Developer: Sigil Games
Release Date: January 30, 2007
These days, everyone wants a slice of the massively multiplayer pie. It's easy enough to understand, as the success stories are extremely lucrative. Of course, not many people in the industry like to think about the failures, those sad and forgotten realities that have been shut down due to lack of fan interest. "Pay no attention to the game behind the curtain." Like an unspoken chest pain, it's something companies try not to think about for fear that their worries become real. So what can an aspiring team do to ensure their fledgling persistent world gets noticed and doesn't sink in the mire of mediocrity before it can fly the skies of the "must have" A-list?
Well, one trick is to assemble a crew of experienced veterans that pioneered the genre in the first place. This is the tactic Sigil Games has taken: Get together a bunch of the guys and gals who were in Verant back in the early days of EverQuest, and make a whole new fantasy sandbox for the, uhh, "vanguard" of hardcore MMO fans. You'll have to forgive my terribly ineffective attempt at humor; you see, the game this crew has made is in fact called Vanguard: Saga of Heroes.
At its most basic, Vanguard is a massively multiplayer online role playing game, in full 3D, set in a high-fantasy world known as Telon. Players create highly detailed avatars and play out their adventures, questing for experience and loot rewards. As they develop more experience, these virtual heroes increase in level and gain new abilities, providing access to new areas to explore and quest in. It's the same basic formula all MMO titles follow, with some notable refinements.
To begin with, Vanguard offers a robust selection of races for you to choose from when making up a character. There are 19 different options in total, including four different types of Human as well as High Elves, Half Elves, Wood Elves, Dark Elves, Orcs, Goblins, Half-giants, wolf folk (Vulmane), cat folk (Kurashasa), Dwarves, Gnomes, and even fox folk (Raki). Each of these species comes with different attribute specialties, and one unique racial skill. For example, a Wood Elf can morph into wolf form once an hour for a massive speed boost that lasts for a minute, and the Kurashasa can instantly sweat out a coat of tar that acts as an armor bonus that slows enemies striking you.
Options? Oh yes, we've got options, more than you can shake a rune-etched stick at. Following this decision is your choice of class. Vanguard sports 15 class options: three defensive melee classes (warrior, paladin, dread knight), four offensive melee classes (ranger, rogue, monk, bard), four defensive magic classes (cleric, disciple, shaman, blood mage), and four offensive magic classes (sorcerer, druid, psionicist, and necromancer). Certain races are restricted from certain classes; for example, you won't be seeing any Goblin paladins or Gnome monks. In a nutshell, the combination of race and class is very extensive, especially when compared to World of Warcraft or EverQuest 2 (the two most obvious contemporaries to Vanguard).
Now, as I've already described somewhat, the basic gameplay isn't all that far off from the standard we've seen in every MMO since EverQuest. You log in, and you kill monsters in one place until you have enough experience to go kill monsters somewhere else. Sigil has learned much from the likes of World of Warcraft, EverQuest 2, City of Heroes, and so forth. In this case, the main nugget of knowledge they've taken with them during the development of Vanguard is this: You'd better make sure you have lots of quests and that they're well-written to make people feel connected to a larger story. How successful this team has been at accomplishing this is somewhat of a variable.
Your race and geographical location in-game have a potent impact on how much you'll have available to do. For example, I started out with a Goblin rogue because I liked the role-playing mystique of a sneaky assassin-goblin. However, the starting area of Martok, where the Orcs and Goblins begin, runs out of quest options very quickly. When I got my Wood Elf bard to level 11, I had all of three quests in my log, but my Kurashasa dreadknight at level eight had 16 available quests. It seems very much like some areas got more developer love than others, and this means that if you really love your character but it starts in one of the sparse areas, you'd better be ready to search far and wide for things to do because Sigil has yet to balance out the content.
To be fair, though, the quests that are present are very well-written, and they're mixed up a fair amount so that you're not just killing X number of Y creatures over and over again – not exclusively, at least. Quota-quests have their place, but they do get boring fast. I'm happy to report that there aren't quite as many broken quests as there were in the beta, but they still occur from time to time. Objects that you should be able to interact with just don't work, or mobs that spawn exclusively for you won't let you loot them, etc. As with many things in Vanguard, they're off to a good start, but there is much work and polish that still needs to be done.
