Activision and Sledgehammer Games are unveiling a well-known secret: Call of Duty: Vanguard. The game is the next installment of the Call of Duty series that has sold more than 400 million copies to date. It will take players back to World War II and weave a global story about the birth of the special forces.
The narrative and gameplay will feel familiar to fans like me, who have played every single Call of Duty game since the franchise’s 2002 debut. It was exciting to see it revealed inside Call of Duty: Warzone, the ever-present battle royale mode. And I am a big history buff and so I’m happy to see the franchise return to a period that is so much more grounded in history. And I’m glad to see it zero in on lesser-known parts of the historical record that seem more important by today’s environment, as special forces has become so much more visible now.
But while this kind of introduction happens every year, it’s a difficult one this time because the parent company Activision Blizzard has been hit with a sex discrimination lawsuit by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. That lawsuit has rocked the executive ranks of Blizzard and soured many in the industry, to the point where gamers are considering boycotts of the company’s games. On top of that, Electronic Arts has emerged more competitive this year with the upcoming launch of the near-future modern warfare theme of Battlefield 2042, which features unparalleled destruction and the capability for players to create their own scenarios with Battlefield Portal.
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These challenges are daunting and could very well distract players from their Call of Duty obsessions this year. And I’m sure these circumstances will stir mixed emotions in everybody who considers playing this game. But Vanguard and its story look good, and we’ll see how it does after it arrives on November 5 on the PlayStation and Xbox consoles and PC.
Back to World War II
Sledgehammer’s developers are taking us back to World War II with a single-player campaign that focuses on the birth of the special forces, the soldiers in the vanguard who led the way into places like Normandy and defended Stalingrad from German assault. The story focuses on four soldiers of diverse origins who were selected to be among the first special soldiers.
While fictional, each character and backstory has a basis in history, with guidance from Sledgehammer historian and World War II expert Marty Morgan. These characters will provide what Sledgehammer hopes is a unique window on the vast battlefields of the global war, and they will also focus on parts of the war that many people aren’t already familiar with — including people like me, who have played every single Call of Duty and Battlefield game. This is the first time since Sledgehammer’s 2017 game, Call of Duty: WWII, that the franchise has returned to the Second World War.
“As we talked to Marty Morgan, there was another aspect of the stories that he told that really caught our attention,” said Dave Swenson, the campaign creative director at Sledgehammer. “And that was the human story. The story of these individuals who participated in World War Two, and they were often ordinary, but there was something about the war that sort of pulled extraordinary out of them. And these ordinary people became extraordinary as a result of their fighting in World War Two.”
Sledgehammer’s leaders and game creators showed off snippets of the game, from the single-player campaign to multiplayer combat. But more detailed reveals of things, like multiplayer gameplay, are coming up. There will also be new reveals related to the coordination of the game with Warzone (yes, it’s getting a new map) and a Zombies mode as well.
Before he described the game, Sledgehammer studio head Aaron Halon talked about the sex discrimination lawsuit.
“The stories and the pain that have been shared are simply devastating. You know we love making games. It’s what we do. It’s our life’s work, and we love it,” he said. “But more importantly, we’re humans. We’re here for each other, working side by side and looking out for one another in good time. On behalf of Sledgehammer Games, and all of the teams supporting Call of Duty: Vanguard, harassment of any kind goes against everything we stand for. Everyone regardless of their title, their role, gender, orientation, and ethnicity, are treated with dignity, respect, and equality. We cannot comment on the lawsuit. But what I can say is that as a team, we are committed to making sure all team members feel safe welcome.”
In my own interview with Sledgehammer, Halon noted the studio hasn’t had any sudden departures since the announcement of the lawsuit (in contrast to departures at Blizzard), and it is working closely with the staff to communicate with them and encourage them to report any kind of harassment as well. He said transparency and open communication are woven in the culture, and the team has an internal diversity, equity and inclusion group, Kaleidoscope, tasked with making sure the values are trackable and tangible.
After finishing that opening statement, the team moved on to describing Sledgehammer’s renewal under new management and its efforts to build Vanguard, which has been a huge project over three years.
