February 14, 2007 by Tim

And here is your long-winded, narrative video game review post.

I’ve been playing Vanguard: Saga of Heroes pretty much every night for the past two weeks, so I thought I’d talk about it for a moment.

First of all, who Vanguard is not for. Vanguard is not for WoW fans who expect to be able to hit level 50 in two days. Vanguard is not for people who want their hand held with guaranteed successes with crafting. Vanguard is not for people with low-end computers.

Who may enjoy Vanguard? Old Everquest players, or people who don’t mind an MMO being pretty tough at times. People who enjoy a more meaningful risk vs. reward scenario. People with decent computer rigs who want an MMO with up-to-date graphics. And most importantly (right now) people who don’t mind playing an unfinished game.

Frankly, I have no problem with this. First of all, no MMO is ever complete. Too many people think of MMOs in the same context as, for instance, console games. That when it ships, that’s it. Final product. Maybe a patch or two, but pretty much done, the developer is moving on to something else. Not MMOs, and I wish more people would realize that. They are constantly evolving, constantly growing productions. There is always more to add, things to tweak, etc. Even Everquest, which has been out for nearly ten years, is still being patched and expanded on.

So, that said, I don’t mind playing an unfinished MMO, because technically they are all unfinished. I see a lot of people complaining at Sigil for releasing the game early. Well, Sigil has been nothing but upfront about needing to release the game in its current state. Vanguard has been in development for four years, and video games are ridiculously expensive to make (they rival movie budgets nowadays, if you didn’t know). Money doesn’t grow on trees, and while a video game is in development, it’s not making any money. So for four years, Sigil operated at a loss. Well, as a business owner myself, I can tell you there’s only so long a company can do that before it ceases to exist. So faced with the choice of “release it now, and get some money going the other way, and continue to work on the game” or “the game ceases to exist and the last four years were for nothing”, well, I’d make the same decision. Get as much as you can finished and playable, put the game out there, and then continue to build it up. That’s an MMO for you.

To be perfectly honest with you, Sigil’s handling of the matter is a large part of why they’re getting my money right now. I’ve played what is there, and I enjoy it. And more than that, I think the game has great potential, and if Sigil needs some early supporters in order to get there, I’m fine with being one of them.

So what about the game that is there, currently? Well I find it pretty entertaining.

Combat (or adventuring) is pretty straight forward, as you’d expect. You have a bunch of special abilities to use during combat, each costs so much energy or whatever. You also have a series of really special abilities, like finishing moves and rescues, which are only available under certain circumstances in battle, but can do a good amount of damage.

Another interesting, and more subtle (I didn’t figure this out until a few levels ago) aspect of combat is weaknesses. A few of your special attacks will have a rating on them which tells you what weakness the attack causes, and what weakness the attack exploits. So far as I know, no class has attacks that both cause and exploit the same weakness. So if my Ranger’s Blade of Summer attack causes “Burning”, another member of my party may have an attack that exploits Burning. Meaning that if I attack with Blade of Summer, the target will be temporarily affected with Burning, at which point my groupmate can move in with his attack to exploit that weakness, and get a bonus in damage. I find it pretty fun to try and match these during combat.

Level progression is slower than we’ve come to expect from certain MMOs, primarily because dying actually means something. I never enjoyed the idea of character death not mattering. Everquest had a seriously harsh death penalty, and sometimes when you died and lost the last few hours of experience, or lost that level you just gained, it was infuriating. You wanted to throw shit around the room. But it made death matter. It gave you a sense of wariness entering a new dungeon, or trepidation when traveling an unknown zone by yourself. But dying was a bitch and future MMOs slowly dumbed that down bit by bit until we get to the point where dying doesn’t do anything. You die, you get up, pay a few coins to repair your gear, and you’re good to go again. There’s nothing to worry about.

Vanguard takes a step back in this regard, I feel, and reinstitutes an experience loss death penalty, but balances it pretty well. It stings a little bit, but it’s not enough to make you want to quit for the night. When you die, you lose a chunk of experience. You can wait for a resurrection, which will restore most of the lost experience, or you can release to an altar. Once at the altar, you can summon your body, with all your possessions. You don’t get any experience back, and your items take a durability hit, but you have your stuff and you can go on your way. Sometimes it’s necessary, if your group wiped at the bottom of a huge dungeon, and you want to go to sleep.

Your other option is running back to get your corpse, which returns nearly all of the lost experience to you. Gone are the days of naked corpse runs though (if you want them to be), because Vanguard gives you the option of soulbinding your equipment or not. Some items are soulbound no matter what, but most of the gear I’ve come across is labeled as “bindable”. Meaning you can put it on, wear it for as long as you want, and then sell it. But if you die, that item will be on your corpse and you need to go get it. Or you can use a special stone to bind the item to you, which means it can never be traded to another player, but when you die, that piece of equipment comes with you. It’s nice to have the option.

If adventuring isn’t for you, you can partake in the diplomacy or crafting spheres as well.

Diplomacy really caught my attention in late beta, because it’s so original and fun. Basically you fight and level up with words, instead of swords. And it’s implemented in the form of a really fun card game.

You get a deck of cards, from which you can choose a limited number to take into a parlay with an NPC. Each card has a refresh timer, costs and effectiveness. The refresh timer is how many turns it takes for the card to be available to play again after you’ve spoken it (the cards are all types of conversational phrases, rebuttal, demand evaluation, etc). Costs are how much “conversation” the card costs and rewards.

There are four different types of “conversation”, represented by little colored dots. Flattery, Inspiration, Demand and Reason. You collect these dots, and then spend them to play more powerful cards.

