To say that Vanguard: Saga of Heroes had the hearts of players would be an understatement. The excitement surrounding its 2007 launch was not unlike last year's Guild Wars 2. And why not? World of Warcraft was preparing to deliver its first expansion and Everquest 2 its third, but both games felt little like the original Everquest. Brad McQuaid and his team at Sigil promised something different. A return to form; an MMO that felt like the game we all loved but delivered so much more. Here, after years in wait, we were offered a virtual world instead of a cardboard cutout. One disastrous launch and a parking lot firing later, Vanguard found its true and tragic place in the pantheon of MMOs. Even now, its legacy is one of disappointment and squandered opportunities. Does the game have six years and nothing to show for it or is it finally worth going home to? Read on to find out.
In late 2012, Sony began a last ditch effort to save the game and radically changed business models. Instead of asking players to pay a subscription fee, they would charge piecemeal. At the time, the company was still finding its free-to-play footing and botched the model. Vanguard's was one of inconvenience and offered the constant niggling reminder that life was better if you just paid a little bit more. Classes, races, and key features, such as housing and boat-craft, were locked behind pay walls. At a time when other games were throwing wide their doors with prosperous lock box sales, it seemed that Sony had once again misjudged Vanguard's audience. Seeing the negative reaction, they brought in Steve Danuser as Creative Director. Steve, a former developer on Everquest 2 and lead at 38 Studios, made it his business to put the ship back on course.
Vanguard now uses a model of convenience. Free players can access the nearly all of the game without paying a cent. Should you choose to pay, however, you'll receive more experience, more reputation, and have access to 12 character slots instead of four. Free players can build a house but subscribers can build two and pay less for upkeep. Along the way, you can buy experience boosters and extra recalls or even gear. This is where things get questionable. Like other games in the Sony stable, full item sets can be purchased for under $10. In fairness, they're labeled “basic” and are a sight to blind sore eyes. Certain items can also have their soulbinds removed, something Victor has discussed in previous Devil's Advocate columns. My personal wild hare are loot drops, rare-and-higher being limited for non-paying players.
But enough about that. You want to know how it plays.
When I first came to Vanguard, I was in love. Telon was, and is, one of the the best virtual worlds in MMOs today. Not only was it huge – three continents! – but it was also completely open and filled with hidden areas worth exploring. That openness can't be overstated. Even dungeons weren't instanced. Being able to roam for hours and stumble across hidden temples and deep caverns was entrancing. Everywhere were pockets of hidden content: mountain paths, under sea wrecks, scar-hidden ruins. Looking back, it seems fantastic.
Returning it seems... well, empty. There are still those pockets of “content,” if lonely mob spawns meet that definition. Don't get me wrong, there are hundreds of quests. The nooks and crannies often have nothing to do with them, however, and are much closer to diversions than hot spots. For what it's worth, that can be a good thing and often is. We need those purposeless villages and scorpion filled temples because they help define what a virtual world is. Not everything needs a mission or quest to send you there. In Vanguard, you'll be an explorer because roaming the hills and seeing what you can find is fun. It rewards you with little, gem-like locales and sometimes named mobs with special loot. Despite being nothing of the sort, exploring Vanguard feels like playing in a giant sandbox. In the endless progression of recreating WoW, we've lost the fun of exploration. You can find it here, but I'm betting newcomers still feel listless in the transition.
Another of Vanguard's spheres is crafting and it carries its own set of levels and specializations. Let's make this clear from the get-go: this is not a set and forget system. Creating items is more like a mini-game and takes time and patience if you want to make a name for yourself. As either a blacksmith, artificer, or outfitter, you will craft component parts through different stages of refinement and then assemble them at the end. Every action you take uses a limited amount of action points required to complete the product. Brute force an item to finish quick and the quality will be poor. Take too much time and you'll run out of points entirely. It's clever and a lot of fun.
You can also make houses, boats, and any number of items to fill them with. Want an ottoman? How about an armoire? Can't sail the high seas without an armoire!
Diplomacy is a revolutionary feature that other MMOs need to adopt. Seriously, if you're as sick of static NPCs as I am, diplomacy needs your attention. Think of it like this, through a card game mechanic, you have true conversations with NPCs. Each has a conversational style they react best to. So if you're talking to a mayor, maybe a little flattery is in order. If it's the chubby town constable, maybe intimidation because hey, BUDDY, I'm a bi-pedal german shepherd with a knife. If you can outsmart them in the card game, new quests open up and your character earns experience towards his diplomacy level. You heard that right, a third set of levels.
Now for the bad news. The graphics engine is finally showing its age. Not too shabby to say that six years out, but it's disappointing nonetheless. I'm not a graphics snob but it's hard to ignore. Everything in the world looks wrapped in plastic and animations have painfully few frames. Water is downright atrocious and swimming too close to the top sees you skimming its surface. Weird and fun side-note: jump out of the water on inclined terrain and you'll launch into the air like a backwards slide.
Looking back at my return to Vanguard, I'm pleased that there is still so much fun to be had. Bugs are still too frequent and there is precious little extra content added for level capped characters, but the days of launch are behind us and Vanguard is stronger than its ever been. If you've never made the trip, now is the time. Vanguard was what we once wanted this genre to be but perhaps never will again. Even this far along, it still has lessons for a better MMO future.
Have you played the game? Let me know what you think in the comments.
Christopher Coke / Chris has been an MMO player since the days of MUDs. He loves old school sentiments with new age delivery. Follow him on Twitter @gamebynight, his blog, and read his non-MMO PC reviews at Hooked Gamers.
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