As some people who followed the Computer Games Magazine saga are aware, we finished our May 2007 issue in the first week of March, sent it to the printers, and were then told it wouldn’t be printed and were all laid off. (And by “all of us,” it was mainly myself and our art guy at that point. Other people stayed around longer to shut things down.)
Anyway, our featured review that month was of Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, the oh-so-controversial big MMO of early 2007. We had a tag-team, three-man review of the game, by myself, Tom Chick, and Kelly Wand.
I was rummaging through some files and found the text. I think it was a lot of fun to read. (It was especially fun to do; at least it was when Kelly wasn’t getting me killed.)
So, here it is (hah hah, Tom Chick gave it 4 stars):
Three writers take on Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, the biggest, boldest, baddest, buggiest, and most generic MMO out there
By Steve Bauman, Tom Chick, and Kelly Wand
Ratings: Steve (Gadzooks): 3 stars; Tom (Banshei): 4 stars; Kelly (Fondrus): 3.5 stars
Developer Sigil Games Online
Publisher Sony Online Entertainment
Requirements 2.4GHz CPU; 512MB RAM (Hahahah… honestly, it’s more than you got.)
Steve: Most people made up their minds about Vanguard: Saga of Heroes before it launched. Their opinions were largely determined by how they viewed designer/Sigil head Brad McQuaid and his dogmatic design for EverQuest.
Since I never liked EverQuest, I guess I’d have to give Vanguard two stars without ever playing it.
Kelly: I played EverQuest for months and got bored once I’d maxed out my Sense Heading. It was awesome to finally find out which direction I was facing, though. Which was east. Some griefers had told me it was southeast.
Tom: I didn’t play EverQuest, but I know McQuaid’s name from reading forums where people complain about him.
However, I’ve always been a fan of hard-ass gaming. You know, iron-man stuff like never reloading, or not restarting Civilization when I don’t start near a wheat field, or playing a song on Guitar Hero for two hours trying to get my name on the high-score list where my buddies edged me out. In some games, I’m OK with struggling against defeat. Dogmatic MMO designs? Pfft. Bring it on.
Kelly: Well, the grinding here is pretty grueling, even for the genre. I don’t understand in game terms why killing defenseless wildlife is considered “adventuring” that makes you a better spellcaster, while shipbuilding and lumberjacking aren’t. Isn’t “adventure” supposed to mean the opposite of routine drudgery?
Ironically, Vanguard’s shtick is to sex up so-called routine drudgery like crafting and diplomacy and make those processes feel adventurous. That’s the only stuff that feels polished.
Steve: This definitely isn’t a Blizzard game. All of the rumblings before launch about its “not being ready” were true. It’s buggy and glitchy. Its network performance is terrible, with monsters and people warping all over the map and randomly disappearing in combat. Quests are broken, some skills don’t work, items are bugged. It’s not pretty.
But it is playable. And Lord knows, you can see that a lot of work has gone into creating this world of… whatever this world is.
Tom: It is a pretty generic place. Even the name, Telon, practically screams to be ignored.
Steve: Telon, Teflon, whatever.
Vanguard is, in most ways, a fairly conventional MMO. But it needs God’s own PC to look halfway decent, and while it delivers some stunning vistas, the art direction is… not so good. The character models look pretty rough, and the world is barren. I think it uses Arial as its text font instead of some fantasy font, making it look like a beta UI instead of a polished final product.
I’m not sure this is a world I want to spend thousands of hours in.
Tom: It’s generic, but at least in the world of—umm, I already forgot what it was called—there are lots of flavors of generic. The three of us are playing Dark Elves, whose lands are populated with tents and pointy architecture. But there are also generic Asian areas, generic people-with-animal-heads areas, generic human areas, and probably some generic Dwarf stuff.
Memorable artwork isn’t a strong point here, probably because Vanguard is aiming for a more photorealistic vibe. It’s easy to be stylized when you’re drawing as broadly as World of WarCraft does.
Kelly: It’s not an ugly game, just austere and not very sensual, like looking at a mummy case under glass as opposed to actually being mummified. And I like how the armor in Vanguard is less flashy and cartoonish than WoW’s; it looks functional and a little dusty, especially on my functional and dusty monitor.
The lag spikes feel the same from city to city, though.
Steve: It’s cool that the game occasionally randomizes your appearance when you login, though. And by “cool” I mean “annoying.”
