Great potential, but Sigil need to fix bugs and clear imbalance fast. Which way the game will go is still unclear.
Reviewing Vanguard (VG) honestly is like cutting off the head of a hydra: Just when you think you’re done, two new heads of peril pop up. The game has so many aspects and angles, it is quite a chore to explain someone Vanguard who has not yet played it. Vanguard – Saga of Heroes was a saga in it’s making in the truest meaning of the word, and most likely will remain so. One can not understand Vanguard fully, without digging a bit into it’s making.
Vanguard was designed by the folks of Sigil, who once left Sony (SOE) and the Everquest team to pursue their own “vision”. But, as ever so often with visions, it must stand against reality, and sometimes the reality check is a painful thing. Vanguard is essentially a game with great potential, and never has this phrase been truer. VG chief developer Brad McQuaid himself, in a sure to be appreciated move of honesty, admitted that the game was released about half a year too early, because they got out of funds. Now we have seen many solo RPGs rushed in the last years, and it is easy to see a premature launch can cause great damage to an otherwise good game. Whether or not this is the case for VG remains to be seen, but chances are about 50/50 for failure or success.
Vanguard has been in planning and making for about five years. Back then, a lot of players had Everquest I and Ultima Online as gamers background, and still recalled this time as their golden era of MMO gaming. But times have changed, and so has the average target audience of gaming. Back in EQ1 days MMOs were filled entirely by students and pupils; that was the niche of gaming. You just can't fill MMOs with them now. Back then we had DOS and Windows 3.1. People were USED to make many things by themselves, but we have 2007 and, well, computers and games have changed. I know, if life is easygoing school or student life, it may be hard to imagine that some have that 40+ hours week, coming home after fighting your boss and your colleagues, you just don’t want to die 20 times with corpse runs, because you already have a hardcore LIFE. That is what VG claimed to reanimate, largely supported by the quite aggressive vocal expression of the VG developers. The way they talked about VG as a hardcore game has attracted a vocal and aggressive minority of players, who hold the “old days” of gaming in their hearts as the best era and condemn all modernization that happened since then in gaming; people who find journals or ingame maps as a feature for weaklings and carebears.
Then World of Warcraft happened. The debates about how to judge this game have not ended after all the years, but definitely by the sheer number of discussions you can safely say it hit the MMO world like a comet. After WoW EVERYTHING about what a MMO could be was forever changed and re-defined. One of the developers of WoW, when asked what was their recipe for making such a successful game, he said: we checked all features and asked ourselves "is this fun to do?", and if the answer is No, its out. Not realism, not logic, only is it fun! Now you may like or hate the result, but when the day is over, all that counts in the end is: are the shareholders happy or not? And 8 million players surely made Blizzard stockholders quite happy. So asking, what makes the average gamer happy is likely on the top agenda here - or it should be, if the game does not want to vanish like Dark and Light or RF Online. Vanguard was an expensive development, is HAS to pay off big time, like it or not. It obviously took Sigil a lot of time to realize, that their “vision” did just not have the power to make their stockholders as happy as they could be, but the prestige had been set in stone: VG is a hardcore game. It took them a long time, as the painful beta 3 NDA breaches showed, to make VG from a hardcore chore of the “vision” to a game with a realistic degree of accessibility for any normal gamer. This is the core problem which plagues VG now. It has still a lot of reminiscences to the old hardcore “vision” and the demands of the market reality. And that is the one true reason VG is far behind schedule and has spent the money, forcing them now to publish a totally unfinished product.
VG is by and large an unfinished product. Many core features are not implemented at all, like the fellowship, who allows XP sharing, or the caravans, which are supposed to make the vast travel times easier. It is a strange twist that mostly those features are not in the game, who are supposed to make it easier accessible. I have seen my share of MMO launches, but the sheer amount of bugs, not implemented features, not tested quests and not balanced areas really exceeds anything I have ever seen. About one third of the entire world have not been tested in the last beta phase at all, and thus are in the game now totally untested. An average of 30% of all quests have bug stoppers, mobs that will not drop the appropriate loot or kills, which do not count. Now I am aware Sigil has made many patches, each with a long list of changes. But if you examined them from the last days of beta to the present, 90% of changes were class reworking and other secondary changes. The real substantial changes, like bug fixing, always made only a very small part of every patch. And surely we can not expect miracles. Bug fixing IS a lengthy and tiresome process. The cost and time of the last 5% of bugs in software as a rule are as high as the fixes for the other 95%, so it will take a LONG time until a majority of bugs will be eliminated. Strangely a great part of patches contain dozens of arbitrary changes like putting a ranger spell from level 4 to level 10, as if they did not have more important things to do.
