Vanguard: Saga of Heroes Review
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It's been over two years since World of Warcraft has been released. Blizzard took the MMORPG world by storm with their game, racking up millions of sales and subscriber numbers no one thought possible. And since the release of WoW, very few American-made competitors have been released and none have had anywhere near the success of Blizzard's juggernaut. One might think that MMO developers have been scared to release something. Well, that's not really true; it's just taken developers a couple of years to come up with a truly competitive game to sit alongside World of Warcraft on store shelves. One such game is Vanguard: Saga of Heroes from Sigil Games and Sony Online Entertainment.
Vanguard's development team is headed up by Brad McQuaid, creator of (and much of the brains behind) the original Everquest. Back a few years ago after Sony bought EQ developers Verant and turned into Sony Online Entertainment, they actually fired Brad from his own company and game and he went on to form Sigil Games. Now, it's a pretty sad state of affairs that no one other than Brad's old "friends", Sony, would publish Vanguard, but let's just get onto the game.
Vanguard is a fantasy MMORPG with a massive world and tons of character classes and races to choose from. There are a couple of elves to choose from, Orcs, many flavors of humans, and one or two animal-style races. Honestly, if you've played a few major MMORPGs before, nothing will be much of a surprise here. Same comes with the character classes; there are holy warriors, sorcerors, monks, druids, and necromancers, plus quite a few more that everyone's probably seen before somewhere or another.
Character creation is more detailed than we've seen other past MMORPGs. You can change many body proportions and quite a few parts of your character's face, even if the end result for me always seemed to be something ranging from ugly to downright hideous. Once you get in game you'll note that every race has their own starting area, and sometimes these areas are actually built to show your character's "old life" and how it ended - then there's a rebirth into a new way of life in Vanguard.
The world of Vanguard is colorful and often lush, but there's just something missing in the art design that I feel holds the game back. There are few places that require you to "zone" and the overall look is one of realism rather than the cartoony charm of World of Warcraft, but I still feel that the world is missing something here. Maybe it's that charm, but I do know that whatever the world of Telon is missing, the worlds of Star Wars Galaxies didn't have it either. And with Vanguard's steep system requirements, you'll find that anything that's considered slow for today's games isn't going to be happy with Vanguard. On these computers, many of which do actually meet the minimum requirements on the box, Telon is going to look more like a muddy, boring version of every other half-made MMO world out there. When you see the "Recommended" specs, consider those the minimum instead.
And don't forget to clear up some hard drive space. Vanguard takes up a ridiculous 17GB of space on your hard drive, more than EverQuest 2 (plus all expansions) and World of Warcraft (plus its expansion) combined. It's not an issue if you've got 300GB free just sitting there, but if you're playing on a laptop it's going to make things tight. If you have a technical problem with the game, you'll find that Sony did supply a tech support forum (but no other forums). Unfortunately, no one seems to be finding many solutions there, and I've heard pretty ugly stories about cutting-edge computers getting iffy performance and even some players getting their CD-keys banned before the game even lets people make an account, which of course would be really frustrating since most stores won't take returns on opened games, so if you've got bad luck with technical problems, you might just want to pass on this one altogether. But for those that will be able to get into the game, let's talk about that some more.
The interface will remind you quite a bit of a certain Blizzard MMORPG, and in this case I think it's a good thing. There's a main chat window and a combat log, a minimap in the top right, player and target windows in the top left, and a button bar lining the bottom of the screen. There's a bit of help available via tooltips that come up, but unfortunately these don't go nearly far enough to show someone who's never played an MMORPG before how to actually, well, play Vanguard. Still, those who have will get into this one easily enough. You can run and grab your first quest or two in a small area for newbie characters, then go find the first monsters to kill and take them out with no problem.
Eventually as you level up, you'll find that Vanguard is not a very forgiving game. When you die, you have to go and find the corpse of your character to retrieve any items that aren't "bound" to you (even ones you had equipped). You'll lose experience points for every death as well, something that happened back in EverQuest but will be alien to players of other recent MMORPGs. The leveling curve and overall difficulty means making the top level is going to take much longer than it did in World of Warcraft. Some hardcore players - specifically, those who found other games too easy - are going to really enjoy what Vanguard does. Making level 50 in this game will be more of a skill- and determination-based accomplishment than level 60 was in WoW. If you want a pretty harsh MMORPG where you won't see 80% of players sitting on max-level characters within a year, then I'd venture and say Vanguard is pretty much the best one out there for you.
One new feature I've seen in Vanguard is the new Diplomacy system where you choose "cards" to use in conversations with NPCs before you talk to them. This way some conversations will get you different results depending on which cards you decide to play. It's a unique part of the game, but I'm not sure it really fits in with the rest of the package. Nowadays almost any slight innovation in the tried and true fantasy MMO genre will be hailed by some as a major achievement, but it's my opinion that if it doesn't add something really substantial to the game, then more time probably should have been spent on core game mechanics and balance. A broken game with a few unique features is not really the best way to go for a game like this, and while Vanguard's not broken, it's pretty close.
Class balance is currently way off but is slowly being put back in line - this is mostly evident on the game's two Player vs. Player servers (one of them is a race-based team server, while the other is a free-for-all between any players). For example, Sorcerors were stupidly powerful and then got hit pretty hard by the nerf bat - now they're being called sub-par by many players. Some classes are just not very good, while others are extremely good, and I expect that this will continue on with over-the-top changes for a while as the developers deal with players finding new ways to kill monsters as well as other players. It's a standard thing with many MMO games, so I can't really single out Sigil and SOE for this.
That being said, there are still plenty of things to do in Vanguard. There are dozens of locations and unique places in Telon with swamps, deserts, coastlines, and more. Sometimes the graphics are great and other times they are mediocre, while the characters and monsters range just as much in visual quality. There's a full line of trade skills and so far a pretty decently growing economy on many servers, but only time will tell if it really shapes up to be worth it to those who love to craft items and do trade skills.
While I think that one could certainly do worse than buying Vanguard, those looking for a World of Warcraft killer are likely going to be disappointed - especially those without cutting edge computers. The developers seemed to have tried to bring back the "glory days" of the original Everquest, but when we look at past subscriber numbers for MMORPGs, it seems like this strategy is a little at odds with what players want. I seriously doubt that Vanguard will ever topple the current king, but I think they can find their niche with the more hardcore players and those who just think WoW is a little too easy.