Call of Duty: Vanguard – Ultimate Edition Review – PC & PS5

Welcome to another yearly installment in our Call of Duty review series.  These reviews, much like the game, have taken on a Mad Libs style of design where I simply plug in a few variables and generate a review.  After all, if the designers can’t be bothered to come up with something remotely original why should I?  This is an “off year” release for the franchise, as Call of Duty: Vanguard was developed by Sledgehammer, the arguable B-team of alternating studios, and it clearly shows; especially when compared to last year’s Black Ops: Cold War game.  Vanguard falls short in just about every way from technical presentation to game design that has been stripped down to something that can only be described as disappointing.

Call of Duty has clearly become a live service product, as noted by the introductory hub that offers up the last four games including Warzone.  Finding the Vanguard option on the far left, you are given options for campaign, multiplayer, and zombies; pretty standard stuff.  For the purpose of this dual format review I played the campaign to completion on the PS5 but only made it to the third chapter on the PC (Stalingrad) due to horrible screen tearing that was making me motion sick.  So far, nothing we have tried eliminates this screen tearing at either a software or hardware level.  It happening on three very different computers using an RTX3080 and an RTX3090 card.  V-sync in the game and the video card settings does nothing, nor does changing resolution or quality settings.  Sadly, all of our multiplayer coverage including Zombies was going to be based on Mitch’s review of the PC version, so at this time our review is only going to cover the campaign.  We hope to update our coverage once the PC version becomes “playable”.

Thankfully, the PS5 is immune to the screen tearing, offering up a visually pleasing experience with slightly less detail, dynamically reduced resolution, and a few noticeable cuts in special effects and texture quality.  An early and obvious example happens in the second mission after you bail out of a plane and are sneaking through a dark forest.  Distant AA fire lights up the night sky, creating these gorgeous god rays that streak through the trees on PC, while the PS5 merely brightens the scenery without the directional lighting.  Most of the sacrifices on the PS5 are superficial and stuff you wouldn’t even notice unless you were playing them side by side looking for them.

One thing I was expecting on the PS5 was the haptic feedback that really made last year’s Cold War game unique with its variable trigger resistance across the different guns along with the powerful rumble effects for explosions and such.  My hands, or at least my trigger finger, would literally get too sore to play after about two hours.  While there are rumble and haptic toggles in the PS5 options menu they seem to do nothing.  Aside from some slight rumble during the more extreme moments in the game there was no resistance in the triggers and no direct feedback when wielding the larger weapons like the MG42.  The PC version using my Elite II gamepad had slightly better rumble effects; more obvious and effective than the PS5 but still rather generic.

Call of Duty has always offered up a great story/campaign mode, except for the one year they didn’t.  Vanguard is all over the place with its story, both in structure and pacing.  There is no real linear narrative; rather you start the game with a very exciting train mission stripped right from Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order, followed by an assault on a submarine base that ends with one team member dead and the rest tossed into a holding cell at Nazi HQ.  For the rest of the game leading up to the final mission you will get to play out the origin stories for the surviving members of Vanguard, as each is interrogated by the SS as to their knowledge of Project Phoenix.

This leads to a rather sporadic gameplay experience where you don’t play any one character long enough to truly care about them.  It does offer the unique ability to present key WWII battle moments spanning multiple locations and times during the war.  One minute you are sneaking through a frozen Stalingrad and the next you are sweating away in the African desert going up against Rommel’s tank forces or dive bombing a Japanese aircraft carrier in the Battle of Midway.  There are admittedly a lot of thrilling moments throughout Vanguard but nothing seems to gel or come together as one cohesive story.

Part of the pacing issue has to do with the abundance of cutscenes, all of which are excellent quality and tell their compelling part of the overall story, but overwhelm the gameplay with their constant interruptions to the point where you often toss your controller in despair and go make some popcorn.  Looking at the chapter breakdown there are 18 selectable thumbnails, half of which are filmstrip icons indicating a story break.  And this doesn’t even factor in the in-game cutscenes where more exposition is delivered during lengthy, scripted, non-interactive moments.  To make matters worse, the major cutscenes are pre-rendered and displayed at a locked 24fps, which can be very jarring after playing the game at 60fps.

Another limiting factor is the lack of any hidden intel hidden throughout the game that would incentivize replaying levels or even exploring beyond the narrow linear path you’re meant to follow.  With the exception of the expansive post office level that feels more like a multiplayer battle arena, most missions keep you locked on a very strict path leading to compact encounters and scripted action sequences.  Since there is no intel and no reason to explore the level designers weren’t compelled to create anything beyond the intended path, almost giving Vanguard an on-rails feel.

Arguably, most people who play Call of Duty aren’t here for the campaign.  Sadly, I gave up on having any sort of fun with the multiplayer modes that have since become so monetized and live-service oriented, and even the zombie mode has been slipping over the years.  I dabble with each new installment during the pre-release betas and pretty much get my fill of the immature community and cookie-cutter game design, which this year has been stripped down to the bare basics.  Hopefully, Sledgehammer can fix their v-sync issues so my PC reviewer can complete his coverage on the various multiplayer modes including zombies, otherwise I may have to suck it up and give the online modes of the PS5 version a shot.

Call of Duty has been slipping over the years and now I hear this is the worst selling installment in 14 years.  Sadly, I’m not surprised.  With a disappointing campaign where you watch as much as you play and stripped down multiplayer and stale Nazi zombies, Vanguard truly is the icing on the expired cake of Activision’s day-old bakery.  Hopefully Activision starts to realize that we don’t need yearly rushed and incomplete installments, and fans are perfectly happy to wait for quality.  Just look at Halo Infinite.  I guess we’ll have to wait until next November to see if Activision gets the message. Until then, keep on soldiering and hopefully we’ll be back with a multiplayer update soon.

If you want to see Vanguard in action check out the first 90-minutes of the game in our PS5 First-Look video.

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