I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep saying it: Vanguard is a gem of a game that could use a little developer love, some aggressive marketing, and a change in revenue model to achieve its potential. Sony Online Entertainment’s four-year old game is not perfect, but it has come a long way since launch and is definitely worth a try for anyone who relishes in extremely deep PvE content and a huge open world to explore.
If you’re not already familiar with the game, Vanguard: Saga of Heroes is a high-fantasy themed MMORPG originally developed by Sigil Games Online and acquired by SOE. It was billed as a truly massive game experience, with a huge explorable game world and three “spheres” of gameplay, but as we mentioned in our original review and re-review, it didn’t initially live up to players’ expectations and had a pretty rocky launch. Its plethora of bugs, lack of polish and end-game content, and rapidly diminishing player base discouraged a lot of people from checking out what was considered to be an unfinished product.
We’re happy to report that most of the performance issues have been fixed, and a ton of content has been added since launch. In addition, while the community remains small and SOE hasn’t done much with the game for the past year and a half or so, the player population seems to be slowly growing and the developers have begun a new content and balancing push. We can’t say exactly how much support the game will be getting in the coming months, and will be basing our re-review on the game as it currently exists, but we can say that Vanguard is very much well-worth checking out and has the potential to become even better if SOE can continue improving on its strengths.
Vanguard’s gameplay is one of the deepest available of any MMORPG on the market. With the exception of games like Everquest, few MMOs provide the sheer amount of variety in character classes, races, and gameplay options as Vanguard. The game has 15 classes and 19 races to choose from, and a ton of character customization options. You can make your half-elven druid as short and squat as you like, or choose from a number of colors for your raki (fox-person) rogue’s fur. The best part about creating your character? You can change her/his look anytime from the character select screen, without having to deal with bothersome “phials of shifting nose hairs” or in-game stylists.
Most of the races have their own starting areas, which is great if you’re an alt-oholic like we are and like trying out different classes without having to run the same beginning quests. The game originally shipped with three huge continents, each having their own distinct style, ranging from the Western-themed forests of Thestra, to the Eastern islands of Kojan, and the desert sands of Qalia. Since launch, the Isle of Dawn newbie and 14-day trial starter area was added, which provides a much more streamlined tutorial experience for all races and classes, and is much appreciated for a game that can be overwhelming if you’re just starting out.
Vanguard has three “spheres” of gameplay: Adventuring, Diplomacy, and Crafting. Adventuring encompasses questing, combat, dungeons and basically everything you’d expect from most MMORPGs. The types of quests range from pretty standard kill and fetch quests to more interesting quest chains that have long, lore-driven story arcs. Combat is very standard MMO hotbar stuff, with a plethora of skills and abilities, and has some archaic skill progression components, like having to train in multiple versions of Skill X as you level, rather than having your abilities automatically progress with you.
Diplomacy is a kind of collectible card game that is completely distinct from the other two gameplay spheres, and has its own quests, rewards, outfits, and items. You have a deck of cards that you can choose from to build your “strategy,” and can engage in conversations with NPCs to achieve different quest goals and even affect city-wide attribute bonuses. If you’ve ever played any kind of CCG, you’ll instantly be able to see how the system works, as you have to collect different kinds of cards and strategize accordingly to out-diplomacize your NPC opponents. It’s very deep and addictive, and is a great way to learn more about Vanguard’s lore and intrigue between its different factions. We’re very happy to report that Diplomacy feels much more balanced since we last played.
The third gameplay sphere, Crafting, is also very complex and satisfying, letting you collect all your raw materials through your harvesting skill and complete different mini-games that affect the quality of your crafts. It’s an interesting take on traditional MMO crafting and also has its own quests, gear and rewards, but can feel tedious at times as the mini-games aren’t nearly as interesting as Adventuring or Diplomacy. The crafting rewards are pretty righteous though, as you can make your own houses, themed by whichever continent you’re on, and boats – seriously, your own boats! – alongside your standard arms and armor, items and so on.
It should be mentioned that as the three spheres are completely distinct, you can level your character to level 50 in Diplomacy without even shaking a fist at a monster or crafting a pair of shoelaces, although you might need some friends to help you get to high-level quest givers.
