Developer: Sigil Games Online
Release Date: TBA
I have found during my time as a critic that I like to use food for my analogies. I don’t know why, I’m certainly no culinary expert, but there it is. I compare apples to oranges in an overly verbose manner. Today’s writing is no exception; I cannot help but think of pizza and the various ways in which it may be assembled. You see, one chef may make the pie with more cheese and less meat, whereas another may reverse that order and make up for the difference with salted fish. When all is said and done, both cooks have made a greasy wheel of love, but it’s hardly the same. Sigil Games Online, in creating Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, haven’t done anything drastically different from other massively multiplayer online titles, but in this case it’s not particularly important. What matters is the manner in which this recipe has been prepared. As I have been lucky enough to see, this pizza looks to be palatable indeed.
So, “what is Vanguard?” Surprisingly, not as many people seem to know the answer to that question as I would have thought. Well wonder no more, ye unenlightened masses! Simply put, Vanguard: Saga of Heroes is a massively multiplayer fantasy-themed online role playing game created by a team of developers with an illustrious pedigree; Sigil Games Online was founded by two ex-members of the Verant Interactive team, known for their (in)famous title EverQuest. It’s a scratch-built world, it’s incredibly huge, and it looks to have a great deal to offer to its impending fan-base.
Now, realistically, it’s not like we all haven’t seen our fair share of high fantasy MMo’s. It’s practically de rigueur insofar as persistent world games are concerned. This provides some unique challenges however. Specifically, how do you create an entire mythology and hope to make it engaging enough to feel like a living, breathing world? Well one way is to make sure it looks awesome, and SGO have one up on their old bosses at SOE. As you might glean from the screenshots, the graphics of Vanguard bear more than a passing resemblance to those seen in EverQuest 2. There is however one significant variable that makes all the difference in the world: artistic direction. You see, this game was crafted around the art of Keith Parkinson (Shame on you if you don’t know his name. Click that link and browse his galleries!).
The difference such a focused vision has had on this graphical style is astounding. I have long maintained that the visual power of EverQuest 2 is frequently lost under the ‘design by committee’ effect, Vanguard suffers no such ill effect and the world looks excellent. I can only imagine how this will continue to improve, as the build I have to work with is still two more beta phases from completion. From a technical perspective, Vanguard boasts a heavily modified version of the Unreal engine. So heavily modified, in fact, that it no longer adheres to the Epic naming conventions. This isn’t “Unreal 2”, or “Unreal 3”, or “Unreal Warfare”… It’s “Unreal somewhere in between all the other versions.” Is that vague enough for you? Yes? Good, no trade secrets for you! The game also uses a flora rendering engine called Speedtree, tweaked to allow a six kilometre field of view. Start saving your shekels, Ladies and Gents. This will require some PCI-E juice to fully appreciate.
Returning back to what I was touching on in the introductory paragraph of this write up, there is the “this is nothing new” effect. That’s a harsh way of putting it, but my ability to phrase that in a more elegant fashion has temporarily vacated my skull. You see, the play elements of Vanguard aren’t paradigm-shifting. No, they are essentially the exact same mechanics as we see in EverQuest 2 and World of Warcraft. Create your avatar, click on NPC characters for a series of quests to complete that not only explain the world lore and mythology but provide you with better equipment than what you have, rinse, repeat, explore, find new NPC’s, do their quests too, take in some crafting, make some better equipment, make some friends, maybe join a guild, and just generally bomb around in this world-that-isn’t-yet-is. While this doesn’t sound immediately engaging, remember my pizza analogy- “ugh, pizza is pizza”. No, when placed in the hands of a chef with any skill pizza is so much more than just pizza. (I’ve now just used the word “pizza” five, no six, times in two sentences. So much for my vow to avoid word repetition.)
What has SGO done to make their experience richer? If I had to try to sum it up in one word, I’d say “detail”. To begin with, you’re offered 15 choices for race, everything from human to wolfman to goblin. (As an aside, I love the goblins. Mean looking little freaks.) Not only do you have a plethora of options for race, you also have 16 different classes to choose from: four defensive melees, four offensive melees, four defensive casters, and four offensive casters. Ah yes, and the customization system. Vanguard allows you as much avatar development flexibility as City of Heroes. However, rather than hand you a massive library of skins to swap around on your models, you’re given a series of sliders a`la Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. This time the slider bars actually work though, and as a result each individual player model generally looks different from the next. Add to this an immediate paper-doll system that changes your look with every piece of gear you put on (even rings are visible on the hands!) and you’ve got the best example yet of unique characters in an MMo.
Not counting items with statistic bonuses, you usually have only two ways to increase your avatar in a persistent world game: increases in level and skills you purchase from wizened masters that do little more than hang out in a tent forever, scamming silver from desperate (and apparently clueless) adventurers. If they never leave their tent, where did they learn all their tricks? Vanguard follows this pattern as well, but it also adds the ability to learn from your enemies. Now, I’ll fess up and admit that I didn’t have this happen to me, much as I wish it would have. The idea is simple: if you increase your awareness enough, you can glean the basics of new skills and abilities from your enemies and develop your character without the tedious drudgery of paying a sneering NPC for the basic know-how of how to do something. I only wish there was an animated process for learning these hidden abilities, I’d get a good laugh watching warriors trip over themselves trying to practice a back-flip-kick they saw a kobold do in a cave one time.
