Like clockwork, another year, another Call of Duty. This time, Sledgehammer is back at it, the studio’s first new Call of Duty since 2017’s WWII. Headed back to that war, the studio is this time focused on exploring another angle—or several angles—of WWII that we don’t normally hear about. It was called “World War,” after all, and Vanguard focuses the light on different theaters of war around the world, and a diverse cast of players on the field who ultimately aided in bringing the Nazi regime and Axis powers to an end.
Like most Call of Duty games before it, Vanguard itself is split into three primary experiences (four if you include the coming Warzone Pacific integration, though we’ll review that separately). This brings a wealth of content for any player, whether they want to experience an epic and bombastic campaign, play a few rounds in the latest iteration of Call of Duty multiplayer, or enjoy the sheer catharsis of popping the skulls of Nazi zombies.
In keeping with the series’ recent cross progression, the main menu you’ll first arrive at has Vanguard, Warzone, Black Ops Cold War, and Modern Warfare on it. I imagine this is how Call of Duty’s menus will be for the foreseeable future, showcasing all four main “current” Call of Duty experiences—Sledgehammer’s game, Treyarch’s game, Infinity Ward’s game, and Raven’s Warzone—and I expect that 2019’s Modern Warfare will only be rotated out with Infinity Ward’s next game, rumored to be Modern Warfare 2 in 2022.
But we’re not here to talk about previous years’ Call of Duty titles or speculate on rumors of what’s coming, and the big Vanguard Warzone update isn’t due out for a month, so let’s jump into Sledgehammer’s Call of Duty: Vanguard and everything it has on tap at launch.
Call of Duty: Vanguard Review – Campaign
Telling the story of Task Force 1’s mission to unravel a Nazi secret known as Project Phoenix near the end of World War II, Vanguard’s campaign jumps back and forth between that mission and flashbacks to individual WWII events and missions that previously made the Task Force 1 team members heroes. Each member of the team gets two missions (save for Arthur, who only gets one), with full Task Force 1 missions both opening and closing out the game.
Task Force 1 actually consists of six people, despite only advertising four—Arthur, Polina, Lucas, and Wade—as the primary characters and Operators that spill into multiplayer, which pretty clearly shows which two are expendable. Still the entire cast is fantastic, with a great team dynamic among them that makes them feel really believable. Whether it’s seeing everyone together, bantering back and forth, or learning more about the histories of each person, Vanguard’s campaign feels very human.
Dominic Monaghan’s Jannick Richter is an evil Nazi force to behold as the in-your-face antagonist against our heroes, though the campaign always presents Task Force 1 as a group with a plan. Even with a gun to their heads in the heart of the Nazi empire, there’s never a sense that Richter, a brutal mouse of a man, will succeed against them. Monaghan plays this evil role to perfection, giving a genuinely squirm-inducing performance as he heralds the leadership of Hitler, embraces an uncomfortable racist mentality against Arthur, and finally begins to question if even his devout loyalty to the cause is enough.
While Richter plays that villainous role with the most facetime, there are a few other Nazi leaders who present threats throughout. Freisinger is Richter’s boss, and the architect of Project Phoenix, but there are also Nazis within the characters’ flashbacks who each bring their own gravitas in some form or another. Particularly powerful is Polina’s pursuit of a Nazi leader in the ruins of Stalingrad, driving an insatiable desire in “Lady Nightingale” to murder every Nazi she can find.
Vanguard also broaches some of the tougher subjects around WWII that aren’t often talked about, including the United States’ rather questionable use of all-Black regiments. I’m certain it will be debated how well the game handles these topics, but I felt like it did a pretty good job of at least putting it out there plainly without trying to dress it up and make it pretty.
Despite being the crux of the advertising and the ostensible theme for Vanguard, the campaign is a brief experience—I finished it in a single roughly six-hour sitting one evening. While it has a great narrative, brilliant characters, and a cinematic epicness that can’t be denied, Vanguard’s gameplay repeats the Call of Duty formula we’ve been getting for a decade. In fact, I often had moments of deja vu. For example, one of Polina’s boss fights basically repeats what 2019’s Modern Warfare did with the young Fara. (It also had me asking why Polina didn’t just shoot the Nazi bastard the four or five times she had direct sightlines on him.)
Vanguard’s campaign is a relatively linear no-frills cinematic experience. You won’t find any collectibles, notable alternate paths, or choices to make throughout the game’s story. Some levels do open up a bit, but it’s easy to quickly find the boundaries of the experience and get put back on the golden path. Driving up the difficulty will prolong the experience on Vanguard’s nine missions a little bit, but it doesn’t change much except making you easier to kill while enemies become a bit tougher.
