March 18 2007
If you've heard anything about Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, you're aware that this recent MMORPG was designed by some of the minds that brought us the original EverQuest. This has turned out to be both a curse and a blessing for Sigil, the game's developer. Vanguard is not an EverQuest clone, but because it does strive to recapture the spirit of EverQuest, which was a demanding game, Vanguard has been saddled, perhaps unfairly, with the "hardcore" label. Lets start with a closer look at what this means.
Is Vanguard Hardcore?
I'm not certain when it began, but a dichotomy has emerged between "hardcore" and "casual" MMORPG fans, and their expectations are in many ways mutually exclusive. The so-called hardcore types often scoff at the recent trend toward making games that are less time-consuming, more solo freindly, and therefore "easier," than their predecessors. Difficult games, they argue, provide a greater sense of accomplishment. If a solo player can get the same rewards as a group of 20, why bother organizing a group of 20?
Casual players, on the other hand, spend less time playing, so they want to progress quickly. They want to see results from short play sessions, and they want to be able to get things done even when they can't find a group, or don't feel like grouping. They have little desire to waste time running from one place to another, and they have no use for harsh death penalties which set them back hours of gameplay. Although there are hardcore players in World of Warcraft, a great deal of its success stems from the fact that it does cater to casual players, who far outnumber the hardcore crowd.
So where does Vanguard fit into this? Simply put, it's more demanding than World of Warcraft, but a lot less demanding than EverQuest was in the early years. While that doesn't necessarily make it hardcore, Vanguard does represent a shift back to the slower rate of progress, greater emphasis on grouping, longer travel times, and tougher death penalities of earlier games. That in itself will turn a lot of people off, particularly those who prefer the direction World of Warcraft has taken.
To expound a little on things I mentioned in my beta impressions, Vanguard still runs like a three-legged dog on my overclocked 128 MB GeForce 6 card. Yes, I'm overdue for an upgrade, but it had almost slipped my mind until Vanguard came along, because I'm quite satisfied with the performance I get in other games. Although it's playable on low settings, towns and cities can turn into an unpleasant slide show. The sad part is, there are a lot of similar complaints from people with better systems than mine. On the bright side, it's packed with visual goodies I look forward to seeing on hardware I purchase over the next year.
Vanguard has it's share of bugs, and it's no secret that the game launched a bit earlier than the developers would have preferred. Sigil has taken a lot of heat for this, even though it was in better shape than a lot of MMORPGs have been at release, and games like these are invariably patched throughout their lifespan in any case. They've implemented a few double XP weekends to make up for some of the more unfortunate glitches players have tolerated.
From the huge, seamless world of Telon to the 17 GB of harddrive space Vanguard occupies, everything about the game is big. Be warned that you might need another game to play while this one is installing and updating for the first time.
There are three spheres of gameplay in Vanguard: Adventuring, Crafting, and Diplomacy, each of which has it's own experience points. Adventuring involves the usual things we expect from RPGs, mostly killing monsters and completing quests. Although they have made some subtle improvements to the combat system, anyone with previous MMORPG experience will adjust to it quickly as it adheres to most of the established conventions.
One nice addition to combat is that you are given information bars for both offensive and defensive targets, enabling you to go from offensive to defensive skills without switching targets. It sounds like a small thing, but it does have interesting consequences when put into action. As a melee class, for example, you might be given a defensive skill that allows you to pull an enemy off of a teammate while you continue to attack a different target.
Another way Vanguard tries to keep combat interesting is with "chained moves," which are combination attacks that only become available it certain situations. They can involve anything from simple damage bonuses to special skills that effect an entire group.
The map could be a lot more useful than it is, as nothing on it is properly labelled. I couldn't even find the name of the continent I was on. Fortunately, there are a variety of navigational aids, including an optional mini-map that actually shows most quest locations. That may sound like easy mode to some people, but in a world the size of Telon it makes sense.
They've tried to provide the option to solo in Vanguard, but I doubt many people will have the patience for it once they reach the game's mid-levels. I've noticed that it's easier with the Dread Knight class I'm playing now than the Druid I rolled in beta. As I understand it, the XP formula is still being tweaked.
When you die after level 7 you'll leave a corpse behind with all your equipment that isn't soulbound in it. Recovering it, and thereby risking another death, will minimize your XP penalty, but you do have the option to summon it to your location for a small amount of coin. Corpses don't rot like they did in EverQuest, so you can take your time getting back to them. While it's an interesting compromise, none of this has made corpse runs or XP penalties the least bit more fun in my view.