Experienced role players will enjoy the engaging combat and diplomatic gameplay, in spite of Vanguard's litany of bugs and singular focus on group adventuring.
- Lively combat makes for fun group questing
- Diplomacy gameplay is an enjoyable way to involve players in NPC dialogue
- The complex crafting is interesting and rewarding.
- Bugs, bugs, and more bugs
- Forced grouping will leave solo players cold
- Stiff death penalty and lack of instanced dungeons are as frustrating now as they were in EverQuest's early days.
Since the release of Blizzard's monumentally popular World of Warcraft and its expansion, it's been impossible for new massively multiplayer online role-playing games to avoid the inevitable comparisons. That's probably for the best in the case of Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, for while the aforementioned games have some superficial similarities to this one, their core designs are far different. Vanguard, for better or for worse, hearkens back to the days of EverQuest, when in-game death was more than just a slight annoyance and groups camped for bosses that rarely spawned. But by doing its own thing, Azeroth be damned, Vanguard sets itself apart, thanks to complex crafting and a wholly unique take on non-player character communication. It's also rough around the edges, exhibiting all the bugs and glitches of a game not quite ready for release. Yet while Vanguard is not outwardly friendly to genre newcomers, it's got enough rewarding gameplay to please experienced adventurers willing to overlook its technical hitches.
In Vanguard, home is the world of Telon, which features three main continents, 19 races, and 15 classes. While many of the choices seem fascinating, most of them boil down to archetypes and group roles familiar to anyone who's played an MMORPG before. There are a good number of ways to modify your avatar's physical appearance, so you could easily spend quite some time deciding on the look and purpose of your character. Once in the game, a system of pop-up messages guides you through the beginning steps, and you're off to explore, quest, and level. The starting quests are genre standards familiar to anyone who's played an MMORPG before, but once you've gained a few levels, you'll find just how daunting Telon can get.
The first and obvious challenge once you are around level seven is that, like it or not, Vanguard isn't for the solo player. That isn't to say it's devoid of content for the lone adventurer, but consistent soloing is a good way to get quickly frustrated. Most quests are obviously designed for groups, even if they're not necessarily identified as such in your quest log, and soloing what should seem like a simple mission can result in quick death if you aren't careful. Even with a full group, some areas and dungeons can be a time-consuming challenge, particularly because Vanguard doesn't feature any instanced quests. As a result, you might need to wait a while before the boss you need to vanquish reappears after the last group's battle. Multipart group quests may take three or four hours to get through, and even with a good party, a simple mistake can cost you your character's life.
That cost can be pretty high, since resurrection entails experience loss and a trip back to your corpse, assuming you want to regain some of that XP. You may summon your tombstone at an altar, but at higher levels, the amount of time you need to put into regaining all the lost XP is intimidating. In any MMO, returning to your corpse in a monster-infested dungeon may be next to impossible, and the additional loss of experience often makes the penalty even more frustrating in Vanguard. There's no experience loss by falling to the sword of another player on the free-for-all player-versus-player server, which eliminates the need to retrieve your corpse but means your killer can loot up to 15 percent of the coin you're carrying. Conversely, a second PVP server groups races into two separate teams. Along with the usual duels common to the genre, that's the only PVP content Vanguard offers on US servers.
But if exploring Telon is riskier business than we're used to seeing in MMOs over the last few years, the combat itself is satisfying and fun. Much of this is related to the reaction system, which grants you multiple spells and abilities that can be triggered only if certain criteria are met. For example, a successful parry may open up a counterattack not normally available. Because those attacks can be powerful, managing your skills and available energy adds some welcome strategy to your choice of spells at any given time. Chain attacks and bard songs, among other class abilities, make battles feel dynamic, especially considering your avatar doesn't need to stand still to perform most skills.
Vanguard's most fascinating feature is diplomacy, which lets you earn favor with various factions, area-wide buffs, and more by engaging NPCs in conversation. Parleying is a simplified strategy card game in which you play five cards that represent different types of statements, such as flattery and inspiration. A game board with an influence marker keeps track of how you are doing, and as long as you keep the marker on your side for the specified number of turns, you win the parley. As your skills improve, you earn new cards--and even gain the use of temporary cards when visiting certain areas. Parleying itself is pretty simple, although as you gain skill, winning a high-level conversation gets to be quite a challenge.