Another year, another Call of Duty – but with a relative lack of big first party releases by Sony there’s bound to be a lot of interest in Call of Duty: Vanguard this holiday season. Last year’s Black Ops was our first taste of how gorgeous shooters can be on a next gen console, so we were eager to get started with Vanguard on our PlayStation 5.
When Call of Duty: Vanguard was announced, we felt a little cynical. Not only are we getting a new iteration in the franchise every year – now they were reusing titles from other franchises too, although not everyone will remember Medal of Honor – Vanguard from the PS2 days. Joking aside though – there’s plenty that’s familiar about Activision’s new shooter, with Nazis once again serving as your main antagonist and you stepping up as part of a group of elite soldiers ready to teach them a lesson.
In the story campaign, you chase after a mysterious underground project called Project Phoenix in a world that’s set right after Hitler’s demise, with the Nazis scrambling to turn the tide. You and your crewmates are captured and tortured by an enemy commander – who in his evil ways reminded us a bit of some of the antagonists in the Wolfenstein franchise. Dominic Monaghan, famous for his roles in Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, also joins the bad guys in Vanguard, torturing our heroes whom we get to know through flashbacks of their past deeds.
As you’ll probably have guessed, these flashbacks come in the shape of playable missions, which allows the story of Vanguard to jump back and forth through time and place – essentially giving us mini vignettes rather than a linear story that’s told in a chronological order. All of our protagonists (which conveniently come from the US, Australia and USSR to give us a few very different perspectives) have their own backstories, and they’re interesting in that they’re not infallible people. Revenge, insubordination and memories that haunt them make them the persons they are today.
These changing perspectives also come with changing gameplay mechanics, as Polina Petrova is an agile runner and Wade Jackson controls a fighter plane while others rely more on traditional soldiering. The less traditional sections are definitely interesting, but also feel the most “on rails” here, with less sense of freedom than you might expect – though for the sake of keeping the narrative moving along we sort of get it.
And that narrative is once again excellent, delivered though absolutely gorgeous cutscenes that seamlessly transition to regular gameplay. The game is in need of some optimization though, because while running it at 4K we experienced a fair few moments of stutter – our guess is that the game was rushed out in time for its holiday season release, and will need a few post-launch patches. The issues aren’t game-breaking and we had an absolute blast with the campaign, but it’s noticeable and breaks the immersion when it happens.
And while we love these shooters for their epic single player campaigns, many will flock towards (and stay with) the multiplayer portion of the game. This is also clearly where the commercial interest of the developer lies (judging from the in-game currency and unlockables that are tied to your Battle Pass), so we’re just glad that Activision still included an excellent campaign for us to enjoy.
Multiplayer maps feel more prone to destruction this time around, which can result in the tide of battle changing when you successfully blast away a piece of wall that the enemy was frequently using for cover. This is especially useful in the slower paced Tactical mode of the game, which has fewer players than your typical Assault or Blitz matches will.
But while the traditional multiplayer portion feels quite familiar, the Zombies mode has received a bit of an overhaul. I hadn’t played this mode in a few years, but there’s a whole alien and cthulhu-vibe to it all now, complete with story/lore content. I was almost expecting a story-driven campaign, but perhaps we’ll see that in the future. What’s there now is a hub system that lets you (and your teammates) select what your next challenge will be – and a reward system will keep you coming back for more. Both the regular multiplayer and the zombies mode are best geared towards longtime players though, especially those who play with friends – which can be a barrier for newcomers.
Call of Duty: Vanguard is a meaty package with its single player campaign, robust multiplayer and zombie mode, and content and stellar production values justify its AAA price tag. Technical issues hold it back though, and if you’re here for the single player campaign you’ll wish there was some kind of half price edition that would let you jump in and play that without getting the multiplayer parts.