Every year for the past 14 years, Activision has rolled out a Call of Duty without fail. Right on schedule, we got the 2021 edition of the shooter last week in the form of Call of Duty: Vanguard by Sledgehammer Games. I've been hammering away at the Multiplayer and Zombies portions of the massive release as Neowin's Asher Madan dove into the campaign side of things. My time with the multiplayer was solely spent on PC.
Although 2007's Call of Duty 4 was my jam back in the day, the following year's World at War was a respectable side jam although the shooter genre was inevitably moving to contemporary warfare even then. Over the years, World War II was only revisited by Call of Duty by the very aptly named WWII in 2017, which was also by Vanguard studio Sledgehammer. This year's return to that era is powered by Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare (2019) internals, a game that revitalized the franchise in my eyes.
After spending a weekend with Call of Duty: Vanguard, read on to find out how does the Multiplayer and Zombies fare in this entry.
Vanguard multiplayer is filled to the brim with content, but that does not count for anything if the game doesn’t feel good to play. I am happy to say Sledgehammer has crafted a loop that makes me keep coming back for more.
Although the time to kill (TTK) felt a little too fast for my tastes at first, after a brief time I got used to the tempo. In comparison to other Call of Duty entries, it feels closer to Hardcore than Standard in normal matchmaking. Modern Warfare's impressive weapon handling and animations have been kept intact. Tactical sprint, inhuman slides mounting weapons to surfaces, leaning, reloading in any stance, interactive doors and windows are all back, making for an extremely tight combat experience.
With the speed of the movement, it's easy to get used to the bursting through doors, sliding around corners and sprinting across fields. The momentum hits the right spots. Unfortunately, playing by footstep sounds is pretty much a lost cause. It is all about fast reactions and pulling the gun up faster than the other guy. Either everyone is sneaking around using silent perks just to surprise me or the game does not give enough focus to footstep audio. The audio as a whole is not helpful in gaining combat awareness. While positional audio is working fine, with the low TTK, by the time you hear a gun being fired from an unseen direction, it’s already too late to react.
Speaking of guns, just because they are eight decades old doesn't mean customization doesn’t allow for unusual combinations. Major liberties have been taken with the era to keep the Gunsmith customization system varied. Every gun in the game comes with eight attachment slots and two perks. You can certainly make a recoilless laser shooter, but something is given up in turn to make that happen, usually nerfing damage or increasing the time taken to reset the gun from a sprint. As expected, just a weekend in, the community has deemed certain guns and attachment combinations 'too overpowered to not use'. Still, I have not had problems picking up a newly unlocked "underpowered" weapon and having fun gaining streaks.
The weapon and attachment unlock rates are so well tuned in at this point, it's an art. Seeing experience bars tick up at the end of matches to always unlock something new, using the time left until the next match to preview or equip the unlock, whether it be a gun, attachment, cosmetic, or anything else, hit just the right spots just as intended. Last year's Cold War experimented with a score-based streak system, but Vanguard ditches all that to bring back the classic kill streaks, rewarding kill hungry players with boons capable of extending leads or turning tides. These try to be era specific, but it's Call of Duty after all.
The twist game mode of the year is Champion Hill, a fast-paced tournament mode with buy rounds and resource management. While similar to Modern Warfare's Gunfight, it doesn't have the same flair or nail-biting sequences due to purchasable kill streaks and multiple spawns being involved. It has also been a difficult mode to matchmake in my region. I have continued to get matchups with high ping in distant servers.
A small thing that bothers me more than it should is the new MVP selection. This is a group voting session that happens at the end of every round after the play of the match highlight nonsense, adding even more downtime - which you can't skip - between games. Everyone stares at a voting screen without the ability to quit the match for 30 whole seconds while canned animations of players who contributed the most to the match are shown off. It's not a long length of time I admit, but in less than half that time I'm normally able to find a new match to get into. Getting annoyed at something this small preventing me from playing more of the game speaks for how much fun I've been having.
Maps and Combat Pacing
Call of Duty: Vanguard ships with 16 maps for standard multiplayer modes, with four more attached to Champion Hill. I can't remember the last time a multiplayer game launched with so many, easily the highest count a Call of Duty has touted. There are old-school World War II-inspired landscapes with muted colors and ruins, sunbaked desert environments, a Japanese castle, a submarine base and so much more. I have my own list of favorites, from the clear sight lines of Desert Siege and chaos of Das Haus to the nostalgia hit from returning World at War maps, each one is very distinct. While I always think I am over them, getting chucked into a tiny map with lots of things to shoot at will probably never get old.
A seriously cool addition for wading into multiplayer is the new Combat Pacing system. To put it simply, this is a streamlined player count filtering method letting you choose exactly the kind of match you're in the mood to play. From the three flavors available, "Blitz" tries to pack as much as 48 players into the available maps and modes, while "Tactical" tightens the scope to classic 6vs6. The third choice, Assault, is for those who fall into the middle of the two sides.
The system cuts down what would have usually required multiple filters and caused playerbase splinters. Someone looking to relax with mindless shooting can quickly get into a 40-player madhouse with one click on Blitz, where even imagining a reload means a quick trot to the grave. For me though, the old dependable, 6v6 Tactical pacing is yet to disappoint as my preferred poison. The map flow, playstyles of players and engagement times change both organically and dramatically as the player counts fluctuate, so don't think the name Combat Pacing for a filter is misused here. With the implementation, the feature makes the already staggering number of maps even more varied and fun to come back to using a different pacing lens.
The advertised destructible elements like wooden barricades and glass windows don’t factor much into maps. The speed of the game is too great to break a pane of glass, hold position and shoot through. The dynamic covers break when sprinting or vaulting through as well, meaning a minute into a round, they are all obliterated.
