You'd think that Activision would have learned that the appetite for World War II-era shooters has waned after watching Call of Duty: WWII sink off the radar quicker than usual. Competing shooter Battlefield V didn't fare particularly well either, with updates to the game canceled earlier than previously planned. Regardless of this, Activision plowed ahead with yet another WW2 shooter, this time dubbed Call of Duty: Vanguard. If there was any evidence that Call of Duty's various teams are running out of ideas, this is surely it.
I've been playing Call of Duty: Vanguard's open beta for the past few days. I am technically the game's target audience, as an aging curmudgeon who fondly remembers the "glory days" of WW2-styled shooters. I'm also one of those rare gamers who consider Call of Duty: World at War to be their favorite Call of Duty of all time. Crazy, right?
It's with that in mind I'd hoped Call of Duty: Vanguard would bring me back into the CoD fold. There's something undeniably infectious about Call of Duty's brand of twitch shooting, after all. And regardless of what I or anyone else says, we all know it'll be among this year's best-selling games. As was the last one. And the one before that. And the one before that.
Increasingly, though, I wonder how long Activision's stable of Call of Duty-focused studios can get away with simply reskinning last year's entry over and over and over. Call of Duty: Vanguard is still in beta, several weeks away from release. There's something even duller than usual about this year's entry, though, and not something that can be simply smoothed over between now and launch. With games like Halo Infinite and Battlefield 2042 hot on Call of Duty's tail, the lack of quality in Vanguard presents competitors with a unique opportunity.
It's not just the bugs
I really, really wanted to like this one, but increasingly it feels like the Call of Duty titles that exist outside of the Treyarch/Infinity Ward paradigm are doomed to mediocrity.
Call of Duty: Vanguard takes place in an "alternative" WW2 setting, featuring weapons and gadgets that defy the technological knowledge of the era. I saw people spawning a mini tank "Goliath" that was basically a reskinned RC-XD remote-controlled bomb, which looked incredibly silly given the setting. World War shooters often tend to strike a darker, more somber tone out of respect for the carnage of the era, but Vanguard seems to just say "screw it," baking in reams of sci-fi stuff that don't make any sense in the time period. Laser dot sights and guided missiles abound.
The thing is, they only just slightly don't make sense. It might seem like an odd thing to complain about, but I feel like if you're going to toy around with the facts of history, go all-in. Go full-blown Wolfenstein. It's not like Call of Duty hasn't done this before with CoD: Zombies, with its tesla-inspired steampunk weaponry and demonic enemies. The half-measure in Vanguard just makes me feel like it's all shoehorned in haphazardly and thoughtlessly, with a mindset of, "What abilities can we reskin and reliably port?" as opposed to building something unique. There was certainly an opportunity here to do something fresh with the time period, alas, the lack of inspiration is apparent in every corner of Vanguard's design. If you want modern warfare, why not, I dunno, just make modern warfare?
The weapons available in the beta don't offer the punchy kind of feedback I generally expect of Call of Duty. From the sound effects to the visual cues, everything feels underdeveloped. Of course, it's a beta, and there might be time to rectify some of these aspects, although I doubt we're going to get improvements to the things like map design this late in the game.
For Call of Duty Vanguard, Sledgehammer and Raven are injecting 24 vs. 24 battles into maps that clearly weren't designed for it. More than once I spawned behind enemy lines, literally on top of enemies sometimes, and racked up massive kill streaks against enemies that hadn't fully loaded back into the game yet. And of course, I had it done to me too. There are also just mountains of bugs with the Xbox Series X|S versions. Visual glitches, shaders exploding, texture load-ins causing stuttering, and full-blown console crashes. Of course, this stuff will be polished over for launch — or at least you'd have to hope as much — but it doesn't shake the feeling that this game is coming in hot.
