Call of Duty: Vanguard's multiplayer is fast, fun, and more than anything, familiar. There are some great new additions by way of expanded game modes, including the excellent new Champion Hill, but if you’d told me I was playing a patched version of Call of Duty: World War II or a reskinned Black Ops: Cold War (which itself felt like a reskinned Modern Warfare) I would probably have believed you, you devious trickster.
After my time playing the alpha, my main concerns were how little this year's Call of Duty did to differentiate itself from years' past. After getting some time in with the final game, my feelings are… mostly the same. Vanguard definitely feels like the Call of Duty you know, love to hate, and hate to love. Maintaining that relationship isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course – this series’ popularity has lasted longer than a whole lot of marriages at this point, so it’s doing something right. I just wish it could do something to spice things up and recapture the passion that brought us together in the first place. Roleplaying? A new toy, maybe? Wait, what was I talking about? Oh, right.
Vanguard’s multiplayer modes are certainly not without their charms: I love being able to obsess over maxing out my favorite guns to get the top-level skins and accessories so people can see how cool I am as I shoot them, and I'm glad to see that return to Vanguard. In fact, it's that feel-good progression of multiplayer that’s kept me playing in recent years more than anything else. Every year I know I need to get just a little bit better, to score just a few more kills, to get some calling card or shiny new, completely useless weapon skin. I haven't had time to really dig into the weapon and operator challenges yet (I’ve only had a couple of days to mess with it during Activision's “virtual review event” so far), but I definitely intend to over the next few days. As someone who typically ends up hyperfocusing on some arbitrary goal, like unlocking a golden skin for my weapon of choice, or being that annoying guy on the map trying to get knife kills, recent Call of Duty games have never failed to deliver my daily dose of endorphins. Vanguard looks to be no exception.
During my all-too-brief time with Call of Duty: Vanguard ahead of launch, I was able to play matches in Blitz and Tactical Combat Pacing. The "pacing" refers to player count: Tactical is 6v6 while Blitz drops as many as 24 players onto each team. So as you’d expect, some of the maps are much better suited than others to the Blitz mode than to TCP, and vice versa. The medium-sized maps are complete chaos with the higher player count, and while chaos can be a lot of fun, the complete saturation of players meant I was often killed mere seconds after spawning. I'm not sure if the smaller maps are turned off during Blitz pacing or if I just didn't happen to load into any yet, but small maps like Das Haus are chaotic enough when it's 6v6 – I can't imagine it being much fun with even double that, much less multiplied by four.
As far as maps go, I’m still processing. The maps I’ve played so far – Demyanks, Numa Numa, Decoy, Oasis, Das Haus, and Bocage – weren't in the alpha, so I was going into them completely fresh. (Dome returns from World at War, although I'm not all that familiar with it because I didn't really like World at War and didn't play it much.) I did have a few sessions in Hotel Royal, which was my least favorite of the maps in the alpha, and one of my biggest complaints holds true now: there are no clearly defined looks for teams, so in close combat you don't immediately know if you're running headfirst into a friend or a foe.
Where Black Ops: Cold War had two visually distinct factions vying for match domination, Vanguard lets you pick whichever operators you want, regardless of which team you're on. I got rage flashbacks to the alpha whenever I would round a corner and find myself face to face with someone on the other team, and we’d briefly dance around one another until one of us realized the other had a red dot over their head instead of blue and opened fire. The complete removal of "sides" during multiplayer matches is weird and leads to frustration, especially when it’s supposedly set during the war against the most clearly evil regime in modern history.
But as early impressions go, I gotta say, I'm a fan of the new maps. Demyansk is a medium-sized winter map with a church in the middle, and its rooftop offers views of most of the map, actually feeling like a sniper's nest. I'm looking forward to playing more of it, to both dish out kills as a sniper and to pretend like I'm above sniping while I take them out from the ground. Numa Numa, meanwhile, is roughly equivalent in size to Demyansk and has a central highpoint with plenty of places to hide and score ambush kills. The others might distinguish themselves as well but I didn't get into matches in all of them during the event, which was a shame – but the ones I did get to try out felt great.
The highlight of my matches so far, though, were the few rounds of Champion Hill duos and trios, which I still like a whole lot. During the alpha it absolutely became one of my favorite modes, and though playing with a stranger wasn't quite as much fun as a trusted friend watching my back, it holds up. I'm looking forward to the release date so I can get the band back together.
Champion Hill is a round-robin tournament inside walled arenas with a simple objective: kill the other team as many times as you can within the time limit while avoiding the same fate for yourself. You have 10 lives in duos and 18 in trios, shared between the members of your team. This means you can get real mad at your friends for spending your lives recklessly, but because they’re spread out amongst the team you don't risk having your best player dropped in solo combat after their teammates blow through all their lives.
During the match, you pick up money drops and earn cash through wins and collecting money from your fallen foes, and some of its best moments come from hitting a monetary goal and quickly upgrading a weapon on the fly – blasting through a bunch of upgrades in a few seconds because you have a glut of cash truly feels like a big change. Sure, you could blast through a few weapon levels with all the cash you've accumulated from your win, but you could hold onto it and spend it during a 'Buy Round' on other upgrades like body armor, instant-unlock killstreaks, and more. I found this extra layer of strategizing an awesome compliment to the normal gunplay and movement strategies required in a match. Oh, and if you can save up enough cash for the Flamenaut? Absolutely do that. You won't be sorry.
Also, the maps are filled with places to hide, and when you have a good teammate (or teammates) and are in communication with one another, working together feels awesome. During the alpha my friend and I won a few rounds where the final few matches were pulse-pounding.
Call of Duty: Vanguard goes live for all of us shortly, and I'm going to play more of the multiplayer to give it a fair go before I make up my mind for a score. During the alpha, I said if I had to assign it a score based on what I’d played so far I would have gone with a 6. Some of that still applies: while Vanguard still feels like an expansion to previous games, the gunplay has been tightened up and the carrot-on-stick prizes missing from the alpha, like weapon skins and calling cards, are back and are calling to me like a siren's song. Couple that with the charms of Champion Hill mode and I'm leaning towards a 7, but we'll see how I feel after this weekend. I still have to try out the return of gunsmithing, get a handle on more of the new maps, try Champion Hill solo, and – perhaps most critical of all – link up with my core CoD friend group.