You might be thinking, “Geez, another World War II first-person shooter.” But there’s something inherently special about the WW2 FPS in the world of video games, dating all the way back to id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D in 1992.

I see each hardware generation’s take on the Second World War as stepping-stones, marking the leaps in production and fidelity that our beloved medium has exhibited over the last thirty-plus years. Call of Duty: Vanguard is our latest step, and an impressive one it is. We’ve come a long way since the original Call of Duty and Medal of Honor games of yore, and certainly a very long way since the original Wolfenstein. I’m confident in saying that killing Nazis has never looked, sounded, and felt better.

Vanguards graphical fidelity and sound design may be top-notch, but the game’s plot hasn’t necessarily made the same forward leaps. Of course, there are only so many stories to tell about Nazi political coups, captured Allied soldiers fighting for survival, and revenge against especially heinous Nazi officers who killed any number of the hero’s family members.

Vanguard’s Campaign Shows Promise

There’s only so fresh of a take you can have on the defense of Stalingrad, only so many ways to storm the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, and only so many ways to engage in aerial dog fights with Japanese aircraft. But that’s not really an issue in this case, is it? Because the tragedy and triumph of World War II and those who fought it are infinitely interesting, and always will be.

Call of Duty: Vanguard Gameplay
War is hell in Call of Duty: Vanguard

What Vanguard does do is introduce a Suicide Squad scenario to the mix. It may not be particularly unique, but it’s a fresh enough take to make the game’s campaign vastly engaging and entertaining throughout the whole of its roughly seven-hour campaign.

The cinematic campaign follows a motley crew of ragtag Allied fighters (and any other number of clichéd descriptors), personally selected by the Special Operations Executive due to their individual combat experience and Nazi-killin’ prowess.

The first mission takes place in Hamburg, Germany in 1945. The player is dropped into the shoes of Czechoslovakian partisan fighter Milos Novak, who, with the other members of Task Force Vanguard, is working to hijack a Nazi train in search of information related to a clandestine Nazi project dubbed “Phoenix.” As you might expect, the mission goes awry and the team is captured by Untersturmführer Hermann Freisinger (Dan Donohue), one of the game’s primary antagonists.

The game’s main plot continues from there, but the bulk of the campaign takes place in flashbacks that show how the team’s individual members made an impact on the battlefield and eventually ended up being selected for the task force.

The Characters of Call of Duty: Vanguard

The player goes on to take control of British team leader Lieutenant Arthur Kingsley (Chiké Okonkwo), Russian sniper Polina Petrova (Laura Bailey), American airman Wade Jackson (Derek Phillips), and Australian demolitionist Lucas Riggs (Martin Copping) in a variety of different mission types and locations.

In Game Screenshot Call of Duty: Vanguard
Stalingrad in Call of Duty: Vanguard

Each character’s missions highlight their unique abilities and strengths. Petrova’s highlights her sniping, quick sneaking, and climbing abilities, Riggs’s highlights his penchant for making things explode, and Kingsley’s are more traditional Call of Duty fare, like storming the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.

Kingsley is not without his own ability, though it is arguably the least interesting—his leadership. Kingsley has opportunities to command squadmates in certain combat scenarios, such as whether to focus fire on an enemy tank/turret gunner or on the flanking Nazi infantry. These scenarios often offer multiple viable ways to progress, giving the player a sense of choice and agency.

The least fun missions are Wade Jackson’s dogfights. While the spectacle of a sky swarmed with planes is something to behold, I found controlling Jackson’s aircraft to be the least engaging and least developed form of gameplay. Flight feels stiff, and targeting and firing upon enemy aircraft is a slog. I felt like I was flying around aimlessly and not really doing much, but eventually, these segments end as if the game itself is aware of how hard it is to successfully destroy more than a couple of enemy aircraft. Fortunately, these segments are brief, and the game gets your boots back on the ground before flight gets too tedious.

