist or two.
Whether or not you decide not to buy Call of Duty: Vanguard because of this is completely up to you, and there’s no right answer. Some are calling for boycotts; others (including some developers) say this harms more than it helps. It’s a decision you’ll need to think carefully about, though, because we can’t allow Activision Blizzard’s disgusting workplace culture to fade into obscurity just because a major new event game has arrived.
In the end, then, Call of Duty: Vanguard is exactly what we thought it would be: it’s another Call of Duty game. Like its predecessors, it doesn’t do anything interesting to push the formula along, which is a shame after the light experimentation of titles like Infinite Warfare or Black Ops Cold War. The multiplayer is great fun, Zombies has had a much-needed facelift, and the campaign is as rote and forgettable as ever. If you like Call of Duty, there’s nothing here to turn you off. If you don’t, there’s nothing here for you.