Call of Duty Vanguard multiplayer hands-on is heavier, harder, and yet somehow more approachable

Call of Duty Vanguard multiplayer
(Image credit: Activision)

Call of Duty: Vanguard will likely feel very different for players coming from Black Ops Cold War and Warzone – and it's not just because of the WW2 setting. During my Call of Duty: Vanguard multiplayer hands-on, it's clear that developer Sledgehammer Games is bringing gunplay and movement mechanics that feel more like 2019's Modern Warfare.

At first, I find the gameplay differences to be a bit rough, as I feel slower and heavier, with guns that are much more unwieldy in my usually deft hands. But after a couple of rounds, everything clicks, and a slight course correction makes Call of Duty: Vanguard sing. Sledgehammer is undoubtedly well aware that this heavier, more grounded multiplayer may feel like cognitive dissonance for many players – which is why the dev team is introducing 'Combat Pacing'. 

Combat Pacing seeks to redefine and further customize the multiplayer experience by letting players choose from one of three pacing tiers that determine how large lobbies will be across various maps and modes. This will help players adjust to Call of Duty: Vanguard at their own pace, which is an absolutely brilliant move. Vanguard may feel more difficult at first, but it may be Call of Duty's most approachable title yet. 

Fight on every front 

Call of Duty: Vanguard

(Image credit: Activision)

Call of Duty: Vanguard is promising a journey through all the various WW2 fronts and I'm happy to report that the multiplayer four maps I see during my hands-on do not disappoint. The maps offered during the Call of Duty: Vanguard multiplayer hands-on are: Hotel Royal, a high-end Parisian hotel lobby and its rooftop; Red Star, a snowy and crumbling Soviet city; Gavutu, a Pacific island in the middle of a rainstorm; and Eagle's Nest, a Nazi holdout squatting on a mountain summit. All four maps are wildly different when it comes to size, layout, and design elements, and they all look very good.

Hotel Royal is a standout, with deep red and rich gold interiors that give off a distinctly BioShock vibe when juxtaposed against the grey concrete of the building's roof. Traversing between the two areas for the first time is a mild shock to the senses, as I drop from a roof surrounded by burning buildings into a picturesque hotel lobby that I could definitely never afford to get into. 

Call of Duty: Vanguard multiplayer map

(Image credit: Activision)

Hotel Royal is also my favorite in terms of layout, as it presents a tight but diverse map that offers a fair bit of verticality despite technically only being two floors. You can run through the lobby of the hotel and up onto the rooftops – which have two different height tiers – and discover hidden areas by destroying planks of wood in certain spots. There's a lovely bit where a large glass ceiling can be destroyed, allowing you to drop into the lobby and onto some poor, unsuspecting player's head. This makes for several excellent plays during my hands-on and works to showcase just how varied Vanguard's maps will be. 

As far as the other maps go, there's a nice selection in terms of layout, art design, and environments. It's snowing in Red Star's Russia (no surprise there) and the partially destroyed buildings offer a brief respite from the snow, which falls so heavily I often mistake an errant snowflake for enemy movement. On Gavutu, random bouts of rain lash down and palm trees dance in the wind as you try to navigate an uncomfortably open beach area. The mountain on which Eagle's Nest is perched has some light dusting of snow, but the sunlight is so bright I swear it feels like the air is crisper up there. 

Gun game 

Call of Duty: Vanguard multiplayer

(Image credit: Activision)

You can't talk about a Call of Duty hands-on without talking about the gunplay, and Call of Duty: Vanguard feels like a return to the play that was propagated by Infinity Ward's Modern Warfare reboot. Gone is the lightning-fast and somewhat forgiving gunplay of Black Ops Cold War where you can easily clear a room with a kitted-out MAC-10. In its place is an occasionally brutal gun-meta that feels heavier and harder to handle – especially at first, as starting weapons like the STG44 and M1928 have some wild recoil without any attachments. Your Operator also feels heavier and slightly slower too, so you'll need to be smart with your movement as a mistimed jump can easily get you shot out of mid-air. 

I find sniping in Call of Duty: Vanguard to be much more my speed – an odd realization considering I'm definitely not a sniper. Everyone's favorite, the M1 Garand, is an absolute demon on the battlefield, especially on maps with elevated sniping spots like Red Star, while the tried and true KAR98 feels incredible when firing and reloading. 

