Call of Duty: Vanguard game review

It’s dark. It’s moody, and it’s about to go off. Yeah baby, it’s Call of Duty 2022 time and we are wading into the latest instalment’s Campaign mode for starters. Call of Duty: Vanguard has us back in World War 2 — albeit a slightly altered version of it (artistic license I think they call it) with a new team of operators, all based on legit characters from the era coming together to form the world’s first-ever Special Forces type-unit.

So it begins. We jump onto a moving train at night, with the first sections serving as the now obligatory training. Press Space to jump, C to crouch, F to pay respects, and so on. If this is new to you then what lies ahead over the next few hours could blow your mind. In reality, though, most of us know how to jump so we go through the motions, muscle memory honed over a decade or so taking over as we clamber onto the perfect-sized obstructions to teach us how to leap over obstacles in our path.

Even at this early point, it is worth mentioning, that this night time train assault in Vanguard looks incredible. It oozes that action movie atmosphere as you move along the carriages. It’s only missing an Arnie or a Stallone or even a Lee Marvin (look him up kids). There aren’t any surprises. If there’s an open window ahead, it’s obviously going to have a German soldier pop up in the very near future. Oh, there he is. You see, as extravagant as it looks and as atmospheric as it is… this is still a training mission. Training new players but making old mouse hands go through the motions.

Then my phone goes, so I take the call. I don’t pause the action. I just stay crouched. This is a CoD campaign — where blasts of visceral war action are only triggered by the forward motion of your character, so even in the heat of a WW2 firefight, I’m safe to return to my real life and speak to the guy who’s coming over to work on my roof.

You could literally stand there for an hour while the train rumbles forward relentlessly, never reaching its destination, and nothing would happen. Only when you cross the invisible line that only the game knows about does it all kick off again. Like when a jewel thief lowers himself from the ceiling above the diamond, only to break a laser beam and set off the sirens, Pink Panther style.

Hello, old friend

This all sounds negative, but it’s not wholly that. This is Call of Duty. It’s like an old friend has returned and come round for dinner. Even though you haven’t seen them for 12 months, you know the next few hours are going to be a blast that leaves you wanting to do it again next November.

Vanguard is a victim of the last 14 years of Call of Duty success. No new deep ideas allowed. We hate the new album from our favorite band if it deviates too much from the last one. We love FIFA 22 and hate eFootball. It’s popular. Players like it. There is going to be zero deviation from the median line by any publisher while that is the case. Call of Duty: Vanguard works best when you rush into the action without stopping to think … or take phone calls. It’s pulp fiction. That’s not me being unkind.

There was a bit where I noticed that there had been a truck driving alongside the train for what seemed like an eternity, without doing anything, since I had shot the German in the back of it. I take aim at the driver’s window and fire off a volley. The truck careers sideways, flips, and sails over my head, like something from the A-Team show from back in the 80s. Ah, realization dawns. It was waiting for me to do that.

“He sure doesn’t like those trucks!” growls one of my compadres, overstating my actions a little.

It’s an action-packed six or so hours for sure. Each of the missions can be completed in around 45 minutes if you play them properly and don’t speedrun them.

There is at least some variation in what you get to do, with one of the levels seeing you take to the skies in the Battle of Midway to dogfight against the Japanese. Early complaints about this level were based on the fact it’s very much on rails, like a first-person historical Starfox level. That is not really any different to the rest of the campaign mode, just… in the vast expanse of the open sky, it’s really much more noticeable that you can only go where you are told to go.

It’s still thrilling to see, however, and it is natural to wish it was so much more than just a taste. But this is not Battlefield-style carnage. You are merely the actor in The Truman Show style scripted levels that take place between dialogue-heavy but admittedly really well-done cinematic cutscenes that do tell a decent story — that admittedly feels like set up for more interesting sequels. If you are cool with that, there is an immense amount of fun to blast through here. It’s Call of Duty by numbers, which it turns out is well, it’s okay.