Is a Call of Duty game even a true Call of Duty game without bad spawns? Sledgehammer didn't think so. Vanguard firmly grasps the ridiculous spawn algorithm baton from the last entry and valiantly marches forward to offer another system that can only be described as chaotic neutral. Instances of being pulled into battle in front, behind and even side by side of enemies are more common than ever.
The video clip below should accurately convey what I'm describing, where enemies look away thinking "that guy isn't coming back" after dispatching me. Oh, but I do, respawning not once but twice right next to my dead body.
These events aren't limited to smaller maps either. The game really likes to put your operator into action as fast as possible without thinking things through. Thankfully, this is equally as bad for both teams. That's technically balanced, I suppose.
No matter how much content and opportunities to have fun a game can shove in your face, knowing it has a cheater problem makes any odd-looking death a suspicious one, at least for a moment and it's not a good feeling to have. Call of Duty and Warzone have suffered from this for years now. To Vanguard's credit, I haven't met any cheaters, or at least obvious ones, in my time with the launch product. What I can't say is if this is due to sheer luck or Activision's first pass of Ricochet anti-cheat implementation. I have seen a few social media hubbubs of active cheaters encountered by others though it's hard to say yet if the phenomenon is becoming widespread as in previous games.
Ricochet's kernel-level driver is not coming until later, but its robust server-side cheat detection is said to be keeping an eye on any extracurricular activities of script kiddies. The driver is sure to stir up controversies of its own, but if it can deliver on its promises of finally ridding Call of Duty's reputation of being a cheater haven, you won't find me complaining.
While the rest of the game is Sledgehammer's baby, from Treyarch's coffers comes Zombies, Nazi Zombies, to be exact, the supposed third pillar of Call of Duty: Vanguard's launch product. Honestly, I haven't kept track of the crazy demon-infested, multiple universe-spanning storylines of Call of Duty Zombies. I can string together what the current dilemma is about, the opening cutscene and the corny dialog help, but the big picture is admittedly lost on me. The good news is the gameplay does not reflect that; in fact, it offers the complete opposite experience. Intensely streamlined, Vanguard Zombies makes it easy to figure the gameplay loop without knowing anything about the systems in place before jumping in. I spun up the mode while the game was still finishing its download and managed to spend over an hour in a run without ever going down.
The sole problem here lies in not having enough to do. Replacing the standard round-based map, a central hub serves as the place to activate perks and upgrade weapons in relative safety. Once a squad is ready, they can pick one of the portals available to go do one of the three flavors of what can only be described as side-missions. This involves farming zombies for a certain number of drops, surviving against waves in a small area for a time and escorting a zombie head. And that's it.
There is no main quest or Easter Egg hunt, only three types of zombies are currently available and all the locations, including the hub and the few teleporting areas, are from multiplayer maps. There's nothing to work towards and there is no point to replaying the same content a second time. If you play it for a few rounds, you have seen everything Zombies has to offer at launch. It is the complete opposite experience of what I've been thrown at in Multiplayer.
Zooming into a diabolically decorated room like a Speedster, holding down the trigger on an overpowered weapon and seeing all the zombie heads explode is still gruesomely satisfying. The rest of the experience feels undone, not undead. This is more like a teaser of what's to come from Treyarch than a full-fledged mode worthy enough to hold the space next to the campaign and multiplayer in the launch menu.
Graphics and performance
Call of Duty: Vanguard multiplayer visuals don't attempt at reaching the levels of its single-player counterpart, but it makes up with high frame rates. On PC, the game is optimized through the roof. Considering the reach Call of Duty has, Vanguard was easily pumping my 1080p display with over 60FPS on an AMD Radeon RX 580 with a mixture of ultra and high settings on 1080p without any dynamic resolution usage or downscaling.
There is an ungodly number of graphics options available to tweak for even the most minute alterations. I do wish the preview comparison for each setting was a little more detailed or even real-time instead of simply supplying two shots side by side. At first launch, Vanguard models looked a little smudged on the edges. Switching off anti-aliasing and enabling the FidelityFX CAS option delivered the much-needed crispness.
Another bonus for frame rate fanatics is the inclusion of Nvidia DLSS and AMD FidelityFX Super Resolution (FSR). I cannot speak for how well DLSS looks here, but anyone with a non-RTX graphics card wanting more frames should really investigate at least enabling FSR's Ultra Quality. This will grant a very much appreciated frame rate boost without discernible visual degradation.
Call of Duty: Vanguard is throwing at multiplayer fans exactly what they want, tons of maps. With 16 in the bag, hour long stretches can happen without having a repeat location and Combat Pacing adds another layer of variation. This content flood is paired with tried-and-true gameplay systems lifted straight out of Infinity Ward’s gem from 2019. Aside from the traditional spawning issues and adding another unskippable post-match sequence, I’ve had a lot of fun with the game, which is not something I expected to say after the beta shenanigans. If you loved the gunplay and movement systems of Modern Warfare, and is itching for more map variety, Vanguard is a perfect pick up.
The game doesn’t do much to advance the franchise, with the World War 2 setting ending up being a skin pack on the same old multiplayer formula. At the same time, Call of Duty didn’t become this successful by trying new things ever year.
The multiplayer is so jam-packed, the Zombies mode’s shocking lack of content doesn't impact me personally very much. However, for anyone eying to buy Vanguard for its undead experience, I strongly advice holding off at least until a major update or two arrives.
Call of Duty: Vanguard is available for purchase on Battle.net for PC as well as Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation 5 for $59.99.
This multiplayer review was conducted on PC using a Battle.net code provided by Activision Blizzard.
If you're interested in hearing about the single-player campaign of Vanguard, check out our own Asher Madan's review of that portion here.