I have adventured beyond where I have blogged at this point, but I think it's time to take a small break from my journal and give you my impressions of the game. Overall, I have been as impressed with Vanguard as I was with Dark Age of Camelot and City of Heroes/City of Villains for smoothness of their launch and stability of the servers; certainly it has been much, much better than the stability of Horizons, World of Warcraft, EverQuest 2 or Guild Wars during their first month. There is plenty of content and questing available as you level, and the game smoothly moves you from one area to the next as you are ready to handle harder challenges. The story line is also well thought out and customized to the style of each culture, and meshes well with the ecology of the area. Those who want a break from adventuring can easily get to the nearest main city where you can try out diplomacy, harvesting or crafting within a couple of hours.
Before I get to the details of this review you should understand my priorities in gaming because they will most certainly color the review I give. The game has its strong points and its flaws, but some of each just don't matter me whilst the things which matter to me may not concern other players a whit. Perhaps the easiest way to introduce my gaming style is give you my Bartle test results:
What is not apparent from the Bartle test (due I believe to its age) is that I also enjoy crafting. Those who may have followed my Horizons blogs will notice as many about dragon crafting as about dragon adventurer, for instance. Now, my play time at the moment is limited, so I've not started crafting, but have taken up harvesting to help supply the crafters in my guild with the materials that they need.
Anyway, you should now know enough about my gaming style to be able to see any biases that I might have.
There are three main continents, with boat travel possible between them, and a different feel for each: Thestra is based on medieval Europe, Kojan is similar to medieval Asia, and Qalia resembles medieval Africa. There are at least six races per continent and each race has access to at least one protective fighter (tank) class, one offensive fighter class (light fighter), one healer class, and one caster class (with the exception of orcs who can't be casters), and many races have upwards of 8 different classes to choose from. So that's a lot of variety. Each race also has certain racial abilities. If you are a crafter at heart, you may want to pick a race with a bonus to that crafting type or that has bonuses to harvesting the materials required for it. If you are an adventurer, you might be able to use the racial ability and stat increases each level to help you choose between several appealing races.
Characters themselves can be customized in a myriad of ways. The entire body can be tweaked: weight, height, arm size and length, leg size and length, torso width, chest size, hand and feet size and skin coloration are just some of the whole-body customization options. You can adjust your eye size, shape, color and tilt, brow thickness and height, cheek sharpness and height, nose length, tilt and width, mouth size and attitude, jaw structure, ear size, placement, bend and tuck. Hair comes in several styles for each race, with a primary and highlight color chosen from a very extensive palette. Starting clothing (which you will appear in when you die beyond level 7 if you haven't bound items to yourself) has several styles with different degrees of modesty for men and women - but all avoid the naked wood elf syndrome of certain other games. Primary and trim colors for starter clothing is also chosen from a large palettes as well.
Each race generally has its own starting area, though there are a few that double up with another race (orcs and goblins, raki and wood elves, half-elves and kojani humans for instance). Each of these starting areas has its own unique feel, with differences in flora, fauna, and building styles appropriate for the terrain and race that lives there. Quests are also tailored for the area; through beta and into release I've tried five of the different starting areas and been impressed with the different quest lines that introduce your character to the game at a reasonable pace. The quests are not copied and pasted from one area to another with different text, they ask you to do different things in a different order, depending on what is going on in that part of the world. Some involve infiltrating enemy camps and stealing items, some are hunting in the outdoors, some involve dungeon delving, some have scavenger hunts, and some involve beating off waves of invading enemies. All, of course, have the "go kill x of mob y", but even those are given an immersive reason for why you are being asked to do so. Quests are entirely optional, but they are a good way to get coins and a full set of starting armor that should hold you well into your teens, by which time you should have enough cash to start getting player-made items.
The general pattern is to start in a small glade, glen or tower area, where you will receive quests which introduce you to the primary opponent of the area and the current state of the area, as well as the terrain and social structure of the society. Oh, and they introduce you to the game mechanics of course. Generally you're here until level 3 or so.
From there you will move to an outpost with class trainers, opponents that are a bit tougher and more varied quest types. Generally your first exposure to "group-required" quests happens here as well but some starting areas delay this until the next outpost. These quests are clearly marked as requiring groups, so you can decide to accept them or not. This area should take you to just about level 10.
From there you'll make your way into the primary city, where you can start crafting, harvesting, and diplomacy. These three alternate play spheres are really well done, so each deserves its own paragraph. The primary city also has a mailbox which can be used to send notes, items, or cash to others for a fee (depending on the value of what is being sent), specialized merchants, and a broker for players to sell items to other players.
I crafted for a bit in beta, but as stated earlier, I haven't crafted since release due to time constraints. I will state that in beta I found the crafting system very complicated, full of depth and choices, and not something that can be done while reading a book like in many other games. It's not a twitch-based process, but you do need to maintain focus. The drawback is that it is both very time consuming and relies on a lot of mouse or key clicking. However, primary leveling as a crafter occurs with NPC work orders, so the market isn't flooded with basic items as all the crafters in the area try to offload their goods. You are provided with the materials for the work orders when you get the task, so it's also a good way to make some money. However, if you want to make something to give to another player, you do need to get hold of the raw materials.
This is where harvesting comes in. Harvesting may involve chopping down trees (not all trees are harvestable, but many in the wild are, and the animation for that is just awesome), breaking rocks with hammers for stone or ores, skinning animals you have killed, or harvesting plants. Each character can choose a primary and a secondary harvesting skill; Meiyen has settled on skinning and reaping (plants) to support the outfitters in my guild. I have seen some putting raw resources up for sale on the brokers, but I've funneled all of my gathered items to my guild mates.