At least they let you give your toon a first and last name, which means my character’s name is twice as stupid as normally. You can also add a title, like “Amateur Skinner.” I’m kind of hoping I can work on my “Safe Fall” skill so I can run around as “Gadzooks Doofus: Expert of Safe Fall.”
Character creation is daunting, with too little up-front information and too many classes and characters for a game at launch. I’m about as likely to research a character online before starting as I am to read a manual, which is to say not very likely. So I just created a class I’m most familiar with from other games, a Rogue. (The avatar creation gives you tons of options to configure your character appearance, but you always end up with some variation of “hideously malformed.”)
Kelly: There’s a lesson there. You always play these games in third-person, looking at yourself from behind, but the anatomy options in the character creation screens never let you customize your spine. And for all those hundred jawline sliders, every other Dark Elf I run into still looks like my twin.
Steve: I wish more of these games would figure out a way to let us run around and play for a while before making major decisions about class.
Tom: There is. It’s called an alt. You have to do a test character before you do your real character. Unfortunately, I’ve gotten attached to my test character, who’s named Banshei, because “Banshee” was already taken. Now I look like an idiot who can’t spell.
Steve: Sure, you can create dozens of alts (I already have three in Vanguard, just to sample the starting zones). But I also end up growing attached to the first guy I create and don’t want to grind through those lowbie quests again if I pick a cruddy class.
Kelly: You can usually infer the basics of what a class is all about from its name and the colors of its particle routines. If you don’t know what something is, e.g., a Psionicist, that means it’s crowd control.
I actually think the huge range of different races and classes is one of Vanguard’s biggest strengths. It’s a richly textured mythos involving both anthropomorphic lizard guys and anthropomorphic cat guys.
But I’m not sure what’s at stake in this game. Is there a war on? Am I evil? Where is everybody? The leveling in Vanguard feels slow and meditative even for the genre; the landscapes strange and lovely but annoyingly vast and sparsely populated. Running into other players out in the wild counts as an event.
Steve: I get nothing about the lore. All I know is that Dark Elves are prissy and annoying, even to each other.
Tom: No kidding. I just did a quest to save some dude’s family from being slaughtered or something. I go back to turn in the quest, and what soundbite does he play when I talk to him? “I detect a slightly foul stench.” Maybe that’s how Dark Elves express gratitude.
Meanwhile, in the crafting area, they’re all hocking loogies onto the floor and making snide comments at each other.
Steve: That sounds like our play sessions.
Vanguard is extremely difficult to evaluate because it’s so big. In fact, it may be too big; it’s like it’s designed for the millions of people playing WoW but is populated by a more reasonable number of players.
It’s also a bit hollow and empty, both in the literal and figurative senses; there’s less wonder in all of Vanguard than in a single zone of WoW. They’d almost be better off blocking off access to half the current game for future expansions.
Kelly: It’s pretty big on desolation as scenery, the way Star Wars Galaxies was. Even my avatar and his horse are insubstantial and floaty, although, since I’m a Necro, it means I’m spectral.
Tom: There are so many areas that need work. It was disheartening to see the pace of the patching slow significantly after the first couple of weeks. The character animations look good, but they’re completely out of sync with what’s going on in the game. And sometimes my feet sink into the ground, which is the exact opposite of what’s happening to Kelly.
Steve: On the plus side, you run really, really fast. And you can get a mount at Level 10.
Still, I’m over 60 hours into it and finding that it pushes most of the happy buttons of an RPG, with tons of content and zillions of systems to futz with. But it has no soul. It’s the wonkiest MMO out there, one designed for players who are sick of being coddled throughout. It’s even more of an interactive spreadsheet than most MMOs. It wears its math proudly.
I can definitely see the appeal; Lord knows, I’m having a good ole time without actually understanding half of the systems—well, the ones that work, at least.
Kelly: I am too, actually. It has an unpredictable quality that WoW doesn’t. I rode into an outpost, climbed to the top of this tall, winding tower, and talked to a female NPC about the nature of life in the desert. Then she threw me over the edge to my death for claiming to be both a rat and a crocodile. This game really captures the flavor of dating.
Steve: She did that to me, too, but I survived and boosted my “Safe Fall” skill.
Nerf “Safe Fall,” Sigil! It’s too powerful!
