'Call of Duty: Vanguard' first look: Taking the series back to WWII

The next installment arrives on November 5th.

·7 min read
Sledgehammer Games / Activision

There’s a scene in 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order where J, a character inspired by Jimi Hendrix, explains to the game’s white protagonist, BJ Blazkowicz, why he’s not fighting. After Blazkowicz talks back, J tells him: "You don't get it, do you? Before all this, before the Germans, before the war, back home, man, you were the Nazis."

What I love about that scene is the way it complicates the easy narrative we so often tell ourselves about the Second World War. The New Order understands World War II better than almost any other game inspired by the conflict. Nazism, then as now, was never an ideology that only existed in Hitler's Germany. And in internment camps across the US and Canada and cities like Dresden and Hiroshima, the Allies committed countless injustices of their own.

It's that scene my mind returned to as Sledgehammer Games revealed Call of Duty: Vanguard, the next entry in Activision's long-running first-person shooter series, during an online event last week. Like 2017's Call of Duty: WWII, the studio's previous project as lead developer on the franchise, Vanguard takes the series back to where it all started: the Second World War.

After talking about the studio's commitment to diversity and creating a safe space for all employees, essentially repeating the same company line Activision Blizzard executives have been saying ever since California filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against the publisher, Sledgehammer studio head Aaron Halon introduced Vanguard director Josh Bridge and campaign director David Swenson. Bridge told us how the studio came out of Call of Duty: WWII feeling like it had only scratched the surface of the stories the conflict had to tell. "We see [Vanguard] as being rooted in but not beholden to history. There is no revisionist history here," he said, a bullet point on his Powerpoint presentation reiterating the statement.

Call of Duty: Vanguard
Call of Duty: Vanguard (Sledgehammer Games / Activision)

After showing the game's cinematic trailer and a snippet of gameplay, Swenson talked about the game's story. Like The New Order, Vanguard uses an alternate reality of the war to tell its story, but it appears a much less ambitious retelling on the surface. In a return to the way Infinity Ward did things when the series first started, Vanguard’s campaign will feature four playable characters, each loosely based on a different historical person.

In Polina Petrova, Sledgehammer took inspiration from Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a Soviet sharpshooter who was known as Lady Death for her 309 confirmed kills, the most of any female sniper in history. Wade Jackson, one of the other characters, is based on Vernon L. Micheel, a US Navy pilot who bombed two Japanese aircraft carriers during the Battle of Midway. Then there's Lucas Riggs. He draws from Charles Upham, the only soldier in World War II to earn two Victoria Cross medals.

Finally, you have Arthur Kingsley. His inspiration is Sidney Cornell, a Black British paratrooper who earned a Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions in Normandy. To Sledgehammer's credit, the studio enlisted the help of science fiction writer Tochi Onyebuchi to write Kingsley's character and cast Chike Okonkwo, best known for his role as Will in The Birth of a Nation, to give him his voice.

Call of Duty: Vanguard
Call of Duty: Vanguard (Sledgehammer Games / Activision)

Initially, those four find themselves in different theaters of the war, but they're eventually brought together to take part in a fictional mission called Operation Phoenix. The Nazis, under the guidance of a character named Heinrich Freisinger, have hatched a plan to survive the end of the war and it's up to the newly formed special forces team of Petrova, Jackson, Riggs and Kingsley to stop them. Like the four protagonists, Freisinger has a historical counterpart. He's based on the infamous Gestapo chief Heinrich Müller.

Bridge said the studio sees the title as "a filmic blockbuster, with a contemporary lens on history." The throughline that connects both the story and multiplayer components of the game is how the Second World War saw the birth of the modern idea of the special forces. This is World War II reframed as an entry point into the expanded Call of Duty universe. I won't say that's unexpected, but after Sledgehammer tried to tell a more nuanced story about PTSD in CoD: WW2, I had hoped it would set its sights even higher.

At the reveal event, Sledgehammer spent far more time talking about Vanguard’s story than letting the game speak for itself. Of the single-player campaign, the developer only showed a brief snippet of an early level that features Kingsley taking part in Operation Tonga, which saw British paratroopers land near the city of Caen during the Allied invasion of Normandy. If you've seen Band of Brothers, you already know exactly how this segment plays out.

Call of Duty: Vanguard
Call of Duty: Vanguard (Sledgehammer Games / Activision)

You jump out of a plane as part of a pre-scripted sequence in which you lose your rifle before landing on the ground. After a series of quick time events, your character finds himself in front of a field, an objective marker telling the player to make their way to a windmill in the distance. For part of the level, you have to sneak your way through enemy lines.

Other than an unexpected moment toward the end of the clip, nothing about what I saw struck me as something the franchise hasn't done before, but the execution was still compelling. True to the conditions Allied paratroopers found themselves in during the D-Day invasion, much of the mission takes place in suffocating fog and darkness. That gave the level more of a sense of atmosphere than your typical CoD mission. In particular, the use of lighting was intentional in a way I hadn't seen from the series in a while, the effect made more realistic by the work Sledgehammer and the other CoD studios did to update Modern Warfare's IW 8.0 engine.

What also struck me about this sequence was the stolen Kar98K Kingsley used to dispatch his Nazi pursuers. When he fired the bolt-action rifle, it let out a deafening blast and left enemies crumpled against the floor and walls. There was more physicality to the weapon than the assault rifles that usually dominate the CoD metagame. That "down the barrel" gameplay is something the studio said it spent a lot of the nearly four years since CoD: WW2 perfecting.

Call of Duty: Vanguard
Call of Duty: Vanguard (Sledgehammer Games / Activision)

It's hard to say if the rest of the single-player campaign adopts the more methodical pace to gunplay Sledgehammer showed off in the snippet I saw. However, I can state that multiplayer will feel familiar to current Black Ops Cold War and Warzone players. What you will find is that Sledgehammer designed the maps to feature more destructibility and interactive elements. A clip the studio shared showed off how you could shoot bookshelves, tables and boarded-up windows to open sightlines as a match progresses.

At launch, Vanguard will feature 20 multiplayer maps, 16 of which will support up to 12 players for six-on-six matches. Additionally, Sledgehammer is bringing Gunsmith back, a fan-favorite feature that allows you to customize your weapons with different attachments and ammo types. Naturally, Treyarch's Zombies mode is making a comeback, and it will connect to the lore established in Black Ops Cold War. Oh, and Raven Software is working on a Warzone map and update that will feature an all-new anti-cheat system. Sledgehammer promised to share more information about the multiplayer component of Vanguard, including details on a new mode called Champion Hill that the studio says will offer something new for players to experience, in the coming weeks.

That will give Call of Duty fans time to see if Vanguard is worth another trip to World War II before the game lands on Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 4, PS5 and PC via Battle.net on November 5th.