Call of Duty: Vanguard review — A lackluster blockbuster

The annual franchise faithful will find fun, but if you haven't jumped on board before, there's not much here to change your mind.

Call Of Duty Vanguard Campaign
(Image: © Windows Central)

Call Of Duty Vanguard Campaign

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Following up on last year's dive into conspiracy, espionage, and deceit with Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, the Sledgehammer Games-led Call of Duty: Vanguard is, for better or worse, a much more grounded, back-to-basics title. Players return to World War II, and mind games and uncertain morals are traded for tried-and-true Nazi killing.

Call of Duty: Vanguard's campaign tells the story of fictional special forces, a team inspired by real people from the war that have been brought together for the purpose of shutting down a secret Nazi project. It's ultimately an alright story, with some solid character building that never realizes its full potential amidst select blockbuster moments from across the various theaters of the war.

Multiplayer returns with a few tweaks, alongside some irritating issues that may not undermine the entire experience but do bring it down a bit. While there's yet another variant of Zombies, it's ultimately a disappointment, with changes and limitations that sink the entire escapade.

Call of Duty: Vanguard isn't a bad game but I don't see it joining the ranks of the best Xbox games available right now, and I can only recommend it to the Call of Duty hardcore player that needs a new experience every single year.

Disclaimer: This review was made possible by a copy of the game purchased by Windows Central.

Call of Duty: Vanguard — What I liked

Straight away, Call of Duty: Vanguard looks fantastic, especially running on Xbox Series X. Unlike Treyarch, which uses its own branch of the Call of Duty engine, Sledgehammer Games is opting to share technology and uses the latest version of Infinity Ward's Modern Warfare engine. From the roaring fires of downed planes and burning buildings to lush jungles, it's some of the best that Call of Duty has ever looked.

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TitleCall of Duty: Vanguard
DeveloperSledgehammer Games
GenreFirst-person shooter
Xbox VersionXbox Series X
Game Size94.2GB
Play Time6 hours (campaign)
PlayersSingleplayer campaign, 24-players multiplayer
Xbox GamePassNo
Launch Price$70

The game also introduces destroyable cover. While it's limited to doors and wooden planks, this destruction adds a small new layer to the gameplay and looks fantastic in motion, like when machine guns and grenades tear a room to shreds.

Across the campaign, we see select highlights in the backstories of the four protagonists — Arthur Kingsley, Polina Petrova, Lucas Riggs and Wade Jackson — that take us to some of the big battlefields of the war, from the Allied invasion of France and the Battle of Midway to the fight in Africa and war-torn Stalingrad. Having a campaign touch on four major theaters of the war is a great approach, especially the levels set in Africa against Rommel's forces, a setting that Call of Duty hasn't touched since the second game of the series.

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Call Of Duty Vanguard Campaign (Image credit: Windows Central)

Call Of Duty Vanguard Campaign (Image credit: Windows Central)

Source: Windows Central

This team is put together as a kind of "What if" scenario, asking the question of what would've happened if the Allies had put together the first-ever Special Forces team in history as the war began to draw to a close. On their first mission, the team is captured and interrogated by Nazis, providing the backdrop for learning the history of all four characters.

We get solid enough performances from these four, with Laura Bailey as Polina Petrova (or Lady Nightingale) and Chiké Okonkwo as Arthur Kingsley as highlights. Each character is given backstory to develop why they stood out as special and why they were selected. Of particular note are a handful of scenes set in Stalingrad prior to the devastating battle, which gives a glimpse at simple Russian home life and helps flesh out the motivations for Petrova.

Each character is given backstory to develop why they stood out as special and why they were selected.

It's a short campaign, running barely six hours on regular difficulty and while I wish more time had been devoted to the characters in question actually meeting by the grand finale (more on that below), you definitely buy they're a team, with everybody playing a part in ensuring the downfall of the Reich.

The campaign's sound design is also great, with weapon reloads and firings a nice standout. Whether it's the classic ping of the M1 Garand or the buzzsaw noise of an MG42, it sounds like World War II through and through. God of War composer Bear McCreary provides the score, which is appropriately epic, and each character gets their own unique theme that starts small but builds into one unified roar.

While the campaign is the visual showpiece, it's worth mentioning that the visuals in the multiplayer have been improved from the beta. Players on current-generation hardware even have the option of running the game at 120 FPS.

