A New Saga Begins – A Fresh Look at Vanguard Pt. 2

When it was released, most people will admit that Vanguard: Saga of Heroes had a lot of faults. From bugs to exploits to glitches, you name it and VG probably suffered from it. That said, a few years can do a lot to change a game, and Vanguard certainly hasn't been collecting dust. To get another look at the game, Ten Ton Hammer sent in Danny "Ralsu" Gourley to try his hand at the new Telon. In the second installment of his new saga, Ralsu tackles some lingering performance concerns and more, so be sure to check it out! The new Vanguard player in me doesn’t know all of that junk about the third party UIs. He doesn’t notice that the new character models are a little blander than the old ones. What he does notice is that the world is gorgeous and seamless (in theory) but does not run as smoothly as many others. Despite SOE’s assertion that it is both unfair and unwise to compare performance of one game against that of another, the new gamer in me can’t help but notice that the Aion beta runs smoother for him. He notices that it’s possible for a pretty game to run smoother.

Vanguard Combat

Sony Online Entertainment has been open about the “intensive hardware requirements” of Vanguard: Saga of Heroes from the outset. As my new saga in Telon continued, I reflected on the game’s performance often. After all, it’s safe to say that the poor optimization of Vanguard at launch was a major contributor to the title’s tepid reception by the market. Exploring the current state of the game was chief in importance to me because it helped me recall some of the things promised during development and much of the disappointment that came when those plans never materialized in the finished product. Ultimately, I delved into the status of Vanguard with two mindsets, that of the returning player who carried with him the prejudices of unfulfilled expectations and the new resident of Telon who knew nothing of the game’s development. The two perspectives led divergent paths to the conclusion that SOE has a perfect game for casual players and guilds in Vanguard.

This commentary is not a review. I did not dive into every gameplay aspect or sample the user base about their experiences as I often do for reviews. I’m sharing my experiences and any insights I have about the game in the confines I have already described; I want to see what Vanguard is like for a returning player.

Performance

Any discussion of Vanguard must start and end with a look at performance. My system meets or exceeds each of the recommended (not just minimum) system requirements. See the chart below:

SOE's Recommended Specs Ralsu's PC
Windows® 2000/XP/Vista Vista Sp2
100% DirectX 9.0c compatible computer DirectX 10
100% DirectX compatible keyboard or input device Standard Dell wired keyboard and mouse
3.0 GHz Intel OR 3500+ AMD processor 3.0 GHz Intel
2 GB RAM 3 GB RAM
Vertex and Pixel shader 2.0 compatible hardware with 256MB of texture memory NVIDIA GeForce 8600 GT 256MB
DirectSound/OpenAL compatible audio hardware SoundBlaster Live! 24-bit
Broadband Internet Connection ADSL
16X Speed DVD-ROM 16X Speed DVD-ROM
20 Gigabytes Hard Drive Space 160GB hard drive

While my graphics card and processor are only barely what SOE calls for as part of its recommended system, everything else critical is above even what they recommend. I felt it important to share this comparison line for line because Vanguard plays about the same for me today as it did when I left the game in late 2007 despite all of the optimization work from SOE. My graphics card still chokes nearly to death when loading in a major outpost with a ton of objects, especially character models, to render. In roughly forty hours of play time using balanced settings, I have crashed three times and suffered slideshow-like lag twice.

The performance I have gotten since returning to Telon gives flashbacks to the founding subscriber in me. Back then, I used third party user interfaces (UIs) that traded out some of the massive image files used in the default UI for simpler ones. The third party UIs also gave information that the default one didn’t (e.g. the location of harvesting nodes within the chunk or current buffs on a mob). Most of the third party UI coders I followed have moved on from Vanguard, an inevitable and sad fact about MMO gaming. I wouldn’t want to use their UIs right now anyway since SOE recently increased the default inventory size by a decent amount and the message of the day warns that most third part UIs will not see the new extra slots.


Rental Griffin

The new Vanguard player in me doesn’t know all of that junk about the third party UIs. He doesn’t notice that the new character models are a little blander than the old ones. What he does notice is that the world is gorgeous and seamless (in theory) but does not run as smoothly as many others. Despite SOE’s assertion that it is both unfair and unwise to compare performance of one game against that of another, the new gamer in me can’t help but notice that the Aion beta runs smoother for him. He notices that it’s possible for a pretty game to run smoother.

