The cross generation transition is proving to be more extended than some may have initially imagined - so where does that leave an established franchise like Call of Duty? With Vanguard, Sledgehammer Games needs to wow owners with the new generation of consoles while ensuring that the new series entry still passes muster on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. It's a tricky proposition because the developers can't institute the kind of 30fps/60fps split between the console generations seen in Halo Infinite (though 60fps did make it to One X in the latest test flight), and fundamentally there needs to be parity to a certain degree in the visual feature set - simply to ensure a level playing field online. Resolution, 120Hz support and minor visual flourishes appear to be the dividing line between consoles old and new.
Of course, it's in campaign that the developers can really push the new consoles and thus far, we've not seen much in this area - and neither have we seen native next-gen app support for Warzone - so it's important to view the multiplayer beta in context. But at the basic level, we are back to a COD title based on the Infinity Ward engine that worked so well for Modern Warfare 2019 (expect more details soon on how this technology has evolved over the last couple of years).
In terms of content, expect 20 multiplayer maps at launch, with the beta offering up a quartet for testing. We globe-trot from a snowed-over Stalingrad plaza, to a luxurious Parisian Hotel, a mountain-top reception house, and finally a Pacific military base. Beyond that, there's a handy new filter called 'combat pacing' as you start matchmaking. Sledgehammer lets you adjust how player-saturated each map can be, and so, for anyone after a high-tempo game, just push that up to blitz level and you'll fill a level with to its 48-player maximum.
In terms of PS5 and Series console enhancements, 120Hz is available on all three machines, albeit with a hit to resolution. Thus far, there's no sign of the ray traced shadows seen in Black Ops Cold War and of the reflections seen in the beta, they're very definitely of the screen-space variety - so it'll be interesting to see if anything changes up in the final game. Another extra for next-gen consoles is on-demand texture streaming. This promises higher-grade texture assets on PS5 and Series X, downloaded as you play, to boost points of detail across each map. How far-reaching its effects are isn't exactly clear. But, on top of the resolution boost and smoother 60fps update it stands to improve select points in the map.
Stacking up PS5 against PS4 Pro, the resolution boost is palpable - PS4 Pro renders at a target of around 1536p, with temporal reconstruction and dynamic resolution scaling to help performance. Meanwhile, PS5 targets the full 3840x2160, but seemingly adjusts its horizontal resolution down to 1920x2160 lowest. Overall, PS5 generates a much clearer image as a result and this is augmented by improvements to foliage density and draw distance. For what it's worth, PS5 and Series X appear to operate almost identically, with Series S targeting a maximum 1080p, but again using horizontal DRS.
Performance? PS4 Pro can struggle to sustain 60fps, dropping into the 50s in the beta build - especially by the end of a game, where performance seems to drop more noticeably. It appears frame-rate degrades for PS4 Pro as physics interactions stack up in dense environments like the hotel lobby, and as bullet decals line its walls. The build-up of destruction is a huge highlight of Vanguard's multiplayer maps. Physics interplay has an impact, with maps like the hotel looking unrecognisable by the end of a match. Walls shatter, doors blow apart, even glass ceilings smash through. But yes, PS4 Pro pays a price in performance - especially with 48 players running amok on the max combat pacing setting. But for the PS5 version? Well at least in its 60fps mode it's problem solved for all of the new consoles. There are one-off frame drops - single dips - but nothing that truly registers as an issue in play.
120Hz is where performance isn't quite where it should be right now, despite a 1536p max render target on PS5 and Series X. Smaller stages with fewer players inevitably fare best, and so it goes on the Hotel Royale stage - though we have a few drops to 90fps once physics-affected areas are in view. Performance at its worst can be found on the bigger two maps of the rotation. Red Star and Gavutu with max 48 players - especially towards the tail-end of a game - can see performance drop to 80fps, while Series S can drop lower, into the 70s.
Xbox Series X comes out with similar results, but there is a distinction. Play is variable and an exact comparison to PS5 isn't really possible - but we can say Xbox systems are set up differently insofar as they use adaptive screen-tearing. Tearing appears right at the top of the screen while under load, but at 120fps it's a challenge to pick out by eye. For Xbox, the frame-rate readings when stress-testing the game with max players fall into a similar territory as PS5 - down to the 80fps line, with continuous stretches languishing between 100 and 120. The advantage for Xbox of course, is VRR is a feature we can tap into to keep movement perceptually smooth despite the rises and falls in frame-rate. Between the two this does give Xbox an advantage for this mode as it stands - but there may be more tweaks to come by release.
The final game will blow the doors open on many more maps and the full campaign mode to boot - all on November 5th. But right now, the four maps on offer gives us a good sense of how Sledgehammer's design ethos is taking form. Destruction physics appear to be a bigger focus in Vanguard, at least based on the evidence of Hotel Royal and Eagle's Nest which end in absolutely ruinous states. Impressively, 60fps performance holds up handsomely for PS5 and Xbox Series machines regardless, a big improvement on last-gen. 120fps isn't quite where we'd like it to be, but beyond the tech specs and performance, the more profound questions concern innovation in multiplayer and what we should expect from campaign after strong showings from Black Ops Cold War and especially Modern Warfare 2019. We'll be reporting back on these topics and more in the run-up to launch.
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