Tom: One of the things I love is the sheer density of stuff to do. And not just quests, although those seem to be generously sprinkled around the world. There are parallel kinds of character development. In addition to adventuring (i.e., killing wildlife while doing FedEx and collecting quests), there is crafting, harvesting, and diplomacy, each with its own metric for progress and its own inventory on its own paper-doll display. It’s a little weird that you’re wearing four layers of equipment. For instance, the moment you right-click on a corpse to skin it, you pop into your alternate costume. It’s like a jump-cut in a bad ’70s TV show. Think of “Bewitched” when Samantha wiggles her nose and suddenly Darren is wearing a completely different outfit.
Man, did I just date myself or what?
Steve: That cultural reference should resonate strongly with the Vanguard demographic. It even has magic.
Thank God and Brad McQuaid for the auto-swapping equipment for those systems. If you had to create macros to put on your crafting gear, I’d be awfully pissed.
You have to hand it to Sigil for doing something unique with diplomacy. Though I get its mechanics—it’s a card game, right?—I’m almost totally in the dark about the actual strategy. It seems more like a puzzle game than a Magic: The Gathering–style strategy game–like thing. And I’m just not into that particular kind of puzzle.
Kelly: Are you baked? Diplomacy’s awesome! It’s easier than Magic but with the sex appeal of Old Maid.
Tom: It’s absolutely a puzzle game. On a lot of the diplomacy challenges, you have to play a few times to see what five cards your opponent is using, and then choose your five cards specifically to counter them. The randomness comes from how long it takes cards to refresh so you can use them again. Otherwise, it’s almost predetermined based on your and your opponent’s diplomacy levels, and which cards you have available.
Kelly: I’m really curious what the diplomacy endgame’s like, or if it’s even implemented. Like, do diplomats wind up governing cities or hobnobbing with nobles? Can they be assassinated? How many diplomacy cards are there in total? Are they race-specific?
I ask out of eagerness to find out, because I love it. It really is something new and different in an MMO. But it seems peculiar to me that your class and race play no role. It just seems like if I went to a peace summit, the Dwarf ambassadors would go, “Oh, he’s got pointed ears and an abomination on a leash. We can’t trust anything he has to say.”
I think the mistrust of Dwarves would add a lot to my playing experience.
Steve: You said that about Gears of War too, though.
Should I be upset that the cards you play—all of which have cool names like “Forceful Demand,” “Funny Joke,” and “Vile Breath Which Cannot Be Masked With a Mint of Freshening”—do nothing to change the actual diplomatic text? Not that I’d actually read it, mind you, but it’s weird that they don’t alter the flow of the conversation. It makes it even gamier.
Still, I have to hand it to Sigil for doing something this different. And the fact that diplomats can confer world bonuses gives more players a reason to pursue that particular sphere de grind.
At least it’s more interesting than the over-designed crafting. I like making stuff, but I’m not sure clicking a series of buttons in order—with fail states—is more interesting than just collecting the pieces and clicking a single one.
At least there’s one plus: You build up your skill using work orders—which require nothing—instead of consuming your own precious resources.
Kelly: It’s ingenious but a bit restrictive. I’m not sure I get why you’re limited to a certain number of tools and tool belts while you work and can’t swap out during the manufacturing process. Real-life cobblers do it all the time. Or ask someone to hand it to them. You’re surrounded by a crowd of other artisans, after all. Why can’t you hire a slave?
If you’re going to be a pure crafter, it should be part of the character creation process. And you should start out with tool belts big enough to accommodate all the tools and repair items you need, since a resourceful beginner would have access to these things in real life.
Steve: I suppose you can make the argument that, in limiting the number of tools you can bring in, it forces you to make those “interesting decisions” Sid Meier likes to talk about. But in this case, it doesn’t make much sense.
So far, the complex crafting has created a fairly interesting economy. I’m making a lot of money selling skins to crafters via the Auction House, and using that cash to buy crafted weapons and armor. Unfortunately, the drops in combat and quest rewards are mediocre.
Kelly: How’s the boat coming?
Speaking of combat, my character’s first act upon encountering Steve’s character for the first time was to aggro 10 bandits and get us wiped, because seven of them were obscured by a sand bank. I’m pretty sure I hate the fighting in Vanguard almost as much as I love the diplomacy.
Steve: I like the combat, though it’s pretty vanilla. And Kelly can’t play his class worth crap.