There were a few players in my preview that were very high level and had enviable weapon builds that I kept picking up to test out. The same STG44 I was using but with a Maxim silencer, rubber grip tape, and 2.5x zoom feels like conducting a symphony of bullets rather than wrestling an unruly weapon. Every time I found it on the ground, I'd snatch it up, as the build was remarkably better than mine. This bodes well for players who like to level up weapons, but is also a warning that your first several Vanguard matches will likely be very frustrating with base guns.

The killstreaks in my Call of Duty: Vanguard hands-on preview are limited: three kills gets you Intel (like a UAV), five kills gets a Glide Bomb, and 10 kills gets you Attack Dogs. On Blitz maps, it's an almost constant barrage of killstreaks that can get incredibly annoying – especially when there are dozens of dogs running about. The only glitch I encountered was during these moments: attack dogs would completely disappear when running towards ladders on Hotel Royal and Gavuntu, which elicited a chuckle.

Combat pacing

Call of Duty Vanguard multiplayer

(Image credit: Activision)

Combat Pacing is by far the most interesting matchmaking tool Call of Duty: Vanguard is bringing to the war table, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the new game mode: Patrol. It's like Hardpoint if the capture-point in question is constantly moving: two teams face off to gain control over a single scoring zone that, once activated, will begin to move around the map. This means that the typical Hardpoint camp-out meta can't be used in Patrol matches, and stationary field upgrades like Trophy Systems will be virtually useless. I play several matches of Tactical Patrol on Gavutu, a map set in WW2's Pacific front, and while it's a bit, it offers a more dynamic alternative to the somewhat stagnant Hardpoint match.

Now, Combat Pacing. My first several games played during the Call of Duty: Vanguard multiplayer beta are all Tactical multiplayer battles. Tactical Combat Pacing means there's a longer time between enemy engagements, as player counts can be much smaller across every map and mode. Tactical matches can be 6v6 bouts or the Call of Duty league standard 4v4 matches, and I can easily see Tactical becoming the most popular Combat Pacing choice as players flock to prove their merit. Combat Pacing will let you choose game modes across one of three playlists: Tactical, Assault, and Blitz. That means you can play Team Deathmatch on Hotel Royal in any of those three modes, and whichever mode you pick will determine the size of your lobby.

On most maps, Tactical feels like the appropriate player count, offering some respite from shootouts that lets me discover new map rotations or fill up on ammo. I played Tactical Team Deathmatch on Hotel Royal with six enemy players on the map, allowing me more time to learn the lay of the land. This is how I quickly discover the aforementioned destructible glass ceiling and the less-obvious rooftop routes. 

Call of Duty Vanguard multiplayer map Gavutu

(Image credit: Activision)

Conversely, Blitz Kill Confirmed on Hotel Royal is pure chaos. With 24 players, a map that previously felt roomy feels like when you try to leave a venue after a concert ends and everyone's just blindly bumping into each other looking for an exit. With all of us running to pick up the dog tags of our fallen comrades or foes, it's an audio and visual onslaught from start to finish. For many players Blitz Combat Pacing may be a bit too chaotic: you'll die a lot and fall victim to what seems like nonstop enemy killstreaks. 

In Combat Pacing, Sledgehammer seems to have found the perfect solution for a problem that plagues the Call of Duty franchise: variety. Changing up gunplay is a necessary thing in order for new games to feel properly new, but presenting gunplay that feels too jarring can alienate long-time franchise players. Combat Pacing allows you to better shape your multiplayer experience across a variety of maps and modes, which means a new player can spend some time learning map layouts in Tactical or go in guns blazing just to get the weapon to feel down in Blitz. Combat Pacing just may be the most important new Call of Duty feature from the last several years, and it'll help make Vanguard a helluva lot more approachable without sacrificing difficulty. 

Call of Duty: Vanguard will release November 5 on PS4, PS5, Xbox Series X, Xbox One, and PC.  

You can read up on our Activision Blizzard lawsuit explained feature for complete details about the legal proceedings facing the Call of Duty publisher.

Alyssa Mercante

Alyssa Mercante is an editor and features writer at GamesRadar based out of Brooklyn, NY. Prior to entering the industry, she got her Masters's degree in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Newcastle University with a dissertation focusing on contemporary indie games. She spends most of her time playing competitive shooters and in-depth RPGs and was recently on a PAX Panel about the best bars in video games. In her spare time Alyssa rescues cats, practices her Italian, and plays soccer.