Call of Duty: Vanguard Alpha Struggles to Sell Champion Hill Mode

Call of Duty: Vanguard's Alpha showcases the game's potential, but Champion Hill highlights some of its biggest current issues.

Call of Duty: Vanguard Alpha
Photo: Activision Blizzard

Call of Duty: Vanguard’s recent PlayStation Alpha gave PS4 and PS5 players the chance to try out the game’s new Champion Hill mode, but there’s already a heated debate among the Alpha’s participants regarding whether or not this was the best way for Vanguard to make a good first impression.

To be clear, we are talking about an Alpha, and the purpose of this Alpha was clearly to acquire feedback/data that will help developer Sledgehammer Games tweak Vanguard ahead of its November 5 release date. Indeed, the Vanguard team has already been busy responding to player feedback in order to both acknowledge it and suggest some of the ways that they intend to address early complaints and suggestions. This is in no way a full review of Vanguard or even Champion Hill mode, 

However, in the interest of providing feedback, I have to say that I did walk away from the Vanguard Alpha with a few initial impressions regarding the game’s new Champion Hill mode and the ways that it showcases both Vanguard’s potential and how far the game still has to go. 

Champion Hill Is a Questionable Way to Showcase Call of Duty: Vanguard

Vanguard’s Champion Hill mode is essentially a miniature tournament featuring eight teams of two players. Each team is given 12 lives to share, and the goal is to survive a series of 2v2 matchups and be the last team with lives remaining. You use money at the start of each round to buy weapons and resources (think Counter-Strike or Valorant), and you’re also able to pick up new items (including extra lives) from the Champion Hill maps themselves.

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It’s…a lot. Champion Hill is similar to Call of Duty’s Gunfight mode (which featured two teams of two using random loadouts to face off in a “no respawns” competition), but the additions of a buy system and the shared lives tournament format occasionally muddles the core appeal of that relatively simple alternative. It feels like Champion Hill wants to combine the best of a battle royale, Gunfight, and the Arenas mode from Apex Legends, but it currently struggles under the weight of those various concepts. It feels weirdly “esports” in a way that is sometimes detrimental to the potential of the experience (we’ll get into that more in a bit). 

The bigger problem at the moment, though, is that Champion Hill feels like a bad way to showcase Vanguard‘s best elements. I get that it’s the new kid on the block, but one of Call of Duty’s more traditional deathmatch modes may have given fans that “quick fix” they’re looking for as well as a more familiar format to work with when trying to examine the state of the game. Actually, in some ways, Champion Hill exposed some potentially interesting early Vanguard problems…

Champion Hill Matchmaking Reignites the Call of Duty: Vanguard SBMM Debate

We’ve spoken about Call of Duty’s SBMM controversy in the past, but the long story short is that Activision utilizes a “skill-based” matchmaking system designed to group you with teammates and opponents based on a series of largely mysterious stats that apparently determine your relative skill level. The idea is that you’re always playing with people of equal skill level, though the mysterious nature of the matchmaking algorithm (and the results of the system itself) has always raised eyebrows. 

Well, the big problem with Champion Hill mode at the moment is that it’s often dependent on the matchmaking system working properly. It’s not impossible for a lone player to carry a team, but most people are going to be dependent on their teammates to offer basic combat assistance as well as properly manage the mode’s resource system. It’s not impossible to stage a comeback if you fall behind early, but it can be incredibly difficult to do so. 

There are occasionally obvious matchmaking issues with Champion Hill’s SBMM system (especially in this Alpha stage with smaller numbers of players and a smaller data sample size), but I’d argue that the bigger issue at the moment is that this mode is trying to appeal to a more competitive demographic but currently offers no real ranking system. Overall, Champion Hill matchmaking can often leave you feeling frustrated and helpless. Again, there is potential in this mode, but it’s such an odd way to show the game off at this time. 

Call of Duty: Vanguard’s Visibility is Its Biggest Problem At the Moment

I’ll start this off by mentioning that Vanguard developer Sledgehammer Games has already acknowledged this issue and claim that they are working to address it. That said, Vanguard currently suffers from some of the worst “visibility” that I’ve seen in a competitive multiplayer shooter in quite some time. 

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From brown and grey environments that are inherently more difficult to navigate to the ways that being damaged affects your visibility and how it’s possible to see players through walls, Vanguard s visibility issues often make many encounters feel like an elaborate eye test. Given that it’s possible to kill enemies rather quickly in this game (and that Champion Hill is so dependent on trying to stay alive), it can be incredibly frustrating to see so many encounters come down to who spots the enemy player’s tag the quickest.  

Most of the current visibility issues feel like they can be addressed through some visual tweaks, but when you start to look at some of the bigger visibility problems (like the lack of a more traditional and useful minimap), it is easy to wonder if Vanguard may end up being too frustrating for many. 

Call of Duty: Vanguard’s Destructible Environments Are a Great Idea That Need to Be Balanced

In case you haven’t heard, Call of Duty: Vanguard features destructible multiplayer environments. This mechanic isn’t nearly as elaborate as similar ones seen in games like Red Faction, but the idea is that it will help players better deal with campers and others who “betray” the run and gun style of CoD‘s intense multiplayer. 

It’s a great idea, but it’s easy to see how this feature is ultimately going to be a bit of a give and take. It’s nice to be able to deal with campers without walking into their line of sight, but when you combine that feature with the game’s visibility issues (see above), you suffer through a lot of scenarios where you’re just not sure what you died to or what you were supposed to do about it. This feature also greatly reduces the benefits of cover, which seems to be the point but is a bit odd given that the current maps are still clearly designed with cover in mind.

Again, the biggest at the moment may be how all these issues specifically affect Champion Hill. That mode’s emphasis on survival and resources sometimes feels at odds with the chaotic nature of having bullets fly at you from every angle (as well as some of the game’s other current issues). I think destructible environments may eventually be the way to go, but the idea isn’t quite there yet. 

For Better or Worse, Call of Duty: Vanguard is Surprisingly Similar to Modern Warfare 2019

Many fans have already pointed out that Vanguard feels mechanically similar to Modern Warfare 2019 in a lot of ways. It features a similar movement system, its weapon types feel similarly balanced, and the game’s “time-to-kill” is generally tuned to be faster. 

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Is that a good thing? That really depends on your personal preferences. There’s a bit of a divide in the Call of Duty community at the moment in regards to the style of “older” CoD games vs. the Modern Warfare 2019 style, and it doesn’t seem like Vanguard is going to be the game that bridges that gap. It certainly leans more towards the Modern Warfare style, which is a bit surprising given that Sledgehammer previously tried to dial that style back with Black Ops: Cold War (with mixed results). 

What does concern me most at the moment is how the faster “TTK” style conflicts with the destructible environments and visibility issues as well as the theoretically more methodical nature of the Champion Hill mode. In Modern Warfare 2019, some players tried to get around faster kills by “hiding” and “camping” more, but Vanguard discourages that tactic through destructible environments. The game really seems to be encouraging (perhaps forcing) you to just get into the fray and really consider your movements, but Champion Hill isn’t necessarily the best showcase for that style, and there’s currently no way to tell how Vanguard‘s choice of mechanics will impact CoD‘s other modes.

Overall, I think Champion Hill is an interesting concept with a lot of potential to at least be a fun distraction, but that potential is currently being limited by visibility issues, questionable matchmaking, the absence of a ranked mode, and a more fast-paced style that sometimes feels at odds with the core components of the mode’s design. Warzone may be CoD’s bread and butter these days, but I’m curious to see how some of Vanguard’s multiplayer issues are addressed ahead of the game’s November 5th release date.