In the last four years since Sledgehammer Games released Call of Duty: WWII, Activision’s perennial shooter series has undergone its most massive transformation since 2007’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. The rise of Warzone from 2019’s Modern Warfare reboot has necessitated that each annual Call of Duty game no longer function as a standalone product, but as the next appendage of a complex, overarching platform.
Nowhere is this more obvious with Call of Duty: Vanguard than on the main menu screen, which is divided into equal fourths: one sliver reserved for Vanguard, one for Warzone, one for Black Ops Cold War, and one for Modern Warfare.
It’s hard to imagine this release strategy not impacting the developers’ creative decisions in some capacity. Instead of each Call of Duty game servicing the fans’ demands and their own ambitions, they now must also service Warzone’s particular demands, too—namely in how it’s used to sell microtransactions, but also on a gameplay level. The first game to have to do so was Cold War, and the integration of that game’s content into the Warzone ecosystem nearly broke the billions-earning free-to-play title. Vanguard, having learned from its predecessor, seems poised for the transition, but it’s also forced the game to make some questionable creative choices, especially for a World War II Call of Duty title.
Listen, I don’t care if Vanguard—a World War II shooter—is historically accurate or not. I’ve always felt that Call of Duty did an admirable job at portraying the “greatest hits” of World War II’s battles from the perspectives of normal infantry soldiers, but even then there are limitations to how much reverence for sacrifice a video game can have. (Besides, the way that some people cry about how weapons and other various machinations of death appear in different forms of media can border on the fetishistic. Do I think World War II weapons are cool? Yes. Am I going to get upset when a U.S. soldier fires an MP40? No. I can’t be arsed to care that much.)
With that in mind, the way that Vanguard has to bend over backwards to fit its World War II fiction into the obligations of Warzone is downright comical. This is most obvious in the game’s multiplayer, specifically with its Gunsmith, which has now appeared for the third year in a row and will continue to appear as long as Warzone requires it. The Gunsmith made a lot of sense when it debuted in 2019’s Modern Warfare, as modern military weapons are much more modular than their historical counterparts. In Vanguard, the modifications that Gunsmith allows you to make are so absurdly ahistorical that they kind of circle all the way back to being cool. Like, can you even tell what popular World War II gun this is supposed to be?
The other area where Vanguard’s multiplayer is making obvious concessions to Warzone’s need to feed the microtransaction monster is in its Operators. When Modern Warfare introduced Operators as a way to drive microtransactions, their inclusion still made sense within the multiplayer’s fiction. Both Modern Warfare and Cold War had Operators that served on either side of the conflict the games presented because, for some reason, it’s still socially acceptable to make KGB agents (who are Cold War’s “bad guys”) look cool. Vanguard, perhaps learning a lesson from Battlefield V, has steered away from making Nazis customizable and opted instead to not include them in the game’s multiplayer at all.
Considering Sledgehammer’s obligation to make Vanguard’s character models monetizable, that’s undoubtedly the smart decision. However, this means you now have Allied soldiers killing Allied soldiers during small skirmishes in World War II-adjacent locations, with players using the same character models no matter what side they’re on. Does it impact gameplay? Yes, it does, but only to a small extent, considering enemy players still have giant red name tags over their heads. Moreso, it breaks the fiction that World War II was fought between the Allies and the Axis, which is possibly going a step too far.
None of this makes Vanguard’s multiplayer less fun than any other Call of Duty game, but it does make it feel cheaper. If previous World War II–themed Call of Duty games at least appeared primarily motivated by the desire to faithfully translate war into a game, Vanguard feels primarily motivated by how World War II makes sense within the Warzone platform.
Perhaps more surprising is how this attitude of Vanguard functioning essentially as new wallpaper for Warzone has wormed its way into the game’s campaign. Because Vanguard needs to sell its Operators as action figures to dress up, its story needs characters who could stand out as individuals.
That’s where members of the titular proto special ops group come in. British lieutenant Arthur Kingsley, American hotshot pilot Wade Jackson, Soviet sniper Polina Petrova, and Aussie demolitions expert Lucas Riggs seem to tick off every box in the “ragtag group of badasses” checklist. Arthur is the stoic, loyal leader who, as a black man in a position of power, constantly needs to prove himself to the world, but not to his friends. Wade is an egomaniac with the skills to back it up who has to learn how to work as a team. Lucas is rough around the edges, but he’s as reliable as anyone and damn good at blowing stuff up. And sharpshooter Polina has an insatiable thirst for revenge after Nazis killed her entire family.
