Another year, another entry to the Call of Duty franchise. Since 2005, an annual game has been added to the series, taking gamers on blockbuster adventures spanning across the gritty battlefields of World War II to imagined futuristic warfare. Despite these vastly different settings, each Call of Duty is praised for and guilty of one thing: familiarity.
This is no different with Sledgehammer Games’ latest entry to the series, Call of Duty: Vanguard. From the action-packed campaign and viciously fast-paced multiplayer to the weird yet wonderful addition of Zombies, Vanguard has Call of Duty written all over it. If you’ve come for engaging first-person shooter action with satisfying gameplay and striking visuals, you don’t need this review to tell you ]what’s in store in Vanguard. So, how does Call of Duty’s latest WWII entry stand out from the pack?
A quick trip to McDonald’s will help answer this. Whether you go for the Big Mac or Bacon Double Cheeseburger, Mickey D’s will always deliver its signature taste — one just has more bacon than bun. The same can be said about Call of Duty, and Vanguard just has more “World War II” than “Modern Warfare.” With a lackluster single-player campaign and a generic Zombies mode, it’s a shame Vanguard isn’t the standout WWII title the franchise has sorely been missing. Is Vanguard still worth sinking a considerable amount of hours into? Let’s find out.
Campaign: Glimpses of glory
Ever since learning about the numbers Mason has to deal in Black Ops, I’ve been a fan of Call of Duty’s campaigns and the unique missions that make them memorable. Vanguard sets up an engaging story that has all the makings of being a campaign to remember, but only offers moments of spectacle in a series of abrupt or sluggish flashbacks.
The rain hitting down on a Nazi-occupied train with a burning Hamburg in the background is an enticing opening scene, as players are quickly introduced to the band of merry bandits, a.k.a. Task Force One, and each of their somewhat stereotypical action movie personalities. There’s gung ho pilot Wade Jackson, snarky explosive expert Lucas Riggs, vengeful sniper Polina Petrova, and aspiring leader Arthur Kingsley — a bit too on the nose with that last one, Sledgehammer.
As you might expect, there’s plenty of bombastic cinematic action, with players using tanks on trains to take out nearby turrets with someone saying a witty one-liner as a form of kudos. Further along, we meet Hermann Freisinger, a racist, mocking and bratty nazi who is the perfect villain to set up the rest story. From here, the campaign shifts gear for the worse, leaving us with origin stories rather than progressing from the opening scene.
While Vanguard’s campaign feels scattered, it still has its shining moments. During Kingsley’s mission in Merville, France, the graphics and scenery were top-notch. From the burning planes casually combusting in midair to the grenades booming in the background causing frightening blinks of explosive light, Vanguard knows how to create a tense WWII setting. Kingsley’s mission to take down anti-air artillery is thrilling, especially as he makes his way through the blacked-out trenches. but it’s cut too short, much like the rest of the missions. I’m made wanting to continue these scenic missions, but it’s all too abrupt. Characters like Kingsley and Patrova have exciting backgrounds, but they're quickly forgotten about in the grand scheme of the story.
Call of Duty games tend to add unique sections in their campaigns that aren’t found anywhere else. Sometimes these are done brilliantly, like in Infinite Warfare’s exciting zero gravity gameplay, but in most cases, they feel out of place, like with Wade’s Midway plane mission in the Pacific. Controls are stiff and it’s a bore to slog through, and that quickly becomes apparent once Wade takes off. Vehicular combat has never been a point in Call of Duty, so I’m always left confused why fighter pilot sequences are added. Wade isn’t the most interesting character of the bunch either, yet players are seemingly put in his shoes more than the other characters. What’s worse, his stealth mission was more of a walking simulator than anything else, and I didn’t find the random “focus” ability particularly useful or interesting.
Early on in the campaign, Riggs asks a fitting question: “We’re not even from the same continents, why are we tasked with this mission?” He’s right, it doesn’t make sense that this small group of select individuals would be pulled from their globally divided divisions and forced to work together. In fact, the majority of time they are untrustworthy of one another. Besides Petrova, who is known as “Lady Nightingale” due to her skill with a sniper rifle, there isn’t a good enough reason why these characters are considered the best people to steal secret Third Reich plans known as Project Phoenix. As each flashback shows, this ragtag group is filled with lucky survivors, not the finest of the crop.
