Arts, Culture & Entertainment

‘Call of Duty: Vanguard’ review - fun, familiar, and flawed

The iconic first-person shooter brings more of the usual in its latest installment.

A still photo of the "Call of Duty: Vanguard" cover art.

“Call of Duty: Vanguard” feels like a game I’ve been playing since 2008.

Like a Double-Double at In-N-Out, each new installment of the “Call of Duty” series tends to be quite good, but not super inventive. With each iteration, you know what you’re going to get: Amazing graphics, incredible attention to detail, a single-player campaign filled with blockbuster action scenes, a fast-paced multiplayer mode, and some sort of co-operative gauntlet to round things out.

A screenshot from "Call of Duty: Vanguard" shows a soldier on the battlefield.

“Call of Duty: Vanguard” is no exception, feeling a lot like an improved version of 2008′s “Call of Duty: World At War.” “Vanguard” has the stock campaign featuring heroics from the Allied Forces, the usual multiplayer experience redesigned for the twitchiest of reflexes, and a co-op playground for shooting undead Nazis. Don’t mistake these facets as pure negatives though; While “Vanguard” might not be revolutionary, it’s nice to know what you’ll get and that it’ll hit a certain bar of quality and polish.

As a game, “Vanguard” feels as good as any “Call of Duty” to date. Movement feels a touch slower than last year’s iteration of the franchise, but moving, aiming and shooting is an absolute treat. There are a ton of little touches that bring the game world to life as well. In partially reloading a weapon using a bullet clip, for instance, the character in the game will actually load the correct amount of ammo. Seeing cars flip near a moving train genuinely feels dangerous to be around as sparks and smoke fly through the air. The wide variety of weapons available to players all feel reasonably unique to play with.

Narratively though, the single-player campaign for “Call of Duty: Vanguard” is so standard that it’s hard to get excited about. The story follows a select team of soldiers pulled from the various Allied armies for a suicide mission into Nazi Germany during the final days of WWII. This guiding narrative is broken up with flashbacks to formative moments in the history of different squad members ranging from one member’s experience as a paratrooper on D-Day to another’s airborne dogfights over the Pacific.

But while this installment still showcases the patented jaw-dropping action scenes the series is known for, there are a number of issues with the story. First, the story is driven by the Vanguard squad chasing the results of a mysterious Nazi endeavor referred to as Project Phoenix, which is so enigmatic that even the in-game characters don’t know what it is they’re trying to find. Now, I love a good MacGuffin as much as anyone else, but when the characters inside the game can’t even articulate why what they’re looking for is important, it’s hard to care if they succeed or not.

A screenshot from "Call of Duty: Vanguard" shows a large building.

Beyond the narrative itself, the characters that populate it leave a great deal to be desired. The main characters -- a stone-cold female Russian sniper, a cocky American flyboy, a posh, multi-lingual British commander and a loud, brash Australian demolitionist -- are well-acted but are so formulaic that they’re hard to connect with. Moreover, pretty much any side character that seems remotely fun or interesting is quickly killed off after their introduction, seemingly as a way to showcase the brutality of war. The problem with this approach though is that it leaves players to invest themselves in the main characters, who truly aren’t that interesting.

Despite these glaring flaws though, the main campaign finds its footing in the gameplay styles of the different characters. The missions based around Polina Petrova -- a fictional female Russian sniper -- encourage the player to sneak around the levels, hitting enemies from the margins before disappearing through air vents or under tables. In contrast, the missions based around Lucas Riggs -- a loud, male Australian demolitionist -- allow the player to carry much more explosive ordinance, encouraging the player to target groups of enemies then clear up stragglers with gunfire. The other two main playable characters also have unique aspects of their own that encourage adaptation in similar ways. This approach to gameplay in the campaign means that even though the story isn’t that deep, it’s still pretty fun to play.

On the multiplayer front though, there’s not much to love. There are a lot of unlockables, but playing the multiplayer modes is a slog. The time-to-kill -- basically the minimum time it takes for one player to down another -- is super quick. Compounded with the overall slower movement speed, this quick TTK means that only those with near precognitive reflexes can survive for any length of time in a match. All it takes to lose an engagement is a small, unlucky miss on the part of the player or a single lucky shot for an enemy.

On the upside, there are new match search options that allow players to mix and match particular game modes and player counts. For instance, series regulars can set “Vanguard” multiplayer to just search for matches of 6v6 Team Deathmatch. Meanwhile, the chaotically-aligned can set their search for Free-For-All matches with large player counts. These changes are welcome, but they don’t compensate for the fundamental shortcomings of the gameplay. Definitely not enough to make multiplayer fun enough to be worth playing any length of time.

The new Nazi Zombies experience though, is a blast. Unlike traditional iterations of the game mode, players start in a hub area with upgrades like the Pack A Punch Machine already available. From there, players teleport to other areas to complete different objectives while fending off waves of the undead. After completing the objective, players are warped back to the hub area to upgrade their characters and gear. Also, each match doesn’t go on round after round until players lose. Players can end a match early by completing an escape event.

A screenshot from "Call of Duty: Vanguard" shows a soldier shooting a zombie.

Honestly, all of these changes help the Zombies game mode feel fresh after so many years. Having a way to end a match early without players having to let themselves get overwhelmed by enemies is nice. Plus, all the different objectives add variety to a match and encourage players to adapt multipurpose gear loadouts. Plus, since many of the unlockables can be earned through Zombies as well as multiplayer, those disappointed by the multiplayer mode can put the time into Zombies and still earn rewards.

In the end, “Call of Duty: Vanguard” is far from perfect and far from innovative, but it’s still a good deal of fun. During my time with this game, there was something meditative about being able to zone out while shooting hordes of the risen dead after a long day of school. Even the campaign was fun enough to play, despite the passable narrative. That said, I don’t see myself going back to the multiplayer mode anytime soon. Plus, to bring the In-N-Out metaphor back around, unlike a Double-Double, “Call of Duty: Vanguard” isn’t cheap. Priced at $60-$70 for a brand-new copy, depending on the platform, those looking for the best value should wait for a sale to roll around.

Review Score: 7.5/10 – “Call of Duty: Vanguard” is a beautiful game and a good deal of fun, but flawed and far from perfect. So unless “Call of Duty” is a yearly must-play, maybe wait for a sale.

“Call of Duty: Vanguard” is available for purchase on PlayStation, Xbox, and PC.