The MMORPG is a strange and powerful beast indeed. Its strength lies in its ability to both devour chunks of your life, and almost conversely, its potential to create a whole world for you to explore and become part of - social aspects included. Reasonably new in its current form, but with roots in the MUDs of yesteryear, the style of gameplay appears to have recently gained an intensely firm foothold on the PC gaming landscape. Everquest was one of the earliest examples of what we currently see in contemporary MMORPGs. The creators of the series have since moved formed their own studio, and with it crafted a young upstart. Raised by these veterans of the genre Vanguard: Saga of Heroes is one of the most recent features of the MMO landscape
Vanguard is set in the world of Telon, a reasonably 'by the numbers' fantasy world. The sprawling world is made up of of three continents, Thestra, Qalia and Kojan, all with a distinct cultural leaning. Kojan is an oriental themed land, Qestra a Middle-Eastern influenced location, while Thestra contains a European fantasy world aesthetic. Many of the inhabitants of Telon take their inspiration from the classic fantasy games with the exception of a few anthropomorphic races that are wither fox/wolf like or feline in nature.
Character creation in Vanguard is an extremely comprehensive affair. We have come to expect to be able to customize height and bulk but Vanguard even offers up the ability to change your characters mood. Player classes are many, however to simplify things, they are broken down into four segments in order to be easily understood - these being Protective Classes, Defensive Classes, Healers and Casters. There is much variety to choose from, beginning at your race and ending at what your avatar will look like.
A lot of Vanguard's interface will be extremely familiar to anyone who has even dabbled in the genre. In fact at a superficial glance you may almost be mistaken for thinking that Vanguard has simply copied what has come before it. And to an extent this is true. There is the action bar down the bottom of the screen, that can be customised, with its icons representing special attacks, the inventory, special skill screens, and anything that anyone who has even dabbled in titles like World of Warcraft has seen before. The well tested and much loved interface of previous popular games in the same genre has become a standard in the MMORPG. Why change it? The secret to creating a title that will be remembered in the hallowed halls of gaming is not always to create something unheard of. Perfection can also be found in the fine-tuning of classical conventions in order to get something new and fresh out of them.
A sense that you've just landed in the world of an MMO without any reason can take away the immersiveness of the experience. When you're not drawn into a story from the early stages it can be difficult to hold any sort of emotional attachment to the lore or narrative. Vanguard does a great job of drawing you into this by immediately placing you into the action. With every race there is a struggle that is affecting their survival and from the first stage your character is placed within the world, you are a part of it. Unfortunately, this feeling of attachment to the grand narrative begins to dull after a few levels, and it is all too easy not to care what the reason for the mission you have been sent on is.
Vanguard does a great deal of justice to the double M segment of the MMORPG tag. The focus is firmly placed on group play, and moreso than previous offerings in the genre. In fact, once you get to the early teens in terms of level you'll quickly discover that you'll be relying on the assistance of others a lot. Even when things such as crafting guilds begin to spring up, centering around achieving these tasks is as a collective.
The vast lands of Telon take a long time to travel around and as a result mounts are available very early on - in fact horses can even be purchased when a player is only at single digit levels. Flying mounts will eventually become attainable and indeed boats can be crafted by higher level characters. This high level building extends to the ability of extremely high level players to be able to build their own dream home, furnishing it with knick-knacks, which should make those heavily into customisation extremely happy.
The are some interesting new additions to the game such as a quick strike-like attack. When a combination of other attacks is completed these particular attack icons light up and you have a limited time to use them. This creates a more involving battle system meaning that this aspect of the game moves slightly away from the 'simple clicking on, sitting back, and watching the numbers appear over an enemies head' combat that many other MMORPGs suffer from.
Crafting is something that, while not very action based, is extremely appealing to many who are drawn to the MMORPG. Vanguard also take these players into account. Crafting is not merely a matter of getting a recipe and putting the items together - there is a much more involved process. First you must hone your skills, raw materials need to be refined, and the process is much more rewarding than in other games, both in terms of enjoyment offered and objects gained from the task. There is also the possibility of discovering new recipes and their outcomes through experimentation.
