Call of Duty: Vanguard is a story of three games. As is sometimes the case, several pillars lift the package – and one brings it down. Vanguard’s campaign is weak, but multiplayer and zombies carry the title to victory. Let’s break down each experience.
We’ll get the rough part out of the way first; The campaign is ambitious and beautifully designed, taking players to multiple key locations including Stalingrad, the Pacific Ocean and even North Africa. While this showcases outstanding ecological diversity and the throbbing soundtrack begs to get the blood pumping, everything around these elements remains in the doldrums. As the story jumps from scene to scene, none of the characters carry any weight. They’re chunks of lifeless cardboard that don’t even reach the level of a one-note action movie.
These characters are placed in bland segments that are as dull and formal as possible, with no real chance to shine. While huge arenas full of opponents to fight are nothing new to Call of Duty, taking part in the non-arena segments is even more exhausting. There’s no cool subterfuge mission to break through the mundane, just tasks that have you begging to clean up another murder room. It’s a shame because some of these scenarios and characters feel like they should have been slam dunks.
Vanguard has all the trappings of a ready-made Enemy at the gate sniper vs sniper scenario. Unfortunately, it drops the ball and delivers arena after arena full of garbage to kill without ever realizing that sniper fantasy. You have to run under desks, battling an endless stream of flashes of light, while climbing rocks and walls. Incredibly annoying stealth segments with trial and error are shockingly interspersed with bombastic action sequences. I found it puzzling that any of the characters in the game actually have superhero powers, allowing them to see enemies through sight-blocking landscapes and automatic targeting on demand using a combination of divine sight and bullet time. The multitude of scenarios and segments look great, but the good looks can’t save this trip.
The story never decides whether to cling to the harsh realities of World War II or go hard on the ham, with absurd caricatures of sniffing villains who would be more at home in a bad comic book. This dissonance is pronounced, bizarre and runs the lifeblood of the whole experience. Call of Duty campaigns tend to go from weird to spectacular to emotionally resonating – this one isn’t one and is easy to skip. I’ll be amazed at how this campaign made a vengeful badass sniper scenario feel like stuck in traffic for years.
Multiplayer succeeds, but not thanks to the addition of a gun, superslide, or jetpack mechanic. Key to the online offering are some highly impactful decision tools on top of the already best-in-class recordings and adjustments. The most impactful device for the core systems is the addition of a Combat Pacing dial. With Combat Pacing you can influence the number of players and the time to deploy of all the activities you enjoy. This probably seems like a small thing, but it’s great because you can select exactly the kind of multiplayer matches you want, on top of the core game modes like Kill Confirmed, Hardpoint or Domination. When I felt like throwing a bunch of grenades while packing a shotgun with incendiary ammunition, I turned on Blitz mode, which provides instant action with near-instantaneous time to engagement. When I wanted something where I might not see a player right away and had time to aim a gun before getting shot, tactical pace was perfect. Even if you don’t want to fiddle with the buttons, Assault is a great standby for basic Call of Duty multiplayer.
Combat Pacing is subtle, but a bigger problem than any of the new multiplayer offerings. Still, Vanguard has a handful of new modes. Patrol offers a moving Hardpoint to protect, but it “patrols” a map, and Champion Hill gives players some small scale shenanigans to participate in. Champion Hill is kind of an evolution of the Gunfight mode, with more player choice and many teams all playing tournament style at the same time. Selecting your way to victory via purchases in the hub and competing against other teams for lives and money has a different feel in terms of small scale skirmishes, and I enjoyed it. Of course, the gunsmith offers a host of options to explore for multiplayer, letting you customize each weapon to your heart’s content, right down to ammo types for a little extra bang.
Last but certainly not least is Zombies, which Treyarch designed. The studio’s undead intuition rarely misses the mark, and Call of Duty: Vanguard is poised to take zombies on a fantastic path. This iteration is a bit like a roguelike zombie dungeon crawl, and that’s pretty awesome. With hints from the recent Outbreak mode, players must take out a demonic entity while using their own alien powers, including rings of fire and icy doom, which can be used to summon a blizzard. All the fun Zombies attributes like Pack-A-Punch, Mystery Box, and other upgrades are served hub-style in a base where players hang out between missions. Don’t be fooled into thinking you’re getting a break in the city; Zombies mode is as fast as ever with a neon arcade action glow and sleek upgrades that keep you in the action.
Choose with your team from a selection of classic shooting activities where you escort a magical object, survive until the clock runs out, or slaughter enemies for drops. We have seen many of these elements before, but they are arranged in an incredibly powerful way. For example, I appreciated the lack of annoying travel times in Outbreak – click on a portal and you’re on your way to the next task. Special abilities acquired and enhanced after portals that can significantly change your gear. Essentially, Vanguard distills a lot of the cool stuff about Zombies into a compact package and then spreads cool quips and dialogue. Fortunately, you can still throw monkey bombs. None of the Easter egg stories were in the version I played though; which are expected with season 1.
Call of Duty: Vanguard’s campaign misses the mark, but multiplayer and Zombies do the heavy lifting to get the title in place. If you’re most invested in the single player experience, you can pass this year’s entry, but if you like the other modes, Call of Duty remains a great choice for some shooting, looting, and zombie execution.