Diplomacy is an interesting and unique game system. It's mostly a collectible card game played against NPCs of the city. The results earn you new cards, gold, and items, and several players working on civic diplomacy can give adventuring or crafting bonuses to anyone entering the city. This is also where huge amounts of lore on the area and civilization can be discovered through the course of your interactions, and choices need to be made as to who you will support. Of course, this will indirectly pit you against other players who have chosen to support a different faction in the town.
From town, you'll go on to other outposts, other racial areas, and full-fledged dungeons. You can choose to follow the quest line or just progress by fighting your way through. As you start to enter other racial areas, you may need to work on faction by helping remove the enemies of that civilization. While the "evil" races are generally very cool looking and have a certain appeal, they generally must do a lot of work with faction to not be killed by guards as they travel.
The user interface Sigil created is very simple and easy to use. It allows either the mouse of the keyboard to be primarily used, or a nice melding of the two. It is similar in appearance to the UI used in World of Warcraft, one of the most popular games around at the moment, so many players looking for a change from there will find themselves familiar with the UI. Also, the UI is defined via XML files, allowing for customization. There are several excellent modified UIs out there already, mostly to be found at VGSOH Interface. Personally, I've been really happy with Drox UI, which is extremely customizable, but there are others that fit almost any playstyle, if you find you'd like more options than the original UI provides.
A few tech specs: My computer is a MSI K8N Neo2 Platinum, with an AMD Athlon 64 Processor 3700+, 2 GB of RAM, and an All-in-Wonder Radeon 9800 Pro AGP video card with 128MB memory. I play in full screen mode at 1280 x 1024 at 70 Hz. The upshot of this is that my system meets the recommended specifications for all but my video card, which really should be upgraded. However, I usually have my in-game video options set to performance or balanced, with grass turned down to about 20% and volumetric clouds turned off. This lets me usually pull framerates in the high teens to low twenties. It is, of course, worse when I enter the crafting area, and at those times my FPS drops unless I set the game to the high performance presets. At this level, it's certainly playable, if nothing to write home about visually.
As far as the graphics go, Sigil has done a good job creating a realistic world which doesn't have the cartoony feel of World of Warcraft, but doesn't suck down performance with excess realism like most modern FPS games. It is powered by a modified Unreal 2 engine, and with a suitable graphics card and lots of RAM, you can expect huge draw distances, panoramic views, and realistic atmospheric effects. The terrain and ecology are well thought out, and the explorer in me can't wait to see all that the three continents have to offer. There is no wasted space - every place I've seen so far has something that makes me sit up and note the care taken by the world design team: sweeping vistas, attention to detail showing an area is lived-in and not just populated and a real ecology.
Actually, a note on the ecology: while it does have carnivores attacking herbivores, the herbivores don't really run from the carnivores. Nor do NPCs wander around all that much. This is pretty typical of MMOs though, as everyone needs a shot at talking to the merchant, so he never gets to go home to his family in the evenings.
The music tracks are appropriate and mostly fade into the background giving a boost to the feel of the game rather than bludgeoning you over the head repeatedly with jarring "focus on me" tunes. The environmental effects like rain and passing creatures include appropriate sound effects, and the roars of animals have as much attention to detail as their appearance.
World of Warcraft is certainly the giant out there currently as far as MMOs go, but it also seems to attract the lowest-common-denominator among players. Vanguard instead goes for those who have already tried MMOs before, like the genre and are ready for a game with more depth, fewer restrictions and a generally more mature audience. It's certainly a larger world filled with more choices. There are some bugs, but server stability is great and the bugs aren't horrendously obnoxious. Class tweaking continues, but even the gimped classes (I play a monk which is sub-par compared to rangers and bards, two of the other light fighters) can solo well and bring some skills to a group, just needing some minor adjustments. Some of the choices for trainer locations are confusing and require faction work that seems out of place, but the quests and story lines generally seem well planned and implemented. The game is also not as solo friendly as World of Warcraft or Guild Wars, but it is possible to keep progressing while by yourself - just not as quickly as when grouped.
If you've been holding off on getting this game until you see how its first month goes, I just have one thing to ask: "Why are you still waiting?"
At home I had a Mac, and surprise... game options were slim there as well. So, while Dark Castle was good for a quick game here or there, and I ran through every Might & Magic game that came out for the Mac, I spent most of my gaming time playing AD&D with friends. I took my Mac to college with me, and started programming it to take care of most of the tedious dice rolls and book-keeping when I was the dungeonmaster for our regular group. Better games started coming out for the mac then as well: Tetris and Spectre were favorites.
After college, our AD&D group was scattered, so my wife and I started looking for computer games that would fill the gap. We also got our first Windows machines then, so there were many more options than in the mac arena at the time. We got each other EQ for Christmas, and have been playing MMOG's ever since. We left EQ to alpha and beta test DAoC (hey out there to all my scouts and the other archers from CritShot)and stayed there for several years, played around with AO in some spare time, tried SWG and Horizons, City of Heroes and EQ2 held our interest for a while, back to DAoC for Catacombs, and WoW. Although I've played some single player RPG games, and some cooperative RPG games, I definitely prefer MMOGs. FPSs tend to get me slightly motion sick.
We recently got a Mac Mini for the kids, and our oldest son has a PS2, so we're playing some games on those systems as well.