You’ll experience a number of bombastic set pieces and moments, from leaping back and forth across two trains hurtling towards the heart of Nazi Germany, to bombing aircraft carriers in the Pacific. Exploring the various theaters of war and the intimate character stories within is done well, with great pacing despite being relatively short overall. What makes Vanguard’s campaign stand out is undoubtedly its story and characters, which presents a unique and more character-focused take on World War II. But its gameplay, despite looking gorgeous and having a great story, is nothing we haven’t seen in years before. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but a lack of any real gameplay innovation in the campaign feels like it simply checks a box saying “Yup, Vanguard includes a campaign.”
Which brings us to the part of Vanguard that people will arguably spend the most time with.
Call of Duty: Vanguard Multiplayer
With a return to WWII, Sledgehammer wanted to make the multiplayer arenas breathe the chaos of those old battles; but how to recreate the feelings of less tactical battles where waves of soldiers were thrown into walls of bullets and explosions while retaining the more tactical modern gameplay that players love? One of the big answers to this question is tactical environmental damage. Environments will break apart, not only visually degrading, but in some cases entirely opening up new sightlines and removing certain walls and cover as the match progresses.
The other big change is the ability to select combat pacing, which amps up the player counts relative to the size of each map. Tactical retains the classic Call of Duty 6v6, while amping it up to Assault and Blitz create chaotic arenas that can boast player counts as high as 24v24. This dynamic setting means you don’t have to simply settle for a set number of people, but can play in modes that will dynamically change based on what you want the experience to be.
Vanguard is decidedly different from Treyarch’s approach to the Call of Duty franchise that promotes forward engagements, but doesn’t feel quite like Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare either, despite being built on the same tech as the latter. Coming off of Black Ops Cold War, I was quickly met with defeat when I tried to approach Vanguard in the same fast-paced way. Vanguard is still fast-paced, but its map design (and the destructible walls, doors, and cover) definitely advises a bit more caution. Even in Tactical combat pacing, death often comes in being outflanked—shot from the sides and behind—at least in some of the maps, while others drive that more classic three-lane design with destructible environments of their own.
Once I got the hang of what kind of play the maps promoted, I started to adapt a lot more. Sticking close to walls and objects. Checking my corners. And perhaps playing a bit more patiently than I normally would. Honestly, it was a lot of fun to find a different playstyle for myself, not to mention adapting to which map would come up next. I certainly prefer the likes of Tactical combat pacing to ensure I’m not getting fragged right off the spawn, but ramping up those player counts does have its place, and I’m glad to have the choice.
Vanguard also marks the return of weapon mounting on a surface, a feature first introduced in Modern Warfare that I sorely missed in Black Ops Cold War. Vanguard even has an additional feature that allows you to slide along horizontal surfaces while mounted. Sledgehammer has the weapon mounting activate when you ADS near a surface however, which can create some frustrating moments of magnetization that skew your aim. Fortunately you can change the controls to require ADS+Melee(R3) in order to mount, which functions more like Modern Warfare and Warzone already do. Still, I was confused as to why Vanguard’s default setting is different in the first place.
Launching with 20 maps across four theaters of World War II—16 for multiplayer and 4 separate arenas in the Champion Hill mode—there’s an enormous variety that ensures the game looks and feels different moment to moment and match to match. And that’s just at launch. Shipment is coming later this month, with an additional three maps on the way in Season One on December 2.
In Vanguard, players can customize weapons with an unprecedented 10 different attachment and perk slots, which creates an enormous amount of variety in making your gun perform exactly the way you want it. Different ammo types have different effects, and players no longer need to factor in which attachment they need to get rid of in order to use a different one. Different attachments can even change how the DualSense’s adaptive triggers react.
Progression has now been improved too, including the ability to level up individual Operators (who have favorite weapons, which will give XP bonuses if you use them together), in addition to weapons, the Battle Pass, and your own player level. It creates even more of a chase for people who want to complete everything, and a sense of accomplishment and earning things at all times.
Sledgehammer made the rather smart decision to not allow people to play as the evil side of WWII. With the relatively recent Operator system letting players pick specific characters, along with getting character skins, it goes without saying that hyping up bundles and playing as Nazi characters would have been a bad move. Which means that all Operators in Vanguard are good guys, either from Allied countries or defectors from Axis powers. Presumably, any future Operators added via Seasonal updates will follow this model of being good guys only, but it begs the question as to how they’ll use the post-launch content to push the story forward.
Those same Operators can also be used to take on the undead Nazi evils in…
Call of Duty: Vanguard Review – Zombies
Developed by Treyarch, Vanguard Zombies is an interesting blend of ideas—a mash up of round-based maps as well as Outbreak, and even the formerly PlayStation-exclusive Onslaught. The prequel to Black Ops Cold War’s Dark Aether Zombies storyline, Vanguard focuses a lot more on the occult and supernatural rather than the technological harnessing of the Dark Aether.
I rather enjoy the new blend, which makes Vanguard’s Zombies stand on its own, despite being a Treyarch creation. Players begin in the central base of Stalingrad, adapted from the Red Star multiplayer map. Here is where you can Pack-a-Punch your weapons, build equipment, and select which objective to take on next.