I was initially leery of the world lore and mythology, afraid of the possibility that there might not be any. I was quickly proven wrong, and not only is there tons of background story but it’s also doled out in efficient measures when you accept quests. I was very impressed with the storyline explaining the history of the Goblin Martok clan champion, and how you were expected to recreate his last stand in order to prove to the clan that you understood his sacrifice. Details like these are what helps keep a world feeling as though it actually exists. I am looking forward to being able to complete that quest, as so far it’s been plagued by a bug. However, the rate at which bugs are being squashed in the beta is such that there’s a very good chance that’s been fixed since I last played my Goblin “Siique Blackfang”. I love that you can choose a last name during character creation too.
The bug that I’m referring to above actually illustrates the interesting approach to quest mobs that SOG is using. Anytime you accept a quest that requires you to kill a named creature, that creature spawns in its place for you and your group alone. No one else can aggro or kill that mob/mobs. Any kill credit or loots will go to you and you alone. Now, as of this moment there is a small issue with some of the creatures not going away if they aren’t killed as planned, but what do you expect from an early beta? The point here is, ”cool idea!” This allows the world to remain open, preserving the sense of community, but also means you don’t have to worry about that elusive mob getting thieved away by others doing the same quest. Don’t get me wrong, I have no issues with private quest instances, but this is a great solution to the same core problem that instances were originally meant to solve as well.
As World of Warcraft has proven in spades, everyone loves to be able to zip around in any manner other than your own two feet. Vanguard has some grandiose plans for this, although in all honesty I didn’t see much of it in my time with this beta. You can obtain a basic equine mount at level eight, and progress onward to better and better steeds as you gain power. From what I understand, the going theory is that anything in the game that looks like you could sit on it can conceivably be a mount if you go through the right process. I did see an NPC riding something called a Behemoth, and it was the size most dragons are in other MMo games, so I’m inclined to think that the end-game options for faithful players will be diverse indeed. Also, ship-building is an integral element of the overall experience.
By “ship”, I mean “large vessels that flit about the oceans”, so you can really get your pirate on, if you want to. At launch, you’ll be able to build a schooner or two, but it won’t be until later that you’ll be able to fight on them. The same is true of mounted combat; it’s in the works. Ride now, fight later. I have it on good authority that SOG has a minimum of five years worth of planned upgrades to the franchise. Apparently these aren’t just ideas; they have the basic code for these schemes already lying in the basic framework of Vanguard itself. This is sound business sense, as that means there should be a significantly smaller chance of expansions causing serious damage to the fabric of the world due to pasted-on features.
What else am I missing? So much to discuss… Oh yes, crafting! Truth be told, I didn’t really get any further than the basic tutorial quests for harvesting, but I found their approach here to be elegant. When you go collecting materials for crafting, it’s a much more active (and realistic) experience than most other MMo’s call for. To begin with, you need the right equipment. For example, you can’t chop down trees without an axe, and lumberjacks rarely wear chain mail or wizards’ robes when plying their trade. Thus you’ll also need the clothing befitting a woodsman. Essentially, harvesting is a type of combat, where the raw materials are like passive mobs that you “fight”.
The higher your skill in the given harvesting you’re attempting, the more overall yield you’ll reap when you “loot” the item. At level 1 logging, I was pulling in roughly 12 planks of wood per tree. A tip of the hat to SOG here; the trees even have “death” animations and fall over once you’ve finished cutting them down. From these bulk amounts of yield, you can right click on stacks of 20 or more to refine the lumber into finer planks. From there, it’s off to make… stuff. Like I said before, I didn’t actually get a chance to go in and make anything (runtime error crash-to-desktop when I tried, too busy adventuring after that), but it is via crafting that you’ll be able to make a boat. I promise that if I review this game when it goes public, I’ll make sure to detail how the crafting system works.
Ok, so now we’ve determined that you can quest in the traditional manner, and you can be a “creator-of-virtual-goods”, is there anything else? Why yes, yes there is! Vanguard also has a diplomacy feature that is extremely nifty, but complex enough to defy my best efforts at a simple explanation. Suffice to say, you’ll be able to reap rewards via skilful discussion. Using a sort of ‘mini-game’ with cards that represent word phrases and expressions, you can parley with NPC’s, negotiating for experience, loot, and faction. If you’ve always fancied the idea of being an oily-tongued courtier that manipulates the powerful from behind the scenes, then it appears as though this aspect of Vanguard was made especially for you. While I’m not certain how much diplomacy I would actually engage in, I must say I’m impressed that this is part of the overall experience.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all glittering perfection… yet. There is a great deal of work ahead of SGO before this is in good shape for mass consumption. However, they’re off to a great start as it stands right now. For sheer variety, few titles can rival what I’ve seen during my brief time in this beta. My overall impression is that Brad McQuaid and Jeff Butler looked at EverQuest 2, decided it didn’t feel enough like their original vision for EverQuest, and decided to make their own sequel. So far, they seem to be on the right track, I can’t help but think that there will be many old EQ players who will feel a strong resonance with Vanguard: Saga of Heroes. I certainly do.
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