Call of Duty Vanguard

Inside Call of Duty: Vanguard and Sledgehammer’s Unique Return to WWII

After months (and perhaps years, considering 2020’s switch to Treyarch bringing out a Call of Duty game) of rumors, leaks, and speculation about what Sledgehammer has been up to, Call of Duty: Vanguard is now out in the open. It’s coming November 5th, along with a Zombies mode developed by Treyarch as a prequel to the Dark Aether storyline, and a brand new Vanguard map launching day and date in Warzone (along with an all new anti-cheat). Yes, it’s a return to World War II, but no, it’s not a sequel or follow-up to Call of Duty: WWII, except for the obvious thematic base of WWII.

The start of our early Call of Duty: Vanguard preview was led by Sledgehammer studio head Aaron Halon, and before getting into anything else, he directly addressed the Activision Blizzard lawsuit, allegations, and movement of employees fighting for a better culture and more equal workplace. He said that, as a team, Sledgehammer is committed to the equality and safety of everyone at the studio. And the team at Sledgehammer seems to reflect that; narrative designers Belinda Garcia and Alexa Ray Corriea have talked about the diversity of the writers’ room at Sledgehammer, advocating for change and improvement while having high praise for the work that the are doing.

Sledgehammer COO Andy Wilson then stepped in to talk about Sledgehammer “decade 2”; a new way to evolve the company beyond its 10th anniversary back in 2019, which started with putting the culture and values of Sledgehammer in the hands of the employees first, and expanding the studio operations globally with a new studio in Melbourne.

Thus was born Call of Duty: Vanguard, Sledgehammer’s first “decade 2” title.

But what makes Vanguard different from any other WWII shooter, notably Sledgehammer’s own Call of Duty: WWII?

The idea was less to focus on the events of World War II, and more to focus that lens to tell character stories—fictionalized but rooted in history; inspired-by, but not beholden to. Vanguard tells the story of the birth of Special Forces. War up until this point was a hammer, not a scalpel. Soldiers were not the elite operators of today’s battlefields. Taking place across four fronts of the war—North Africa, Eastern Front, Western Front, and the Pacific Theater—Vanguard follows the origins of four people who will eventually come together near the end of the war to identify and try to stop “Project Phoenix.”

Call of Duty Vanguard

Arthur Kingsley. Polina Petrova. Wade Jackson. Lucas Riggs. Vanguard will let you play the battles and moments across the fronts of the war that defined these characters and made them heroes before bringing them together in an almost Avengers-style global team up. All four are based on real people too.

Kingsley, the leader of the Special Forces squad, is a British paratrooper based on Sidney Cornell. His story puts him on the battlefield just prior to D-Day, taking out the defenses on the beach to allow the landing at Normandy to happen successfully. Petrova is modeled on Lyudmila Pavlichenko, the most successful female sniper in history. Jackson comes from Vernon “Mike” Micheel, who was heralded as the “hero of Midway.” And finally, Riggs, based on Charles Upham, earned his hero status on the North African front of the war.

This international multi-character POV take on the war, with a bigger timeline and wider geographies really allowed the team at Sledgehammer a lot of freedom in both telling the stories of these characters and finding intriguing elements within gameplay mechanics which that variety could evoke. A gameplay preview of Kingsley’s mission, for example, saw him parachuting into the water amid planes exploding all around him, and then sneaking behind enemy lines. The way this mission played with lights and shadow was absolutely incredible, whether it was the light from explosions through the trees and fog or the shadow of a soldier behind a hanging sheet. This is all made possible by improvements to the Modern Warfare engine that was introduced in 2019. In fact, it’s worth talking about the engine improvements in particular a little later on.

Call of Duty Vanguard

Needless to say, it gives Vanguard a very filmic, blockbuster feel. Sledgehammer wants to juxtapose beauty with the scars of battle, giving players a look into a side of WWII that isn’t often portrayed; different fronts of the war, how civilian life was upset, and personal moments that pulled extraordinary out of ordinary people. The aim is to put a contemporary and relatable lens on history, and even just from the glimpses of missions we were shown, Vanguard seems to nail putting WWII in a new light—figuratively and literally—something a little different from the usual D-Day landing at Normandy awash in drab greys and greens. I can’t reiterate enough how unique Vanguard’s look is for something that I worried would retread long-worn paths.

Multiplayer, Zombies, and Warzone

Call of Duty Vanguard Multiplayer

Much of our early preview centered on Vanguard’s campaign, which lays the foundation for the rest of the ongoing experience that will tie into multiplayer, Warzone, and even Zombies. There’s a proper multiplayer reveal coming later, but for now, we’ve been given a few tantalizing teasers about how Sledgehammer is shaking up the formula.

First, Vanguard is coming with a staggering 20 multiplayer maps at launch, which will cover all of the fronts of WWII. 16 will be full 6v6 maps, with 4 more rounding out the 2v2 and 3v3 gunfight modes that have become quite popular. Black Ops Cold War, in comparison, launched with just nine multiplayer maps (including Nuketown ’84, which came a few weeks after launch). Vanguard may just have the most maps of any Call of Duty game at launch.