That said, Vanguard’s campaign is still enjoyable to play through, even though it isn’t as deep as previous campaigns. While a linear storyline focusing on one character would have been far more enticing, along with a longer runtime (takes around five hours to complete), the campaign impresses.
Multiplayer: Fast food fun
The last time Call of Duty delved back into World War IIwas a largely forgettable experience. That isn’t the case with Vanguard. From how the weapons look and sound to the various environments, each of the game’s 20 maps, Vanguard is easily a more memorable World War II shooter than its predecessor. If you’re a fan of 2019’s Modern Warfare and Black Op Cold War, expect the same fast-paced multiplayer madness with a WWII skin.
Bringing the graphics engine from Modern Warfare (2019) offers an upgrade in immersion, from the shining night lights of the surrounding city in Hotel Royal to blowing up doors or walls into smithereens thanks to the destructible environments. I mainly used the M1928 Tommy gun throughout my playtime, and I adored the sound, look and feel. Even the hard clanging noise of reloading a clip sounded authentic, and that’s just a minor feature in multiplayer.
Quick Play is the go-to option to get your multiplayer fix. I got into matches in a snap, only waiting a few minutes before being thrown into a randomly selected map. I’m a fan of the filter system that allows players to pick and choose what pacing they want to see more of and which game modes they prefer to play, but it also means getting a taste of maps and game modes that just don’t mix. For example, playing Patrol in Du Haus with Assault pacing is atrocious, as the tight setting turned the game into more of a boring bloodbath.
Still, playing modes such as Domination with Tactical pacing can be extremely thrilling, while Team Deathmatch with Blitz pacing on a map like Red Star is tremendous fun. In this scenario, you’ll find snipers on the higher ground picking off troops as they sprint across the snowy landscape to blast their way through enemy territories. All the 20 maps currently available are rich in detail and have been well thought out to appease all play styles (though some more than others). I enjoyed playing on each map, wanting to familiarise myself with each layout, but it made me realize that it may have been better to have a select group of maps dedicated for certain game modes rather than having them mix and match.
This leads me to Champion Hill, another great addition to multiplayer. Like the Gulags in Warzone, players are pitted against another group of duos or trios in various camps and must eliminate the enemy without losing all their respawns in a tournament-style series of deathmatches. Players also get the chance to buy upgrades and equipment between rounds with cash they collect from winning, offering further strategy when heading into the final rounds. It’s thrilling to be on your last leg in the final rounds of the mode, not knowing how the opposition will engage and yet somehow flawlessly annihilate them.
The Gunsmith customizations is a high point in multiplayer, with more than enough weapons to tinker and toil with. From changing the muzzle off the tip of an assault rifle to switching to a leather grip on an SMG, there are many attachments that not only change the look of a firearm, but also transform its capabilities. Seeing the different effects of how the barrel of a weapon can deal far more damage to an enemy but completely throw the recoil is captivating, and there’s a touch of strategy in balancing out each stat (Firepower, Speed, Accuracy and Ammo) to create the perfect gun for your play style.
From unlocking a selection of gun attachments and perks after each round to scoring a massive killstreak that gets the adrenaline pumping, it’s easy to get hooked on Vanguard’s multiplayer. It’s easily the mode many players, including myself, will stick with months after the launch of Vanguard, especially if the developers continue to make new maps and modes.
Zombies: Run of the mill
Zombies mode has been a mainstay in virtually every Call of Duty game since Call of Duty: World at War. Bringing Ron Pearlman, Heather Graham, Jeff Goldblum and Neal McDonough together in Black Ops 3 was a series high, especially with its difficulty, power-ups and plentiful secrets. When Vanguard announced it would be bringing a “franchise-first” Dark Aether storyline with developers Treyarch at the helm, I was eager to see the final product. So far, the “Der Anfang” quest is little more than just a bland mix of repetitive objective-based missions and bullet-spongy minions.
Gamers can expect the same wave-based onslaught of zombies across a massive map, but this time, the main location is more of a simplified hub zone used to upgrade weapons with pack-a-punch, buy armor and equipment, boost your stats by drinking from cult-like shrines and picking up random weapons. From here, players can enter portals to travel to various maps in order to complete mystical objectives, which comes down to timed survival, an escort mission, and powering an obelisk by collecting artifacts dropped by zombies. Once you complete an objective, you return back to the main hub, upgrade and head back through another portal. Rinse and repeat.