What is definitely breathtaking and the biggest bonus is the world itself. It is without exaggeration the most beautiful and breathtaking world we have seen, likely in any computer game ever. The three existing continents have so many different, wonderful places, sights and designs, it would be worth the money alone for seeing all the sceneries. Vast cities like Aghram or New Torgonor, are easily the most wonderful cities I have ever seen in 20 years gaming. The dark side however is, they are also easily the most lifeless I have seen. If you enter Qeynos (EQ2) or Stormwind (WoW) or Mos Eisley (SWG), you feel the place is alive. People and critter, womp rats, rabbits or sea gulls fill the place with life. Children pass by and play, people get into an argument, THINGS happen around you to simulate life. Entering the cities of Vanguard is mostly like entering a museum. NPCs are nailed down where they stand and barely animated at all. The further away you get from the starter areas the more lifeless the cities become. People love to gather in the cities of WoW, SWG or EQ2, but I can hardly imagine people will gather in New Torgonor, which feels like a graveyard – however the most beautiful. We can only hope this will change, but with the many other more pressing things at hand it is one of the features we won’t see for a long time.
The 19 classes and 15 races are fun to play and mostly well designed. Animations have greatly improved and now and nice to look. Not breathtaking, but the upper quality in MMO terms. It’s the animations for NPCs, especially in social places, which sorely lack. NPCs stand everywhere like frozen, as if some giant had dropped them out of a box and they had been glued down where they fell. Adding the fact they have all quite similar haircuts and clothing and no voiceovers, it really takes a lot of life out of this game. It is hard to imagine people meet and socialize in any place in this game now. While the world is surely breathtaking, it lacks the kind of focus of places like Goldshire in WoW, where you know people can always meet and greet, basically because everyone can reach it, and it is strategically placed.
Another novelty is, player starter areas are distributed all over the world. There is not only a difficult and long journey, often impossible for anyone below level 30, if you chose a certain race, the quite complicated faction system forces people who want to form a common guild and want to do quests together to all either chose the same race or forget about grouping together for a VERY long time. I can not make people delusions about levelling here. To gain levels is much slower than in any present title. It takes about the same time as in the nefarious Asian grinder Lineage II. That is not so much of a problem in the first 15 levels, since there are many quests, many of which are interesting and well designed. Sure, you have the usual chore of kill X amount of Z, but many interesting and funny quests also, to spice things up. Quests reveal a decent amount of background lore about the world, but it is not too deep and thrilling. If you start the game in any of the newbie areas, you are more or less tossed into a world and supposed to find your place. It is rather sad to see, how less welcoming the starter areas are in terms of story and character development are. Thinking about the detailed background you are given in EQ2 and it’s starter isle, you feel more like tossed into this world and are supposed to see for yourself where you belong. The feel of an ongoing story arc, which covers the entire world and where you can select your role in, is entirely missing. There is no worldwide story whatsoever; maybe in much later levels, but it is a big missed opportunity, and the meagre intro text window can hardly replace this.
Expect that the overall difficulty is higher as in WoW or EQ2. You need groups much more often, you die much easier and it has the corpse run. If you die and no one is there to resurrect you, you revive at an altar. There you can either summon your belongings by paying a small amount of money, loosing some XP and the gear looses some quality which needs to be repaired OR you reach the place where you died. Naked. No, you have some clothing, but without any gear. If you do this corpse run however your gear is not much damaged and you keep most XP. This is essentially nothing but a timesink, and in can be most tiresome in some dungeons. It is not that hard as it sounds, especially when you have people to help you. But it surely is a totally NO-NO for every person who has work and a normal, grown up schedule. Getting quests with the best XP and the best gear usually leads into difficult dungeons. And they are BIG. So if your group gets wiped, you can easily forget doing the rest of your 2-3 hours evening spare time anything else than sneaking into that dungeon and retrieving your corpse. It takes time, and that is likely a big reason for every casual player not to buy VG. Sure, you CAN summon your belongings, but in any dangerous dungeon you die several times, and since money and loot drop is not really abundant, any such evening can easily turn out more as investment than gain, if you call your corpse a few times. The repair cost are soon much higher than the income from the dungeon run itself. Also taken into account, that many areas are barely tested and need weeks or rather months of balancing. The dungeons in the first 15 levels in the various starter areas are so breathtakingly different in difficulty, there is a LOT of work to do in balancing as well. While you can walk through the Kurashasa starter area blindfolded, the first dungeon around Tanvu can easily kill a full group of the most experienced MMO gamers.
A big problem is also the high respawn rate in many areas, especially dense forests and dungeons. Mobs respawn much faster than any average group is able to remove them. Often I was in a dungeon, and when we just killed the two mobs in front of us, those behind us had already respawned. While my groups were able to proceed, it was a 2 hours silent chore. If you entirely lack the time even to exchange a few word the entire reason to enter a MMO is killed. Group adventuring just lives from small talk and short comments, and in many places it is even impossible to type “go left” until the next mob as already started to attack. Since I love to talk to people and not just silently fight, this is one of the aspects I really disliked the most about VG. Due to the tedious nature this ultra-fast respawn causes, a lot of players rather grind a few levels and then do group quests solo instead of finding groups. It is a strange and ironic thing, since the difficulty initially was designed to encourage grouping. But now it has been raised THAT high, that people rather come back when they are strong and fight it out alone instead of the greater risk going through those places with a group.
