The release of Call of Duty: Vanguard is a contentious one – but on a technological level, it’s a return for the brilliant Modern Warware 2019 engine (known internally as IW8), enhanced and expanded upon to accommodate the ambitious of Sledgehammer Games’ latest offering. There are engine advances designed specifically for multiplayer, but for my money, it’s the campaign that is the star of the show. Telling the story of an elite squadron delivered via set-piece after set-piece, the technology shines thanks to brilliant materials work, stunning lighting and remarkable volumetrics. IW8 was always designed to scale across the generations – and the end result is a highly polished result on the new wave of machines, albeit with some oddities and blemishes that the developers should address.
Bugs? Yes, they’re there. I’ve seen AI and animation issues that break the immersion – mostly in the Operation Tonga mission. Enemies awkwardly repeat their animations in a group. You might catch a soldier, stood motionless in a battlefield without a gun – oblivious to the carnage around him. There are bizarre rag doll reactions on major characters. However, the most glaring issue I’ve seen so far comes down to performance. Xbox Series consoles see the campaign play out with some egregious – albeit sporadic – stutter, while PlayStation 5 sees checkpoint save pauses of around half-a-second. For a game that delivers so much polish and panache, it’s a bit of a let-down. Beyond that, if we take ourselves away from the bugs for a moment, there’s also a full screen motion blur effect enabled by default. It’s overkill in its intensity, turning any quick camera pan into a smear. I turned it off right away, and I suspect for many it’ll be more enjoyable switched off.
I’ve also got to take issue with some bizarre presentation choices. The game runs at 60fps – as you’d expect for a Call of Duty titles – yet some elements shift to pre-rendered cinematics built on the game engine that run at 30fps instead (complete with macroblock artefacts). Typically, developers use pre-rendered scenes to push post-effects, big battles, huge environments, that the hardware can’t deliver in real-time. But here, it’s usually a continuation of what the consoles capably handle in-engine moments before. And then there’s the end-of-chapter scenes. These are the real deal: beautifully directed, motion captured – almost movie-like in their visual quality, with heavy film grain layered on top. But curiously, they run at 24 frames per second. It’s a “cinematic” 24fps – but yes, another jump in frame-rate from the 60fps of gameplay, and the 30fps in other scenes. It’s all very strange.
If we concentrate on core gameplay, factoring out the bugs, oddities and inconsistencies, we see something quite special. There’s much in common with Modern Warfare 2019 and Warzone – a native 4K target in 60Hz mode, augmented with temporal super-sampling, and a dynamic resolution scaler that seems to run only on the horizontal axis. Series S? Impressively, this targets 1440p instead. Based on Rich Leadbetter’s recent visit to Infinity Ward’s tech hub in Poland (much more on this in due course) and prolonged eyeballing of debug screens on-site, PS5 – and by extension, Xbox Series X – usually runs at full resolution, with only very occasional resolution drops. This is in part achieved via an evolved system of variable rate shading (VRS), which IW8 handles via software, with a level of precision that exceeds AMD’s hardware iteration. That’s limited to dealing with 8×8 pixel blocks, while IW8 has much more precision. Part of the reason resolution is so consistently high is specifically because of this VRS system – why dynamically scale the whole X axis when more granular, less noticeable tweaking to resolution in specific areas of the screen can achieve similar effects?
Series X and PlayStation 5 – stutters apart – are matched evenly, though there are some slight variations in the 120Hz mode support. All current-gen versions get this – even Xbox Series S – where target performance is doubled in exchange for a resolution drop, which seems to land at a peak of 1536p on Series X and PS5, and 1080p for Series S. Everything else seems to be a match for the 60Hz mode, the difference being that while 120fps is the target, there’s not the same level of consistency. There’s no clear ‘winner’ here in Series X and PS5 performance – either can out-perform the other at any given point and often, there’s little to split them at all – apart from the Microsoft consoles’ screen-tearing, only located at the very top of the screen. The Microsoft advantage is at the system level – variable refresh rate support takes the minor stutter seen here and eliminates it entirely. Series S? This one struggles the most in attaining its 120Hz target. The opening Hamburg mission is a great workout, fluctuating between 60fps to 80fps – and it shows just how close Series S is to falling under 60fps in the regular mode. We’re rarely touching the full 120Hz here, but all the same, I’m glad we at least have the option.
I have played Vanguard in multiplayer mode, but for me, it’s not a particularly compelling component of this year’s entry. As short-lived as it may be, we do get a technologically impressive campaign this time, only set back by stuttering issues, bugs and polish. Performance is well optimised in most spots though, and while it can’t always hit the target in its 120Hz mode, it’s still well worth playing if you have the right display. Again, Vanguard shows how seamlessly the IW Engine scales across systems. Barely anything is lost, outside of the pixel count on Series S – where the visual direction of the holds up on all systems. As a milestone release for its engine and as a showcase of 60fps gaming and stunning scripted, set-piece moments, it’s well worth playing through.