Players also start out with one of four special abilities, which include an energy mine, invisibility, a damage enhancer for the party, and a frost vortex that damages and slows enemies down. It took me a while to figure out how to use it, but once I did, I didn’t feel as if I needed it in order to survive. Still, I won’t say no to anything to give me the upper hand in Zombies. Another interesting addition to this Zombies is Covenants, where players get an assortment of buffs to use by trading in a sacrificial heart they get once they complete an objective. These buffs can be extremely useful, as they can passively freeze enemies, boost your damage if you stand still, and so on. These work hand-in-hand with the special abilities, with the freeze ability getting me out of a bind more than once.
The survival-based objective is akin to classic Zombies, but once you survive the allotted time, you’re safe. The other two objectives get repetitive fairly fast, as there isn’t any sense of emergency when fending off zombies to complete these tasks.
While I was expecting there to be a learning curve on surviving the onslaught of zombies, I managed to survive 20 rounds on my first try. After completing four objectives, players can decide to keep on going or initiate the final mission, kill a whole bunch of zombies and get out of there. It all finishes on an anti-climatic note — there are currently no easter eggs or a complete story to the hyped Dark Aether storyline. The main quest is expected to arrive at a later date, so I hope Treyarch adds a deeper system, more objectives and a few more mysteries soon. Right now, Zombies feels more like simple DLC rather than the full-blown game mode Call of Duty players have come to expect.
Call of Duty: Vanguard PC performance
I received a copy of Call of Duty: Vanguard for PC, and was blown away by its graphics and performance. Of course, an RTX 3080 GPU, AMD Ryzen 9 5900HX CPU and 32GB of RAM on the Asus ROG Strix Scar 17 is the real reason I didn’t encounter a drop in performance and was able to crank up settings to Ultra. Plus, a 360Hz refresh rate means performance mode during multiplayer is super smooth.
The good news is you don’t need these specs to play Vanguard, as there are four tiers of requirements: minimum, recommended, competitive and ultra 4K. The minimum requirements for Vanguard are an Intel Core i3-4340 or AMD FX-6300 CPU, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 960 or AMD Radeon RX 470 GPU, at least 8GB of RAM and 2GB of video memory.
As for the recommended requirements, this includes an Intel Core i5-2500K or AMD Ryzen 5 1600X CPU, Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 or AMD Radeon RX 580 GPU, 12GB of Ram and 4GB of video memory. Interestingly, these PC requirements are lower when compared to Battlefield 2042's minimum and recommended specs.
For those looking for peak performance during competitive gameplay, the competitive PC requirements include an Intel Core i7-8700K or AMD Ryzen 7 1800X CPU, Nvidia GeForce RTX 2070/RTX 3060 Ti or AMD Radeon RX 5700XT GPU, 16GB of RAM and 8GB of video memory.
Finally, to crank up those graphics settings to max, the 4K Ultra requirements include an Intel Core i9-9900K or AMD Ryzen 9 3900X CPU, Nvidia GeForce RTX 3080 or AMD Radeon RX 6800 XT GPU, 16GB of RAM and 10GB of video memory.
Call of Duty: Vanguard excels at being, well, Call of Duty, for better and for worse. Set in a spectacular World War II setting and offering minor yet significant tweaks to gameplay to make firing off a bullet in the chamber feel that much smoother, the game inherently feels like many other Call of Duty titles we’ve seen over the past few years. Sure, don’t fix it if the formula ain’t broke, but that also means Vanguard can easily fly under the radar as being another generic Call of Duty entry.
While not a standout in the series, especially due to a campaign that falls just short of flat and an underwhelming Zombies mode, anyone who picks up Vanguard will get a kick out of its addictive multiplayer, satisfying gameplay mechanics and ease of access. Once Zombies gets the proper Dark Aether storyline players deserve for a full-priced game, along with the additional features sure to come thanks to the Battle Pass, Vanguard will start appealing to more first-person shooter fans instead of being known as a WWII reskin. For more of the best PC games to check out right now, we’ve got you covered.