CoD Vanguard review - A step back in more than just time - Dexerto
Call of Duty

CoD Vanguard review – A step back in more than just time

Published: 8/Nov/2021 6:20 Updated: 8/Nov/2021 6:36

by Brad Norton

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Call of Duty Vanguard is finally in the annual spotlight as Sledgehammer Games pivots the FPS franchise back to a stunningly realized WWII with more bells and whistles attached than ever before. While there’s a lot crammed into this year’s title, with plenty more still to come in future seasonal updates, not everything on display is worth writing home about.

After a few years of jumping through various periods in time, the CoD series is back for another round in the second world war. Sledgehammer Games is at the helm for Vanguard’s campaign and multiplayer offerings while Treyarch developed this year’s unique Zombies experience.

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No different from usual, CoD remains one of the more mechanically sharp FPS titles on the market. Exceptional production value and refined controls help punctuate the bombastic gameplay that the series often does best. 

Though if CoD has never quite hooked you in before, this year’s release doesn’t do anything spectacularly different to change that. While multiplayer is certainly the highlight in this release, nothing serves to push the envelope.

The short campaign does little to move the needle and Zombies goes in a questionable direction with the uninspired Der Anfang. Ultimately, if you’re not the type to grind through multiplayer year after year, there’s very little here for you in CoD Vanguard.

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Call of Duty Vanguard – Key details

  • Price (Standard Edition): $99.99 (AUD) | $69.99  (USD) | £69.99 (GBP)
  • Developer: Sledgehammer Games
  • Release date: November 5, 2021
  • Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X | S, Xbox One, & PC

Call of Duty Vanguard trailer


CoD Vanguard’s mostly forgettable campaign

Right off the bat, it’s worth mentioning that I’m a sucker for CoD’s narrative experiences. When Infinity Ward, Treyarch, or Sledgehammer Games happen to be firing on all cylinders, CoD campaigns provide some of the best FPS experiences money can buy, despite what many in the industry would have you think.

These yearly blockbusters typically contain jaw-dropping set pieces, finely crafted battles near unrivaled in the genre, and occasionally, even some well-written characters that stay with you long after the credits roll.

With CoD Vanguard, very little of that really sticks the landing as this year’s campaign comes across as one of the weaker entries in recent years.

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CoD Vanguard gameplay
Activision
Vanguard offers a visually stunning yet mostly shallow campaign.

You’re dropped into the tail end of WWII to explore the story of Task Force One, a ragtag group collecting fighters of all sorts. There’s the witty Australian, the hardened Russian, and the boisterous American, to name a few. Throughout Vanguard’s brief campaign, these characters all come with their own bite-sized background sequences. 

While the core of the storyline plays out over a few short hours, the journey of these would-be war heroes jumps through time as you step into the shoes of each character in their own defining moments. Some have more thrilling adventures while others take you through more harrowing chapters to paint the war in numerous shades.

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Each journeys to a different part of the world and while some missions are certainly better than others, none ever truly break the mold to feel exceptional.

CoD Vanguard gameplay
Activision
Certain chapters are more exciting than others but none ever truly stand out.

The characters all fit into their archetypes and so too do their respective chunks of gameplay.

One showcases dogfighting over the Pacific, another will have you sniping from afar in Stalingrad. It’s not that any of these unique chapters are necessarily bad, more that they fail to evolve the tried and tested formula and thus, leave any significant impression.

It’s also worth noting that character development throughout the story is extremely diminished if you followed any of the game’s marketing ahead of launch. Brief Operator descriptions that were made public a while back essentially paint the full picture before you jump in.

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There aren’t any major story beats or shocking twists that you simply have to witness for any of these figures. Vanguard’s campaign mostly plays it safe. If you’ve been following along, you already know their unique traits, their personality, and the purpose they served in the war.

CoD Vanguard gameplay
Activision
While Task Force One bundles a diverse group together, most of its leading characters are quickly forgettable.

With that said, gameplay is still as solid as ever this year. CoD’s mechanics have never been in question and the industry-leading FPS is still just as sharp as usual. Gunplay all feels excellent, visuals are great, lighting in particular is a big improvement over Cold War, and performance is mostly solid throughout.

We did encounter some severe hitching issues during our brief run in the campaign, however. These struck during both gameplay and cutscenes, disrupting more than just a split second of action.

When Vanguard had a momentary lapse during any given cutscene, it completely offset the audio, as visuals lagged behind for the remainder of the sequence. While this isn’t a game-breaking issue by any stretch, Vanguard happens to feature some of the longest cutscenes in the franchise, making it all the more noticeable.

CoD Vanguard gameplay
Activision
This year’s entry still features some of the sharpest FPS gameplay on the market.

If you typically purchase any new CoD to get on the multiplayer grind or uncover the latest secrets hidden away in Zombies, you wouldn’t be at much of a loss this year for skipping the campaign.

