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Call Of Duty: Vanguard (multiplayer and Zombies) review: unambitious filler

Bang average

There’s something about Call Of Duty: Vanguard and its multiplayer modes that feels thin. Much like my time with the game’s campaign, I’m left wanting. This is a World War II veneer glossed over a Modern Warfare canvas, with familiar pacing and shooting, but ultimately lacking the weight of Infinity Ward’s reboot.

As a Call Of Duty multiplayer experience, Vanguard delivers. But what it delivers is a stop-gap. An FPS experience that isn’t concerned with pushing the series forwards, or taking risks. Fans will have fun, sure, but its deathmatches and dominations are stuck in the past. Not to mention Zombies, which is too eager to turn back the clock.

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Do something for me real quick would you? Pretend you’re a judge on the Great British Bake Off for a second. It’s FPS week and Call Of Duty: Vanguard has slid a jam sponge onto the table. You lean in for a bite, but it swipes the slice out of your hand and it splats on the floor. You try again, but slice meets floor. Slice, floor, slice floor. Eventually you manage to dodge the slap and have a bite. Turns out it’s... merely okay.

At a base level, Vanguard’s multiplayer is a jam sponge. Classic, inoffensive Call Of Duty. Tasty, but we’ve seen it before. Partaking of its various multiplayer modes is the difficult part. You run and you gun and you hit the floor. Respawn and the cycle continues. Occasionally, you survive and it’s quite fun, but nothing all that spectacular.

This is in spite of Vanguard’s matchmaking options that let you decide how many players you’d like in your matches. These are broken down into different “pacings”: Tactical, Assault, and Blitz. So, in theory, you’d pick Tactical if you wanted a slower, more measured experience. While Assault and Blitz feature bigger teams, bigger maps, and greater chaos. But no matter what I selected, I ended up having a similar time. Bursts of adrenaline, where I dashed around the map and called in some Killstreaks, followed by long stretches of dropping dead moments after respawning. Vanguard is inherently fast - perhaps the fastest Call Of Duty has ever felt - with soldiers that blaze around maps at warp speed. No matter what ‘pace’ you matchmake into, there’s no escaping the crash of bodies that is COD. The meat grinder comes for us all.

A soldier aims at another in Call Of Duty Vanguard, as an explosion goes off in the background.
The game runs just fine at 1080p on my RTX 2070, but boy is it fragile. I've had freezes and crashes to desktop, although these have eased with time and subsequent updates. Still, I don't have total confidence in it yet.
At a base level, Vanguard’s multiplayer is a jam sponge. Classic, inoffensive Call Of Duty. Tasty, but we’ve seen it before.

One thing I can’t knock is the game’s gun play. Vanguard’s weapons feel satisfying to point and shoot, with meaty sounds and solid punch. Customisation has also deepened, with a whopping ten attachments per gun now, as opposed to Modern Warfare’s five. And I’d say the arsenal is just as interesting and characterful, with the rattly STG, booming BARs, and the M1 Garand with its iconic “chiiink” reload catering to many different styles of play.

Everything else is as you’d expect and remains largely unchanged from Modern Warfare. You’ve got the custom loadouts, and the perks, and the killstreaks. The Ninja perk dampens your footsteps; the Intel killstreak is the WWII equivalent of a UAV; the Double Time perk lets you sprint for longer, while the Glide Bomb is WWII's Predator Missile. They linger like aging regulars down the local. Nice to see them hanging around, I suppose, but I’m crying out to see some fresh faces.

That said, I do like that some of the old maps from Call Of Duty: World At War have returned for another bash here. Dome is always a frenetic time set atop the Reichstag, while Castle is a varied scramble through a Japanese fortress. The new maps are strong, too, with the French farmhouses of Bocage and the scorched earth of Numa Numa all providing fun playgrounds to scatter bullets in.

I aim a gun at someone in Call Of Duty Vanguard.
Despite Vanguard's decent arsenal, most people only use one or two 'meta' weapons which seems like a bit of a shame.

Turn to Zombies, though, and it’s an unusually stripped back experience. Over the years, Zombies has become more and more complex. Just look at Call Of Duty: Black Ops Cold War’s offering, which has you teleporting between two different realms. There are bosses and intricate easter egg puzzles to solve. You can even augment your gun’s bullets to electrify, burn, or explode the undead. Year on year, it's transformed from World At War’s simplistic wave-clearing debut, into a dense web of zombie-slaying hijinks.

Vanguard retains many of the mode’s must-haves, alongside its strongest additions. You can Pack-A-Punch your weapons to make them more powerful and chug potions to give yourself boosts to things like reload speeds. Zombies drop scrap which you can use to craft yourself armour and tools to keep the undead at bay, like the clapping monkey. Cold War’s equivalent of ultimate abilities return, like the freezy circle and energy mine. And of course, waves get progressively more difficult as you tick them off. At its core, this sure is Zombies all right.

But there’s a touch of roguelite in the mix now. Zombies has you fend off the undead in a hub world, which features your crafting bench and so on, all conveniently placed in a town square. It’s a fairly large area, with ruined buildings and open spaces to drop the rot, but you can opt to take the action elsewhere. Namely, the hub area is also home to three different portals, each corresponding to a mission type. One has you stay within a floating skull’s radius as it inches forwards, another has you collect slabs which you plug into obelisks, and the final mission type has you hold out in a tight space as the timer ticks down.

Zombies wearing officer uniforms in Call Of Duty: Vanguard.
Another thing, the variety of undead on offer is lacking in comparison to Cold War's offerings. Maybe four, or five at a push? | Image credit: Activision

Complete these and you’ll be whisked back to the hub space with more than just money lining your pockets. Hearts are the new currency, which can be spent at a “Covenant” altar on a rotating selection of upgrades. Things like big damage increases when shooting while standing still, or healing lots when you melee a zombie. You can equip three at a time, and swap them out if you’d like.

And that’s largely, well, it. Despite efforts give the mode a roguelite makeover, its mission structure gets old pretty quick. Cleaving through the undead is fun, sure, but there's only one track to follow: Success lies in cutting down hordes of zombies, pocketing money, earning hearts, and plugging it into your perks and weapons. There aren't any secret asides or avenues to explore outside of this core loop. No bosses. No unlockable areas outside of the hub space. No Trials to gamble your money on. For a quick jaunt, what's on offer is totally fine. But it’s been stripped down so much, that its replay value has been chucked in the skip too.

Ultimately, Call Of Duty: Vanguard is something of a Call Of Duty holding screen for me. Something to keep our trigger fingers busy until the next major release. Sure, it’s enjoyable in spurts, but that’s the problem. There’s no ambition here, no shake-ups, no shift in gears. The COD churn is relentless and this seems like another symptom of the schedule.

And lastly, I’d be remiss not to mention Call Of Duty: Warzone as another component of the Vanguard package. A WWII-flavoured map will replace Verdansk in December, and Vanguard’s arsenal will likely shift over as well. Any weapons levelled here will transfer over to the battle royale, so perhaps this will up my motivation to jump in. But even still, the very fact I’m looking for a source of motivation to play Vanguard says it all, really.

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