If Activision could pick and choose when the Call of Duty series is hot or not, this would be the year where it goes all guns blazing. The publisher faces more competition than usual as Battlefield 2042 and Halo Infinite go toe to toe with its premier FPS, tussling for both mindshare and your time. Consumers are spoilt for choice should they choose to look elsewhere, and with Call of Duty: Vanguard setting the standard, that's what may very well happen. From Sledgehammer Games, this is another solid but safe instalment that sticks to the status quo.

It's at least better than Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, though, which is a bar Activision studios will always want to clear from here on out. That's partly thanks to the returning engine of 2019's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, and those of you who've been playing Warzone for the past 18 months will know exactly what that means. It marks the homecoming of weapon mounting, tactical sprint, and light destructibility, meaning multiplayer matches finally feel like our daily trips to Verdansk once more. It's great to get that manoeuvrability and weapon feel back, even if it means turning the clock back to World War II.

Returning to the time period isn't necessarily a bad choice — it just feels like a very safe one. Sledgehammer Games has been there and done it before with Call of Duty: WWII, so do we really need to storm the beaches of Normandy on D-Day one more time? Thankfully not. The story this time around focuses on four exceptional soldiers recruited from different parts of the world to form a special task force named Vanguard. In the final year of the war, Project Phoenix is what they’re after: a secret Nazi plan run by Hermann Freisinger.

The narrative is very flashback heavy, introducing the four characters and detailing the heroics which led to them being handpicked for the team. Their escapades span the pacific, western and eastern fronts, and North Africa, turning the five or so hour campaign into a bit of a globe-trot. As usual, though, it's the sort of single player fun we've come to expect from a Call of Duty title for generations now.

Polina Petrova, played by Laura Bailey, is the standout character. She's a Russian sniper fighting to take Stalingrad back from the clutches of the Nazis. Based on real-life soldier Lyudmila Pavlichenko, her plight for freedom is both emotional and intense. Call of Duty managed to make us genuinely care for one of its personalities, which isn't something you can often say about the series.

Joining her as part of team Vanguard is Arthur Kingsley as leader, Lucas Riggs the demolitions expert from Australia, and Wade Jackson, a pilot famed for daring stunts. A few other faces form parts of the secret squad, but the aforementioned four are who you'll play as.

Again, much of the plot revolves around the backstories of these characters, allowing the campaign to visit the different theatres of war. Kingsley's story recounts the D-Day landings from a slightly different perspective, Riggs is all about defying the orders of his commander and blowing sh*t up, and Jackson takes to the skies to bomb axis forces. All these levels play out exactly as you'd expect: there's a lot of running and gunning mixed in with elements of stealth and vehicle sections. It's nothing out of the ordinary, but Sledgehammer Games does go the extra mile with abilities unique tied to each character.

Polina is very light on her feet, meaning she can rapidly move about the environment and even partake in a bit of parkour, Nathan Drake style. Arthur can issue basic commands to the AI, Lucas can carry many different types of equipment at once to fuel his lust for explosions, and Wade can temporarily highlight enemies in the nearby vicinity. While they're not exactly game-changing, the neat little features help to make each scenario feel at least a little unique from one another.

But apart from them, this is a traditional Call of Duty campaign through and through. You'll visit different parts of the world, taking down Nazis as you go. As entertaining as that can be, the only truly memorable things are the characters. While it could mean revisiting the 1940's once again, we wouldn't say no to seeing them return in the future.

What also remains conventional and by the book is multiplayer. When we reviewed Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, we signed off by stating: "Activision must buck up its ideas for next year." Guess what: it hasn't done so. Vanguard sticks to the tried and true that turned Call of Duty into a pop culture event a generation ago, stifling any innovation. This means the biggest step forward Call of Duty: Vanguard takes online is — funnily enough — a menu option.

Past titles have allowed you to filter matchmaking to only search for specific modes, but Sledgehammer Games has now gone a step further with a new feature called Combat Pacing. This allows you to dictate the player count of a match, therefore influencing how chaotic it will be. There are three options: Tactical, Assault, and Blitz. Selecting one of the first two will see online bouts play out just like they have in the past with anywhere from six to 12 players on either team, depending on the map. Blitz, however, really ups the ante by flooding matches with players, thus turning engagements into something reminiscent of Shipment from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare or Nuketown of Call of Duty: Black Ops fame. It's complete chaos, and it's fantastic.

The feature covers what is actually a pretty meaty multiplayer package, with 20 maps available at launch. Four of them are exclusive to the new Champion Hill mode, but it still means you could go an entire session without any repeated locations. Whether that actually happens, in reality, is another matter, but regardless, there's a lot here to learn and master. With a long list of weapons and challenges to complete, it's easy to see how one could commit the next few months to the title. Throw free post-launch support on top and Call of Duty: Vanguard will house a heck of a lot of content when all is said and done.

All the fan-favourite modes return alongside new ones like Patrol, which features an ever-moving objective that two teams must fight over. While Sledgehammer Games certainly hasn't reinvented the formula, it has a lot of content to offer upfront for a multiplayer offering that's still solid. Unoriginal it may be at this point, but you can't fault the lengths the developer has gone to provide for its playerbase this time around.

The same cannot be said of this year's Zombies mode, which finds itself in a very awkward position. Actually developed by Treyarch, the traditionally round-based mode has been ditched for objectives. A single hub area at launch teleports you to different locations to complete tasks like escorting an orb about a multiplayer map or surviving an undead onslaught for a set amount of time. The Pack-a-Punch weapon upgrade system returns along with an altar that rewards perks, but that's quite literally all there is to it. There's no easter egg to solve, no main quest to follow.

We actually appreciate the simplicity as past entries have proven far too complicated for us to wrap our heads around beyond a couple of rounds. It means this is the most fun we've had with Zombies in years. However, it's impossible to ignore just how content light the mode is at launch compared to previous efforts. There's still fun to be had here, but it all feels for nought.

At least PlayStation 5 players can look forward to this being a bit of a system showcase, however, with some truly outstanding visuals during cutscenes. You'll only spot them during the campaign, but when Call of Duty: Vanguard goes for it, it goes for it. Some sequences can genuinely compete for the best graphics on PS5 so far. If you don't play the single player for its characters, at least marvel at what Sledgehammer Games has managed to get out of the console just a year into the generation. It's incredibly impressive.

Conclusion

Call of Duty: Vanguard is another incredibly solid but also super safe instalment in the series. Its campaign may be over in a hurry but it's still a fairly memorable one, featuring good characters and outstanding visuals. Multiplayer is another robust package, hosting a ton of content and the promise of more to come. The less said about Zombies the better, but this is a Call of Duty game doing Call of Duty things. Whether that's of any interest or not, you likely already know.