If anything, it’s a decent way to learn a little more about some of the Operators you’ll be playing as over the next 12 months online. Beyond that, there’s not a great deal packed into the short experience to make it worth your time.

CoD Vanguard multiplayer is rough around the edges

Multiplayer is the highlight of CoD Vanguard without question. While it certainly has its share of frustrating issues, design flaws, and questionable features – all of which we’ll get into – this year’s multiplayer is some of the most fun I’ve had with CoD in years.

From the very first game, Vanguard’s exceptionally polished mechanics launch you right into the action. Gunplay is immensely satisfying, movement feels fluid and precise, and controls are as sharp as ever. As far as how the game plays, Vanguard is up there with some of the most satisfying entries in the franchise. 

In terms of maps this year, Vanguard comes boasting 16 unique layouts at launch. The most of any CoD title in recent years. After a decent amount of grinding across every mode on offer, here’s how the maps stack up from my perspective.

Six of them are downright awful designs that you’d be excused for skipping anytime they appear in the rotation. Five are middle-of-the-road maps, nothing horrendous but nothing too great either. Then the remaining five are just fantastic layouts that always lead to extremely enjoyable matches regardless of which playlist you’re in. So it’s a fairly even mix this year with more winners than losers.

Screenshot of Das House loading screen in CoD Vanguard
Activision
As chaotic as Das House can be, it’s one of the best small maps in recent years.

Multiplayer is an absolute blast to play but that’s not to say it doesn’t come with its own shortcomings. Let’s start with the most glaring issue this year, matchmaking. Simply put, matchmaking is fundamentally broken in CoD Vanguard at launch. There’s no sugar coating it, the systems in place don’t work.

Combat Pacing is brand new this year and while the feature sounds like a wonderful addition on paper, it completely breaks multiplayer in practice. Despite having a certain setting toggled on, Tactical for instance, with the intention of finding smaller lobbies, the matchmaking system throws you into anything that’s available. Some quick testing over the weekend with Tactical Pacing enabled had me loading into just five out of 25 games in the correct setting. The remaining 80% of those games were in bigger lobbies.

As someone that prefers a more tactical experience, as the name implies, with 4v4 being the optimal CoD lobby size for my money, being forced into 18v18 games on some of Vanguard’s smaller maps is beyond painful. 

Not only that, but Skill-Based Matchmaking is perhaps the worst it’s ever been in a CoD title at launch. On release night here in Australia, I was being placed into more North American lobbies (at 200+ ping) than I was APAC lobbies. This carried on throughout the first weekend, with regular ping being a rarity. 

You can’t tell me tens of thousands weren’t grinding over launch week here. There’s absolutely no excuse to be placing locals in foreign lobbies when the player base should be at its largest point close to release. It almost feels as if the game’s matchmaking systems try to drop you into any match as fast as possible, without actually factoring anything else in.

Screenshot of CoD Vanguard gameplay
Activision
Hilarious ragdoll issues have also carried over from the Beta.

Moving onto Vanguard’s weapons, there’s a good amount to dissect here as well. If you’ve been out of the loop with CoD for a few years now, jumping straight into Vanguard would be a real shock to the system. Each weapon category used to have a small selection of attachments. Now, every single gun comes with its own batch of 70 upgrades to unlock.

Once again, on paper, this sounds like a neat idea. Adding extra content to the game and giving players more to grind for should be a good thing. In practice, it’s an extremely draining feature that has me not wanting to experiment with new guns. 

Before you add any attachments to your weapon of choice, expect a few hours of suffering as you level it up. Upgrades are more than just slight improvements this year. Instead, they can outright change how certain weapons function.

In higher SBMM lobbies, everyone is just so insanely powerful. Every player has a laser in their hands as the right builds can two-shot you from across the map. Thus, testing out new guns is a great way to tank your stats for a few maps as you won’t be able to keep up with some of these top-tier loadouts.

A picture of CoD Vanguard's MVP screen not working
Activision
This unskippable MVP screen is supposed to display Operators here.

As for smaller gripes, well it’s a long list. Packet burst stinks, lobbies often fail to work, doors need to go, leaderboards aren’t even active yet, and the unskippable post-game MVP screen is an absolute joke just to name a few.

Having now prestiged, having dropped a nuke, and having maxed out a handful of weapons, there’s really not much left to actually do in CoD Vanguard compared to most other years.

Camo challenges aren’t working at launch — even if they were, who wants to grind 100 point-blank kills with every sniper? — Operator progress has been reset twice on my account now, and as with any CoD launch, we have to wait a few months before the devs acknowledge that competitive play actually exists.

No doubt future seasonal updates will add tons to the experience, weekly updates will fix the most frustrating issues, but that doesn’t excuse the state of CoD Vanguard at launch. It’s an extremely fun game to play, just one that’s bogged down by almost everything else around it.