As obvious as a lot of these characters are, they’re still functional in their respective roles. None of them particularly stand out, but they’re all generally likable (except for maybe Wade). The problem, however, is the way in which Sledgehammer’s writers have structured Vanguard’s campaign around them. Essentially, the entire team spends most of the game’s story in a jail cell in Berlin, taking turns getting interrogated by a sniveling Nazi officer. The gameplay scenarios, therefore, center on each team member’s backstory and how they came to join Vanguard. The result is a story that is utterly without stakes, where exciting moments feel hollow because they completely lack any sense of dramatic tension, and where boring moments are devastating to the pacing because there’s no sense that the payoff will be worth it.
That also means that, despite the fact that Vanguard is supposed to be the team that takes on the weirder, most classified missions to subvert the Third Reich, you’ll still be visiting some of the most played-out World War II scenarios—with a twist. As Arthur, you’re still storming the beaches during D-Day, but this time you’re one of the soldiers who lands before everyone else to sabotage Nazi artillery. And as Wade, you’re still flying in the Battle of Midway, but you also crash behind enemy lines and have to survive in the Japanese jungle. The ending obviously sets up a sequel where the story will actually focus on Vanguard’s mission instead of just using it as a backdrop for a series of flashbacks, but I found it hard to care, since I basically felt like I could have been playing any World War II game at that point.
As much as Vanguard seems to exist to serve Warzone, it’s still a fun game, and all of the compelling progression that the last two titles have introduced exists in Vanguard. While the multiplayer’s two new modes—Patrol and Champion Hill—probably won’t leave their marks the way that Modern Warfare’s Gunfight did, they’re fine additions to the series’ classic offerings. Really, the best part about Vanguard’s multiplayer is the new Combat Pacing system, which dynamically adjusts the amount of players in a server based on the map and mode. For someone who likes at least a little bit of room to breathe, I generally preferred the slower Tactics pacing, though every so often it’s fun to dip into Assault or Blitz for a bit more chaos.
The third part of Vanguard is its co-op Zombies mode, and I suspect this will be the most controversial for longtime fans. Vanguard’s Zombies mode feels much more casual than previous entries, especially at launch. Here, Stalingrad functions as a main hub of sorts, from which you can start quick missions, upgrade your weapons, and refill your ammo. You have to reach a certain threshold of missions completed in order to exfiltrate from Stalingrad and win the round, but you can also choose to keep going.
It’s definitely not as compelling or detailed as previous Zombies modes, but it’s still fun for someone like me who never spent that much time with Call of Duty Zombies in the first place. Still, I suspect that diehard Zombies players will feel underwhelmed by the challenge and depth (or lack thereof) that this year’s iteration has to offer. Sledgehammer developers have stated that “Der Anfang,” the name of the Zombies campaign, is just the beginning of everything that Zombies will have to offer (the name literally translates to “the beginning”), but going off what we have right, it feels more like a quick and easy way to level up weapons and Operators than a fully fleshed-out mode.
I imagine that it’s a challenge to drum up excitement every year for a new Call of Duty title, but Vanguard seemed like a particularly difficult one for Activision’s PR team. (In fact, I didn’t even receive my review code until the day the game launched.) While a cool, alternate take on the normal World War II theme would seem like a no-brainer for a series like Call of Duty, that doesn’t seem like the focus in Vanguard. Instead, this year’s title seems to primarily function as an addendum to Warzone, which has all but consumed the series from which it spun off. If you view Vanguard as an expansion to the Call of Duty platform, it does its job. But as a standalone title, Vanguard feels haunted by the ghost of the series’ past, when Call of Duty used to create compelling World War II games.
Images: Activision Blizzard
Call of Duty: Vanguard sometimes strains under the pressure of fulfilling its obligations to the all-consuming Warzone platform that the series has become. Vanguard’s Gunsmith and Operators might dictate the game’s World War II fiction in weird and hilarious ways, but it can still offer the same thrills you’d expect. Still, there’s no denying that Vanguard feels like a watered down entry for the franchise, which is now more motivated by microtransactions than by telling a compelling World War II narrative.
M - Mature
|Call of Duty: Vanguard is available on Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC. Primary version played was for Xbox Series X. Product was provided by Activision Blizzard for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|