Effectiveness is how many spaces the card will move the token on to your side of the scale. The goal is to have the token on your side for a round, which will lower your score by one. You want to get to zero first. Obviously the farther you move the token to your side, the harder it is for your opponent to get it back to his side.

Every card has benefits and weaknesses. So I may have a card which moves the token four spaces in my direction, but it will award my opponent two demand, which he could then spend to play a card in his deck. I may have a card which doesn’t move the token at all, but awards me a number of conversation dots to spend on playing other cards in my hand.

It ends up being really fun, and there’s a decent amount of strategy to it. The point of diplomacy is to advance NPC conversations for new quests, etc, and at the beginning of the game, the quests are great. Then you sort of graduate to civic diplomacy, which is fun in its own right, but is also sort of a grind.

Civic diplomacy involves going into cities, towns or outposts, and conversing with the various NPCs. You want to win the conversation, as I mentioned above, and when you do so, invisible “levers” in that particular city will move, that get you closer to or farther away from a goal. If you move one level up one spot with a particular type of parlay, you may move three other levers down one spot. So it’s not easy for a single diplomat to sway to the direction of a town or city, but a group of diplomats, going around and speaking to people could have a big impact.

What are the levers for, you ask? Lots of different effects. A group of diplomats can go around winning conversations with NPCs, directing the levers towards the harvesting bonus, for example. Once they get the lever high enough, anyone and everyone in or near that town will be granted a plus harvesting skill buff. Or a plus crafting buff, or whatever. Diplomats can effectively make a town or city a mecca for crafters, or adventurers, or other diplomats.

But as I said, right now Civic diplomacy can be a bit of a grind. You do get bits of blackmail and hearsay and rumor as rewards for your conversations, which you can then turn in to an information broker for diplomacy clothing and items. Hopefully they’ll add more quests in the future, and it is fun to collect new cards and gear. But the real meat will come when they implement PVP diplomacy. Playing the card game against a human opponent will offer tons of replayability, rewards or not.

Crafting is fairly straightforward, but there is a lot to it. It’s not a matter of just collecting the ingredients and you’re guaranteed an item. When you start crafting, you begin with a limited number of action points. Through the crafting process, you spend these action points to progress the crafted item, to increase the quality of the item, or to fight complications. Obviously you want to finish the item, while getting the highest quality possible (starts at D, goes up to A grade quality). It’s not very easy.

It requires some forethought, some strategy, and a good helping of luck. You can only take so many tools and utilities (solvent, water, bandages, etc) to the crafting table with you, so you want to try and make sure you have everything you need. But even being well prepared isn’t enough. You may get hit with a dozen complications on a single item, and you have to spend your points to combat them, as opposed to raising the quality. Spend too many points raising the quality, and you may not have enough points to finish the progress on the item.

Crafting is also a grind, but it’s not as bad as it could be. You only have to harvest real materials, for real items you want to make. And even then, you only get experience for the first of any recipe you make. The rest of the crafting grind is done via NPC work orders. They’re like quests, except the NPC asks you to make X number of such and such item. None of your own materials are required (aside from tools and utilities). This sort of helps prevent the world becoming flooded with those useless newbie crafting items that nobody ever buys or uses. The only actual recipes you get are for useful items that someone might really want. It also makes workorders profitable, because there is very little overhead. You’ll most often make more money from the work order than you spent on cleaners and solvents. So you’re not just grinding for nothing. You do make a profit from workorders.

I’m not far in crafting yet, only just about a level ten outfitter. It’s pretty fun. Crafting and Diplomacy are great for me though, for when I don’t have long to play. I can jump on for a half an hour, grind out a few work orders on my lunch break, or skill up my diplomacy a bit, and still feel like I advanced my character.

Harvesting is pretty neat too, in that they made it a group activity. You can take a small group of fellow harvesters out to chop down trees, or go mining, and you can all work on the same harvesting node. The more people you have working on one, the bigger your material return is, and greater the chance of getting a rare item.

There’s a lot of the game I haven’t even experienced yet. I haven’t been to any cities near water, so I haven’t seen any of the player crafted boats that people are sailing around on. When they implement ship-to-ship combat, I’ll have to make sure I get involved. I don’t think anyone has one of the flying mounts yet (open to all zones, mind you, not just restricted to one), and I’m still riding around on my level ten horse. But I am having fun with what’s there, and that’s the most important thing to me.

Of course there are improvements to be made. The in-game map leaves a bit to be desired. They’re still tweaking the performance issues. I have a pretty decent gaming computer (AMD FX-57, 2x GeForce 6800GT in SLI, 4GB RAM, SATA HD) and I can’t even run Vanguard on full settings. And on balanced I still get some hitching. Though the game was designed this way (with the idea in mind that in a year or two we’ll have way more powerful computers, so better to make the graphics really high and then grow into them, rather than outgrow them), they’re still working to make the game run better on all levels of hardware. And there’s tons of content yet to be implemented.

So what’s the bottom line? Vanguard won’t be everyone’s game. It’s accessable to everyone, but it is more challenging as well. It’s not a WoW killer. But then, I don’t think any game will be a “WoW killer” until someone figures out how to do an even simpler game, with even lower-end graphics and include a trial disc with every purchase of anything anywhere.

Vanguard should secure a solid and loyal subscriber base. The first six months (for any MMO) is key, and will really show us the direction the game will go. Whether Sigil will hold up their vision, or slack off and not deliver. From what I’ve seen so far of their community interaction, I have a pretty good feeling that they’ll work pretty hard to deliver. Warhammer Online and Age of Conan will definitely be contenders, but Vanguard will have months of live development on both of them

We’ll see what happens.

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