Vanguard: Saga of Heroes Updated Hands-On - The First Week

Sigil's anticipated massively multiplayer online role-playing game went live this week, so we created a hero and began our saga.

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It's no secret that Blizzard has dominated the massively multiplayer online game scene since the launch of World of Warcraft, so developer Sigil and publisher Sony Online Entertainment have some understandably lofty expectations to fulfill. Vanguard: Saga of Heroes is SOE's newest entry into the massively multiplayer RPG market, so we dove into the fantasy world of Telon and embarked upon an adventure. While it's hard to say quite yet if Vanguard will swipe some of Blizzard's sizable share of the market, it does at least offer a solid first impression.

Welcome the fantasy world of Vanguard, where many things will try to kill you.
Welcome the fantasy world of Vanguard, where many things will try to kill you.

As with any massively multiplayer RPG, your first task is to create an in-game avatar. Vanguard separates its races into three geographic regions: Thestra, Kojan, and Qalia. Each region has its own human variant, but every other race is specific to a region. In turn, the race you choose then limits you to certain classes. There are 15 classes in all, and while some races offer as many as 13 of them, others, like the Thestran half-giant, are limited to a scant four class choices. Most of the races fall neatly into standard fantasy conventions, such as dwarves, halflings, high elves, and so on, although a few of them are original. The Raki are short and foxlike, while the imposing Vulmane have the look and stature of werewolves. Classes follow suit, featuring familiar professions like warriors and rangers, with a few interesting possibilities, such as psionicist and blood mage, rounding them out.

Once we decided upon a wood elf bard, it was time to customize his features. You can mold a variety of characteristics, from nose length to ear height, with adjustment sliders, and this allowed us to create a unique-looking character. While the system isn't as limiting as the one in World of Warcraft, it doesn't have the sheer number of options found in games such as Star Wars Galaxies or EverQuest II. However, in a nice touch, Vanguard lets you save the physical template of your characters so that if you want to start over with an existing character, you don't need to re-create its look.

Our wood elf began his quest for fame and fortune on the Asian-themed island chain of Kojan. The region's pastoral scenery is undeniably beautiful, featuring winding treetop cities and plenty of swaying foliage. The architecture of the buildings is particularly remarkable, looking as though they were truly carved out of enormous trees. Because you must traverse multiple overpasses to get from place to place in these cities, it can get somewhat tiresome to travel within them, but at least it looks pretty while you do it.

Bards use music to enhance their fighting abilities.
Bards use music to enhance their fighting abilities.

It didn't take long to grab a bunch of beginning quests in the starting outpost, so once we had our initial missions in order, we set off into the surrounding landscape, armed with a beginner's long sword and a dream of world domination. Thankfully, the first quest doesn't involve killing rats--in fact, there was nary a rat to be seen. Instead, you must collect grass samples, although in doing so, you may awaken the root creatures that live beneath the tufts. Combat should be familiar to anyone who has played a massively multiplayer RPG in the past: Right click on your target to initiate combat, and use the bar at the bottom of the screen to cast spells and exercise other skills. Our bard is a light fighter class, so he had a few melee abilities to choose from, as well as a song to sing that increased melee damage. It didn't take long to collect the grass and dispatch the foes that stood in our way.

Most of the quests continue in this manner, but they do a good job of introducing you to the lore of Telon, as well as gameplay mechanics specific to Vanguard. One of these mechanics, diplomacy, is introduced in the city of Ca'ial Brael. Diplomacy, or parleying, is a core "sphere" of gameplay within the game, so the tutorial is lengthy, but necessarily so. Communicating with certain characters (and earning the resulting rewards) requires you to parley with them. Parleying is a card-based minigame in which you play cards representing various types of statements. Each statement you play may offer you or your opponent points in different types of expression, such as demand, reason, inspiration, or flattery. As expression points ebb and flow between you and your opponent, you can play different cards as you attempt to move the influence indicator to your side of the board. Should you win the parley, you earn the item or ability offered as a reward.

Crafting is another complex task with an extensive accompanying tutorial. To craft, you need a workbench, as well as the appropriate tools and materials to complete your item. Once you have the recipe for the item, you head to the workbench, where you have a certain number of action points to spend. Each step requires you to fill a bar before you move on, and each action diminishes your point pool. Crafting a simple item can take several minutes, particularly if there is a complication. Whenever a complication crops up, you must perform an unplanned additional step and spend more action points. Our character encountered muscle pain multiple times during our crafting sessions, and the only way to solve the problem was to take the extra step of stretching and relaxing until we could return to the task at hand. Once you get the hang of things, you can select a crafting focus to become an artificer, blacksmith, or outfitter. The tasks themselves, though, can seem needlessly time-consuming, since you may need to craft multiple times, at multiple stations, to turn your raw materials into a finished product.

You can also harvest various environmental elements, like stone, wood, gems, and so on, which, again, require their own sets of equipment. In fact, there are a lot of outfits for you to keep track of in Vanguard, since you can even purchase clothing that increases your skill at diplomacy. Fortunately, it's easy to switch back and forth between them since each sphere of gameplay has its own paper doll for your character. So all you need to do is enter your abilities menu and click a button in the appropriate tab to change outfits. In fact, it's a necessity, since we found ourselves out in the wilderness a few times with our harvesting outfit on and had to hurriedly change into adventuring clothes to avoid sure death.

The conversation system is a nice change of pace from the genre's norms.
The conversation system is a nice change of pace from the genre's norms.

Vanguard has played well so far, but it isn't without its foibles. While launch day seemed to go well, without too many server glitches, the game has its share of bugs and other problems. It currently does not support antialiasing, so if you have that option turned on in your graphics card settings it may cause a variety of visual glitches. Until we turned the option off on our test system, avatar names would disappear over the heads of other players and non-player characters. We also encountered a good half-dozen instances of monsters disappearing in the middle of combat, forcing us to fight empty space without being able to perform any offensive skills. Also, rain effects caused our screen to flicker, and our display occasionally went black and showed only character names for no apparent reason. While none of these are game-killing bugs, they will hopefully be fixed in an upcoming patch.

Still, Vanguard: Saga of Heroes seems to be off to a promising start. It does come across as somewhat derivative, if only because of the high-quality games that came before it. Still, it's an ambitious game that we look forward to spending a lot more time with. Look for a full review of Vanguard in the coming weeks.

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