In-Game Screenshot: Call of Duty: Vanguard
A cup of tea after a long day on the battlefield

How Hard is Call of Duty: Vanguard

Desiring a healthy bit of challenge, I played the campaign on the Hardened difficulty, which is a step above Regular and a step below Veteran (the game’s highest difficulty). I found Hardened’s balancing ideal, as it demands more thought, awareness, and strategizing in battle, while never feeling punishing.

That’s not to say I didn’t die a bunch, but I never had to restart any section more than a handful of times. The only aspect of gunfights I found annoying was the occasional inclusion of hostile dogs. They’re easy to dispatch if you’re paying attention, but this usually means watching your AI squadmates have all the fun as you sit behind cover and wait for the dogs to charge you because they will instantly kill you if they get the jump (at least on Hardened and Veteran).

Following in the footsteps of 2019’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Vanguard is just as visibly and audibly stunning. Lighting and shadows look incredibly realistic, be it the roaring flames of a burning farmhouse in the black of night, lamplight shining through the cracks of the floorboards above as you sneak through a pitch-dark basement, or god rays peeking through the tops of trees above.

The sound design contributes greatly to the feeling of realism as well, whether you’re hearing the whizzing of bullets flying past your head, the deafening crack of an artillery shell exploding, or the startling battle cry of a soldier charging at you with a bayonet. I was especially impressed when a buckshot-blasted Nazi fell back into a hutch and the tableware and china it held crashed to the floor in cacophonous grandeur.

During non-combat scenarios like walking through a crowded friendly base camp or a bustling market square, the atmospheres feel lively as chatter abounds and conversations can be heard between NPCs everywhere.

In-Game Screenshot Call of Duty: Vanguard
Ahh, the view!

Acting and facial animations vary. However, It makes sense that the core cast of characters are the most realized with full facial capture, including prominent NPC squadmates like Sergeant Richard Webb (Simon Quarterman), who features prominently in Kingsley’s missions and who stood out to me the most. These characters are so well done that nonessential NPCs idling about the aforementioned friendly hubs look distractingly worse by comparison. Their facial animations and bodily movements are much less lifelike, though this didn’t compromise my experience in any way.

Performance is Key in Call of Duty: Vanguard

The game’s performance on PS5 is great, but not perfect. Once in-game, instantaneous load times significantly ease the pain of death as the player is tossed right back into the action. On the other hand, the campaign is plagued by occasional frame rate drops. Surprisingly, even cutscenes suffer from these drops (most, if not all, stutter upfront). I found that the stuttering didn’t hamper my enjoyment in any real way, though it was hard to ignore. If the story was more important, I may have been much more bothered by choppy cutscenes.

In-Game Screenshot Call of Duty: Vanguard
Nice day for a drive

Despite these small performance imperfections, Call of Duty: Vanguard’s single-player experience is as cinematic and satisfying as ever. It may not last particularly long, but in a gaming climate marked increasingly by ginormous open worlds that take dozens of hours to complete, I find brisk campaigns refreshing. In fact, I’d have loved to play Vanguard again on Veteran difficulty were my backlog of as yet played games not growing longer by the week. The game doesn’t overstay its welcome, and slaying Nazis with knives, guns, and grenades is as satisfying during the game’s fiery finale as at its very beginning. If first-person shooters are your thing, there’s no reason to miss this one.

For more Reviews, check out our Elden Ring Review here

THE GOOD
Captivating characters
Exquisite sound design and visuals
Campaign is just the right length
THE BAD
Frame rate drops and stutters, even during cutscenes
Stiff and unsatisfying aeirial combat
9
Superb

Review Summary

Despite small performance imperfections, Call of Duty: Vanguard’s single-player experience is as cinematic and satisfying as ever. It may not last particularly long, but in a gaming climate marked increasingly by ginormous open worlds that take dozens of hours to complete, I find brisk campaigns refreshing. In fact, I’d have loved to play Vanguard again on Veteran difficulty were my backlog of as yet played games not growing longer by the week. The game doesn’t overstay its welcome, and slaying Nazis with knives, guns, and grenades is as satisfying during the game’s fiery finale as at its very beginning. If first-person shooters are your thing, there’s no reason to miss this one.

Jesse Van Horn

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