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(Pocket-lint) - Some things never change and Call of Duty periodically returning to its original roots is one of those.

World War II holds a fascination for the series that just won’t go away and the latest entry, Vanguard, returns to its well trodden paths once more. But, for all the lurking familiarity, it also brings some welcome changes.

So, while this might seem a gap year for COD purists, can it hold up to the Modern War and Black Ops franchises, maybe even become a third regular series?

It certainly gives it a shot.

Our quick take

When a game series is as regular as Call of Duty, small changes matter, and the gameplay tweaks that Vanguard adds are super welcome.

The campaign might not stay with you for years to come, but it moves at a fair clip and has a bunch of variety to offer. Not least the big roster of multiplayer maps from launch.

It all looks great and we know we’ll still be playing it in six months’ time. Short of Modern Warfare-style sea-change, there isn’t much more you can ask of a modern COD. 

Call of Duty Vanguard review: A bombastic, battling return to form

Call of Duty Vanguard

4.0 stars
  • Tight gunplay
  • Destructibility looks great
  • Plenty of multiplayer maps
  • Good value given the inclusion of Zombies
  • Uneven campaign
  • All a bit familiar


A beginning

If the Second World War itself is one of COD’s repeating fascinations, another is the murky world of special forces operations, so bombastically explored by entries set later in the timeline. It makes sense, then, that Vanguard takes a look at the situations that gave rise to these secretive units, operating by a different set of rules.

Arthur Kingsley is a British fighter tasked with bringing together a globe-spanning team of operatives in Vanguard. As it is set towards the end of the war, the Third Reich is on its knees. However, select Nazi leaders are already plotting a comeback and a Fourth Reich, which needs stopping.

The campaign sees you travel around the war’s fronts, recruiting new members, and this lends it a good sense of variety. You’re not confined just just the trenches or war-torn cities, but also get to see the Pacific and other colourful locales.

Activision / Pocket-lintCall of Duty Vanguard review: A return to form photo 7

Vanguard admirably tries to focus its story more on the characters making up Kingsley's team, with the likes of Polina Petrova getting some nice characterisation. A warning though, it also has a sad tendency to kill people off before we really get to know some of them. There is also some uneven pacing.

Stealth sections are clumsy, and air missions feel like a diversion. The campaign is at its best when offering run-and-gun combat in messy environments with dust and shrapnel flying. That said, the direction of cut-scenes and in-engine story moments is a big upgrade on Black Ops Cold War, with nice framing and colour.

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When your boots are on the ground, you won’t be blown away by the originality of what’s on offer - you’ve quite literally done most of this before. But, for many (us included), that’s more than enough. It's great fun and doesn’t outstay its welcome. It also primes you nicely for the rigours of multiplayer. 

A familiar picture well-painted

Visually, Vanguard looks about as good as you’ve ever seen a Call of Duty game. Playing on PS5, the quality of lighting and effects in the campaign really are impressive, with high resolutions maintained and a rock-steady 60fps to keep things really smooth. There's even a 120fps option if you have a compatible display, although you do have to take a hit on the resolution.

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The addition of highly destructible environments, which also play a major role in multiplayer, makes battlefields feel lived-in and realistic. Shrapnel and fragments of walls and furniture fly about you during frenetic gunfights. 

You'll get to see vibrant jungles and war-torn cliffsides, the destruction of Stalingrad unfolding over time, and arid desert scenes, to boot. It's impressive to see each looking as real and vivid as the last, where back in the day a COD would be set in one of these fronts nearly exclusively.

Character models are also detailed and expressive, albeit a little cliché-ridden. COD has taken impressive strides in sound design in recent years, too, and again that’s evidenced here, with booming explosions and punchy gunfire (sadly this doesn't apply to multiplayer, where the clarity of footsteps and shots is an issue at the time of writing).

Activision / Pocket-lintCall of Duty Vanguard review: A return to form photo 10

However, we’re still waiting for a game in the series to match and eclipse 2019’s Modern Warfare, in all honesty. Not only did that title sound phenomenal, it had a realism to its lighting that was jaw-dropping at times, even despite older hardware. 

Gameplay and multiplayer

Where Vanguard shines most, though, is in its mechanics. While last year’s Black Ops Cold War was cheerful enough, we had a bone to pick with its simplicity. An older game engine meant no weapon mounting and reduced mechanical complexity in multiplayer - dropping into Vanguard and being able to open and close doors again only underlines how silly that dumbing down was. 

Vanguard iterates on Modern Warfare instead, making weapon mounting more versatile, reinstating doors and, in general, feels like an actual step forward. You’ll still occasionally get spawn-trapped and repeatedly destroyed by killstreaks you’ve never managed to earn yourself, of course, but that’s part and parcel of the experience at this stage. 

Activision / Pocket-lintCall of Duty Vanguard review: A return to form photo 12

With a meaty 20 maps to play on at launch, there’s a great sense of variety as you learn the ropes. Yes, four of those are set in Champion Hill, a single round-robin mode that is really more like one big map, but there are also chilly Russian town squares, destroyed countryside areas, airfields and military bases to run around, each with their own routes and secrets to learn.

A new combat pacing system lets you queue up for games with either tactical team numbers (a classic 6v6) or bigger teams for more frantic timings - sticking 24 or even 48 players on a tiny map can lend a crazy feel to affairs. For us, tactical pacing will always feel like the core experience, but it’s cool how developer Sledgehammer Games has embraced the community’s desire for both carnage and easier weapon grinding. 

In purer gameplay terms, guns now have a lot of recoil and things are fairly demanding, with a new gunsmith system offering up to 10 attachment slots to let you customise things. While this does leave you loads of control, the amount of time it takes to make a weapon truly competitive is a bit of a drain. We’re not sure there was anything wrong with the five-attachment past. 

Activision / Pocket-lintCall of Duty Vanguard review: A return to form photo 13

As we mentioned above, the sound settings are still a little off, too. Footsteps can be inconsistent and there is a weird sense of dullness at times. We suspect Sledgehammer will continue tweaking things on this side.

Still, we’ve had a blast on multiplayer so far, to a greater extent than with Black Ops Cold War. This gives us hope that the hardcore community will embrance Vanguard in a way that the last game didn’t merit. 

On top of all that is Zombies - a mode that is normally associated with Treyarch's Call of Duty titles, but has been made in cooperation with that studio this time out. While the main mode will arrive in early December alongside full integration with Warzone, the horde mode presented here is good arcade fun.

It isn't all that new, but to have it in the package is welcome, and increasingly makes COD look like a pretty good slice of value each year, with its three full modes to explore.

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To recap

You get a long of bang for your buck with Vanguard, and most of it is pretty slick - in particular, its refined gunfights and varied locales. That said, there's a ring of familiarity to it all, so don't expect a massively original Call of Duty experience.

Writing by Max Freeman-Mills.