I played a few hours of Call of Duty: Vanguard multiplayer last week, and if you've played any other Call of Duty of the past two years, then you basically have too. Like 2020's Black Ops – Cold War, Vanguard is working from the same blueprint established by 2019's Modern Warfare. That means Gunsmith and field equipment are back, every mode you're used to is in there, and the game is destined to share the spotlight with Call of Duty: Warzone for the next year.
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Except, unlike Cold War, Vanguard plays almost exactly like Modern Warfare/Warzone so far—everything from the tactical sprint, gun ballistics, perks, and weapon mounting are direct carryovers from Infinity Ward's last CoD—which makes sense, considering Vanguard runs on an updated version of the same engine. As someone who thought Modern Warfare reinvigorated multiplayer and thinks Cold War is the Call of Duty equivalent of flat soda, it's a step up from last year.
The standard multiplayer experience is so similar, actually, that Vanguard's WW2 setting disappears into the background. Existing Warzone players can slip into Vanguard like a worn glove with guns that behave more or less the same as what they're already shooting in Verdansk—the Thompson feels like your standard MP5, the PPSH shoots the same as the one that's already in Warzone, and the German STG is the flexible M4 analog.
That level of familiarity may be exactly what some are looking for, but it strikes me as unadventurous. As a World War 2 game, Vanguard's interpretation of history seems loose (I doubt there were many MP40s in circulation with a yellow dot sight plus 8 other add-ons), but it's not fantastical, or anything close to Wolfenstein's science fiction.
The guns get in the way of Vanguard playing like a quintessential WW2 game, and instead finds an awkward middle ground that feels like a repeat of 2019 in 1945. This was especially notable about halfway through our gameplay session, once we had a chance to mess around in Gunsmith and build a few classes. As I was running around causing havoc with an STG sporting an ACOG scope, foregrip, fast mags, precision barrel, and stippled grip, I realized I had accidentally put together the same exact rifle that I've been using since Modern Warfare, now flavored for WW2.
Which is kind of a shame, because Gunsmith is at its best when it feels like an experimental gun factory. Scrolling through the Vanguard attachments present in my build, I didn't spot many that go beyond incremental tweaks to recoil or magazine size (a complaint I also had with Cold War). I certainly haven't found anything as malleable as Modern Warfare's FiNN LMG, an otherwise typical machine gun that could transform into a deadly hipfire-only mingun with a series of specialized attachments.
I hope that changes in the final game, but I suspect there's a pretty good reason it won't—Call of Duty: Warzone.
Sledgehammer has already committed to integrating all of Vanguard's guns, attachments, cosmetics, and operators into Warzone sometime after launch. You can see how that would be a design constraint—how do you make an M1 Garand that feels good in 6v6 and in a battle royale? Considering how poorly that went for Cold War when its 30+ weapons entered Warzone all at once, it makes sense that Sledgehammer wouldn't want to rock the boat with guns or attachments that can't neatly slot into Warzone's meta. It's a shame that also means Vanguard will probably be less weird than its predecessors.
Maps & modes
Sledgehammer may be hesitating to make sweeping changes to Create A Class, but there are some interesting things going on with Vanguard's maps. For one, every map now has wooden barricades pre-placed on certain doors, windows, and walls. You can melee individual planks to open limited sightlines to the other side, make a new door by shooting them to bits, or sprint straight through them to surprise whoever's on the other side.
Barricades sounded like a neat idea when Activision showed it off in a press briefing last month, but I didn't get much tactical use out of them in my initial multiplayer matches. It rarely feels like a good idea to stay in the same place for long in Call of Duty's frantic multiplayer, so I wasn't inspired to remodel walls with murder holes like I would in Rainbow Six Siege.
Sledgehammer hopes players will use them more strategically in Tactical mode, one of three combat pacing preferences available on Vanguard's matchmaking screen. Each of the three, Tactical, Assault, and Blitz, dictates the max player count of the match. The exact number of players can vary based on which of Vanguard's 16 maps you're playing, but we mostly stuck to the standard 6v6 Tactical mode. The smallest Blitz match I played was 12v12, and the largest was a whopping 24v24. After two consecutive years of weekly playlist updates that add and remove mode variants seemingly at random, it's nice that Vanguard's is somewhat democratizing the process by letting you set the size of matches. If standard 6v6 is your thing, then turn off Blitz and that's all you'll ever get. Keep all three pacings on and you'll get a mix of everything.
Though, the Blitz mode may need some tweaking on certain maps. The 48-player match I played on Red Star, a multi-square block chunk of Moscow and the biggest map I saw all day, was a disaster. The map was so overcrowded that every corner was a meat grinder and I was routinely killed moments after respawning.
I'm feeling a lot better about Vanguard than I was this time last year about Cold War, but Call of Duty still seems to be spinning its wheels and making changes for change's sake. And in a year in which a new Battlefield and Halo are still yet to come, I'm not sure more of the same is enough to keep my attention.
PS: Here's a gif of me running myself over with an exploding tank bot.