Andy Wilson, the chief operating officer of Sledgehammer since 2019, noted that the studio has rebuilt itself. More than 100 employees left after the last game shipped and the studios founders, Glen Schofield and Michael Condrey, left in 2018 to found their own separate competing studios. That was a full third of the staff that left. But Wilson said that since that time the studio has hired up and is now nearly 500 people. It also has new offices in Melbourne, Australia, and Toronto, Canada. Other studios contributing to the game include Raven, Treyarch, High Moon Studios, and Activision Shanghai. In an interview, Wilson said the team has become more diverse over time.
Indeed, it takes a huge army of developers to make this kind of game, which is the most popular triple-A franchise every year.
Josh Bridge, game director on Vanguard, said the real history traces the origins of the special forces in many countries to WWII. Players will experience the war through the eyes of a multinational group of soldiers in settings such as Midway in the Pacific, Stalingrad in Russia, the Normandy airdrop ahead of D-Day in France, and North Africa.
Those are all turning points in the war, and that is reminiscent of the various single-player episodes of Battlefield One in World War I and Battlefield V in World War II. But Sledgehammer may have done some better writing for the campaign by tying all of the stories and characters together. These four special forces soldiers from different armies all come together to deal with a threat at the end of the war. They form Task Force One, and Sledgehammer promises the narrative will be gripping and, as a fictional story, it will let you change the face of history.
“When we did WWII, we came out of that just scratching the surface. We felt there were all these stories our historians and it really feels like it’s a different take on World War Two,” Bridge said. “And that’s what we’re driving for with Vanguard.”
The special forces leader is Arthur Kingsley, a British paratrooper based on a soldier named Sidney Cornell. A member of the 9th British Parachute Battalion, Kingsley lands in France before D-Day. It’s a defining moment for Kingsley, because it really was the moment where he became a leader. And the Allies knew that he was someone who could lead this team.
“It wasn’t until the very end of the war that the Allied leadership started this idea, this concept of identifying individuals, these special soldiers who were unorthodox in the way that they in the way that they fought,” Swenson said. “They would bring these together into small squads to go do specialized missions.”
Another member of this team is Polina Petrova, a sniper modeled after famed Soviet female solider Lyudmila Mikhailovna Pavlichenko, known as “Lady Death” in the Russian army. She had 309 confirmed kills. Petrova is in the 138th Soviet Rifle Division.
Another soldier is Wade Jackson, modeled after Vernon Micheel, who helped sink two Japanese aircraft carriers at Midway. Jackson, a captain in the U.S. Navy’s Scouting Squadron Six, is shot down over the Solomon Islands. He is picked up by the 93rd Infantry Battalion on the island of Bougainville. The final soldier is Lucas Riggs, an Australian soldier who fights in North Africa as one of the “rats of Tobruk” in the Australian 20th Battalion, helping disrupt the supply lines of German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s army.
One of the villains is Heinrich Frisinger, the director of the Nazi Gestapo. He is modeled after Heinrich Mueller, who was part of Hitler’s inner circle. Toward the end of the War, Frisinger launches a project dubbed Project Phoenix to continue the Nazi party after the fall of Berlin. The Allied leadership gets wind of it and wants to find out what it’s about. They use the special forces to do that. They pull them from all of the different armies to find the right soldiers. They are captured and wind up in the basement of Gestapo headquarters.
Rooted in history, but not beholden to it
The team wanted people to feel like they were trotting around the globe, seeing different timelines, geographies, and battles where the tide of the war changed. They also wanted international points of view and varieties of war experiences. You’ll see that in the Midway story in particular, where you play a pilot based on a real character, who helped change the outcome.
Vanguard focuses on fun, but everything is grounded in history.
“We see this as being rooted but not beholden to history,” he said. “We take the accuracy of it very seriously. There is no revisionist history. What were those stories in between the lines? That’s where we think there’s an opportunity.”
And so they latched on to the birth of special forces toward the end of the war. And while that sounds like stealth, Bridge said, “You’re more like the hammer than the scalpel.”
Halon noted that the narrative team includes diverse people such as female writers like Alexa Ray Corriea, a former game journalist. And it is no surprise that the characters and stories have more diversity.
“We’ve had a real combination of a lot of folks who’ve been at Sledgehammer from the beginning. We have a lot of new, amazing talent,” Halon said.
