The thing that stands out most playing Vanguard is that it's one of the most interesting narrative constructions the series has ever tried. The main story, set at the end of World War 2, unfolds on two levels with a stage play-like presentation, as the main characters talk in a Nazi jail cell or interrogation room, dealing with an excellent Dominic Monaghan as a weasly SS officer, Jannick Richter. As this smaller-scale story progresses, the larger action unfolds as each character is called for interrogation, and you play a level that explains who they are and why they're fighting.
Release Date: November 5
Platform(s): PS5/4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, PC
Developer: Sledgehammer Games
What it produces is a series of short story vignettes, linked by the interrogation plot, but that more or less stand alone. Each one explains the various characters' backgrounds and how they got to be a part of a group of allied soldiers sent behind enemy lines to investigate something called Project Phoenix, something so top secret that even most Nazis don't know what it is.
It's a fascinating approach for a game that usually just starts with explosions and progresses by adding more. There are a lot of dialogue-heavy, one on one scenes as you piece everything together through Richter's intimate interrogations. It's probably not going to sit well if you're impatient and just want to shoot things, but over time I found the slow burn build really grew on me and, towards the end when Richter starts to see the moving parts of a plan he's not a part of, it was edge of the seat stuff. Dominic Monaghan deserves a lot of the credit here, creating a sort of shitty, oily middle management villain that you almost pity as much as hate.
The only downside to this high concept set-up is that it's a pretty cold start that takes time to warm up. The opening level - taking place on a decent enough train hijack set-piece - sees a bunch of characters bantering and quipping like it's the final scene of a movie. It's alienating initially, with grating frat boy whooping and wisecracking team interplay that feels like it's leaving you out. It's only after a few of the stand-alone stories and interrogation scenes that you start to warm to the various characters.
Hero of the hour
These self contained moments for each character are full of great sections, ideas, and specific mechanics tied to various roles within the team. The leader, Arthur, has a nighttime D-Day parachute raid that dodges all the usual heroic cliches and instead plays on the terror of being lost in the dark behind enemy lines and touches more than a few horror notes along the way. The Russian sniper Polina's story follows her life being destroyed by the German invasion, through a revenge tale with a really interesting, fast-flowing stealth system. An American pilot called Wade gets a big aerial battle, blowing up Japanese aircraft carriers before assaulting a pacific island. And finally, the Australian explosive expert, Lucas, fights explosive nighttime raids and tank battles across Libya.
All these beats have something worthy of praise from atmosphere to pacing, mechanics, location, and more. Arthur's D-Day level riffs so hard on horror in places I wouldn't have batted an eyelid is an actual monster turned up. He can also direct his teammates to attack specific targets which uniquely articulates his leadership role. Polina has some great stealth sections with a free-flowing movement system that lets you move in and out of hiding places to create a fast and dynamic game of cat and mouse. Wade has a focus ability to see enemies and auto-target them, while Lucas can carry just about every grenade and explosive in the game at once, and use a precise targeting arc to throw them. Those last two also do a really good job of dialing into the Second World War hero fantasies with big battle set pieces and spectacle. Throughout it all, and whatever you're doing, it also looks fantastic, with great locations, details, and lighting that really show just how good that Modern Warfare engine is.
Outside of the single-player the multiplayer is also shaping up well. I had a lot of reservations after hating both the alpha and beta, but the final product is, so far, great fun. There's a pleasingly balanced feel to the back and forth of gunfire that doesn't feel unfair - most encounters involve a good trading of fire and if you lose you know where you went wrong. I've had very little of the sudden fastest trigger wins insta-deaths that can suck the fun out of an online game. Even someone of my resoundingly average abilities has so far felt involved, and meaningful in matches, with objective-based rounds often having a great push and pull that can keep the tension tight until the last minute. The maps have a lot of character too. They look great, with danger zones and tactically vital areas quickly stand out - understanding and using the layouts can quickly turn a match.
The only thing that's a bit… [shrugs] right now is the Zombies mode. So far it's just a basic horde wave set up, with its full features due to start appearing in December. That will add more objectives, gear, and features, with mention of a 'main quest' coming soon after. Without any of that it all feels a bit like a placeholder demo right now, with no real meat to it. Each time I've played it with a team of people we've basically ended up extracting and getting out because we'd just had enough. With nothing to aim for right now other than seeing how long you can survive it's got a limited, short-lived appeal for the time being.
That, hopefully, will be fixed in time, but even without the undead extras there's enough to Call of Duty: Vanguard to make it one of the better recent installments - up there with Modern Warfare and better than Cold War. The story starts slow and its smaller character-focused framing might not be for everyone but the levels themselves are all great little stories in their own right, and do a good job of making you like the characters. By the final level, I was pretty much cheering the team along. After the separate sections to introduce everyone at the start, the final levels meshes everyone together in a beautifully clever way as gameplay passes you from one to the next depending on what's needed. And, with the single-player done, the multiplayer feels like something I'll happily settle in for a few rounds of an evening for a while to come. Games feel evenly matched and fun right now, with very in the way of frustrating imbalances. I'm going to need a bit of time to think about where this sits in the COD rankings but right now it's up somewhere high for me.
Reviewed on PS5 with code provide by Activision