Call of Duty Vanguard sees Call of Duty returning to its roots… once again. It does that a lot. The first multiplayer beta opened up this weekend for anyone who preordered on PlayStation, and I spent a fair number of hours getting my feet wet ahead of its November 5 release date. If you, like me, have been playing the last several iterations of CoD, you will probably feel a sense of familiarity with Vanguard's multiplayer. Actually, let me rephrase that: you might feel like this is last year's Call of Duty MP with a WW2 skin. The only thing keeping me playing Vanguard instead of going back to Black Ops Cold War are a few interesting new modes.
Team Deathmatch, Kill Confirmed, and Domination are back, as you’d expect. However, Hardpoint, a mode I never really liked, has been changed to a new Patrol mode, which I definitely like. Rather than capture and hold static points, Patrol has you protecting a small circle of territory that moves along the map (hence the "Patrol" moniker). When a team of internet randos comes together to cover and capture this moving target, it's really fun. It's far and away my favorite addition to this year's multiplayer, as it encourages both active and passive team coverage and discourages camping.
Well, long-term camping at least. Since the contested area is constantly moving, it's in the best interest of long-range shooters to post up in a sniper nest for just a few minutes. The area moves from wide-open spaces, to inside buildings, and back out again. It's great, actually. It requires using all your shooting skills: close-quarters, mid-range, and long-range, all within the course of a few minutes.
In all modes, close-quarters combat is where I'm finding the most frustration with Vanguard's multiplayer because it’s tough to tell who’s on which side. Last year's Cold War pitted NATO forces against Warsaw Pact forces, whereas this year (at least in the beta) both teams are made up of the same Allied characters. More than once, particularly in the Hotel Royal map, I didn't know who was who. If you're melee-close to someone, the indicator over their head just can't be seen, and even at a distance the muted red indicator often disappears into the muddy ochre and brown tones of the map. Thankfully, friendly fire is not a concern here (there's no Hardcore mode in the beta) because there are split-second moments where I’ve made the wrong call. Also, plenty where I’ve hesitated when I shouldn’t have and got smoked.
I understand in 2021 no one wants to play as the Axis powers, but some sort of distinguishing feature between the two teams other than a small dot with their name in red would go a long way. I like being able to tell when I'm being approached by an enemy player by their character model rather than their Activision gamer name, and I don't want to have to git-gud at increasing my speed glancing up at the words floating above their head.
One mode where this isn't a problem is the new Champion Hill mode, a cool twist on the battle royale formula where instead of fighting to be the last team in an all-out war, you're instead running around in what's basically a glorified paintball battlefield. The premise is simple: you join a two- or three-person team, get dropped into an arena, and work to eliminate the other teams. There are 10 teams in all, each randomly battling one another 2v2 or 3v3, until only one team remains. During the matches you earn money you can use during breaks in the competition to buy upgrades like weapons, perks, and buffs, or spend during the match to upgrade your weapon. It's fun, but matchmaking took a long time no matter what I tried. I’m not sure if that's due to lack of interest or because it's still in beta, so I can't really fault it for that unless it persists in the final game.
Speaking of maps, the three that’re available in the beta are… just okay. Of the three, Gavutu, a rain-soaked South Pacific location, is probably my favorite because it has most of the features I like in a mid-sized MP map: a corridor up the middle, a wide-open space on one side, and a more clustered group of obstacles and buildings on the other. It still doesn't quite feel right because in spite of the wide-open nature of the seaside of the map, it still feels a touch too small for the features it uses and during the course of the beta I never really got a feel for the "flow" of it. Hotel Royal, a small map with lots of CQC, is my least favorite of the bunch (in part due to the aforementioned friend-or-foe issues), while the Stalingrad-based Red Star gives me no strong feelings one way or another. I did appreciate how much Red Star reminded me of Call of Duty 2 from way back in the day, but other than that nothing really stood out to me about it. My opinion on the maps may change as I get more familiar with them, and week 2 will also open up The Eagle's Nest, a map based on Hitler's mountain stronghold (where it will be even weirder to not be fighting people dressed as Nazis).
Rank and loadout progressions have returned and appear to be exactly the same as they were last year, which was, in turn, very similar to how they felt in 2019's Modern Warfare. You create your loadout with primary and secondary weapons, lethal and non-lethal weapons like grenades and Molotov cocktails, three perks, and your killstreak bonuses. Using a weapon during a match unlocks upgrades like optics, magazines, and different barrels, among others. Gaining rank with your Activision account opens up more weapons and modifications and… yeah, it's pretty much exactly the same thing as last year, so it’s difficult to get excited about. One thing missing from the beta are unlockable skins, which add nothing to the gameplay itself but always push me to grind at least a couple of my favorite weapons to their highest levels. Hopefully those come back for the final game.
I did notice some weird ranking issues in both my profile XP and my weapon XP. Sometimes, for several matches, I'd accrue no XP whatsoever, in spite of all my efforts. Then, without warning, it would "catch up" and all the experience from the last 20 matches would suddenly appear at once. All the unlocks would come in a huge, delayed wave, which meant I wouldn't be able to apply any upgrades to my weapons, or use new weapons, for extended periods of time. It meant missing out on the satisfaction of progression level to level, which is hopefully something they iron out before release.
The weapons also feel pretty much the same as well, which is to say that they feel modern and not World War 2-era at all. I understand the reflective sight actually predates World War 2 by a lot so it’s not technically historically inaccurate, but it still feels very odd to have them on small arms. The kill streaks, like the Recon Plane and Glide Bomb, are just the Spy Plane and Cruise Missile streaks from last year (and those were just versions of the UAV and Cruise Missile streaks from the year before). I appreciate the feeling of familiarity from year to year, but part of me hoped for new, more novel killstreaks to feel more era-appropriate instead of just relabeling them.
Additionally, skill-based matchmaking returns to Call of Duty in Vanguard and you're probably not going to like it if you're an old salt. Playing on PS5, which I'm admittedly not great at, I appreciated it. I usually play on PC and have a hard time adjusting from the joy of mouse and keyboard to controller-based play. For less competitive players like me, who just use CoD as an excuse to play online with friends for dozens of hours each fall, SBMM is a great way to ensure you win some and you lose some. But because you always play people of the same relative skill, there's no way to know where you stand in the great player database in the sky. There's also no way to shut it off, so it looks like a VPN remains your only option to skirt the algorithm if you'd rather not be matched with the same caliber of player.
In short, I enjoyed myself during my weekend with Vanguard – especially in Patrol mode matches – but not as much as I’d hoped I would. It's hard to know if it's the so-so maps, playing with a controller instead of my preferred mouse and keyboard, or because it just feels so much like Black Ops Cold War with a WW2-era skin on it. It's still fun and I know I'll put in many hours when the final game comes out, as I do at the start of every Call of Duty cycle, but there's nothing really new here to get me excited about it. Hopefully my opinion will change as multiplayer evolves before its November launch, but if I had to score it right now I'd probably give Call of Duty Vanguard MP a 6. Remember, this is a beta and that score is in no way final, so be sure to check back around launch.