Another year, another blockbuster installment from Activision’s Call of Duty franchise. Call of Duty: Vanguard is Sledgehammer’s latest addition to the Call of Duty pantheon, following their 2018 entry, Call of Duty WWII. Vanguard’s beta gave players their first taste of Sledgehammer’s newest game, at least from the multiplayer side.
Sadly, that “taste” is one that needs more time in the kitchen.
Vanguard is Chaos Incarnate
Online PvP shooters all have a semblance of chaos coursing through them. Within all the confusion, however, there is a method to the madness each well-made shooting game employs. The pacing of a match goes up and down, allowing for quieter moments to occur and players to breathe a bit before jumping right back into the fray. In Vanguard, there is no such break.
The moment a match starts, the cacophony of bullets and explosions erupts, giving players no respite until the timer runs dry or the score count is reached. That much is understandable for a shooter, especially one that is taking place during World War II. What isn’t so easily explained is the lack of attention given to the presentation of the game.
The player UI is probably the least polished I’ve seen for a COD game in recent years. There is no health indicator to determine how healthy or dying you or the enemy is, and in the instance of taking damage there is no real way to figure out which direction you’re getting shot from. By the time you do, you’re most likely dead because nearly every weapon in this game has incredibly fast time-to-kill ratios–except for the shotgun, which can alternate from credible threat to absolute wet noodle in the same volley.
On top of this, Vanguard has no factions on the multiplayer side which only further confounds the confusion. Factions and nations offer so much potential information at a cursory glance. They give players, ally and enemy, a distinct look that lets players immediately distinguish between friend and foe, leading to a much more cohesive and easy to follow battle flow.
Vanguard, on the other hand, merely offers faint color outlines along character models as its only course of distinguishing teammates from enemies, with both teams sharing the exact same models of characters. Unlike Cold War’s clear blue and red outlines, Vanguard gives a muddy orange color to enemies, making it very difficult to spot who’s the bad guy when so many things are happening on screen simultaneously. Thanks to the aforementioned chaos, enemies can seemingly pop up out of thin air and mow you and your teammates down over and over again. And sometimes, that’s exactly what happens.
In the new game mode, Patrol, teams vie from a single moving control point to earn points and eventual victory. This control point moves in a predictable path along the map, making every engagement a mad scramble to secure the patrol zone. What isn’t predictable is the god-awful spawn system in place. Because of the shifting control point, spawns are being flipped by the second, which means you can spawn right in front of the enemy and nothing is stopping them from sending your name straight to the kill feed. The opposite can also happen, but it never feels good nor fair to partake in, no matter how frustrated you might be with the terrible spawn system.
On top of this, sometimes it is entirely possible to be boxed in completely for spawns. On the map Hotel Royal, my teammates and I were spawn-trapped in the restroom for over 30 seconds because the game continued to spawn our team there. Needless to say, we lost that game in quite spectacularly awful fashion.
Soldiers of Misfortune
As a player who came straight from Cold War, Vanguard did not feel good in my hands. Movement is much more clunky and slower-paced than how Cold War feels, but that is to be expected, given that Vanguard is running on IW 8.0, a modified version of 2019’s Modern Warfare, whereas Cold War is using a heavily modified version of the Black Ops III engine.
Such differences were inevitable, but the difference is staggering. If you are someone who played and enjoyed the flow of Cold War, Vanguard may not be for you. Modern Warfare and Warzone players may have an easier time adjusting however, as Vanguard and those titles share many similar functions, quirks, and gimmicks.
For all the flak Cold War gets in its multiplayer suite, one of its saving graces is how well-tuned the audio design is. Ally and enemy sounds are easily distinguishable and the sound mixing of the game gives excellent audio cues on enemy movement and actions. None of that is present in Vanguard. It is damn near impossible to figure out where enemies are barreling in and shooting from or what particular killstreak is being used. It forces players to rely on visual cues but with how limited and half-baked the UI is in Vanguard, that isn’t a 100% reliable option either.
With all these negative aspects pooled together, it creates a battlefield that is frustration-inducing and promotes stagnant gameplay. With only so many avenues to take on a given map, most matches turn into camp fests, preventing any non-camping team from dislodging the entrenched opponents. This was mostly an issue in game modes like Domination and Team Deathmatch. Camping isn’t a huge issue in Patrol but that mode, as previously mentioned, suffers from an entirely different, flawed design choice.
This issue is further exacerbated with how insanely strong every weapon is in the game. Despite the multitude of offerings and aspects of customization, there almost isn’t a need for players to innovate beyond the base classes provided (partly due to how short the beta is, not giving all players time to truly unlock everything for whatever they want). When every gun kills and functions just as well as its counterpart, there is little need to branch out and experiment. The class perks would also be useful if matches weren’t the chaos pits they currently are, with players rushing, camping, dying, and repeating.
For something so new, it becomes stale very quickly.
The Sliver of Vanguard Good
Despite my gripes with the game in its current state, there are some noteworthy things that deserve commendation.
An aspect where Cold War multiplayer receives a lot of flak is its scorestreak system. Because score is tracked even after a player’s death, players can continue to push for whatever scorestreaks they have regardless of combat performance. It is a system that rewards fraggers and objective players, as it rewards based on score, unlike killstreaks which require accumulation of kills on a single life.
Despite its good, the scorestreak system is one that can be easily abused. Top fraggers will often skip out of objectives entirely because chained kills give exponential amounts of points, leading to a snowball effect on player scorestreaks and the pace of the game, turning that said fragger into a powerhouse with an arsenal to match. Have fun trying to do anything against that guy when he’s running around with the H.A.R.P, War Machine, and a stand-by air patrol waiting to wipe out anything you try.
Killstreaks get rid of this snowballing entirely because they require players to chain together kills on a single life rather than over the course of the game. As such, the killstreaks themselves are a bit tamer and more forgiving than Cold War’s while at the same time being something well-deserved (most times). Though this may discourage objective play, when most enemies are found by the objective anyway, it’s something I can overlook.
What also caught my attention over the course of the beta was the match pacing option when searching for games. It lets players queue up for games that fit their style, whether it be blitzing and frenetic gunfights with tons of players or something more traditional and grounded. The option to be able to choose my style was a welcome addition, even if it didn’t work 100% of the time as there were always some people who queued for one and played differently regardless.
Though the game itself could definitely use some work and polish, what deserves praise is Vanguard’s gore system. When using particularly powerful weapons and equipment, players affected by said weapons get, understandably, torn to shreds. Utter violence often goes hand-in-hand with the World War II setting, and the gore implementation gives a slight depth of realism to the sheer amount of fighting happening on screen. I’ve lost count of how many times my jaw dropped seeing my poor soldier get his legs blown to giblets or the top of his skull cleanly torn through. The gore isn’t on the level of Mortal Kombat, but it does definitely add a layer of humiliation and minor entertainment in a similar fashion with the outlandish violence on display.
Vanguard is such a mixed bag for me. On the one hand, I really want to enjoy the game along with the good it brings. Being a World War II history fan, a return to the setting was a happy occasion for me. However, with the way the game currently plays right now, it saddens me that Vanguard is the World War II game we are getting, and not anything else.
If the beta is any indication of how the final product is like, Vanguard is not ready. It definitely feels rushed with how unpolished everything looks; from the presentation, UI, and overall feel of play, Vanguard plays like a title that is not fully realized, despite being mere months away from release.
With Vanguard’s release date slated for November 5, the ball is now in Sledgehammer and Activision’s court to iron out all the missteps this game currently has.