It’s Sledgehammer Games’ turn to tackle the puzzle of turning an old formula new again. Call of Duty Vanguard’s early multiplayer beta starts showing wrinkles from games before. The WW2 setting gently fills in the 2021 Call of Duty release. But does so under the shadow of Modern Warfare and Black Ops: Cold War - games which have cemented a live service formula.
But that’s also the precarious step Sledgehammer Games takes in their annual Call of Duty game. Pondering a question of whether a game is needed every year. The live service elements are bound to keep players across the Cold War or modern-day battlefields. Sledgehammer injects this service to make a living, breathing WW2 shooter for recent memory.
Luckily, Call of Duty Vanguard does add new player improvements which are bound to change the series going forward. Sledgehammer Games doesn’t exactly innovate in terms of the WW2 setting. The tried-and-true setting nicely fits players back to the series’ roots. It’s a welcome ground for warfare, making it more interesting to see how an older era escapes the modern shadow. As a result, players see bigger changes to gameplay over substance. By offering the most tactile controls in a Call of Duty game, the beta alone felt like a polished experience.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first - Call of Duty Vanguard can easily be considered a sequel to 2017’s Call of Duty: WWII. Sledgehammer boldly attempts to revisit the historic-era games which dominated the 2000’s. The series saw an important shift with 2007’s Modern Warfare, revolutionizing the genre and propelling Call of Duty closer to the future. WWII scaled things back with a stronger focus for nostalgia and core “boots on the ground” gameplay. More importantly, players come full circle with the inclusion of Vanguard in a trilogy of definitive games. Fueled by a unified live service and Warzone, players can seamlessly bounce across three eras of Call of Duty (WW2, Cold War and the present day).
"Call of Duty Vanguard’s beta only gave players a generous slice of the full multiplayer suite."
Call of Duty Vanguard’s beta only gave players a generous slice of the full multiplayer suite. As expected, you’re thrust back into the boots of a WW2 trooper. The twist - Vanguard talks about the rise of special forces troops. This translates directly into the skills of your player. From maintaining the slides, vaults and weapon mounting, it’s easy to preserve the more advanced Modern Warfare mechanics. In turn, Vanguard also fittingly offers the most tactile controls compared to 2017’s WWII.
I’m happy to see Sledgehammer go back to basics while making quality of life upgrades to WWII. Vanguard does more, through a slightly revamped movement system and destructible environments. But these are just slight changes to Call of Duty’s new groove. Players who loved WWII get that experience - with the modernized tactical controls of MW and CW. Taking notes from Doom Eternal, Sledgehammer makes these upgrades through the environment interactions.
There’s a new layer of realism in how soldiers can take advantage of their surroundings. Like Daniel Craig running through drywall, players can now do the same in Vanguard. Multiplayer maps start off with a clean battleground that crumbles by the end of it. This includes board walls, doors and panes which can be sprinted through. Players not looking to be noisy can also be smart. By shooting through these barriers and even creating a peephole, Vanguard adds a bit of strategy in all the frantic noise.
There’s a bit of Killzone 3’s cover mechanics in Vanguard. Players can now blind fire - which surprisingly works for crowd control and suppression when it matters. Firing blindly isn’t as graceful as from the hip. But players can have less exposure when returning fire. It’s one of the new manoeuvres players can seamlessly transition to be sliding or crouching up to cover, before sending a volley of bullets by pulling the trigger behind cover. It’s one of the simpler additions which push Vanguard forward, despite the baggage of familiar territory.
"Call of Duty Vanguard tries to shake the multiplayer up with a round of new maps."
Speaking of territory, Call of Duty Vanguard tries to shake the multiplayer up with a round of new maps. Sledgehammer has gone through some work to suit the fast or slow playstyles. Each of the Vanguard beta maps can be endlessly sprinted through. Run and gun players can still roll the dice, before mowing down anyone in their path. But it can be less effective in maps like Gavutu - a tropical island filled with vantage points and sightlines. Thick greenery and high cliffs can make fast players think twice - and hide with a long-ranged rifle. Players in Gavutu might get flashbacks to the bleak Pacific conflicts in 2008’s World at War. This was the nice direction Sledgehammer goes back to, after exploring most of Normandy in WWII.
