Preview: Vanguard Saga of Heroes


Vanguard: Saga of Heroes

Developer: Sigil
Publisher: Sony Online Entertainment

Release Date: 01/30/2007

ESRB: T

Genre: MMO
Setting: fantasy

I'm one of those people who is a fan of MMO's in general. If it has multiple people playing together online, I'll probably at least try it. It was Christmas seven years ago that my husband and I bought one another our first MMO, his and hers copies of Everquest, and I've been hooked on MMO's ever since. So when we had an opportunity to join Vanguard beta and take an early look at the game, I was more than a little excited. I knew enough about the game and Brad McQuaid to know that this game had potential to take me back to those glory days of my first MMO. While Vanguard hasn't quite done that, I do see many similarities to the early days of Everquest, though already I can see design decisions which are an improvement over some of the things I didn't enjoy in EQ. The one thing I will say right from the start, though, is that if you are considering playing this game in release, upgrade your computer system with your extra Christmas money, or tax refund, now. It doesn't matter if you just upgraded six months ago. To play Vanguard you are going to at least need a new video card. Let me begin by explaining why.

Note that Vanguard has just gone to open beta (beta 5), so for those interested in trying the game before release, you can go to fileplanet.com to download the game client and give it a try. To my knowledge a firm release date has not been set, but you can pre-order the game now if you're interested.

I play on my laptop because it was designed for gaming. I have an Intel Pentium M 2GHz processor with 1024 MB of RAM and an NVIDIA GeForce Go 6600 with 256 MB of video RAM. Admittedly not the best system out there by any means, but until it met Vanguard, it would run anything I asked it to just fine. I've adjusted the game to automatically be the highest performance possible using the automatic setting, and tweaked it a bit more even beyond that, and I still run at around just 20 FPS. I think that this is less due to the fact that the game is still in beta than the fact that the graphics potential of the game is just that way up there. Even with pretty much everything turned off the first time I walked around the tree city of Ba'Ial I was amazed. Each of the cities I've seen so far in game has a very different “flavor” to it. The cities in the desert look like something out of Star Wars Tatooine, though without the technology. The gnome city is built in a canyon and into the cliffs themselves in a series of caves and tunnels. While I love being a gnome, this particular city isn't for me, as I tend to be directionally challenged in an MMO, and the designers did a very good job of creating a real gnomish warren. The Vulmain (wolf people) live in a city that is similar to a Celtic mott and bailey behind timber palisades tucked in a forest. And, of course, as I mentioned earlier, the wood elves live up in trees. And yes, for those who remember Kelethin from EQ, one false step and you're dead, though it is easier to navigate around than Kelethin. But don't let those comparisons fool you. Anything you've imagined in your mind's eye when I said those names pales in comparison to what is really there. Imagine what the city would look like if Kelethin had grown over the years with the trees, and had the best elven artists and architects working on redesigning the rooms so they look like classy rather than like a “tree fort gone wild”.

It isn't just the static objects of the world such as buildings and trees that are amazing to look at, however. The first time I had to swim across a river, I was in awe because my character was pulled downstream by the current. I could watch the current traveling downstream and know about how far my character would be displaced based on how fast the ripples were moving, and it does seem to change based on the size of the body of water. When I went under water, I had to watch how much breath I had, and could no longer see what was going on above the water. Some of these are problems with any MMO I've played, that line between above and below the water for example, but I've never experienced current before in a game. Recently we were hunting in a forest and I found myself calling the kids over to say “Look at this” again. The trees in the forest appear to sway in the wind!! When was the last time you saw moving trees even in a single player RPG, much less an MMORPG? I can't think of the answer. And the animals are just incredible. I normally say that I'm not one to evaluate graphics when I write a review of a game, and some who know more about creating gaming graphics might not be impressed with the look of the Vanguard world, but personally I'm often in awe. There is a huge number of options for character creation, with each one on a slider so that your character can be within a range of size and weight rather than just set levels. The system is still being worked on, with new options being added and more planned beyond release. Right now it is hard to make a “classically” beautiful MMO character because the models themselves are more realistic than that. And despite the cover art I've seen from the game, the clothing on the female models in game not extremely revealing. The armor I've seen on my characters thus far looks as though it was designed for protection and coverage, not to post my character as a pin-up in “Heroine's Weekly”. In fact there have been threads on the forums from people of both genders asking for some clothing that is more revealing, even if it is just casual clothing. And speaking of clothing, one of the better designed systems of the game is that you can easily swap between an armor set, a clothing set for crafting and a clothing set for diplomacy (the third “skill” in the game, more on that later.) Think of it as your character is wearing layers, and you can click on a check box to quickly and easily change which layer is being worn at any given moment “on top”. The world is divided into three continents, though the continents are connected by boats. The different continents have their own “flavor”. One continent is very desert like, which works well for someone on a lower end system. The other two are more forested, with much more to draw. All three are highly detailed, has an animal race, elf race, “short person” race, at least one human race, and at least one “monstrous” race, and at least two other races per continents, for a total of six or more races per continent.