These maps will all come with “reactive gameplay environments,” which is in short to say, destructibility. This isn’t just random destruction of the environments however. Reactive environments can often open up new sightlines and lanes and change the way the match is played over time. These are deliberate areas meant to adjust the flow and create dynamic opportunities around highly trafficked lanes and objective points. Maybe shoot out a window to get a better view on a Hardpoint or take down a wall to open up new sightlines on a capture point. No matter how people play, and whether intended or accidental fire, the level remains dynamically destroyed for the duration of the match, making each of the 20 maps (with more to come after launch) feel alive.

Call of Duty Vanguard

Weapon mounting is back from Modern Warfare after disappearing for a year in Black Ops Cold War. Honestly, it was one of my favorite updates to the series, so I’m excited to see it return for Vanguard after being rather disappointed that Cold War didn’t have that feature. It seems that  it now comes with some improvements, however, including the ability to slide your weapon across the surface its mounted on. We should get more details on this in the full multiplayer reveal later this year.

Sledgehammer is also introducing new ways to play with a “Combat Pacing” filter on quickplay, which will let players choose between Tactical, Standard, and Blitz. Tactical increases the time to engagement, creates a lot of tension where every bullet matters, while on the other side of the spectrum, Blitz pushes players into engagements faster. Combat Pacing is metered by player counts and the size of the maps, which creates dynamic gameplay experiences.

And while they didn’t go into a lot of detail on it, the Gunsmith is returning in Vanguard, including the ability to equip custom ballistics and ammo types. They teased that this will really change the experience in a lot of ways, but stopped short of venturing any further information.

Finally, as a small tease, Sledgehammer announced a new multiplayer mode called Champion Hill. I can’t tell you anything else about it, but this is a unique new  last-squad-standing mode unlike anything Call of Duty has done before and we’ll hear more soon.

Vanguard Zombies, Developed by Treyarch

The popularity of Treyarch’s Zombies sub (sub?) franchise means that the prolific developer is creating a Zombies experience for Call of Duty Vanguard as well. We didn’t get a lot of details, but we know that it will act as a prologue to the current Dark Aether storyline running in Black Ops Cold War. More information should be coming later in the year.

Day One Warzone Integration

Another element they didn’t talk a lot about is the Warzone integrations, however, we do know some key details.

First, a brand new Warzone map is coming with Vanguard on the day it launches. Vanguard’s Warzone integration is being planned from day one, so start saying your goodbyes to Verdansk ’84. This is an all new map that will tie into Vanguard. It will also launch day and date with a newly developed anti-cheat across the entire Warzone experience. Players have been clamoring for an anti-cheat in Call of Duty for a long time, and this fall should give everyone what they are looking for.

Unlike Black Ops Cold War’s messy integration, Vanguard will act more like Modern Warfare’s seamless crossover into Warzone, utilizing the same tech to make Operator and Weapon integration even better. In many ways, Vanguard and Warzone’s crossover feels like Activision finally fully realizing the envisioned idea behind connected Call of Duty games after a couple of years experimenting with the formula.

And much like the past two Call of Duty entries, Sledgehammer wants an experience that feels unified no matter what mode you are playing, whether that’s campaign, multiplayer, Zombies, or even Warzone. A lot of that unified experience will be driven by Vanguard’s improved Modern Warfare engine. They’ve said this effectively cements a Call of Duty metaverse that links the Vanguard,  Modern Warfare, Black Ops, and Zombies storylines and worlds through Warzone, and its likely we’ll see a lot more of these close ties across the various Call of Duty games moving forward. After all, just looking at Marvel and Fortnite as two heralds of the trend, Cinematic Universes and Metaverses are really big right now.

Call of Duty Vanguard

Post-launch content for Vanguard will follow a similar path to Black Ops Cold War and Modern Warfare before it, with free seasonal updates that bring all-new content to each of the various experiences. This will include new maps, modes, events, Battle Passes, and plenty of other surprises along the way.

The Engine That Drives Vanguard

Activision invested a lot in developing a brand new engine for 2019’s Modern Warfare (and subsequently Warzone), including the creation of an entire studio dedicated to it. While Black Ops Cold War didn’t use it, Vanguard is built on improvements to that Modern Warfare engine. When it was first revealed for Modern Warfare, we called the engine a next-gen engine on last-gen consoles. And now that same tech is coming to the new-gen consoles, aided by improvements from all of the Call of Duty studios.

A big focus on the new capabilities of the engine is on improved volumetrics and lighting, including constant microcalculations for how lighting should be playing through the new reactive environments. It’s also accounting for particle effects, debris, and the resultant dust and particulates that hang in the air. And it all still runs at a solid 60fps with that full advanced rendering on.

While they didn’t specifically say, it feels like this engine is intended to be the root of Call of Duty experiences moving forward. This would hypothetically allow for more consistent integration of each premium title into Warzone, and frees up the teams for other creative endeavors rather than fighting with making or updating their own individual engines. Barring Black Ops Cold War (which may have been a victim of the transition period, in development prior to the series moving over to this engine), I get the sense that this engine, originally developed for Modern Warfare and Warzone, is the future of Call of Duty games, and was part of the shakeup that caused Treyarch to jump the line and release Black Ops Cold War last year.

This is just the initial reveal, and there’s a lot more yet to come. Even without a “Modern Warfare” or “Black Ops” to anchor itself to Call of Duty fans, Sledgehammer appears to be carving out quite a unique corner for itself while also wholeheartedly embracing how this Vanguard-shaped piece of the puzzle fits into the broader Call of Duty metaverse.

Call of Duty Vanguard releases for PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and PC on November 5, 2021.