We are in a very interesting time for the FPS genre as for the first time in years, especially on consoles, we have all the big hitters releasing with CoD Vanguard and Battlefield 2042 both having releases just a week apart and then the return of HALO with Infinite in early December. The intriguing part is that each franchise is daring to do something different but also similar. In terms of CoD Vanguard, the series has headed back to where it began with a World War setting rather than Modern or Future warfare. The question is whether Vanguard can return CoD to its former glory which the other franchises are also trying to do. The answer is simply, not quite.
It really is that simple an answer as CoD Vanguard does exactly what you expect a CoD game to do and, in some ways, the “no need to fix what is not broken” has become the mantra almost for each release with only the popularity of Warzone, the free to play Battle Royale, changing the way in which releases of Call of Duty now interact together. I came to Vanguard hoping for something different as Battlefield took a short break to reinvent itself and HALO Infinite is back to try and reclaim the crown of FPS king, something it has not been able to really achieve since 343 Industries took over from Bungie. Call of Duty on the other hand has almost been unchallenged in recent years and therefore has not had a reason to try to do anything new outside of Warzone.
The campaign, which used to be a big part of a CoD release is very much scaled back in Vanguard but as always is my first mode to play. Disappointingly, the campaign only runs for 5hrs, it is very short and quite frankly a play once and forgettable experience despite the story being quite novel. In the early days of CoD, the WW setting would have players replaying big set pieces of historical moments of the wars, most commonly the D-Day landings on Normandy. Vanguard however focuses very much on the final days of WW2 and sees the formation of a “Special Forces” team, sent on a mission to capture documents on a Nazi war project known as Phoenix. Each member of the team has a unique skill and history but are brought together for the first time in the opening mission or prologue to the campaign.
As to be expected, the campaign relies on gameplay that leads to a big set piece whilst cutscenes tell the narrative of the story so cased by the opening which sees the team on board a train, working their way through taking down numerous Nazi soldiers to reach the depot where the documents are held, but it ends with the team’s capture that leads to the interrogation of each member. The result is that the player will then experience an almost origin story to explain why that character is part of this unique team up as the story of the end of WW2 unfolds. I really like this angle as we experience the end of the war from the viewpoint of the Nazi’s, even using the reaction to learning of the suicide of Hitler to see how the Nazi leadership deal with that and the impending loss to the allied forces.
Where the campaign does fall flat is in the imbalance of the tone of the story at times which can range from very personal stories of the characters and how they came to be a part of the war and this team to over-the-top set pieces that imply this six-person team could have single handedly wiped out the Nazi forces if conveniently placed ammo crates were stashed every 20 meters. The narrative does showcase the brutality of the Nazi regime, even looking at the racist element to it with some very straight to the point moments and even suggesting Hitler was inspired by Madison Grant and early American racism. It can be uncomfortable to see such themes used but then when it comes to Nazism, there really is no way to do it and not water it down to a degree and Vanguard at least tries to keep that part of the narrative on track. Though only around the five-hour mark, it was a satisfying ending to the story but as the very long credits rolled, nothing about it made me want to revisit or replay it and I am unlikely to return to the story campaign at all, but it was nice to know the story of some of the operators players will then get to use in the MP.
The MP of Vanguard truly is the break and butter of this game and will be the Multiplayer and this is where I have dropped a lot of hours in the last week since Vanguard released and I am happy to say I have really enjoyed my time with this so far despite some server issues. Across the 16 maps, the usual MP match types return with Team Deathmatch, Domination, Search and Destroy, Free for All, Kill Confirmed along with new mode Patrol. The variety that Vanguard brings to these modes is the ability to have a traditional smaller Team Vs Team experience or you can opt in for much larger big team battles of 24 Vs 24. In Cold War I used the filter to actually trim down the modes I wanted to play over the ones I did not enjoy but so far in this first week since release I have dived into any mode possible, including the Duo Team of Champions Hill, which sees teams of 2 taking on other teams to become the last team standing, which is a mode I was not very impressed with in the PS5 beta but now actually enjoying it a little more.
The Armory is also a nice touch, allowing players to truly customize their weapons and loadouts as you would in Warzone with the ability to build a weapon pretty much to your own gameplay taste with components that can boost aspects of the gun but also some that might have a negative impact to finetune it how you want. This also brings a big weapon grind and when the vast number of weapons available to be unlocked and then grinded through to unlock the various component types to customize it, you could really lose yourself in that grind, not to mention the natural grind for all the gun camos to unlock as well. This might be a factor that the hardcore CoD MP fan will relish but for me, I found I gravitated towards a gun in each class and worked on it to try and find the build I was happy with but can see it will take a very long time if there is a desire to have every gun in every class ready to go.
Gameplay is fast, with quick deaths and quick respawns to keep the kinetic energy high whilst playing. I am not a big fan of forced crossplay but so far on Xbox Series X I have not felt too disadvantaged against PC players with M&K and have really enjoyed going into big matches and doing quite well. The speed of the action can be thrilling but also frustrating as the quick respawns can be helpful and a hinderance and too many times the player or players I have just taken out will instantly respawn behind me to get their revenge. Many maps have pure camping spots and whilst I have no real issue with strategic “zone defending”, when I have opted to have full game chat audio on, the reaction to it from others can be funny and shocking. Some server issues have plagued the launch sadly, which is now common and especially in recent days the “Server Snapshot Error” problem has been a pain so hoping in the weeks and months to come these issues can be ironed out.
The most forgettable mode for me in Vanguard is easily the Zombies mode, which in previous games I have dabbled in but mostly ignored unless friends wanted to play it and here it is even more lackluster for me. To players who do enjoy the Zombies mode than this will probably be quite disappointing. Played on the map called The Beginning or Der Anfang, teams will travel through one of seven portals to complete an objective mission such as harvesting crystals, defending a moving relic or trying to survive an attack. Compared to previous Zombie modes, this feels very disjointed and very much cobbled together from other games to have it included even if there really is not connection to the rest of the game other than it being a good place to level up guns to be used in the MP. Much like the campaign, this mode feels like an aside to the MP, something to have because players expect it to be there but for now, just a week after release, it fails to other anything to make it the reason you fired up Vanguard to play in the first place. But it is there as something to do, which is better than not having it, it just fails to offer the same gameplay fun as MP.
Vanguard is an interesting enter to the series, it tries to tap into where Call of Duty started by having a World War setting but it fails to do anything to really stand out. You can even launch the more recent COD games from it if you own and play them which is a strange move if you want new players to play Vanguard by offering them other CoD Games to play. Of course, there will be the interactivity with Warzone as weapons and the new map will encourage and feature more Vanguard in the free to play mode and come December 2nd, the battle pass will fully unlock so fans can collect all the items they are currently unlocking with MP play.
Visually Vanguard does make great use of the new gen console power in terms of loading times and how great it looks and sounds on Xbox Series X and the Series S, with a sensible installation size, for now at least but Vanguard is exactly what you would expect from a Call of Duty game but it is very much more of the same, a short story campaign that you can play once and never feel the need to return to, a MP based on massive weapon grind to get the best out of it but is still fun but not amazing to play and a Zombie mode that wouldn’t have been missed if it was not included but because it is, it provides something else to do until you get bored and return to the MP.
The problem with Call of Duty sticking to this tired formula is that its rivals in Battlefield 2042 and HALO Infinite are now back and both are looking to do what they do best but better, and Vanguard is Call of Duty doing the Call of Duty you already know which may not be enough to satisfy more than just the CoD Faithful.