It was hard to understand why Microsoft dropped Vanguard after having featured it at not one, but two press conferences. There were even innuendos that the saga of heroes might grace future Xbox platforms. Then again, I was surprised when Microsoft dropped Pyschonauts at the 11th hour. However, one man's generic fantasy set massively multiplayer game is another man's treasure, and so, in a strange twist of fate, the studio founded by people who left Sony Online Entertainment to work on their own projects signed on to work with... Sony Online Entertainment.
From the first menu to the first dead rat it appears to me that somewhere along the way the game that was meant to go beyond Everquest evolved into something that was trying to be World of Warcraft while maintaining its own identity. Listening to Vanguard players rant about the "over simplified, stupid-proof, lamer filled" World of Warcraft, you'd half expect Vanguard to be something completely different.
Listening to Vanguard players rant about the "over simplified, stupid-proof, lamer filled" World of Warcraft, you'd half expect Vanguard to be something completely different.
It's really not. From the viewpoint of someone who doesn't know better it might seem that someone added an extra layer of depth to World of Warcraft. But just as the layers of an onion don't change the taste, the extra complexities in Vanguard don't change the fundamentals of the MMO experience, they just result in more deaths. Thankfully, where the death penalty is harsher than WoW it's not as excessive as Everquest. This drives me to ask "Why?" Yes, they've succeeded in making a harder game, but does that really make it better?
The lack of instanced dungeons was supposed to encourage more community interaction, but in practice, it just reminded me why I hate people. If I wanted a selfish ass to run through an area aggroing all the mobs, I'd go back to Everquest. I'm also curious if the decision to have players share the same dungeons is why the dungeons are so bare.
The sparseness in the little things continues outside into the world itself, which, although larger in scope than any previous MMO, feels vacant and dead. On barren hills the only moving things are enemies doomed to trace their steps over and over. The gift of a mount at level ten seems more like a way to keep you from going mad walking from one quest to the next, and less like a triumphant reward.
Yet, when you have run over that hundredth hill searching for the quest reward there is a sense of "epic" that other games in the genre lack. I truly felt like my trek across the world in search of a rare-dropped item was part of a larger journey. However, times like these are intermittent highlights in the large time-sink that travel can be in Vanguard.
Quests are handed out from persons with giant glowing exclamation points -- I mean shields -- above their heads, but play out like WoW without the training wheels. One had me and my group (when we could get the game to let my friends and I join the same group) trying to activate four crystals... at least we believe that's what we were doing. Sparse descriptions, unclear results, and a dungeon we were sharing with other groups resulted in some confusion.
Once I reached my destination the battle for glory wasn't nearly as complex as the rumors had led me to expect. Despite multiple stances and combat-specific abilities the basic nuts and bolts of combat play out like every MMO that has come before. Damage is dealt out over a "damage-per-second" system, defensive ratings (bolstered by buffs, armor, and strength stats) determine your ability to absorb impacts. Dexterity decides if that next incoming attack is fatal or if you've mitigated it entirely.
Extra layers in the combat onion come in the form of the weakness system, which allows players to open up vulnerabilities in an opponent that the whole group can exploit together. Unlike either World of Warcraft or Everquest 2, the combat system opens itself up quickly for reactive moves based on your stances. In practice, these two systems show how until now you've mostly been babysitting your characters; not so in Vanguard.
There was some surprise from those who hadn't been keeping up with Vanguard news when Sony made their shipping announcement on short notice early in January. I thought it rather impossible that any sane group would decided to launch against the first World of Warcraft expansion pack.
Yet, having spent a month talking with Vanguard players this decision suddenly makes perfect sense. Players I spoke to talked about coming into Vanguard after finding that Burning Crusade was just "more of the same." It helped that Vanguard was one of the most stable massively multiplayer games at its launch in years.
There are a few lingering annoyances and server updates seem to come with odd bugs (one had my character appearing with the wrong armor/facial features). The most persistent problem appears to be a bug that causes groups to disband or drop members with little- to-no reason. As always a fix is promised to be in the works.
With stability very solid for a MMO this new, quests that are usually more than FedEx adventures, and a combat engine that adds several layers to what we've seen so far... it's incredibly hard not to recommend Vanguard to the dedicated MMO-fan. Even if you're one of those willing to die for the Horde, you may want to at least check out the saga these heroes are spinning.