The release of Call of Duty: Vanguard is controversial – but on a technological level, it’s a return for the brilliant Modern Warware 2019 engine (known internally as IW8), which has been improved and expanded to match the ambitious latest offering from Sledgehammer Games will . There are engine advances made specifically for multiplayer, but for my money, it’s the campaign that stars the show. The technology tells the story of an elite squadron, delivered from standard to standard, and shines thanks to brilliant material work, stunning lighting and remarkable volumetry. IW8 has always been 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 developers should fix.
Failure? Yes they are there. I’ve seen AI and animation issues disrupting immersion – mostly in Operation Tonga mission. Enemies clumsily repeat their animations in a group. You could catch a soldier standing motionless on a battlefield without a weapon – without realizing the bloodbath around him. There are bizarre rag doll reactions to main characters. However, the most glaring problem I’ve seen so far is performance. On Xbox series consoles, the campaign ends with some egregious – if sporadic – stuttering, while PlayStation 5 sees Checkpoint-Save pauses of about half a second. For a game that has so much glitz and panache, it’s a bit of a letdown. In addition, if we step away from the errors for a moment, a full-screen motion blur effect is also enabled by default. It’s exaggerated in its intensity and turns every quick camera panning into a smear. I turned it off immediately, and I suspect that many will have more fun with it off.
I also have to deal with some bizarre presentation options. The game runs at 60 fps – as you’d expect from a Call of Duty title – but some elements shift to pre-rendered cinematics that are based on the game engine and instead run at 30 fps (complete with macroblock artifacts). Typically, developers use pre-rendered scenes to drive post effects, major battles, and huge environments that the hardware cannot deliver in real time. But here it’s usually a continuation of what the consoles did in the engine moments before. And then there are the scenes at the end of the chapter. These are the real deal: beautifully staged, motion capture – almost film-like in their visual quality, with heavy film grain on top. But strangely enough, they run at 24 frames per second. It’s “cinematic” 24fps – but yes, another jump in the frame rate from the 60fps in gameplay and the 30fps in other scenes. It’s all very strange.
When we focus on the core gameplay and factoring out the bugs, curiosities and inconsistencies, we see something very special. There are a lot in common with Modern Warfare 2019 and Warzone – a native 4K target in 60 Hz mode, augmented with temporal super-sampling and a dynamic resolution scaler that only appears to run on the horizontal axis. Series S? Impressively, this targets 1440p instead. Based on Rich Leadbetter’s recent visit to the Infinity Ward Technology Center in Poland (more on this in due course) and prolonged viewing of debug screens on site, PS5 – and with it Xbox Series X – usually runs in full resolution, with only very occasional loss of resolution. This is achieved in part by an advanced system of Variable Rate Shading (VRS) that IW8 software handles with a level of precision that surpasses AMD’s hardware iteration. This is limited to dealing with 8×8 blocks of pixels, while IW8 is much more precise. Part of the reason the resolution is so consistently high is specifically because of this VRS system – why dynamically scale the entire X-axis when a more granular, less noticeable adjustment of the resolution in certain areas of the screen can produce similar effects?
Series X and PlayStation 5 – stuttering apart – are evenly matched, although there are some slight variations in support for 120Hz mode. All current-gen versions get this – even the Xbox Series S – which doubles target performance in exchange for a drop in resolution that peaked at 1536p on the Series X and PS5 and 1080p on the Series S seems like 60 Hz mode, the difference is that 120 fps is the target but not the same level of consistency.
In summary? There is no clear “winner” here in the performance of the Series X and the PS5 – one can outperform the other at any point in time, and often there is little to share – aside from the screen cracks on the Microsoft consoles that just look at the one at the top of the screen. The advantage of Microsoft is at the system level – the support of variable refresh rates takes the little stuttering observed here and completely eliminates it. Series S? This one has the most problems in reaching its 120 Hz target. The first Hamburg mission is a great workout that fluctuates between 60fps and 80fps – and it shows how close the Series S is to falling below 60fps in regular mode. We rarely touch the full 120Hz here, but I’m still glad that we at least have the opportunity.
I’ve played Vanguard in multiplayer, but for me it’s not a particularly compelling component of this year’s post. As short-lived as it may be, this time we’re getting a technologically impressive campaign that’s only thrown back by stuttering problems, bugs, and polishing. The performance is well optimized in most places, however, and while it may not always hit the target in 120Hz mode, it is still worth playing with the right display. Here, too, Vanguard shows how seamlessly the IW Engine scales across systems. Apart from the number of pixels in the S series, hardly anything is lost – where the visual direction of the image holds on all systems. As a milestone release for its engine and as a showcase for 60 fps gaming and breathtaking script set piece moments, it’s worth playing through.