My early access to Gavutu came with a frantic rush to win. Starting with the new Patrol game mode - which is hardpoint on the move. In other words, players have to stay in a circle to gain points. But the circle moves along the map, requiring teams to cleverly stay alive using Gavutu’s jungles and high cover. Opposing players can pick others off by piling on the bullets, before moving into the control zone themselves. I admit Patrol mode was incredibly addicting to play, which gives Vanguard more unique tug-o-war modes. It also fits the effort-driven conflicts that fuelled WW2, setting it apart from the more intelligence fuelled espionage in past games.
The multiplayer in Vanguard feels scaled back but relies more on raw skill. It’s why Sledgehammer once again focused on better movement and tight gunplay that works. I felt right at home through Vanguard’s Team Deathmatch, Kill Confirmed and Domination modes. These big three modes pack down the battlefields and give players a no-frills Call of Duty experience. It’s not necessarily the worst thing to experience an improved WWII experience through Vanguard.
I say this with a promising outlook on Champion Hill, first introduced in the early Alpha preview. The new and exclusive mode to Vanguard pits squads against others in elimination rounds. Think MW’s Gunfight mode as a 2v2 or 3v3 deathmatch. Combined with a limited number of lives between teammates.
Players are pitted against other teams until they run out of lives. The elimination factor adds a great level of survival, while there’s plenty of variety from its arenas. That’s because Champion Hill is actually designed as four maps combined into a coliseum.This clever rotation adds variety in Champion Hill’s nonstop flow. Squads are forced to adapt and coordinate, making each mini map a learning experience. It’s all a means to preserve lives.
Compared to Gunfight, it’s actually easier to come in the top three. Kills and exploration get players cash - allowing for instant weapon upgrades and smart spending when Champion Hill takes a break. In a nod to Warzone, players get opportunities to spend 1940s cash on weapons, perks and equipment at the start, middle and near-end of Champion Hill. These balance out the challenges from each player, still bringing something unique and dangerous to the table. But it’s this Hunger Games dynamic that makes playing Champion Hill a real saving grace in Call of Duty Vanguard.
My biggest struggle still comes from being the faster gun when I see an enemy. That hectic playstyle can send players on a fun romp in places like Hotel Royal. Like Cold War’s Miami map or Modern Warfare’s Shipment, Vanguard’s Hotel Royal is easily the star map. The backdrop of a Paris liberation in 1944 made every deathmatch feel like an Allied raid. The elegant decor of the hotel’s dining space was later transformed into a Swiss cheese palooza. With my team, there was a cinematic flair in exchanging gunfire. Then pushing up in a struggle to clear the map.
Maps like Hotel Royal gave players a tight indoor environment filled with cover. Players looking to sprint could also head out across the rooftop, where a longer corridor can bottleneck enemies ripe for the picking. It’s even easier and harder to collect dog tags in Kill Confirmed. With enemies being packed so closely for a fast turnover (personally, I advise players to ditch the long-ranged rifles and pick up an SMG).
Vanguard’s Red Star map is easily an ode to Call of Duty’s early games. Players went through the struggles to retake a large Stalingrad. The same happens across Red Star’s Domination mode, which feels like a longer conflict. It’s easily the best map for Domination, which lets players defend and capture different spots. Red Star is Sledgehammer’s answer to a wide map, with plenty of indoor cover and sniper nests. The tall nature of each building means players can use long ranged weapons.
Running across the capital square is a tense gamble. Domination also pushes players out of their nests, in order to step up and capture control points. It’s a clever way of moving things along and deterring campers in this blend of indoor and outdoor action. In a shared complaint, the game is a bit too carried away with snow effects. This ruins the sightlines for players trying to scope out areas. The snow also makes enemies stick out easier, making players think twice before going outside.
What’s a Call of Duty title without guns? Call of Duty Vanguard reunites players with some fan favourite classics that pack a punch. The (M1928) Thompson, MP-40, Mosin Nagant and M1 Garand all make a welcome return. Sledgehammer gives players an extensive arsenal for their playstyles. Unsurprisingly, each weapon is also tuned with some pros and cons. For instance, the legendary M1928 Thompson still fires fast at close range and midrange. But its drum magazine takes longer to reload, leaving players vulnerable. This required me to use the Gunsmith more than ever.