Beyond the regular "fight the monstah!"-style gaming, Vanguard also includes a robust crafting/tradeskilling system and a very interesting Diplomacy feature. Crafting has never been my forte, so I only got into it enough to see that Sigil has made the same tradeskill mistake just about every other MMO (except World of Warcraft) has made – there aren't instantly utilitarian rewards for crafting anything.
By my personal way of thinking, if the only way you can see any benefits from tradeskills is by engaging in hours and hours of making knickknacks, bits, and bobs, then don't bother signing me on. I am aware that some people love that kind of process; I have friends in EverQuest 2 who have spent what I consider to be obscene amounts of time honing their skills. However, for my money, if I don't get an immediate reward of some benefit or another, then my interest isn't held. I do like the way Vanguard treats the crafting process like a fight – all moves, counter moves, and skills. I was reminded a great deal of EverQuest 2's system, only it didn't seem quite as soul-crushingly unexciting.
Diplomacy, on the other hand, is a remarkable idea that is really well-implemented. The basic idea is one of discussion; when you're engaged in diplomacy, you are practicing the noble art of language manipulation. To quote Vladimir Lenin, "The right word is worth 100 regiments." Thus, your quests in diplomacy are pretty much entirely focused on convincing NPCs to do things. For example, my Goblin started the path of diplomacy by attempting to gain the loyalty of soldiers at a garrison led by a coward. The actual mechanics of diplomacy in Vanguard are expressed in an abstract card game. You begin by learning a few "expressions," which are the cards; you have a hand of five expressions you can play in a given parley, and you need to build your hand strategically before the parley itself. This is just the bare-bones, superficial description of the process, and it's already difficult to follow. It's a visual system though, so it doesn't take long to pick up on how to work a parley.
What really impresses me about diplomacy is that each and every parley carries with it a full discussion that follows the story of the quest itself. The gargantuan amount of writing involved is extraordinary. I also love the idea that I have diplomacy to fall back on when I hit the wall of solo adventuring. Sadly, that wall is all too solid and comes all too soon. Sigil has decided to adopt many features that I have long despised in their efforts to increase the "challenge" of Vanguard. From the outset, the developers have claimed that modern MMOs are too easy, and they want to appeal to those players who want loads of difficulty.
So far, I've seen this in effect in two ways: one is forced grouping to complete quests, and the other is experience loss as a death penalty. For the former, it means that you can effectively solo until about level 10, when the difficulty begins to ramp up to a point where you either get into a guild or embrace the idea of repetitious grinding so that you can level up on your own and trivialize the quest challenge. The latter, while softened from the ruthlessness of EverQuest, is still unforgivable in my mind.
Using an extreme example, if you have spent two days working up a certain point and then die due to circumstances beyond your control (lag, player griefing, server crashes), you will lose all of that effort. Sigil does not care why you died; they just want to punish you for dying, period, and that punishment is to take away the things you've done. Cruel and unusual punishment? Definitely. Most MMOs these days use equipment damage and experience debt in place of robbing you of your experience.
Graphically, Vanguard is gorgeous. It's not perfect; in fact, there are many flaws, but when you look past these, the overall effect is spectacular. Many of the character models look stiff, as though each segment of an individual avatar were modeled separately and then glued together. This is most prevalent with the human character models; the goblins, orcs, and anthropomorphic beast-folk don't suffer as much. In concert with this, the animations have a tendency to appear clunky. On their own, they look great, but it's the assembly of these into a cohesive flow that doesn't quite work. Thus, my bard has a wide array of different special attacks, each of which looks cool, but the overall progression of any given combat scenario is about as elegant as ballet in size-nine army boots. It's subtle, but there is a choppy feeling to fighting that is quite unnatural.
Many of the world textures have a nasty habit of flickering in and out of existence with the crazed pace of an overclocked strobe light. This didn't happen at first, but it seemed to click into place once I pushed the far-clip plane up as far as it could go. As this was literally the only graphical tweak I made, I figured it would be easy enough to remedy. However, nothing I have done since has managed to fix the problem. Regardless of whether the far clip plane is up or down, all I get is flicker, flicker, flicker.
