Vanguard: Saga of Heroes E3 2005 Preshow Report

We take an updated look at Sigil Games' upcoming online role-playing game in time for E3.

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Vanguard: Saga of Heroes
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We sat down for another look at this upcoming massively multiplayer game from publisher Microsoft and developer Sigil Games (whose studio includes several alumni from the original EverQuest team). This time around, we were able to watch what's scheduled for display at E3--a dungeon crawl and a player-created town--and get briefed on some of the character-specific abilities in the game.

The dungeon we explored was on the continent of Qalia, a realm inspired by the lore of The Arabian Nights, where giant scorpions lurk in the desert sands and djinni guard fabulous treasures in dungeons. A dank dungeon's ruined walls and sandy floors provided as good a spot as any to demonstrate some of the game's new systems, such as perception. Perception will be a multifaceted group of skills that characters of different professions may use. For instance, scout characters may be able to use their perception skills to detect traps or hidden enemies waiting in ambush. Sorcerers may be able to use their perception skills to identify enemy magics and attempt to counter them based on the level of their skills. As we saw, if sorcerers make a somewhat successful identification check, they may be able to counter the spell; a moderately successful identification check may let them transmute the incoming spell into a beneficial effect; and a critical success may let sorcerers turn an incoming spell right back onto its user. These abilities will be governed by particular combat "stances," which characters of all classes will be able to take. By taking an offensive stance, warriors can dish out more damage and have access to offensive skills; similarly, by taking a stance that focuses on a specific school of magic, sorcerers will have access to those particular spells. Higher-level characters may be able to keep more than one stance active, which should add even more tactical depth to combat.

In addition, the game will use a "sympathetic" system that will make characters especially powerful when equipped with certain items or teamed with certain other characters. For example, characters from the newly revealed psionicist class may find a scepter, which only psionicists can use, that will augment the characters' spell or "concentration" power. (Unlike standard sorcerers, psionicists maintain a certain level of concentration that is expended by casting permanent "buff" augmentation spells on teammates--the more concentration is expended, the less power is available to cast other spells.) Certain character classes may also have sympathetic abilities, such as spells from healers and sorcerers that may be used in sequence to trigger an entirely different effect. If such a trigger is set up by one character, any other character in the party with a complementary ability will be given a pop-up notification onscreen that a sympathetic follow-up is available. For instance, warriors will have a knockdown ability that will let them shove an enemy to the ground; as soon as this is made active, any rogues in the party with the "chest stab" attack will receive a quick notification and will have a limited time to follow up against the prone opponent.

While the dungeon we explored seemed huge (and appropriately infested with giant scorpions, kobolds, mummies, and other walking dead), it, like other content in Vanguard, will not be "instanced." That is, unlike many recent massively multiplayer games, Vanguard will not have closed-off areas that are generated only for specific characters (instanced content has been used as a way to prevent overcrowding by creating duplicate zones for players to explore). So, to prevent overcrowding and competition for existing monsters and loot, Vanguard will have an "advanced encounter" system keyed off of monster loot. Essentially, while all dungeons will have wandering monsters that will let casual hunters get in a few fights, some monsters will drop encounter-specific items, such as a bracer, which, when equipped, will spawn all-new monsters along an "encounter route." These monsters may be targeted only by the party that possesses the item, so these adventuring parties will have no shortage of enemies to fight and won't have to worry about other players stealing them away. Once an adventuring party has such an item, it will be lead along an encounter route by a series of onscreen clues that will continuously bring the group into contact with more encounter-generated enemies that only they may fight, leading up to the climactic end of the dungeon's quest. In this particular dungeon, we watched as a giant skeleton rose from a crypt to attack us. Defeating it set the stage for the final encounter, a huge insectlike creature who, before attacking, demanded to know what puny adventurers had disturbed its slumber.

We also had a chance to visit a player-crafted town. This huge area included several multistory houses which, in the final game, will apparently have their own dynamic variations on ambient music when entered. Player housing is currently planned to ship with the game when it first launches, and Sigil currently plans to let powerful guilds build actual towns, which will be appropriately expensive (complete with maintenance fees) but can act as a revenue stream, especially if wealthy adventurers use them to set up computer-controlled merchants to sell off their old weapons, armor, and items.

Vanguard remains a visually impressive game that packs a great deal of detail in its characters and renders huge outdoor and indoor environments. We'll be interested to see more of the overland adventuring and mounted travel in the game, as well as more of the game's crafting systems and character development, but Vanguard seems off to a solid start. Sigil and Microsoft refuse to comment on an exact release date but concede that they're currently planning to release the game next year.

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