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Changing of the Guard - An In-Depth Look at Call of Duty: Vanguard
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 03:46am 20/08/21 | Comments
We were privy to a hands-off demo and presentation for Sledgehammer's Call of Duty: Vanguard ahead of its global video reveal where we were taken through an in-depth look at the game. Read on for what we learnt...

Churchill famously said “we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender”.

It’s an oft used quote from WWII and the myriad campaigns that took place across many, many fronts. It’s both historically powerful in that it speaks to the resolve the Allies took to the insurmountable task ahead of them, and also relays the contrastive nature of the many conflicts attached to the statement; the broad spectrum of duty set to play out in what was a great unknown.

"Sledgehammer’s self-described “contemporary lens” the studio is layering over this historical setting, has allowed for an almost unfiltered look at it...”

Perhaps less ceremoniously it also fits here, in the next installment in Sledgehammer Games’ more recent spin on the Call of Duty franchise -- Call of Duty: Vanguard. In part because of the reverence stacked both within this upcoming entry, and the game it’s sequel to: Call of Duty: WWII. But also because Vanguard presents to us a four-theatre campaign that aims to not just tell stories set within them, but to also write its own slice of interactive history where the eventual Special Forces is concerned. And while this engagement platform has been done to the nines over the past few decades, and then some, Sledgehammer’s self-described “contemporary lens” the studio is layering over this historical setting has allowed for an almost unfiltered look at it; naming but a handful in what Churchill also coined the “war of the unknown warrior”.

“This is no war of chieftains or of princes, of dynasties or national ambition; it is a war of peoples and of causes,” he said. “There are vast numbers, not only in this island but in every land, who will render faithful service in this war but whose names will never be known, whose deeds will never be recorded. This is a war of the Unknown Warriors; but let all strive without failing in faith or in duty, and the dark curse of Hitler will be lifted from our age.”

“The Second Era of Sledgehammer Games”

In 2019 Sledgehammer Studios turned 10. On reflection of a decade gone and looking towards the next, the team pivoted to future-proof the studio across a number of fronts. One of those being centred around culture, and the other about being a more global studio representing modern and future game development. One of the key takeaways from that pivot was the birth of the Melbourne site, the genesis of which was to not only tap into the relatively untapped riches of Australian game development, but to also help grow the industry where Triple-A development is concerned here. And as we publish this, Sledgehammer in Melbourne is tracking towards a healthy 150 people, even while we continue to navigate the pandemic -- a testament to the talent and attitude of Aussie game development, and also to Sledgehammer’s foresight in setting up shop in the Garden State.

"I’m pretty happy to say, for once, Australia is wholly represented here, and not just playing a bit part...”

Following this success, Sledgehammer COO, Andy Wilson, also reminded us that the studio’s expansion into Canada has also bore fruit and that goal of cultural growth, and of becoming a more global entity, are now intertwined in the best possible way. And this is largely reflected in the narrative setup for Vanguard, which not only features the four theatres of war I touched on earlier, but with each theatre’s protagonist being of a different cultural background. And I’m pretty happy to say, for once, Australia is wholly represented here, and not just playing a bit part.

North Africa, the Eastern front, the Western front and the Pacific are all, for lack of a better term, playspaces you’ll be fighting the good fight from within in the game’s extensive campaign. “A world at war” was the catch-cry used during our hands-off demo and presentation for Vanguard, which could be taken as both the literal aspect of that “reaching global” initiative mentioned before, and also as a bit of a nod to Treyarch’s breakout Call of Duty moment in Call of Duty: World at War. But what it also means is that beyond the different narrative options available across all four theatres is the opportunity for different types of gameplay; different experiences that shake up your moment-to-moment while also serving up new ways to think about what engagement in this new (old) arc actually means.

Special Forces, the OG

“Historically inspired” means the team isn’t beholden to ‘all the facts’. And while the foundation for the intertwined narratives of all four theatres is there and the outcomes and triumphs that happened within them is represented, liberties can be taken in fleshing out the how and why of said outcomes and triumphs. I took a lot of this to mean that storytelling here is a bit like the makeup of HBO’s Rome -- we know Caesar was stabbed to death, that’s in the history books. But we don’t fully know the machinations of the few that lead to the event. Enter Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, whose many made-up Sliding Doors moments lead us to the historical events the series explores. Neither character is based on any single person from the Empire or known history, but they’re integral as writing tools to help these half truth plots find historical crescendo.

This is how Sledgehammer has approached Vanguard and the birth of the Special Forces operative. (Also, watch Rome if you never have, you won’t forget it.)

The leader of the special group Vanguard centres around is Arthur Kingsley, a sergeant with the British Forces’ 9th Parachute Battalion and who is loosely based on a chap by the name of Sidney Cornell. In fact, most of the characters have a loosely associated person of interest, as far as inspiration for fleshing them out is concerned.

Following Kingsley is lieutenant Polina Petrova, a sniper with Russia’s 138th Rifle Division. She is inspired by the real-life heroics of Lyudmila Pavlichenko who is known as the most successful female sniper of all time.

