A New Saga Begins - A Fresh Look at Vanguard
I love Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, but I
always have tried to remain objective about its faults. I am sure Sony
Online Entertainment was none
too happy with my review in September of 2007, which gave
Vanguard a below-average score despite my insistence that I enjoyed it.
I left Telon amid guild drama and personal conflicts roughly four
First, I want to note some important factors about the changes in my PC build between Vanguard beta and today. Then I had a Pentium 4 3GHz hyperthreading processor, 1.5GB RAM, and a GeForce 7600GT 256MB graphics card. Now I have the same Pentium 4 3GHz hyperthreading processor, 3 GB RAM, and a GeForce 8600GT 256MB graphics card. Better, but still not top of the line material.
New Vanguard characters have a choice between starting out in the old areas available at launch and visiting the Isle of Dawn (IoD), the area available to the Vanguard 14-day trial. I chose the Isle of Dawn to see the new content and get a sense for what the in-game community is like these days. Ten Ton Hammer’s Eric “Dalmarus” Campbell has written plenty on the Isle of Dawn, so I won’t belabor the point too much.
As Dalmarus noted, IoD does a terrific job of explaining the many facets of Vanguard in bite-sized chunks without overwhelming the player. I am not sure old starter areas had any deficits as far as tutorials went, but the tutorial on IoD is polished and fun. The central story focuses on the invasion of the Ulvari, sinister creatures from another dimension. Your budding hero gets a chance to thwart this invasion, taking the fight all the way to a temple in the mountains accessible only by a Pegasus mount.
The design of almost everything on IoD is of high quality and looks very deliberate. My character ran quests that ranged from the standard kill and fetch variety to a number of interaction quests and even some encounters with a minor deity. One early task had me work my way through a cave to shut down an Ulvari portal by destroying the generators that powered the portal. A new player might have marveled at the open dungeon that went “miles” under the earth. As a returning player, I was thrilled again with the feel of a good dungeon crawl.
The first part of the quest had me go seek the aid of a rock deity who had recently been corrupted by the Ulvari. Then I needed to face down the Ulvari leader. The temple was laid out well and provided a fun challenge for a duo.
One huge advantage to the design of IoD is that the NPCs carefully connect the player to the stories on the main continents after you complete all quests in the trial area. When I had stopped the Ulvari threat, I was a hero on the Isle of Dawn, and my deeds were already known in Telon proper. As such, I was given a choice of three places to go where a hero’s aid was needed. This gave me a very direct, if very generic, connection to the place I was going next. Veskal’s Exchange needed help, so I was going there. At least I had a bit of buy in for the local problems when I got there.
By contrast, I have always felt that the starter quests of the Kurasahsa (one of the best in any game you’ll find), ended in disappointment once the player reached Qalia. The story abruptly shifted from your infiltration of a world and the relationship between the Kuras and their symbionts to whatever mundane chores are to be had in the Lomshir area. Compared to the sudden shift in the Kura story, the IoD quest line does a much better job of adding continuity to your character’s role in the greater world.
Roughly thirty months since its launch, Vanguard remains a beautiful game. Sadly, SOE has had to compromise some of the beauty to improve performance. The new character models are a little on the blocky side, and I saw more than one NPC who appeared naked from a distance because she wore a tan jumpsuit with too little detail. Character models aside, the landscapes remain breathtaking. Trees and forests look so very real from a distance of 300m or so. Up close you can see them for the polygons with textures that they are, but they still look good. I would say only Age of Conan and possibly Aion eclipse the beauty of Vanguard.
The sounds and music in Vanguard remain as they were when I last played, which is not a bad thing. The music includes sweeping scores to haunting melodies that fit their chunks. The sound effects are better than many games; metal on metal clangs appropriately, and metal on wood gives a satisfying thud. After playing some of the Aion beta and quickly learning to hate my cleric for saying what sounds like “seeilookgay” with every cast of a particular spell, I appreciated the fact that Vanguard keeps spell sound effects to an appropriate mystical tingle without trying to tie in incantations.
As far as the eternal question of stability in Vanguard goes, I found my play experience on IoD to go smoothly. I had one crash, which may be one too many, but I can’t say for sure it wasn’t a server outage, which is a usual type of crash. The trial area had plenty of people in it, and I seldom experienced any lag, chugging, or any other detrimental reaction. Whenever I loaded my character in the last village prior to the Ulvari temple, it took my PC a while to render all of the buildings and NPCs there, so I was frozen in place for a good thirty seconds while everything loaded.
Vanguard still offers as much (or more) variety as any game around. Your character always has plenty of quests to do, or you can get caught up in a single dungeon for days. In addition to the standard adventuring and crafting, players can partake in the diplomacy system. Diplomacy may not have the depth that was promised by Sigil during development, but SOE has worked to smooth out the kinks of what is there. Players who love lore will enjoy digging through each races story as a diplomat and then traveling the world in search of new parleys. If nothing else, you have to appreciate the city buffs to crafting unlocked by diplomacy.
The ultimate question a player must ask himself when playing a trial is will I continue to pay to play this? Considering the current state of Vanguard and my play style, the answer is a resounding yes. The performance in improved enough that I feel as if I could recommend it to a friend without having to apologize, the vastness of Telon caters to my adventurous spirit, the graphics are still among the best available, and the gameplay has enough options to keep a casual gamer busy for years on end.
In the near future, I will take a closer look at Vanguard through my eyes as a returning player. I will examine combat mechanics and take a look at how well the refined performance holds up on the mainland. Expect some commentary on the player base, too. Finally, I’ll look at what Vanguard offers in comparison to the competition and upcoming games.