Diving into the multiplayer's mechanics, Sledgehammer Games has opted to provide "combat pacing" settings. This means you can choose to search for matches that are more methodical or frenzied killboxes, irrespective of the map or mode. It's an interesting approach and one I'd like to see more games pull from.

Call of Duty: Vanguard — What I didn't like

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

The biggest fault of the campaign is in the story it's trying to tell. Despite the focus on the team, we only ever learn their backstories, and never actually see them come together. The narrative instead just jumps back and forth between the interrogations and various years of the war, seeing some part of the pivotal role they played. It's strange seeing a chemistry and pseudo-comradery in what is supposed to be the world's first Special Forces team, something that should be a big deal.

Instead, things are played bizarrely safe. The campaign ends up feeling like a prequel to another story that doesn't exist yet. Going for an ahistorical approach is compelling, so I'm surprised to see that the game doesn't lean into it. We jump straight from the defining moments of the war to a team that suddenly know each other and operate as a unit, but never see how they meet or operate. If we get to see this fictional crew again, I hope we get some more detail.

The campaign ends up feeling like a prequel to another story that doesn't yet exist

While the multiplayer has been mostly alright so far, there's also not much that's new, outside of the aforementioned pacing system and the two new modes introduced during the game's previews: Patrol and Champion Hill. It's more of the same, which isn't bad, but it certainly lacks innovation. The only thing that really stands out is the spawn system, but not in a good way. I'm frequently finding myself spawning right in front or behind enemy players and vice versa, even in non-Blitz pacing matches. It's frenetic and confusing in a bad way.

I have to mention that the game's stability also hasn't been great, with several launch issues. During the campaign, Call of Duty: Vanguard would repeatedly get stuck at a black screen after I completed a mission, forcing me to start over again. Multiplayer has proven even worse so far, with frequent crashes when entering the multiplayer section or finishing a match. Load times were never an issue thanks to the internal SSD in my console, but this happening repeatedly got old fast and it's something I hope the developers can address soon.

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

The game's Zombies mode, helmed by Treyarch, is lackluster in practically every respect. Instead of the usual wave-based survival that has players trying to complete objectives, it's a series of minigames, teleporting players into a new location for a couple of minutes before pulling them back out.

As a concept, a minigame-based approach isn't even a problem. This shake-up can allow the mode to find its own identity instead of just building on what we got in previous games. However, the implementation is sorely lacking. So much of the enjoyment in a Zombies experience is learning the map and figuring out what portions to unlock first, optimizing routes using minimal cash. There's almost none of that here. It comes down to making sure you're upgrading between rounds and I lost interest faster than I can ever recall in a prior Zombies mode.

Call of Duty: Vanguard — Should you play it?

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Call of Duty: Vanguard isn't a bad game. While I wish the campaign did more, it's solid fun, the equivalent of the average summer popcorn flick. It's certainly not the worst campaign experience in the franchise, as Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 still exists. The game's multiplayer suite — the crashing and spawn issues aside — is similarly fine, all things considered. Only Zombies stands out as distinctly subpar, with multiple changes that make it feel rotten.

Call of Duty: Vanguard is Activision, and Activision is Call of Duty: Vanguard.

The existence of the game highlights a problem we've been seeing over a few Call of Duty games now. When practically every resource is piled into one experience, the launch of this game is not just the victory and defeats of a single studio but is in fact emblematic of the entire publisher. Sledgehammer Games is the name shoved to the top, but it's followed by Treyarch, Raven Software, Activision Shanghai, and Demonware. Even Infinity Ward, while absent from the opening logo scroll, had a hand in the development of this game, lending technical advice on the use of its engine.

In a way, Call of Duty: Vanguard is Activision, and Activision is Call of Duty: Vanguard. In theory, this is Sledgehammer's newest take on the franchise but in practice, it feels like a distillation of much of what has come before. It's just more Call of Duty, for better or worse.

For someone that needs a new Call of Duty or is desperate for another shooter to play right now, Call of Duty: Vanguard will suffice. Outside of that audience, I'd recommend carefully considering whether or not you want to pick it up, especially in an age of constant patches, changes, and an over-abundance of other multiplayer games to choose from.

Samuel Tolbert
Freelance Writer

Samuel Tolbert is a freelance writer covering gaming news, previews, reviews, interviews and different aspects of the gaming industry, specifically focusing on Xbox and PC gaming on Windows Central. You can find him on Twitter @SamuelTolbert.