Multiplayer changes

Beyond Campaign mode is Vanguard’s meat and potatoes though and the reason the majority probably couldn’t care less how short or linear the single-player game is. Many will never even boot that bit up, choosing instead to power directly into multiplayer and even Zombies to get their money’s worth.

There were people in the WePC office who couldn’t wait to get online and stream multiplayer through the launch night and they were not alone in the world. The excitement around new multiplayer maps, weapons, and camos was palpable, so tightly honed these days is Call of Duty as the definitive war shooter, albeit this time with slightly more ancient weaponry.

While fundamentally the same tactics can be employed, there are some changes that upset the standard apple cart. Cold War’s Scorestreaks are gone and Killstreaks are back. Good news for snipers and the like, but less so for those who like defending, who see very little in the way of reward. I guess the incentive here is to get everybody fighting, but it would be nice to understand the thinking behind the change.

Looks-wise, Vanguard certainly doesn’t look as drab as Cold War did. There was a purpose in the coloration of that game that really helped set the atmosphere, but here the developers are a bit less restrictive with the old palette and the game shines because of that. It’s also definitely worth pointing out that the released version of the game feels monumentally better than both the Alpha and Beta versions we got to play. Difficult to say why, but it just flows more cohesively.

Weapons-wise, Sledgehammer has gone all-in with bullet spray (or bloom) which gives the game a more realistic feel and should reduce players knocking off insane shots from far away with guns that aren’t supposed to behave like that. Basically, certain weapons even fired at the same spot down the site will have a degree of spray that means they will stray from the exact target spot. If you are within range of the weapon’s specs, you shouldn’t notice it, but try and unload an SMG from a distance away and it’s possible you could completely miss your target, which in CoD is very bad news. The two schools of thought here are that it is bad for great players and great for bad players.

Players may argue that the best are penalized by the RNG Gods here and that evens things up. I don’t mind that though, as I am not one of the elite. There are people here who are and will dive deeper into the multiplayer version of the game and see how it matures over the coming weeks. We will let you know how that pans out.

For me though, it works and is a lot of fun. That’s kind of what it’s all about for me personally, when I play a game these days. Do I enjoy it? Does it justify me taking a chunk of my free time to play? Ultimately Vanguard ticks this box for me. Is it the best Call of Duty ever? No, it’s not. Does it include those iconic CoD moments that live in the memory years after finishing the levels? Is there a ‘Death from Above’ or ‘All Ghillied Up’ here? No, there is not. Does it scratch the annual itch? Yes, I think it just about does. Mine, at least.

Dead men walking

With Zombies, it’s disappointing to say that I haven’t saved the best bit until last. We seem to have very quickly reached the point where the world expects a Zombies mode (remember when it was a Black Ops exclusive mode?) and we get given one, even if it turns out to be a weak point of the overall package.

There is remarkably little positive I have to say about Zombies. It just seems a bit basic and, dare I say it, unfinished. There to tick a box. None of the flamboyant extravagance of games gone by seems to be present. No bosses, no secrets, no side quests, just wave after wave of attacks that go stale quicker than even I imagined they could. Don’t get me started on the voiceovers, which lived with me long into the night in my head, repeating the same stock phrases long after I had shut down the PC. 

It’s not what Zombies has and does wrong that is the biggest issue. It’s what’s missing. There’s a mention of some things (like a lack of fresh voice lines) above, but the lack of ability to pause when playing solo? What’s that about? As wave after wave come after me, here I really am, screwed if my roofer rings me back. The developers have said the ability to pause will be added to solo mode in a forthcoming patch. Are we supposed to be grateful for the late arrival of such basic functionality?

I would much rather Treyarch (not Sledgehammer as they didn’t do the Zombies mode in their own game, don’t get me started) had just held out and said, “Nope. Zombies is coming later. Hang on in there.” They didn’t, and it is a mistake that has seen a fair portion of the community turn on the game.

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