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Call of Duty: Vanguard’s messy alpha has me worried about the future

Over the weekend of August 27, Activision and Sledgehammer Games released a limited-time alpha for the upcoming Call of Duty: Vanguard. It featured the debut of a new online mode called Champion Hill — a fresh take on an elimination-style competition.

While the mode itself showed promise, numerous gameplay design decisions point to a troublesome product overall and make me worried for the full release. It’s possible many of its issues will be addressed once the full game launches, while others will probably get swept under the rug.

Champion Hill shows promise

Promotional art for Call of Duty: Vanguard alpha.

Before diving into the plethora of issues this alpha had, I want to acknowledge just how creative of a premise Champion Hill is. In it, eight teams of two start off with 12 lives and are paired against one another individually. The final release will feature teams of three, as well as solo competitions. In somewhat of a round-robin approach, teams are whittled away as eliminate one another in short, fast-paced deathmatches. Within each round, players are thrown into small maps to compete head-to-head with another squad in a fight to the death.

Holding everything together is an in-game economy that allows players to spend cash on killstreaks, perks, equipment, and weapons. Cash is found littered throughout each map and is rewarded upon the conclusion of a round. This is a unique approach that borrows elements from Warzone, while stripping away much of what makes the battle royale so complicated. It’s easy to understand, while still offering enough strategy to make each match enticing to play.

The mode certainly has its problems, like the inability to use streaks at will. Instead, they automatically activate at the start of the next round, which removes the agency and strategy of using a streak. Overall, however, Champion Hill is shaping up to be a strong mode that can be made even better with a few tweaks here and there.

The main problem is that terrible design decisions could threaten the full game.

Forest for the trees

Promotional art of squad in Call of Duty: Vanguard.

Right off the bat, the game’s most noticeable issue has to do with its visuals. Specifically, the artistic design of a game that takes place during World War II is, unsurprisingly, dark and muddy, which works well from an immersion perspective. During an online competition, however, the muddy color palette makes it difficult to distinguish opponents from the environment around them. In fact, there were numerous situations in which we’d simply look for the red name tag that appears above the heads of other players to determine their location. Since this is a fundamental artistic design decision, it’s tough to imagine it will change much in the final release, which is a shame.

I would often be gunned down by an opponent without knowing where they were until we’d watch the killcam — only to discover they were straight in front of us, disguised by their surroundings. While this is certainly realistic, it makes the game less fun.

Audiophile’s nightmare

Coupled with the terrible visual issues, Vanguard has even more problems with its audio design. Granted, this is far more likely to be fixed in the final build, but the overabundance of issues is still concerning. Competitive Call of Duty players often rely on audio cues to make split-second gameplay decisions. For instance, it’s a good idea to turn around when players hear an enemy approaching from behind. The problem with Vanguard so far is that enemy footsteps were often masked by the sound of gunfire going on elsewhere, outside of the map itself.

In Call of Duty, it’s common to hear gunfire from outside of the match as a way to set the tone, adding more immersion, but in the Vanguard alpha, all of the surrounding sounds are so loud that it’s near impossible to hear enemy footsteps. Since audio cues are such a major aspect of the Call of Duty experience, it was jarring to get taken out by an enemy who should have been easy to hear. In the final build, we’d expect to be able to hear a variety of sounds in the distance, but they shouldn’t be so loud that enemy footsteps are indistinguishable — especially when they’re nearby.

The minimap is practically useless

Armored soldier in Call of Duty: Vanguard.

Traditionally in Call of Duty, players firing unsuppressed weapons would appear as a red dot on the minimap. This is a feature that has appeared in many other games and is quite standard at this point. It’s great because it makes it easy to find opponents and keeps up the pacing of a match. However, Vanguard is running on the same engine as 2019’s Modern Warfare, which utilizes a significantly different minimap system. Instead, players only appear as a red dot on the compass toward the top of the HUD, which is far less precise than the minimap. They don’t show up on the minimap when firing an unsuppressed weapon. The only time players appear is when a Spy Plane is used, which might not happen often during any given match. Ultimately, this makes it difficult to tell where enemies are, especially since the audio and visuals were lacking in the alpha.

It was a constant battle of trying to wade through the drab structures while being overpowered by the sounds of explosives and gunfire from afar, coupled with the inability to tell where enemies were. Many matches consisted of us haphazardly running around the map with no rhyme or reason, which left a lot up to chance. This was even more frustrating than you might expect since the spawns were so bad. Enemies would frequently spawn behind us, leading to an unfair elimination. The spawn issue has been addressed, fortunately.

Looking ahead

The Vanguard alpha actually had way more wrong with it than we have covered above, but thankfully, Sledgehammer Games has acknowledged these criticisms. Sledgehammer took to Twitter to highlight many of the most prominent points of feedback, including visibility when damaged and spawn tuning.

Issues we’re addressing include:

– Visibility when damaged
– Spawn tuning
– Map visibility
– Audio mix tuning
– Name plate visibility issues
– Aim assist through destructible walls

— Sledgehammer Games (@SHGames) August 28, 2021

The company also acknowledged audio mix tuning, which could be in line with our feedback about being unable to hear enemy footsteps, but that is unclear. It was an alpha, so issues are expected, but oddly enough, hardly any of them were glitches or bugs. They all seemed to be design oversights that significantly impacted the overall enjoyment of the game. Individually, these problems might not amount to much, but overall, we’re worried about Vanguard.

Call of Duty: Vanguard launches on November 5 for PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and PC.

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