Making your way to a portal will allow you to tackle one of three objectives in a different area, often further zombified adaptations of familiar multiplayer maps. Blitz sees players attempting to survive waves of zombies for a limited amount of time. Transmit makes players move with a protective orb while slaying zombies. And the final Gather objective asks players to collect runes and bring them back to a central pillar, which shifts each time it is filled up.
After the objective, you’ll be teleported back to Stalingrad, which is often overrun with even more zombies to kill. Rinse and repeat. After each wave you’ll get sacrificial hearts that you can trade at the Alter of Covenants for Covenants, which are gameplay modifiers and power ups. You’ll also slowly unlock regions of the area which will allow you to drink from Perk fountains, gaining things like faster movement and more health.
The most disappointing thing about Zombies for me is that there aren’t any permanent player upgrades to chase, which is a huge change to Black Ops Cold War. In last year’s game, one of the goals was to get Aetherium Crystals to upgrade abilities and perks permanently, creating a great gameplay loop that prompted players to play another Zombies match just a little bit more powered up than before. Vanguard Zombies loaded its perk upgrades directly into the gameplay, with further levels of Perks costing points and completely lost upon starting a new match.
In a presentation ahead of trying out Zombies, Sledgehammer said that that Altar of Covenants is designed to introduce Rogue-like elements to keep each new run fresh, specifically mentioning Hades as an example. However, I feel that without even small amounts of permanent power, perk, and ability upgrades, the gameplay loop quickly withers without much to actually chase or feel rewarding. A good Rogue-like balances upgrades you can earn between runs with variety during the runs. Vanguard Zombies has absolutely nothing to earn or upgrade between runs—besides leveling your weapons and Operators, which can also be done in multiplayer—which fails to support the variety of the runs themselves. Once you die or exfil, you’re back to square one every time.
However, this comes with a major caveat, which is that things may end up changed or added in coming Seasons. The main quest (which many Zombies players refer to as the “Easter egg,” due to Zombies quests originally being tough to find and complete, essentially “Easter eggs” in the mode) is coming with Season One on December 2, and there have been hints that there may be more to the Zombies gameplay loop, including dedicated permanent upgrades to chase, at a later date.
Which brings us to…
Call of Duty: Vanguard Post-Launch
The true test of mettle for Vanguard will be in its post-launch content offerings, as each Call of Duty continues to get active—and free—support for the year following its release. Continuing the post-launch content model that was started with 2019’s Modern Warfare, Vanguard’s first Season will kick off on December 2, with three new maps being added to the multiplayer—in addition to Shipment being added before that—the Zombies main quest/Easter egg going live, additional unannounced Zombies content, and Warzone integration (along with a whole new Pacific map named Caldera coming to Warzone).
The only thing that will almost certainly stagnate through the post-launch support period is Vanguard’s campaign. In a world where we have living games like Destiny 2 delivering Seasonal story content and missions on a regular basis throughout the year, it’d be interesting to see what Call of Duty could do with a similar approach.
Still, the wealth of content, modes, maps, events, and other surprises we’re apt to get for mutliplayer and Zombies, not to mention the Warzone integration, will present a ton of content for Vanguard fans to enjoy. With how Call of Duty studios have been ramping up the Seasonal content offerings since 2019’s Modern Warfare, Sledgehammer is expected to go all-out for Vanguard, along with Treyarch’s aid on the Zombies mode.
Post-launch support also means that Vanguard will change and adapt following launch, which makes static launch-day reviews like this tough. By Season One’s launch on December 2, a number of things could be rather different. In fact, just the changes from the Beta to the launch version of Vanguard made an enormous difference in how the multiplayer looks, sounds, and feels. Feedback will continue to adapt the game, from both a content and quality of life perspective, which will play a huge role in Vanguard’s life cycle.
Call of Duty: Vanguard is a quality packaged experience from Sledgehammer, approaching World War II from a new angle. While campaign gameplay is short and rudimentary, its cinematic narrative and deep diverse characters provide a great backdrop for the experience. Multiplayer feels uniquely Sledgehammer, which creates a rather different feeling game from last year’s title, including new ways to engage with the maps’ destructible environments. Treyarch’s Zombies’ gameplay loop suffers without permanent upgrades to chase—a step back from Black Ops Cold War Zombies—but post-launch content and changes could resolve that.
As a complete package, from a Call of Duty developer that hasn’t yet established its own Modern Warfare or Black Ops sub-franchise, Vanguard feels like it could end up being Sledgehammer’s tentpole. Iconic characters, unique multiplayer and map design, and overall integration into the wider Call of Duty experience set the pace for not only the next year, but whatever comes next from Sledgehammer.
Call of Duty: Vanguard review code provided by publisher. Reviewed on PS5. For more information, please read our Review Policy.