  • Each race has certain classes available to it, with each class having multiple choices for race on any of the three continents.
  • Each starts with at least a few people who give you quests that teach you the area, then to an outpost, then to race's main city. Very good for level progression, but it is possible to bypass the quests totally if they don't. Right now starting equipment comes as a reward for many of the quests, though, with rewards well customized for the different classes in game.
  • Storylines and lore for each area are well developed. Most is through quests, but some is from just talking to local NPC's.
  • The type of mob you're hunting varies greatly as well, and is appropriate with the lore of the area. Some areas are more humanoid enemies, where others are animals or even plants depending on the area.
There are three main spheres of development for characters. Adventurer level through combat and quests, crafting level through making goods, and diplomacy level through debate and parley. You can choose to raise any combination of the three depending on how you wish to spend your time in game. Adventure level is what people are most familiar with in MMORPG's, so we'll start there.

  • Combat can be button mashing, but can also be much more than that. There is a weakness system which encourages cooperation between group members to maximize abilities.
  • Character progression: Every even level, you get 2-3 new abilities or upgrades to abilities, so nice learning progression.
  • Different classes really do play different roles. Protective fighters are tanks, offensive fighters are truly melee or ranged DPS class, but with lesser survivability for actual tanking. They're a good jack of all trades class in that they can pull for the group, tank short term for the group, or just be added damage depending on need. Healers are more than just those who heal, with a different flavor to each class. Shamans, for example, have a DOT and DD spell at low levels, as well as a buff which adds to protection. Then there are offensive casters, which interestingly enough include Druids. Druids are considered damage dealers first, and healers second. Their heal over time could keep the healer live while the tank pulls agro back to his/herself, but wouldn't keep that tank alive for long in battle. These cloth casters are the highest damage dealers in the game, but obviously also don't have much armor to allow them to survive long in melee combat. Each also has some utilitarian ability, such as the Druids healing ability, or crowd control of a Sorcerer.
The crafting system is one of the more complex systems I've seen in a game in a while. My first note is to say that as you're going to through the tutorial, read everything. I've kicked myself many times while crafting because I missed something that is seemingly obvious. For example, when doing work orders you're asked for multiple items. You COULD craft just one and turn it in, but you don't get as much of a reward because you didn't complete the order. But I somehow didn't notice the first few times that the guy was requesting multiple items, so I wasted a lot of time (and money) only turning in half orders.

  • There are 3 main crafting classes supported by harvesting, Outfitter, Artificer and Blacksmith. Blacksmiths make most weapons and heavy armors. Outfitters make light and medium armors, clothing and bags/packs. Artificers make magical items from stone, wood and gems, and also make bows, focus staves and jewelry. You can only advance one crafting class, but choose two types of harvesting materials, which should be enough to support your crafting class if you choose correctly. All three will have a different way of supplying goods for housing, so each is useful that way. There are further refinements as well as you specialize during leveling up, giving you more things to make in your specialty, but closing off other paths.
  • The crafting system has its own series of quests called work orders that will allow you to earn coin as you are leveling your craft. These tasks require no materials that you've harvested, instead using special recipes just for the tasks and have a coin reward. The coin is helpful because as you level you have to purchase new recipes to make items in your school. The items require you to either harvest/forage for what materials are needed, or buy them from NPC's, with actual items requiring a combination of both.
  • It is definitely a dynamic crafting system where you can't just sit back and read a book while pressing a button. You need to pay attention and interact with the world in order to successfully craft. Crafting an item requires you to move through stages, and as you go up in level you have a chance to gain more options. And, of course, there are always complications. So far neither of us has done much with the crafting system, but if it is as well developed as the other systems in the game, crafters should be very pleased to spend hours after hours raising their skills in order to make items needed by their more adventuresome friends.
The final “system” for advancing your character is the diplomacy system. Neither of us has played much with it so far, so our knowledge of it is rather limited. I have read that diplomacy will be used in cities (both NPC and player created) to provide temporary buffs to characters as diplomats succeed in “turning on” certain options.

