Sledgehammer Games' latest instalment into the long-running shooter series offers up some great improvements, but still feels a bit safe at its core.
Where Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War to a large extent went back to the basics and didn't exactly break new ground last year, the game's campaign mode was far more interesting with its intriguing story and branching narrative. Sledgehammer has decided to go back to a more linear approach that puts a bigger emphasis on cinematic cutscenes in Call of Duty: Vanguard's story, while also teaming up with pretty much every other Activision studio to make more fascinating changes and improvements to multiplayer and Zombies. This leads to the franchise taking a few steps forward, but also a couple of steps back.
The best example of this is the campaign. Call of Duty: Vanguard goes back to letting us experience the fictional World War II events through four peoples' eyes, so I kind of miss last year's dialogue choices and being my own character. On the other hand, this direction is fully warranted and intriguing in its own way because the more cinematic approach and different personalities turns it into a more directed Hollywood-like experience. Having well-known actors bringing these characters to life just strengthens that, even if it sometimes ruins every sense of immersion when you can almost hear the American or British actor's tongue wave the white flag trying to sound German or Russian. Fortunately, the main characters and core plot make up for these shortcomings.
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Those of you looking for an action-packed experience where you're always in control and on the edge of your seat will probably hate all of the in-engine cutscenes with an at times jarring change of visual style playing between missions, but I actually started to appreciate them after a short while because they allow for deeper storytelling. Don't get me wrong, we're not talking about something even close to Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan here, but learning how these four humans became hardened soldiers willing to do anything to complete a mission kept me engaged all the way through.
Diverse gameplay can take some of the credit for this, as those of you who like how different the scenarios in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War are will probably have a lot of fun here as well. You'll be fighting and jumping between moving trains, taking part in massive dogfights above the Pacific, having intense sniper battles, sneaking through a desert and many other things I won't spoil here. All of these are outstanding experiences for the senses, thanks to a really impressive upgrade of the visuals that sometimes look borderline live-action, the always top-tier sound design that gives you goosebumps every time a bullet swoops by and Bear McCreary's both bombastic and beautiful score bringing that little extra. Blend all of this with improved physics and animations, and you might understand why the multiplayer and Zombies get some tiny breaths of fresh air as well.
Because the destructible environments alone fix some of my complaints about Black Ops Cold War's. Being able to shoot through and destroy doors, windows, fences, many walls and such won't just ruin the fun for most campers, but also allows for more tactical approaches without sacrificing the franchise's fast-paced combat. I've done everything from taking an entire team off guard by blowing up a wall and slaughtering them with my SMG before I even managed to finish my "Oh yeah!" Kool Aid Man impression to something as simple as blowing the head of a guy who waited for me to rush through the now splintered door. While handy in all modes, one of my new favourites truly highlights how neat it is.
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Sure, the mix of Gunfight and battle royale in Champion Hill is cool and all, but my latest darling is without a doubt Patrol. This is simply a more engaging version of Hardpoint because the target area is constantly moving, aka patrolling the map. This makes it all but impossible for those bloody campers out there to ruin the fun, while at the same time forcing everyone to consider their tactics and options on the fly. It might not have been as fun in the older games because indestructible areas would lead to fewer ways to approach the target, but Vanguard makes it far more interesting. Your target vanished behind a door to a hallway easily covered by foes? Don't worry. Just obliterate the wall instead. Not only have you hopefully taken out those cocky defenders, but also changed the map for the next round. All of the 20 maps available at launch take advantage of these dynamic physics to different extents, making most rounds unique even if it's not as complex or detailed as Battlefield and Red Faction's counterparts.
All of this is obviously on top of the same fantastic controls, weapons feel and great maps (far better than Black Ops Cold War' too stripped down design), so there's no need for me to gush about fundamentals we've loved for years. The only other things about multiplayer I'll mention is that the time to kill has been lowered a bit from Black Ops Cold War and the system I'd like to call a quality of life improvement even it that might sell it short: Combat pacing.
Saying I was sceptical when Sledgehammer and Raven talked about this before launch would be an understatement. Combat pacing sounds like a fancy word for filtering, but it's actually quite handy even if it's not as ground-breaking as the amount of marketing for it would suggest. If you're happy with classic Call of Duty, select the pacing called Assault to get the traditional player-density on maps and regular modes. Those of you who are younger than this old geezer and prefer to show off your reflexes in maps like Rust and Shipment can instead choose Blitz to fill the maps with more players while I hang out in Tactical where there's room to breathe. You can also filter which modes you prefer and a few other things, which lowers the chance of you ending up in a lobby that makes that exit-button look really tempting. Ground-breaking and a must-have? Not a chance. A nice and helpful addition? Without a doubt, and with 24 maps by the end of the year you'll have a multitude of maps to choose from whatever your preference is.
While multiplayer might have a ton of content at launch, the same can't be said for Zombies. Don't get me wrong. The new map is interesting, especially because the destructible environments take an already intense experience to another level. Not being able to buy weapons from walls, but instead having to hope that those random loot drops from enemies and chests go in your favour also makes every round more diverse and enthralling. Top that, and classic systems like weapon upgrades and Pack-a-Punch, with having to complete objectives to earn the new Sacrificial Hearts that can be used at the mysterious Altar of Covenants to choose from a variety of randomised perks makes an already great core fantastic. My only problem is that it basically feels like a tutorial right now. Why? There are only three enemy types, there's no story and none of our beloved Easter Eggs with secret content are present right now. These won't arrive until Season 1 starts on December 2, which means that Zombies is a fairly shallow horde mode the first four weeks.
You'll still have plenty of great things to dig into before that though, as Call of Duty: Vanguard delivers more of what we want while improvements like destructible environments that enhance both the single-player campaign, multiplayer and Zombies without doing anything ground-breaking. The story is engaging with an fascinating plot and diverse gameplay, while the multiplayer has pulled me back in with the great new Patrol mode and top-tier gunplay. Zombies has some streamlined, but great, changes that makes it feel like the next step even if it's very shy on content. All of this packed into an outstanding presentation that makes us think Call of Duty wants to leave PS4 and Xbox One next year. I really hope it does because Vanguard still feels a bit too safe even if it's great.
8 / 10
Amazing visuals, sound and music.
Cool story with diverse gameplay.
Patrol and combat pacing are great inclusions to multiplayer.
Destructible environments enhances everything
Long cutscenes ruin the flow on some occasions in the campaign,.
Zombies is unnaturally shallow at launch,
Still feels a bit to safe and samey at its core.