"Riggs’ character is bolstered by the tall tales of the “Rats of Tobruk” -- an Australian-lead garrison who reclaimed the Rats of Tobruk handle given to them by German propaganda...”

Captain Wade Jackson of the US Air Force’s Scouting Squadron Six is a pilot character based loosely off of historical pilot, Vernon Micheel, and much of whose campaign time takes place in the Pacific theatre -- specifically the Battle of Midway. (Though he is challenged during events, grounded and without his plane, which forces him to adjust on-the-fly and learn to lean on a team and team work for success.)

And finally, this original ragtag group is rounded out, as it should, by the Aussie 2Lt. Lucas Riggs of Australia’s 20th Battalion. He’s a veteran of the North African conflict and was inspired by Charles Upham. Riggs’ character is bolstered by the tall tales of the “Rats of Tobruk” -- an Australian-lead garrison who reclaimed the Rats of Tobruk handle given to them by German propaganda, and even created their own medals they struck from a downed German bomber. These guys were truly badass.

What’s interesting and cool about the collected individuals above that form the first Special Forces, is that they’re not strictly hierarchical -- it’s their skills that standout out over rank, which is best exemplified with the lowly sergeant Kingsley leading the other three, all officers. Moreover, Sledgehammer promises that each arc is based on “tide-turning” battles and events.

Historically Still, Modern Warfare

Vanguard is running off the brilliant Modern Warfare next-gen Call of Duty game-engine, with a number of Sledgehammer-required tweaks, and it really shows. A point of focus as part of our presentation was the level of detail and capture the audio department went to, to recreate the authenticity of vehicles, including period-specific planes -- no mean feat when considering the fast nature of dogfighting in the whole of WWII, let alone that of its most ferocious dogfight -- the Battle of Midway. And in going back to Infinity Ward’s triumphant reboot, and the award-winning audioscape that came with that entry, and in what we were privy to here, Vanguard looks set to fill the giant-sized boots-on-the-ground in front of it.

"An example saw a decorative plate fall from its wall mount in an abandoned house when you fire at the enemy and he’s knocked back. It falls and bounces off his head in a realistic and dramatic fashion. It’s a small thing to note, but stood out here...”

Lighting, particularly in shadows, plays a large role running off the tweaked tech, physics too. Not for much more than selling the space and mood in our limited exposure, but the mind wanders happily at the potential for lighting and audio playing huge parts in tension and gameplay. An example saw a decorative plate fall from its wall mount in an abandoned house when you fire at the enemy and he’s knocked back. It falls and bounces off his head in a realistic and dramatic fashion. It’s a small thing to note, but stood out here. These hopefully unscripted, dynamic events mean the game could truly serve up a cinematic experience tailored to, and driven from, how you choose to play.

Champion Hill, ‘Nuff Said

While Vanguard’s campaign sets up the historical genesis of the truly ‘specialist’ soldier; the so-called “Special Forces”, that part of this Call of Duty product is the journey to getting there. In the multiplayer offering -- and what little we’ve seen and were told about it -- it’s where you get to really let loose as these established archetypes. Where they come to life, untethered from a strict narrative base.

We didn’t get a lot of information on multiplayer, save for details like the return of Gunsmith, that 20 maps will be available at launch (16 of which are core 6v6 maps, the other four maps ar specialised 2v2, and there will be reactive environments and even more destructibility. But on the surface most of that felt and sounded fairly straightforward to me. Instead the real standout nugget was in Champion Hill mode -- an entirely new concept that is a little bit Gunfight mixed with a little bit of Battle Royale, but is still something entirely new.

The official FAQ described it as:
The fast and frenetic Champion Hill mode features a series of tournament style head-to-head matches, where players can play solo (1v1) or squad up in duos (2v2) and trios (3v3) to battle it out in an arena consisting of four maps to be the last squad standing.
And again, we’re champing at the bit to play more and see more, but Champion Hill sounds like a big game-changer for MP moving forward.

Finally, Treyarch is handling Vanguard’s Zombies, and this offering is actually directly tied to the Cold War Zombies universe, which means we’re one step closer to my number one wish: make Call of Duty: Zombies a standalone not at all reliant on the annual releases of the main series, and feature seasonal content.

And of course, Warzone rears its head as well, with the Vanguard tie-in being handled by Raven, which will also feature a whole new map as well as seamless integration of Vanguard content into Warzone (given they run off the same tech). But there’s more on this to be revealed at a later date.

We Surrender

From a studio restructuring how it operates and re-strategising what it wants to stand for in game development, to fully exploring entirely new narrative opportunities in a well-trodden subject, timeline and thoroughly known event, Call of Duty: Vanguard is a very, very big promise from Sledgehammer and Activision, with plenty of questions yet to be answered. But colour us more than keen to learn more and more importantly, to play. So stay tuned -- it’s Call of Duty season, y’all. Strap yourself in.
Read more about Call of Duty: Vanguard on the game page - we've got the latest news, screenshots, videos, and more!

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