This is a system that we haven't experienced previously in MMORPG's previously, so we're rather fascinated by it at the moment. What we've seen so far is that your character has six debating techniques to use in a parlay against an NPC (who also has 6 techniques). Each technique has a certain cost associated with it, gives openings to you and your opponent, and has some effect on who is winning the debate. At the end of each turn that the debate points are in your favor, your score goes down. The goal is to reach zero before your opponent does. Where the real strategy comes in is that you don't always want to use the technique that will lower your score in a particular round because you also have to keep in mind the delay before you can reuse techniques, and whether it gives an opening to your opponent or not. Sometimes it is advantageous to let your opponent win a round so that you can win the overall parley. Timing is everything, in other words. As your score goes down, you also get more information from the person you are parleying with that fills in much of the lore and backstory for either the individual or the area. Rewards include coin, diplomacy clothing, and of course increased level in diplomacy. As you go up in diplomacy level, you earn new conversation techniques. Note that you really can't see your level for diplomacy, at least not that we've figured out, and you can't compare your skill to an NPC's before starting a parley, but if the system isn't complete this isn't surprising. So far any parley we've engaged in has been quest generated, with each quest coming from the previous person, having started with the diplomacy trainer.

At this stage of beta, the game is about a month from release. There are still some pretty sizable world chunks to come, a large number of quests to come, and fine tuning to character abilities and balance is still in the works. I will say that stability is horrible, with numerous crashes of the servers per hour much of the time. Lag is significant even for those who would seem to have an above average system. There are dozens of threads, and even more in-game discussions, on what people will need to upgrade their systems to in order to play this game. While I've watched that happen with other games in beta, I've never seen it be quite as frequent (or as necessary), as it is with Vanguard.

Overall, the game looks very promising. The starting areas are solid with minor touch-ups to some of the quests still needed. The developers respond quickly to bug reports on quests. It seems to be a very small group, or even solo, friendly game in the early levels. There is much that we haven't experienced, such as being a part of a guild, or a dungeon crawl. The beta community has been very welcoming and mature in both the global chat channels and on the forums, which is also a big plus for the game. I've said to friends before that it seems every MMO runs out of money and is forced to release “before it's time”, and Brad McQuaid himself has confirmed that this is what has happened with Vanguard. When this happens, it seems that the game is released with “two out of three” needs. It has some combination of content, “wow factor” as far as look goes, and stability. My prediction is that Vanguard will have the first two, and be sorely lacking in the third. I hope for the sake of the game that players can recognize that an MMO is always a work in progress, and can stick it out through the first few rough months while the stability factor gets to where it should be. Our experience overall has been enjoyable, and in the coming weeks we both look forward to being able to tell you in greater detail about the things we've done in game and how much fun it is to “live” in the world of Vanguard: Saga of Heroes.

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About the Author, Heather Rothwell (A.K.A Velea Gloriana)

I’ve played computer games since college, addicted first to story type games like Might and Magic. I have 3 children who also love computer games. My oldest son is a typical kid who loves the challenge of pressing the right combination of buttons and levers on a joystick in just the right way to make something happens, and frequently gets frustrated with mom’s slow fingers. ;) We use computers for both education and entertainment, and sometimes even bribery for good behavior.

The “glory days” of computer gaming for me were when games like Spectre Supreme, Pirate’s Gold, the Might and Magic series, the original Prince of Persia… those sorts of games were coming out on a regular basis. Back then I owned a Macintosh and was a die hard Mac fan. I was one of the first in my area to buy an iMac and on it learned the joy of playing games on the internet like daily crossword puzzle and “mind bender” type puzzles. My first online RPG was given to me for Christmas the year EQ was released, and I was hooked from day one. I played EQ for about a year. I started playing DaoC during late alpha testing, and was hooked on it.. well, to be honest I still am. I’ve tried pretty much every MMORPG I can get my hands on, from big names like EQ, to more obscure ones such as Underlight. I’ve been writing for IMGS since the first DaoC guide, and find I love the challenge of learning a game and presenting what I’ve learned (and sometimes my opinions), to other players.

I’m not a very strong player as far as learning PvE or quick reaction times, so I tend to stay away from games where I’m pitted against someone else in a way that requires physical (rather than mental) response. I still enjoy story and puzzle games, and in a way that’s how I still approach online games. I would much rather spend hours working through a quest than 5 minutes in combat against another player. I still get lost in simulation type games, obsessing over them until I’ve gotten them beaten. And I like being able to sit down at the computer when I’ve got less than half an hour and playing through a few levels of a puzzle game. I tend not to like first-person shooter type games, or anything with person to person violence, so I steer away from them unless they are fantasy based settings. All in all, I enjoy computer gaming so much that my life feels incomplete somehow when my computer is down.