Tom: I’m pretty disappointed at how poorly documented the combat is, because I don’t think it’s all that vanilla. There seems to be a fairly hearty system of chains and counters and special moves on behalf of whomever you’re defending. As a Bard, classified in Vanguard as an “offensive fighter,” my main character gets a fair amount of this stuff, particularly after Level 10.
But I can’t tell what’s going on most of the time, because, like so much of the rest of the game, the combat is just splayed out in front of me without explanation. What are all these combat icons? Soul-wracked? Vulnerable? “Overlooked”! Is this a sword fight or my high school prom?
Steve: You still just click on buttons in a certain sequence, while waiting for other buttons to become available to click on. It’s more like assembly-line work than dynamic combat.
The battles are always challenging. I’ve never felt like such a wimp in an MMO, especially at the lower levels. I die. A lot.
Kelly: I guess those rez stones are supposed to take the edge off, but I really thought “corpse runs” were a thing of the past. I don’t see what the point is. Losing not as many hours of XP and work as some people?
Tom: They’ve worked just fine for me. WoW does a great job of spoonfeeding me, and giving me gold stars just for showing up. But Vanguard creates a genuine sense of risk.
Steve: “Corpse runs” give me night terrors.
Kelly: As the only card-carrying MMO nerd of this little sewing circle, I have to say I wouldn’t mind so much if the game played fair. But the aggro ranges in Vanguard are wildly inconsistent. Guys spawn on you through walls, and in numbers too daunting for even full groups to tackle. It feels random and sadistic, not suspenseful. Speaking as a “weak,” cloth-wearing character class, I hate you all. What’s fun about losing experience?
Steve: It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. Even if it’s the same journey, over and over again.
I personally dug having to crawl halfway up to Level 15 twice because I died a lot and couldn’t recover my corpse a few times because it kept disappearing, and my XP eventually went negative.
Tom: It’s like the “save anywhere” argument; a lot of it comes down to your own preferences. How about an anecdote for why I like the system in Vanguard?
Steve and I were doing some quests on the north coast of Qalia when we saw a wrecked ship up in the mountains, far from the shore. Naturally, that’s the sort of thing you want to go look at. Level designers love to put stuff in wrecked ships. In this particular wrecked ship, they put a deep hole. Steve and I looked down and egged each other on to be the first to jump. Since Steve’s a big sissy and wouldn’t jump first, we counted to three and both jumped at the same time.
At which point we were immediately devoured by something called a Burrowing Worm that was 20 levels higher than us. And guess what? There was no way we were going to be able to recover our corpses from that hole. So we summoned our bodies back at the graveyard and took the XP hit.
And now we know there are places in Vanguard that you cannot go. I have no such reservations running around in WoW, where the worst-case scenario is a few copper pieces to pay for the durability hit on my equipment. But Vanguard has dark corners that will steal some of my hard-earned experience. I like that sense of uncertainty. At least, I do at this point. I haven’t run into any situations where the corpse runs pile up and you start going into XP debt. Maybe I’ll change my tune then.
Steve: I have run into such a situation, and it sucked. Did it add more danger? No, just frustration because I had to make multiple corpse runs because of bugs. Folks, if you’re going to punish me, make sure it’s because of what I’m doing, not because your server has serious problems handling transitions between zones.
I also think corpse runs discourage exploration, which is a hallmark of these kinds of games. You have this enormous world, yet you’re afraid to go look in the corner because if you do, you’ll have to spend the next 20 minutes recovering your body.
Tom: It’s also worth noting that corpse runs punish some people—namely, Steve’s Rogue—disproportionately. When he’s soloing, he has to sneak up to creatures. When they see him and kill him, his body is in a really inconvenient spot. As a Bard, I can pull creatures and fight from the periphery, using my magical drums and running song to get some distance before I get killed.
So it’s relatively easy for me to say, “Hey, corpse runs are no big deal!”
Steve: My Rogue can pull too, but I’m more of a support fighter, since most of my combat bonuses only become available when I’m behind the enemy. “Rogues do it from behind” indeed.
Corpse runs aren’t a big issue when I’m grouped. And I think you need to group in this game. A lot. Or at least a lot compared with WoW. That doesn’t make my inner antisocial hermit feel so good.
Kelly: Yeah, mine either. How’s the boat coming?
Steve: I should have mine ready in 2011. Tom’s hardcore, so he’ll probably launch his in 2008.
Kelly: Maybe he’ll let us do corpse runs in it.