There's just a general lack of quality and thoughtfulness throughout, it feels like. When I obtained the nine-kills killstreak to spawn dogs, I couldn't help but audibly laugh as they literally popped magically out of thin air. I found myself getting killed by literally nothing at times too, only to learn later that it was "incendiary bullets," which burn you to death even if a player gets off a spray-and-pray bullet on you. There's nothing in-game to tell you that you died to incendiary bullets either. No visual feedback, and it's not even reflected in the kill log. You just slowly die, and there's no counter. I cannot for the life of me imagine why how they could possibly think this is good design.
Getting killed by spray and pray fire bullets is the epitome of fun.
Across the board, I couldn't shake the sense of been there, done that about Vanguard. Fans of the modern Call of Duty games will lament the loss of scorestreaks, which grants access to those powerful on-use abilities as a reward for completing game objectives rather than kills. I am generally a fan of killstreaks, but the fact that the ones on offer are identical to past games again, smacks of unthoughtful, rushed planning. If they decided to take a step backward to killstreaks, why not offer something new in the process? Vanguard has some destructible walls scattered around, and the ability to blind fire around corners is new, although I'm not sure exactly how useful either of them is right now.
It's things like the above that contribute to the sense of fatigue, not only as a player but on the developer side too.
I wish they'd kill the annualized Call of Duty
I know this will never happen, as long as people keep buying the game year in, year out. The annualized Call of Duty game has become something of a ritual at this point, with fans lining up to accept whatever lackluster product Activision puts out. And hey, I'm not blaming anyone for it. For all its flaws, Call of Duty still offers a unique feel that even its closest competitors apparently can't emulate. But do we really need the annualized Call of Duty anymore?
Activision shareholders would emphatically say "yes!" but in the era of Call of Duty: Warzone, Call of Duty: Mobile, and on-going updates, I'm increasingly curious whether or not it wouldn't be better for literally everyone, players and devs included, to move Call of Duty to a two-year cadence. Not only would it give the developers time to make something truly fresh and unique, and polished. Activision could continue to harvest infinite amounts of cash from its freemium offerings, and who knows, maybe upping the quality of the mainline games would make them more popular, not less.
Not many people know this, but dogs in the 1940s had the ability to appear out of thin air.
I realize what I'm saying is futile, though. I also realize I'm in the minority. Nobody really cares that Call of Duty's servers are laggy, with players experiencing completely different things between the client side and host side. Nobody seems too bothered about the lack of originality, or the unstable client. Or the fact that mixing PC and console players kills competitive balance. Nobody seems bothered that they're charging $10 for literally nothing to get the PS5 and Xbox Series X versions of the game.
Year in, year out. Call of Duty has an audience, and there's nothing wrong with that, even though the franchise is clearly tired and far past its prime. We may be the minority, but there are a growing number of gamers who are desperate for something — anything — new.
Halo Infinite and Battlefield 2042 could capitalize
Call of Duty: Vanguard will go head to head against Battlefield 2042 and Halo Infinite later this year. When you factor in how utterly meh Call of Duty: Vanguard is, I'd say there's a perfect storm of opportunity for competitors to get eyeballs on their offering this year to CoD's detriment. This is all without mentioning the unprecedented lawsuit Activision is facing with the U.S. government into its toxic workplace culture practices. If I ever felt slimy about supporting Activision games before, you can quite firmly bank on the fact that I do now.
Halo and Battlefield generally offer more stable servers, with Halo Infinite covering the intimate arena-style gameplay, and Battlefield 2042 encompassing the huge-scale epic battle end of the spectrum. Can either of them realistically dethrone the behemoth that is Call of Duty? Probably not, but after getting some hands-on time with Vanguard, it's hard to overlook the fact that there's rarely been a better opportunity. The upcoming Halo Infinite beta and Battlefield 2042 beta could help prove that.
Call of Duty: Vanguard is targeting a Nov. 5, 2021, launch date on PC, PS4, PS5, and on the best Xbox consoles, Xbox One, Series S, and Series X.
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Jez Corden a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!