Multiplayer, Zombies, and Warzone
The single-player campaign sounds quite intriguing, and I’m glad they didn’t ditch it, as EA has done with Battlefield 2042.
Players will also be able to become the original special forces operators in multiplayer mode. Vanguard pushes the action forward in a franchise-first Zombies crossover. And fans can also look forward to a new map coming later this year in Warzone, the free-to-play experience, which will be fully integrated with Vanguard. It’s time to rise on every front.
You will play as each of the multinational group of four soldiers from diverse backgrounds, who earn their way into the special forces. Multiplayer will have 20 maps at launch, including 16 core maps with 6-vs.-6 combat, said Greg multiplayer creative director Reisdorf in a press briefing.
There will also be a Champion Hill mode with a series of tournament-style head-to-head matches, where players can play solo (1-vs.-1) or squad up in duos (2-vs.-2) and trios (3-vs.-3) to battle it out in an arena consisting of four maps to be the last squad standing.
Activision’s Treyarch studio will also deliver a franchise-first Call of Duty” Zombies crossover as Vanguard connects with the Call of Duty: Black Ops – Cold War Zombies storyline.
Players will be able to survive the onslaught of the undead in a new Zombies experience. It will provide continuity from a lore standpoint while innovating on the core gameplay loop.
Raven Studios is leading the development of brand-new Call of Duty: Warzone map coming this year. It will feature a multi-faceted, new anti-cheat system for Warzone (this is quite important to fans, as cheating has been rampant in Warzone). It shares the same tech as Vanguard for seamless weapon and operator integration.
And postlaunch, Vanguard and Warzone will offer free content featuring new maps, modes, playlists, and limited-time and seasonal events.
“We see this as a unified experience across all the modes in the game and Warzone inclusive,” Bridge said. “We see Vanguard as a big ecosystem of content to explore and try and all of it, feeling all cohesive and all connected together. So that’s our game DNA.”
You can see how lifelike the soldiers look, to the point where you can see the flaws in their skin and glints in their eyes. Using the Call of Duty engine introduced with Modern Warfare, Vanguard delivers a very photorealistic world — and it still runs at 60 frames per second. The game will have a variety of combat pacing and reactive gameplay environments.
Bridge said the game will return to tactical gunplay, the return of Gunsmith (modding guns), new custom ballistics, and reactive environments.
“Down the barrel for us is the core feel of gameplay, that core combat loop, that feeling of weapons, how they fire, how the world reacts, just that broad visceral feel of it,” Bridge said.
Sledgehammer showed how it collected sounds from vintage aircraft that are still flying today. They did that to have a high threshold for sound quality. The game will also make use of haptic feedback in the PS5 and Xbox Series X/S controllers. The team had to develop volumetric cloud lighting and rendering tech as well as other effects to render the clouds, water, beaches, and jungles of the Pacific theater.
The night before D-Day
On the night before D-Day, there were some special British paratroopers who landed in rough weather behind enemy lines. Things don’t go as planned thanks to heavy anti-aircraft fire. You land amid burning fires and nearly drown in a lake. You cut yourself loose and are armed only with a knife in the French farmland. A Black soldier in the night, you sneak up on the Germans and knife them. But then the combat gets hot and you steal a rifle and shoot through the walls of the house, with bullets penetrating through wood and killing enemies.
The scenery and destruction of the environment looked great, but not quite on the same level as Battlefield. What’s scary about this scene is that a soldier has to find his bravery all by himself, surrounded by enemies, in near total darkness. The only light comes from bombs, flares, and fires of crashed airplanes, which are hardly reassuring.
I know some fans will be disappointed to move from the power trip of modern weapons to the less deadly weapons of World War II. You’re not going to be a super-soldier on the same level. For those people looking for something absolutely different, there also isn’t a lot here to make the game stand out from prior years. Perhaps Champion Hill will introduce a new kind of competitive grist. The new Warzone map will be exciting, as will the Zombies crossover. But I can see some players will have fatigue about refighting World War II every four years or so.
The graphics, the sound of the gunfire, the look of the characters, and the environment take realism to a new level. That will be enough for me to enjoy this as a brand new Call of Duty experience, even though it is more of the same Call of Duty experience that I’ve enjoyed for so long.
Battlefield 2042 could be better. I don’t know this early on. But I’m going to enjoy this game.
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