By and large, after exploding onto the online multiplayer scene in 2008, Call of Duty has been a franchise focused on the modern era. Modern Warfare changed the FPS genre on multiple occasions and Black Ops, while not set in the present day, has always used science fiction and futuristic storytelling to make the games feel fresh and new. In the hype of those two series, a lot of players have forgotten that one of Call of Duty's very best games was a WWII-era throwback. Call of Duty: World at War now feels like a relic, a classic shooter lost to time and belonging to a franchise that didn't seem interested in trying to recreate its magic. Enter Call of Duty: Vanguard, the spiritual sequel to World at War that we've been waiting for and is potentially the most complete CoD launch in years.
Call of Duty is a multiplayer game first and foremost, and Sledgehammer clearly put the time into Vanguard's most important element. The result is an absolute home run of an online experience. There are a handful of little bugs here and there that have been steadily phasing out with updates, but overall it's hard to find flaws in the multiplayer aspect of the game.
Vanguard finally finds a way to bridge the gap between the Modern Warfare series and the franchise's period games. Every non-Modern Warfare title since World at War has felt speedy and erratic to some players, providing a stark and unwanted contrast to the more realistic Modern Warfare gameplay. Vanguard is the best of both worlds, slowing down the pace while also bringing the details of other time periods to the screen. It's also the biggest and most customizable Call of Duty multiplayer game we've ever seen. 16 maps were made available at launch, keeping the game fresh for longer stretches of time. The added ability to choose your pace in Vanguard is an immediate game-changer, allowing some to play at more chaotic speeds and others to take a more tactical approach. It has never been easier to cater your Call of Duty experience to your specific play style.
Multiplayer is a total win for Vanguard, and the campaign isn't too far behind. This is far and away the most cinematic of Call of Duty's campaigns — it's one of the few that could get adapted for the screen rather easily. Instead of weaving a complex narrative to cover all of the locations in WWII, Vanguard creates a story about an undercover group of soldiers, the best of the best pulled from the various Allied forces. A single mission pits the group together but includes several flashbacks that give each individual character a chance to shine and explore their story.
Each of the characters is interesting and given a thoughtful, well-executed backstory, not to mention the voice actors bringing them to life do a great job as well. Dominic Monaghan is particularly impressive as a chilling Nazi officer tasked with questioning the protagonists. With more advanced graphics and technology present in the next-gen consoles, the characters look more realistic than in any previous entry, especially during the cutscenes.
There are three elements to most Call of Duty games, and Vanguard isn't exactly a home run on all three fronts — at least not yet. Despite the plethora of maps and options available for multiplayer at launch, the Zombies mode is pretty bare. There is only one map and game mode available currently, and it's lacking a lot of the excitement and story that fans have come to love about Zombies. This initial mode is a smaller, more focused take on Black Ops Cold War's Onslaught mode, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. The game can be pretty fun but, without anything to actually explore or achieve, it gets repetitive and bland rather quickly. There will obviously be more added to the Zombies mode as new seasons arrive, it's just disappointing to see this area of the game have such a lackluster debut when the rest of the launch is so strong.
Once reinforcements do come for Zombies, it will be hard to argue against Vanguard as one of the best and most complete Call of Duty titles in the last decade, potentially of the franchise's entire history. This is one of the rare times Call of Duty has seriously dug into its past, learned from it, and delivered a new and improved experience. Vanguard sets a high bar for Call of Duty as the franchise moves into the next generation.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Call of Duty: Vanguard is now available for PC, Xbox Series X and Series S, Xbox One, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4. A PlayStation 5 code was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.