New CoD Vanguard Zombies experience doesn’t make any sense

Rather than the traditional round-based mode or even the more expansive Outbreak variant, this year’s release goes in a different direction when it comes to CoD Zombies. Der Anfang takes center stage here as players are dropped into an objective-based mode where completing various tasks extends a ‘hub world’ map and unlocks new upgrades.

On paper, the new mode seems to have aspirations of breaching into rogue-lite territory. Each run in Der Anfang is supposed to be slightly different with a multitude of weapons and abilities mixing things up. However, the content available at launch is so incredibly thin these ambitions fall apart after just a few short hours.

A screenshot of Vanguard Def Anfang perk machine
Activision
Der Anfang does away with the usual Perk machines in favor of five upgradeable power-ups.

Despite hearing concerns from the hardcore Zombies community before diving in, I was pleasantly surprised throughout my first run in the new mode. Strategically mowing down waves of undead foes with your team, upgrading your kit between each objective, and trying to craft the optimal trio of abilities was all quite refreshing. If this mode didn’t come with the ‘CoD Zombies’ label attached, there might not have been any backlash and fans could have enjoyed the initial experience for what it is.

Though what began as a fairly enjoyable grind through a night-time version of the Red Star multiplayer map, quickly revealed its shortcomings. There’s simply nowhere near enough variation in Der Anfang to hold your attention for more than two or three runs, thereby contradicting its rogue-esque qualities.

Screenshot of Der Anfang gameplay
Activision
If you’ve reached round 10 once, you’ve essentially seen everything Der Anfang has to offer.

Let’s hone in on Perks as a key example. Although Perks aren’t scattered throughout the map in their usual vending machines, they do still exist in a different capacity here. After opening up the hub world, five Perks become available with upgrades ranging from extra health to bonus movement speed. During the first few rounds, these are crucial upgrades that afford necessary buffs to keep you in line with the increasingly powerful Zombies.

As the rounds go by, they become less and less important. Every single Perk maxes out at four upgrades, meaning there’s a hard limit to your potential in Der Anfang. Once you reach the limit, there’s absolutely nothing to improve, no better build to strive for, and zero opportunities to evolve the gameplay. 

The same applies for weapon boosts through the extremely dull Pack-A-Punch system that merely upgrades damage twice and nothing else. Objectives also lack in variation as barely a few distinct challenges have the mode growing tedious in no time. This also applies to the new abilities as well, which come with a few different rarities then hit a brick wall once you’re at Legendary.

If you happen to pass wave 10, you’ve effectively finished Der Anfang with every Perk maxed out, the best weapons equipped, and a full set of Legendary powers. Yet new objectives continue appearing, larger hordes keep spawning in, and you’ll even be facing a dozen turret-wielding foes all at once.

Yes, Zombies have guns in 2021.

A screenshot of CoD Vanguard's Der Anfang mode
Activision
Objectives range from ‘stand here and kill things for three minutes’ to ‘move around and kill things for three minutes.’

There’s nothing more to see, nothing more to accomplish, and very little reason to jump back in for another go outside of various camo challenges if you can be bothered. If Der Anfang offered some genuine variation, with a wide array of intriguing builds alluring you to jump back in, perhaps this brief 10-wave grind would be fun for a little longer. But the limited options left me with absolutely no desire to go again after a handful of playthroughs.

So without appealing to the existing Zombies community, without providing a noteworthy replacement, and failing to craft a highly replayable rogue-lite experience, who exactly is Der Anfang for? What purpose does it serve? Why was this prioritized over a regular continuation of what players have grown accustomed to in recent years?

Is there room for Treyarch to expand this new CoD Zombies mode over the next 12 months? Sure. New seasonal updates could add to the variation with new abilities, power-ups, and even new objectives. But at launch, Der Anfang is an uninspired take on the popular Zombies experience that completely falls short.

A screenshot of CoD Vanguard's upgrade list
Activision
A shockingly small list of upgrades means there’s little to no variation with each fresh run in Der Anfang.

If Vanguard’s gameplay wasn’t such a blast, this would undoubtedly be a filler year for the franchise. With very little fresh or worthwhile content at launch, frenetic multiplayer is Sledgehammer’s saving grace this time around.

All that said, there’s no question Vanguard will improve over time. CoD games nowadays often look completely different 12 months after launch, once every seasonal update has come and gone and a wide range of improvements have been deployed. We’re sure to see new maps, modes, balancing updates, and everything in between.

Rating 6/10

But none of that excuses how Vanguard, a full-priced game, appears in its current form today. A lackluster campaign, a soulless Zombies mode, and a fun but diminished multiplayer offering round out a rather weak launch for the iconic FPS series.

Reviewed on PlayStation 5.