Another interesting addition to the game is Diplomacy, and it takes the form of a card based conversational game. Within the game factions take on a greater meaning than in many others. Diplomacy therefore takes place as part of a larger whole in trying to gain sway with certain factions and gain rewards. The actual diplomacy element of this takes place, as would be expected, by undertaking discussions. These discussions are over and above the simple lore building banter that is thrown about by NPCs in these sorts of games. While this is all included throughout the game, there are certain characters with whom you can play the Diplomacy minigame with. Essentially it is like most battle card games in which each card (or skill) has different properties and is expended when played. However, unlike in most battle games, the goal here is to win the favour of the diplomat you are battling rather than to kill them. This feature is reasonably fun and should appeal to some, but those not interested in card based games are able to stear reasonably clear of it as it's not an essential or even overtly central part of the game.
Some of the environments within Vanguard are stunning but really push your PC to limits rare in an MMORPG.
Graphically, Vanguard stands out from most of the pack in terms of its visual fidelity. The modified version of the Unreal 2 engine manages to push out some incredibly lush graphics breathing life into the lands of Talon. Grasses and trees all look great and your desire to explore what is over the mountains in the distance is forever nagging you to level up in order to be able to make safe passage. All of these pixels do come at a cost however.
Although the game can be played on a medium spec machine it really demands more to be played without large drops in framerate. Most successful MMORPGs have focused on a visual level that was attainable by all. This is part of the reason that World of Warcraft has obtained such numerous amounts of players. The demands placed on your machine are one things that will hold Vanguard back.
Some of the art direction jarred us the wrong way however. On occasion, the vastness of the world slightly betrayed the sense of greatness of the cities of the many races that populate the dispersed lands - they often end up looking like some roads and huts instead of a central hub of commerce and trade. This is especially evident in the Elven cities.
We all remember when to die in an MMO game really meant something. Kids these days have it easy - we whine among our peer groups, like old men complaining about having to trudge through snowstorms to get a can of beans, that needed to last their family of twenty-seven, a week. Those who are familiar with the genre will most likely negotiate the dreaded 'corpse run'. We may wish that those who have only experienced the almost overly lenient resurrection sickness of World of Warcraft could see what we had to go through to get back into our original bodies in the old days, but would we want to see that curse to plague them as it did us? It seems the creators of Vanguard felt this way. It is one of the incredibly irritating features of the game that when you die, in order to get most of your equipment back, you must find your corpse. Adding to the frustration is the fact that your unslain enemies often hover around your corpse making it harder to get back to. Along with the issue of not having your weapons and having to make it back to where you once were, is the spawn speed of enemies. Almost as soon as you've killed them, they're back - meaning that you can kill one over and over again only to have it back there in what is usually under thirty seconds.
The feeling that you sometimes get while trekking through the world of Telon one that hints at the game being rushed out to the public. Numerous bugs still swirl around the head of Vanguard. Occasionally, your avatar gets caught up on seemingly invisible objects requiring a change of course, and we witnessed on at least on occasion a player stuck unable to move at all - luckily their recall spell had recharged and they were able to teleport back to their bind location. All of this detracts significantly from the suspension of disbelief that games are supposed to encourage.
Overall, Vanguard has the ability to offer a reasonably decent Massively Multiplayer experience. Unfortunately, it has not managed to create anything nearly as compelling as the developers quite obviously had hoped for. Much of what is in the game is rehashed material from the genre. Although these, along with the elements previously unseen in MMORPGs, do add somewhat in multiple ways to the game, at its core, Vanguard is still held back by the same things that hold back other MMORPGs - that is, trying to climb out of their slowly stagnating pool and move forward. The issue with this is that the nature of the genre only allows for a couple of these games to be played by a single player due to the time they chew up. Due to this fact Vanguard: Saga of Heroes may be something that those heavily into the genre, or those looking for something based on an original IP with a new world, might want to jump into. Those currently content with whatever MMORPG they're playing, may want to wait until they desire new lands to explore, or at least until some of the initial bugs are ironed out, before setting out to explore the lands of Telon.