One of the really good features is the music. The soundtrack is very good and supports the areas perfectly. It is a pleasure to listen to and it’s that kind of soundtrack you want to have on CD. The ambient sound and sound effects however are sub-standard and a rather crude mix of 1990ies sound files.
The User Interface (UI) is to a vast degree a WoW clone, down to every key and command. That is in itself neither bad nor good, but the WoW UI wasn’t really one of the most advanced and in my opinion one of the biggest gripes I had with WoW. It is simple, functional but that’s all. The journal has no option to sort quests by type, region or difficulty. The character has no biography people can read, which tended to be a good way to get in touch with people. The map is the most barren and simplified I have seen. many quests still do not have waypoints, and the directions in the texts often are vague and misleading. Finding your aim can be quite a chore. In this feature, as in so many, the split between the hardcore “vision” and the reality check becomes visible. The original idea was not to implement maps at all. As a result, VG would never have started on more than two servers right away, so they started to make a “compromise” for “casual” players – or what a hardcore guy THINKS is casual. The result is a map, which is far too much for the hardcore players and far too less for the normal players, and that is exactly the misery in which VG is stuck in so many things. Vanguard could be a really good game, if Sigil would listen less to the vocal minority who – partially only for the teenage fun of boasting – demand always greater difficulty, players for whom only perma-death is hard enough. The downside already has paid: on some servers the community is more aggressive than in any MMO I have seen, and I have played a lot. Some servers are ok, but even there you can hardly play 15 minutes without someone who criticizes some features is instantly yelled down by some “fans” he should “shut up and go play WoW”. I have never seen such an aggressive and immature mix of players as in VG. Sure, they aren’t the majority by far, but they vocally dominate the chat channels in many servers and Sigil has so far only moved against the most gross, personal attacks. I would love to see VG succeed, and I am sure many who play it now feel the same about it. But Sigil has to face the real priorities and the REAL core gamer, not some arbitrary but aggressively vocal minority. It is well advised to reveal the roadmap of the next weeks and months and not to fall into the trap to keep their plans a secret. There are just too many questions about whether something is bugged, too complicated to understand or simply “working as intended” and I doubt many players have the endless patience to wait a year for unknown makes-all-good-patches.
SWG was the last game who equally tried to satisfy traditional “hardcore” gamers and also attract new players with much less tolerance to tedium and chore. The NGE, trying to create such a compromise, was the greatest disaster the MMO world has seen to date. The end of the story is, I see another crew of idealistic developers with “visions” and “dreams”, lacking the down to earth pragmatism and the courage to accept the logic of the market. It is the unavoidable logic of capitalism, the only stable and foolproof prophecy - despite Mr. McQuaid's claim there were no prophets - and that it the success of greed. Greed lies in numbers, and as a matter of fact the number of hardcore fans is *quite* anti-proportional to the loudness of their voice. When WOW was launched the definition of what a MMO is has changed forever. SWG has ruined itself trying to be both hardcory and still adapting WOW-elements. Every attempt to make niches within niches, making games too inaccessible will doom any MMO to a miniature niche in mid terms. Not all WOW did was perfect, not all must be 100% done as in WOW to succeed, but the core idea has set an entirely new standard: shortest possible non-fun-times until the fun starts. That is the only winning formula that has a future now. "The avalanche has already started; it is too late for the pebbles to vote."
Graphics: The world is breathtaking, however the civilization does not feel alive but more like a painted stage, therefore no maximum value. Some textures and places at not up to the high standard. 7/10
Sound: Great music but no voiceover and quite outdated sound effects. 7/10
Difficulty: Many modern features are missing. Features which Sigil had planned to make the “challenge” bearable like Fellowships or Caravans are not implemented at all. There is a great imbalance in the various starter areas in terms of difficulty. Also some classes are much easier to play then others. The complicated faction system and the lack of any fast travel options force people to group only with those playing the same race for a long time. 4/10
Fun Factor: The quests are mindful and interesting. Many are quite beyond the usual kill X of Y. Crafting and Diplomacy add some fun things to do, even though they seem to lack the focus at the moment. Since both need a long time to delve in, they do not play a central role besides a bit fun gaming for a few days right now. Some quests are really entertaining and thoughtfully designed. 8/10
Character Customization: It almost equals the great character customization of SWG. You really have a lot of sliders to create your own character. However, the races tend to look a bit cloned, since there are no textures and no aging slider. Also extreme deformations have been taken out prior to launch, so no fat or extreme thin characters can be made anymore. Since at this moment there are only 4 haircuts for each race, this is not fully implemented as it is supposed. Since hair is a big feature to really look different, the potential is highly cut. 6/10
Reviewer’s Tilt: I am split how to judge the game. It has the potential to be a real hit, but Sigil must get to the grip fast! Nowadays players do not have the years of patience people had back in the SWG era, waiting for years for promises and unspoken “somethings we are adding at some time”. There are awesome things in this game, especially if you seek for a richer and deeper world, but much work needs to be done and if you play Vanguard, be sure to have thick hide and good nerves. For the majority I can only advise to wait half a year. 7/10