Vanguard has all of the trappings of a traditional MMO, with questing, classes, and the like, but has such huge, explorable continents that it’s easy to get lost and see the game’s more open world elements. If you’d like to run or ride your mount from one side of the continent to the other, you can, or rent/purchase your own flying mount and check out Telon’s topography. You can also use the “Riftway” system, which will teleport you to different locations in the world for a small fee. Exploring Telon is really fun and probably one of our favorite aspects of the game.
There are a fair amount of dungeons and raids in Vanguard, almost all of which are also open world, meaning that you won’t find any instanced content here. The most popular ones seem to be the Tomb of Lord Tsang at lower levels and the Ancient Port Warehouse and the Pantheon of the Ancients at higher levels. They each have very interesting designs and players are usually actively looking for groups to run them, and while some of the lower level dungeons can be completed with a couple of people, you’ll need a full group or raid to accomplish everything in the endgame dungeons. However, there isn’t nearly as much endgame content here as in other games of the same type, so if raiding is your thing, you may want to look elsewhere.
While Vanguard is an excellent PvE game, a fully featured PvP game it is not. There’s a dueling system that you can try out, and that’s pretty much it. If you’re a hardcore PvPer, there’s not much here for you in the way of battlegrounds or open world ganking.
We should also note that there’s a bunch of soloable content in the game, but some classes will fare much more easily than others due to the way balancing works. Classes with the ability to self-heal and some of the hybrid classes have a much easier time of adventuring by themselves than casters and rogues, for example. We’ve been told this might change with the upcoming balancing fixes, but as the game stands right now, your solo experience might be less or more challenging based on the class you choose.
As deep as the gameplay already sounds, there are several other systems available that enhance the experience, such as Caravans, which allow groups to travel across the world together even if some players are offline, and Brotherhoods, which allow you to share experience that you gain with friends who are offline. And there’s fishing! Vanguard has some of the deepest gameplay experiences out there, and you can be sure that if you pick it up, you won’t be bored.
Vanguard innovates in a lot of ways, and shows its age in many others. On the one hand, having three fully detailed spheres of game systems is really refreshing in a genre that seems to promote cookie cutter gameplay. Combat may not feel like anything new to veteran MMORPG players, but Diplomacy is a lot of fun and Crafting is a new take on the MMO standard build-your-own chicken costume (we haven’t seen any chicken costumes yet, but who knows, they might be in there). At the same time, there are the archaic skill progression systems that we mentioned, and the game isn’t really driving the genre forward with its features.
The world of Telon itself is fantastically realized in ways that many other MMOs are not, but you really have to go looking for Vanguard’s lore to experience its depth. At first glance, the game looks like your standard Tolkien-inspired fantasy, but once you really get into meeting the different factions and playing a lot of diplomacy (we play a LOT of diplomacy), you start to get a feel for how creative Vanguard’s developers are at crafting the world. Still, the MMO genre is ever-evolving, and Vanguard hasn’t pushed any boundaries since its launch four years ago.
The best thing we can say about Vanguard’s polish is that the game works. This is probably great news for people who played it at or around launch, when the game felt like an unfinished product with all of its bugs and balance issues. Most all of the major bug issues have been fixed over time, with a lot of balancing, and the game feels much more cleaned up.
There are still a fair amount of small bugs and open-world jank in the game, like quest text repeating itself or objects clipping through the environment. And for the love of all that is good and wholesome about raki, can someone please do something about the pixilated monster and NPC name font?! It makes the game look really low-budget and has got to be easy to fix.
The user interface is pretty good looking and you can customize it easily. Likewise, the map and quest tracking work just fine, although we’d like to have a bit more detail in the map so we don’t keep getting lost in the major cities. Also, while the world is completely seamless, meaning that there is very little instancing in Vanguard, you can still tell when you’re entering a new zone, as the game will slow down to load all of the textures. It’s not a big deal, and better than it was at launch, but is definitely noticeable.
We appreciate that there are things like an appearance/outfit system and attribute points that you can earn and spend on your character, but more information on how to use them (or even that they’re there) would go a long way. Even with the Isle of Dawn starter area, there’s not a lot of in-game explanation for a lot of the different layers that Vanguard has, and you might find yourself overwhelmed with all of the options available.