The release of Call of Duty: Vanguard is controversial enough, but technically it represents a return for Modern Warfare 2019’s brilliant engine (known internally as IW8), improved and enhanced to meet the ambitious demands of the latest release from Sledgehammer Games.
There are technical advancements specific to multiplayer, but from our point of view it is the single player campaign that is the real star of the stage. It tells the story of an elite team staged in a very interesting way, with a solid technical sector in which lighting, volumetric effects and material rendering shine.
The IW8 has always been designed to scale across console generations, so the result could only be very good on this new generation machines, even if there are some quirks and flaws that developers should definitely fix.
Bug? Yes I’m here. We have seen problems in handling AI and animations, ruining engagement, much of which was encountered in the Operation Tonga mission. Enemies behave in a bizarre way, repeating the same animations as a group. You can catch a soldier standing motionless in the middle of a battlefield and unarmed, helpless and oblivious to the carnage around him. And the characters have animations that are sometimes completely unnatural.
But the most annoying problems are perhaps those related to performance. The Xbox Series consoles are the protagonists of some atrocious (albeit rare) stuttering during the course of the campaign, while on PS5 there are pauses of about half a second in correspondence with the saves when reaching the checkpoints. For a game that makes refinement one of its best weapons, it’s a really short shot.
Leaving the bugs aside for a moment, there are other things to complain about, such as full-screen motion blur enabled by default that’s far too intense – fast camera moves can create a lot of nausea. We have therefore disabled it, and we imagine that many other users will do the same to improve the gaming experience.
We also came across quite unique technical choices. The game runs at 60fps as you would expect from any Call of Duty, but some pre-rendered cinematic sequences made with the same engine run at 30fps instead (with multiple macro block artifacts). Developers typically use pre-rendered scenes to enhance post-production effects, to handle epic battles, huge environments, and situations that the hardware wouldn’t be able to handle with real-time computation. But here instead they are used to continue sequences already played with the engine and which would therefore be perfectly manageable in real time by the consoles.
And then there are the concluding stages of the chapters of the story. They are exceptional, masterfully directed and sampled with motion capture: they almost look like films for the quality offered. But just like the movies, they run at 24fps. Yes, the films run at 24fps, but here there is a great mix of gameplay at 60fps, cut-scenes at 30fps and closing stages at 24fps, which the user inevitably finds as incongruous. All very strange.
If we focus only on the actual gameplay, forgetting for a moment about bugs, oddities and inconsistencies, we notice something special. There is a lot in common with previous Modern Warfare 2019 and Warzone titles: a native 4K 60Hz mode, enhanced with temporal super-sampling and dynamic resolution scaling that appears to be active on the horizontal axis only. What about Series S? On this console, the game is aiming for the maximum possible from the machine, which is 1440p.
Some time ago our Richard Leadbetter had visited the Infinity Ward studios in Poland, and there the PS5 debugging consoles (and therefore we can think that the concept applies to Series X in full) displayed the statistics on the screen, and the resolution was almost always nailed to the intended goal, with only a few rare cases of dips with DRS kicking in. This great milestone was achieved in part thanks to an advanced VRS (Variable Rate Shading) system, which the IW8 engine manages via software, thus going beyond the level of precision offered by AMD’s counterpart in hardware management. In fact, the limit of AMD’s technique is that it stops at the management of pixels in 8×8 blocks, while the IW8 goes further. The resolution is therefore always so high due to this VRS system.
Series X and PlayStation 5, stuttering aside, are on par, although there are differences in support for 120Hz mode. All the new generation versions offer it, even Series S; performance is doubled at the cost of resolution, which drops visibly: 1536p on Series X and PS5, and 1080p on Series S. Everything else looks identical to the 60fps mode. The only difference is in the consistency of performance: the fps target doubles, but 120fps is maintained less frequently than 60fps.
So what are the conclusions? There is no clear-cut winner here between Series X and PS5 in terms of performance – one version can do better than the other in certain scenarios, and vice versa. Differences? Few, apart from the screen tearing at the top only present on Microsoft consoles. But the consoles of the Redmond house have on their side the advantage of the hardware-enabled VRR, which eliminates most of the difficulties in managing the 120fps.
What about Series S? The little sister of the Series X struggles a lot in this rendering mode. The opening mission set in Hamburgo speaks for itself, with frame-rates ranging between 60 and 80fps, almost dropping the gameplay into regular mode at 60fps. The Series actually very rarely reaches 120fps, but at the same time we appreciate that the developers have been daring by offering this option.
We also played Vanguard in multiplayer mode, but as far as we’re concerned it’s not a very attractive component for this year’s release. As short as it is, the campaign offers an incredible technical level undermined only by a few bugs, stuttering and smudging. Performance is well optimized in several places, and while it doesn’t always keep 120fps in high refresh mode, it’s worth playing this way if you have a compatible display.
Definitely, Call of Duty: Vanguard demonstrates excellent scalability across all IW8 game engine systems. Almost nothing is sacrificed on a technical level on Series S. We are therefore faced with a solid release and a real manual on how to make shooters nailed to 60fps, with an exceptional campaign characterized by a skilful art direction. A valid title that deserves to be played despite the bugs and flaws ..
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