A little background is in order when it comes to discussing Vanguard: Saga of Heroes. Sigil Games, the company developing the title, was formed by Brad McQuaid and Jeff Butler, who were both key figures in the production of EverQuest. Before World of Warcraft came along, EverQuest dominated the MMORPG scene in North America for many years, and it still has a large following, despite the release of EverQuest 2. Naturally, Sigil's first project is of high interest to a lot of MMORPG fans.
The game has some remarkable graphics potential, but you'll need a fairly recent system to appreciate it. I know my aging graphics card forces me to turn down the game's settings to pretty much the minium, which doesn't look so hot, although there could be further performance optimizations before release. If your computer is up to the task, it's loaded with detailed vegetation, shiney textures, and reflective water.
One major difference from the EQ series is that Vanguard has no zones. Telon is a vast, seamless world which you can explore very freely, and Sigil intends to avoid using instances of any kind.
The resemblances between Vanguard, the EverQuest series, and World of Warcraft, which was, after all, inspired by EverQuest, are unmistakable. The basic game controls and user interface, for example, are practically identical for EverQuest 2, World of Warcraft, and Vanguard. It would appear that the days of fumbling around with a confusing variety of movement and camera controls in 3D RPGs is coming to end, which is probably a good thing.
The map functions are rather weak compared to what other games offer, but it could be that they're just not finished yet.
At the moment Vanguard has 19 races and over a dozen classes, so you have a lot of choices to make when creating a character. The races include the usual mix of dwarves, elves, humans, gnomes, and half giants, with some cat people and fox people thrown in for good measure. Most of the classes will also be familiar to veterans of the fantasy genre.
There are ample ways to customize your character's appearance, with sliders for everything from the mass of your body to the size of your nose. One feature I really like is the ability to go back and tweak your appearance from the login screen at any time. Character creation is so detailed that I'm sure most players will want to revisit their look a few times.
I whipped up a Varanthari Druid, and was pursuing an assortment of bugs, rats, lion cubs, and hyenas with my staff in no time. Quests were not difficult to come by, with icons floating over the heads of relevant NPCs. Most of the tasks assigned are of the typical varieties: kill 10 of these, collect 12 of those, deliver this to so-and-so. If you've ever played a MMORPG you know the drill. Of course, you wouldn't expect to encounter anything too epic in a game's introductory levels.
Combat is also straightforward and adheres to well-established conventions. They've made some subtle improvements in this area, such as giving you separate friendly target and enemy target windows. This clever feature allows you to switch from offensive to defensive skills without changing targets, and it was ideal for my Druid who has heals as well as damage spells. It also plays a part in special chained moves referred to as "reactions," which are something like EverQuest 2's Heroic Opportunities. Under certain circumstances you are given the option to execute a series of skills with dramatic results if you're successful.
I haven't had much difficulty soloing in Vanguard so far, although other players assure me that this will become less viable after reaching the game's mid-levels. Downtime between fights is minimal with food and drink that will refill your health and energy while you're sitting. The first few levels pass very quickly, but it's obvious that leveling in Saga of Heroes will be significantly slower than it is in some recent MMORPGs. This is no surprise, as it has been Sigil's intention from the start to make the game a little more demanding than average.
In keeping with this philosophy, at level 7 EverQuest-like corpse runs make a return. When you succumb to the beasts, you respawn naked and all your gear stays where you died with your tombstone. At this point you can either pay an experience penalty and have your corpse returned to you, or you can run back to your corpse, risking another death. The good news is that your equipment doesn't decay, so it's not as harsh as EverQuest. You can let your corpse sit indefinitely and use backup equipment until you're ready for a particularly perilous recovery.
There are plenty of features I haven't been able to spend time with that look interesting. Vanguard will have player housing, a wide variety of mounts, and PvP servers (current plans are for free-for-all and faction-based rulesets). They've given the crafting system a lot of attention, and they also have a unique diplomacy system which resembles a mini card game for interacting with NPCs.
It's evident that Vanguard has a lot of depth for a game of this kind, and there appears to be a good variety of things to pursue outside of combat. The scope of the world is impressive, and they've come up with some promising ways to broaden the RPG experience. While the relatively slow pace of progress and group-oriented nature of the game won't appeal to everyone, there are some swarthy gamers who will appreciate it. As I mentioned earlier, Vanguard is very demanding on hardware, and that could hold the game back. In any case, it is only weeks away from launch and we'll be keeping a close eye on Vanguard in the months and years to come.