To offset the older setting, Gunsmith features at least stays preserved from MW and CW. Sights, grips and muzzles all factor in a weapon’s accuracy. More complex ones like the stock and barrels allow work on stability or speed. The weapons drive players to progress hard across Vanguard’s multiplayer suite. While I stayed fascinated at the level of ways a Thompson could be modded to my liking. Though I’m not asking too many questions over what attachments were real or out-of-time.
Vanguard players can also grow with their weapons. Complex and new additions like the Revolving Shotgun and Three-Line Rifle guarantee a one hit kill. Players can develop their hits and misses, while that raw skill can help for improvement. If one weapon doesn’t work, players can keep using it to unlock better attachments. Then mould an SMG into a long-ranged murder machine. Or a BAR into a machine gun sniper that’s bound to get nerfed (toned down with updates). It’s a level of experimentation that makes Call of Duty Vanguard one of the most complex WW2 games yet.
While Sledgehammer continues to make the most out of its limited technology (because it’s set in the 1940s), for players, the weapon progression adds mileage for an otherwise stylish multiplayer experience.
Killstreaks, Field Upgrades and Perks return from the MW and CW games. It’s a running formula which sticks to Vanguard’s multiplayer. Each ability also might feel duller when compared to previous games. The game suffers from being grounded in an internet-less age. But Sledgehammer creatively uses the technology available to get the job done. Beta players started off with the classic Intel - a simple phone call marking nearby enemies on the map.
Racking up bigger kills leads to the more offensive rewards. There’s still a level of satisfaction with dropping a glide bomb, roasting enemies via flamethrower and summoning attack dogs. Each are directly inspired by the killstreaks in Call of Duty: WWII. But don’t exactly innovate other than serving as Vanguard’s killstreaks. These pale in comparison to MW and CW, which dug a bit deeper into their settings for original killstreaks.
The same goes for Vanguard’s field upgrades - timed “killstreaks” which give players extra equipment to turn the tide. The field mic, supply box and armour plates are back to fit Warzone’s existing system. Here’s where I noticed just how reliant Vanguard is with the rest of the games. Unifying MW, CW and Vanguard means keeping things consistent. But this takes away much of the creativity which sets Call of Duty games apart. Vanguard uses the same architecture as MW and CW to this fault. In turn, players will see the same killstreaks and field upgrades - minus the remote-controlled Goliath bomb which replaces the RC-XD in Black Ops Cold War.
On the PlayStation 5, Call of Duty Vanguard looks a bit muddier. There’s a certain mix of wood, blood and concrete which cement the gritty WW2 art style. It’s a sharp departure from the neon-soaked 80s design we’ve seen in Black Ops Cold War. But modernizing the older setting comes with a bigger focus for effects. It’s still unclear how ray tracing comes into play for lighting, shadows and reflections. The Beta opted to keep these details under wraps until launch. But it’s no secret that these next gen features will carry much of the PS5 version’s graphics.
This realism is pulled deeper through the DualSense - which adds more fun with weapon handling. Like Black Ops Cold War, aiming and firing gives each trigger a haptic resistance. The controller also adds a more reactive and sensitive vibration. All of which I’m excited to see implemented in Vanguard’s campaign. The game does handle multiplayer maps with that destructive environment. But Vanguard bites a bit more than it can chew on this end. Here, players could notice visuals blurring from dynamic resolution - a technique that reduces graphics to preserve 60fps performance. The full game will also give PS5 players 120fps support on compatible screens.
So far, players who are looking for a WWII game with the Modern Warfare mechanics can find it here. On the multiplayer front, Call of Duty Vanguard is shaping up to be a solid 2021 release. But it pushes my scepticism further on just how much more history the series can cover. Sledgehammer Games are forced to stick to what worked in MW and CW, even if the full package starts to look familiar.
It’s a fine line between upgrading the gameplay and putting a WWII skin over the past two games. The live service formula is bound to give Vanguard some mileage. Of course, the beta only gives a hefty taste of the full experience. This is bound to come with gameplay that feels too consistent with CW and MW - raising a bigger question on how long players can stay in Vanguard for before jumping over to other eras.
You can tune into our full review of Call of Duty: Vanguard when the game and embargo drop on November 5, 2021.