Call of Duty: Vanguard is the next entry in the annual franchise, with Sledgehammer Games taking the helm this year. While our prior Call of Duty: Vanguard preview gave us overview of what lead developer Sledgehammer Games is doing with the campaign — which stretches across four theaters of World War II — we were recently invited to a digital event to check out the Call of Duty: Vanguard open beta a little early.
Much like the prior preview though, this comes at a time when Sledgehammer Games' parent company Activision Blizzard is facing a lawsuit, alleging sexist workplace practices and systemic abuse. It'll be a while before we get further updates but it's something to keep in mind.
I got to play around three hours of Call of Duty: Vanguard's multiplayer offering, with several new and returning modes to explore. A lot of it is precisely what veterans of the series will expect but there's a few new wrinkles to consider.
Old setting, new ways to play
Map variety is strong, with a wide range of locations that look great. A Pacific island is battered by storms as you weave through scuttled ships on the shore. A hotel in Paris goes from a pristine getaway location to a shooting gallery. Thick Russian snow blanketing buildings becomes spattered with blood. Sledgehammer Games previously promised that 20 maps will be in Call of Duty: Vanguard at launch and what we saw here is promising.
For better or for worse, player setup is extremely par the course for this franchise. Create-a-Class returns with no massive overhauls. There's a variety of attachments and perks to choose from but overall it's nothing players haven't seen and used multiple games over.
One of the key new modes in Call of Duty: Vanguard is Patrol, where matches play out somewhat similarly to Domination but with a neat twist: There's only one zone to capture and it slowly but steadily moves around the map. As a result, combat is a constant seesaw between the two teams, with clever plays and grenade spam needed to clear the area in order to get a moment's rest. Do you save killstreaks for the right moment and move together with your team, or just constantly trickle in? Either way, it's a frenetic mode and one I enjoyed a fair bit.
The killstreaks themselves are a mixed bag. Dogs are back, in perhaps their most infuriating form ever, so prepare to have your heart leap every time you hear the unmistakable sound of barking that precedes incoming one-hit kill bites. Meanwhile, the Flamenaut suit is an armored reward that grants players increased protection and a flamethrower with infinite fuel. This is, in theory, a good idea as well as being a neat spin on the iconic Juggernaut suit. In practice though, myself and others found that whenever the Flamenaut was called in, there was a high chance of the game immediately crashing, an issue that I hope Sledgehammer can fix shortly.
Unfortunately, Patrol was the exception, not the rule. If you're looking for lots of new modes outside of the already-announced Champion Hill, there's nothing here to be found.
Ramping up the chaos
Team Deathmatch and most other modes we played are still pretty much what you'd expect, but the new "Pacing" system adds an interesting twist. Players can set their preferred pacing to determine how frenetic a match is. If you like standard 6v6 team sizes, you can stay with that model. If you've ever wondered what happens when 24 players are packed and crammed into maps designed for 10-12 players, Blitz is the Pacing mode for you. I actually enjoyed the absurdity of it, as players are mowed down in massive waves and killstreaks rain down with abandon. As long as you don't take it too seriously, I can see this being a great way to get in laughs with friends and blow off some stress.
A more direct issue is the spawning system. Spawns are hit-or-miss in general and are hardly ever considered "good," but the spawns I experienced across these maps are easily some of the worst ever in a Call of Duty title. I'd find myself continually spawning behind or in front of an enemy, leading to a lot of immediate deaths and kills that feel unfair for both sides.
New tech with mixed results
Sledgehammer is using the latest version of Infinity Ward's engine and even at this early stage, the new destruction technology has potential. Shooting out windows, doors, and floorboards to open up new lines of sight as a match progresses feels good and it works far better than in the prior public Alpha test for the Champion Hill mode.
Classic World War II guns like the BAR and MG42 feel good to shoot but the audio design doesn't feel quite right. There's a tinny sound to almost every firearm and the audio in general seemed lower than normal across the board, something other players noticed as well.
It's also worth mentioning that if you've enjoyed the inclusion of an FOV (field-of-view) slider on console in Call of Duty: Warzone and Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, prepare for disappointment here. Sledgehammer Games confirmed to us that at least for the Open Beta, the console versions of Call of Duty: Vanguard do not include an FOV slider. Hopefully this is something that'll change by launch later this year.
Summing it up
Overall, a lot of what is on offer in the multiplayer portion of Call of Duty: Vanguard is quite promising. At the same time, just a couple of months out from launch, there's definitely still work to be done in polishing and balancing everything across the board. New modes like Patrol and the shenagins of Blitz are enticing, but if you're looking for this game to be a complete revolution or even general shake-up of everything Call of Duty offers, it'll fall short.
At the end of the day, this is more Call of Duty. A lot of players are going to appreciate that formula but I was personally hoping for a bit more innovation than just a couple of new modes. This is doubly true considering that the game is revisiting World War II, an arena that has been covered by many, many games before.
Call of Duty is an absolute force from Activision, a sales juggernaut that is making its yearly debut in spite of the pandemic affecting game development worldwide. Every single studio at Activision now works on the Call of Duty brand, with every studio bar Infinity Ward directly contributing to the development of Vanguard. I hope this efficiency isn't coming at a cost to potential innovation and creativity.
With both multiplayer and the campaign revealed, the last mode still shrouded in mystery is Zombies, which is again headed by Treyarch.
There's several different editions of Call of Duty: Vanguard available for preorder, though prospective players should note that unlike many titles, Call of Duty: Vanguard does not support Smart Delivery on Xbox or a free upgrade on PlayStation, meaning you'll need to pay more to access the current-generation featureset. A lot of these features have not yet been confirmed but judging from other recently-upgraded Call of Duty titles, the features could include faster loading, ray tracing or 120 FPS support.
Update, Sep. 9 (5:20 pm ET) — FOV slider is coming at launch
A short time after this preview was published, Sledgehammer Games revealed that the console versions of Call of Duty: Vanguard will include an FOV slider at launch on Nov. 5.
The easy choice
If you intend to play on Xbox Series X or Xbox Series S, this is the version of the game to grab. You'll want it to look and run as good as possible, which does mean it'll be a bit more expensive.
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It has been basically the same for over a decade....
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