Finally, there is the question of computer power. To be blunt, unless you have a high-end "power machine," you're in for a bumpy ride. I did this review over two separate machines, and while Vanguard does actually play on a low-end rig, it doesn't look very good and lags like mad. On my snazzy new PCI-E machine, it still lags a bit even on medium settings and chops a great deal when maxed out. Okay, now that I've essentially painted a picture of visual agony, let me revisit my original view – that of a gorgeous game.
You see, Sigil based its entire artistic vision on the works of legendary fantasy artist Keith Parkinson, and the efforts have paid off incredible dividends. I'd estimate their success somewhere in the 90% range for accurately recreating the paintings they used as a yardstick. The rich tapestry Sigil has created using this specific target succeeds in ways that EverQuest 2 couldn't ever hope to match. While the two games do share similar goals of realism, one was created by committee, and one was created under the auspices of an artistic genius. It doesn't take much in the way of thought-meats to guess which of the two works better.
Vanguard's graphics are exceptionally detailed, expansive in scope, and above all, immersive. If you have the hardware to run it (admittedly, a pretty huge "if"), you're in for some amazing eye candy. Just try running up to Autumnglow Outpost at dusk to see what I mean.
A few other points to cover before I wrap this up: Telon is huge, and so is Vanguard. The game weighs in at a hefty 16.9GB after patching, so you'd best be sure you have tons of extra hard disk space before buying it. Of course, this is the price you pay for one of the biggest persistent worlds ever released. In point of fact, I think only EVE Online is bigger, and that's mostly empty space, so it's sort of like comparing apples and oranges.
As for the sound, there is a full soundtrack that leans toward the cheesy side. It's not quite as bad as the movie "Ladyhawke" (which sported a score I'm convinced was originally intended for the "A-Team" theme music), but the quality isn't quite enough to have me leave it on. There's also the voice-acting – it's terrible. I am reminded of junior high-school drama class, when students were asked to imitate a monster in a theatre-sports skit. Jiggling your uvula when trying to sound "inhuman" is just not convincing, and that's exactly what these actors sound like they were doing. Even the humanoid races sound bored and uninspired.
Also, in regards to major elements of the Vanguard experience, I must mention mounts. Vanguard doesn't place a level or money premium on creatures to ride. The lowest grade horse you can purchase costs 12 silver and can be picked up at level 10. Sigil has made much noise about how (eventually) anything in Telon can be made into a mount: wolves, dragons, etc. As testament to this, the starting area for the Kojani humans has an NPC sitting on a purple half-drake/half scorpion. Is it just a hint, or rubbing your face in what most players will never have?
You decide. From what I'm led to believe as well, player housing a la Star Wars: Galaxies will be implemented "soon," as well as player-made oceanic vessels. Many of the stated features are still being added, which is another point against Sigil. For example, I was very excited to discover in the beta that players would be able to learn combat moves and skills from the mobs they were fighting. I assumed that I had never experienced this firsthand because I didn't get very far, level-wise. Imagine my dismay when I read in the patch notes of the first content update that not only were they still adding in item models (which explains the invisible dagger my bard is carrying), but that they had only then activated the ability to learn skills from enemies. Of course, even now that it's apparently working, I still haven't learned anything from the mobs I'm killing. Either my initial suspicion about my level was right, or it's not quite working the way the developers said it would.
After all is said and done, is Vanguard: Saga of Heroes a World of Warcraft killer? Not in the least. Does that make it a bad game? Again, not in the least. Much as I would love a bold proclamation to cap off this review, I can't give you one. So much of the quality in this game is based on perspective. If you are a hardcore MMORPG fan, one of the "old school" as it were, then there is a good chance you'll really enjoy what this title has to offer. If you were a fanatical EverQuest fan, but felt that its sequel didn't quite feel the same as the original, then you will definitely love Vanguard. If you are one of the rare breed who finds Blizzard's flagship to be too arcade-fast and lacking in depth, then this offering is worth your attention.
On the flip side, if you're brand new to the MMO genre, then the learning curve and growing pains might be extremely off-putting. If you're like me and vehemently against forced grouping, then you'll be quite annoyed by the lack of long-term solo-play options. You see what I mean about perspective? My final word is this: Vanguard is flawed but has exceptional potential to offer a satisfying long-term experience. I recommend it; just be prepared to work your patience-muscles while Telon grows into itself.
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