It looks like Sledgehammer Games has learned all the right lessons from Call of Duty: WW2. Following the reveal of Call of Duty: Vanguard via Verdansk last week, and an extended look at the campaign during Gamescom Opening Night Live, we've been able to see just how much Sledgehammer has grown as a studio in the last four years and how influential the return of Modern Warfare will prove to be for the future of the franchise.
All of that was on show in the Stalingrad demo. It's a stunning nine minutes of footage, working to showcase what can happen when Call of Duty is given an extra year of development. I personally thought that last year's Black Ops Cold War looked a little washed out, but Vanguard appears to have picked up right where Infinity Ward and Modern Warfare left off. The visual and audio fidelity is out of control; the lighting, environmental and particle effects help to immediately create a foreboding sense of atmosphere. As for the ever-impressive soundscape, well, it's no surprise that Vanguard's creative director used to hold the position of senior audio director at Sledgehammer.
In fact, it looks and sounds so good that it's almost easy to miss the new (and some returning Modern Warfare) features, like the light platforming mechanics to help Lt. Polina Petrova reposition herself during combat, the ability to mount and blind fire weapons, the detailed handling and reload animations, and greater points of interaction with the crumbling environment. But here's the thing: Sledgehammer knows how to make great looking and sounding games. By looking at Vanguard from the perspective of 2017's WW2, it's clear that there are far greater issues the studio needs to address to make its second shot at the Second World War a journey worth taking on November 5, 2021.
From Verdansk to the Western Front
The Battle of Verdansk wasn't the greatest live event in Call of Duty: Warzone history, but it did inspire me to return to one of the more divisive entries in the series. It was that agonizing battle against a German armored train, equipped with rows of anti-tank ordinance and compartments concealing ranks of soldiers, that did it, reminding me of one of the better missions in Call of Duty: WW2.
S.O.E. sees the 1st Division team up with members of the British Special Operations Executive to intercept an armored train carrying V2 Rockets just outside of Argentan. Things go wrong, then the bullets start flying, and then things start to go really right. The mission is as explosive as it is shallow; loud, brash, and decently paced, which is perhaps the best way to describe Call of Duty's return to World War 2 after it spent nine years exploring the frontiers of modern, advanced, and then infinite warfare.
It's a solid entry to the series let down by a lot of competing objectives. Call of Duty: WW2 fails to reflect the scale of the conflict happening around you, but manages to keep you busy enough that you very rarely notice. The return of health packs after a decade of regenerating HP, and the introduction of squad abilities to help keep your consumables stocked, were interesting concepts that were poorly executed. It's telling that our first look at the Call of Duty: Vanguard campaign confirmed that automatic health regeneration is returning, the UI has been heavily scaled back, and that the confined, claustrophobic combat spaces of a Stalingrad under siege were used to highlight an intimacy to its engagements.
Where those engagements will take place in Call of Duty: Vanguard clearly demonstrates that Sledgehammer has learned from its last entry too. The decision to focus the Call of Duty: WW2 campaign on one squad, around some of the most widely known conflicts of the Second World War – D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, Hill 493, and I'm sure you can guess the rest – made sense conceptually, but the resulting experience felt as if it were treading old ground. By the time the WW2 campaign reached its end, it felt like I'd sat through a highlight reel of Call of Duty, Call of Duty 2, and Medal of Honor: Allied Assault rendered out in 1080p.
Vanguard is set to span four theaters of war and four playable characters, each with their own unique abilities, motivations, and identities based in reality: Sergeant Arthur Kingsley, British Army's 9th Parachute Battalion; Captain Wade Jackson, of the US Navy's Scouting Squadron Six; Second Lieutenant Lucas Riggs, of the Australia Military Forces' 20th Battalion; and, of course, Lt. Polina Petrova, of the Red Army's 138th Rifle Division. The decision to take a contemporary lens on history, and to explore less visible elements of the Second World War, will certainly help breathe new life into Call of Duty's renewed focus on World War 2.
Vanguard takes form
For more details on the upcoming instalment to the series, get your eyes on our Call of Duty: Vanguard preview.
The truth is, the video game industry has largely moved on from World War 2. There was a point in time where the replication of scenes from Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and Enemy at the Gates highlighted the strides studios were making with visual fidelity and immersion. With WW2, Call of Duty got caught trying to pass old tricks off as new; it trapped itself in the gulf between fun and realism, and never found a way to free itself. While there is, admittedly, a small part of me that would like to see what this team, working with this engine and experience, could do with something like the assault of Point du Hoc on this new generation of consoles, it's unnecessary.
Sledgehammer needs to take a modern perspective on the Second World War, and it needs to reflect how far the industry has come – games don't look, sound, play, or tell stories like they did when Call of Duty 2 defined a new generation of shooters in 2005. The success or failure of Call of Duty: Vanguard will likely depend on how aware Sledgehammer is of this, and how it presents and paces the action through a darker and more claustrophobic examination of World War 2. If this first look at Vanguard is any indication, I'd say Sledgehammer has learned all the right lessons from its last trip to the Western Front.
Call of Duty: Vanguard is set to launch on November 5, 2021. It's being developed by Sledgehammer Games and is set to launch on PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. Publisher Activision is being investigated by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, and you can read more about the Activision Blizzard lawsuit here.