My final schizophrenic conclusions arrived in the same place about the performance of Vanguard. First, the game is good enough to forgive some of the hiccups. I’ll get to the why behind that in a bit. Next, the Unreal Engine must be one of the most inefficient templates in all of gaming if this level of performance is the result. To have needed in early 2007 a machine beefier than the average retail computer on sale today and still get ragged functioning indicates a severe limitation of the engine. It excludes a huge chunk of potential users from the outset and alienates even more after they experience some of the troubles running the game. Finally, the seamless world concept is simply too ambitious with the beauty of Telon. Moving from one chunk to the next still takes roughly as long as it does to zone in EverQuest or EverQuest II. Instead of a load screen, players get to see their characters freeze on the screen. The seams are visible in the seamless world. The fact that my graphics card is constantly loading up a lot of landscape on the horizon that may be a chunk away makes it work harder than it needs to in order to impact my immediate gameplay experience.

The selection of the Unreal Engine and the decision to use a world without zones were not up to SOE. They got the game way too late to impact those choices. It would be unfair to SOE for me to focus on those aspects to the point of excess now. Meanwhile, it would be unfair to gamers not to at least mention them. Both elements contribute to some of my favorite things about Vanguard, so I’m torn on the matter anyway.

The Player Base

Telon’s current inhabitants are as fiercely loyal as the fans who followed Vanguard in development. The old Sigil forums were renowned for being very unfriendly to posters who had anything negative to say about the game. Likewise, the current player base staunchly defends the game when given the chance. For instance, when I did my State of the Game interview with SOE in May, a subscriber criticized me for asking questions about the old problems that drove away players. That gamer was right that the issues addressed were old, but those issues still resurface. If you don’t believe, check out last week’s Premium article, Bait and Switch: Ethics and Values in MMO Marketing. Trust me when I say MMO fans remember the broken promises and disappointments with Vanguard. SOE needs all the help it can get in getting people to put aside their prejudices and focus on the game for what it is today.

The good news is that I have encountered a very friendly community in my recent play time. Every question I ask in region chat is answered promptly and politely. Good discussion goes on at peak times though it gets quiet in off hours.

Current Vanguard players also seem very casual. They tend not to focus on PvP or raiding (more on that later) as the launch players did. This suits my gameplay style perfectly. People understand if I say I have only the time to run this one dungeon before I need to go do some laundry. Most people I have come across also share my nostalgia for the old days of chatting within the group, of getting to know the players behind the avatars.

In short, the pace set by today’s Vanguard player is very casual friendly. It is friendly and helpful. Finally, it is mature and patient.

Scorpion


Gameplay

In my Vanguard review, I said gameplay is where the title shines, which still holds true today. The sheer amount of diversions in Vanguard can keep the casual gamer busy for years. In addition to the standard adventuring, the game boasts rich crafting that lets players build their own boats and more. Vanguard also has a Diplomacy system that unlocks fascinating lore and storylines while also contributing in a small way to raids. Speaking of raiding, players can do some of that, too, if the notion strikes.

I have been enjoying the rent-a-griffons in my return to Telon, but I also remember Sigil developers claiming, “You’ll be able to use almost any animal you see in the game as a mount.” It’s hard for returning players to overcome the disappointment that this isn’t true, but new players can appreciate just how fun it is to soar in the skies on a rented griffon and take in the sights. The freestyle control of the griffons tops the predetermined flight paths used in EverQuest II.

It’s the numerous extra things to do in Vanguard that keep me logging in every night. Like Ten Ton Hammer’s Eric “Dalmarus” Campbell, I found the Tao of fishing to be most relaxing. I can spend hours running around looking for different water sources to see if the fish are biting. Some play sessions are devoted entirely to harvesting. Others are spent only on crafting. When a friend logs in, I drop what I am doing and go on some adventuring quests.

Each facet of Vanguard offers a layer of intricacy that most other games don’t. Crafting goes far beyond the simple “combine items with the press of a button” mechanic. It has more complexity than EQ2’s system of different crafting actions to produce different effects. For serious crafters, Vanguard is a great game to play. Meanwhile, harvesting adds clothes that increase the yield, and Diplomacy offers quests in the form of a fun card game, a truly unique feature.

PvP is not a real focus for the Vanguard development team. A single PvP server hosts the action, which is mostly player-driven. The returning player in me remembers that Sigil clearly advertised that PvP was never intended as a focus, but an outcry on the forums late in development led to it being tacked on as a way to get the bullet point on the box. Luckily the PvP community is some of the most loyal of the bunch. Were I a new player looking for PvP, I likely would look elsewhere.

Finally, raiding is really starting to shape up in Vanguard. Hardcore raid guilds likely will get bored pretty fast, but the casual crowd who sticks with Vanguard will find plenty to challenge them. The developers are dedicated to adding to this gameplay element, so this will only get better. Hopefully the casual nature of the fan base will allow SOE ample time to tweak each new raid encounter to make it really outstanding.

Final Thoughts

It’s time to talk about performance again. As I said in my review, players who have no technical problems running Vanguard have plenty to be positive about, especially if they can get past their original expectations and appreciate the game for what it is. Those who do have some problems must decide if the game’s tremendous numbers of features make up for this shortcoming.

With good friends to play with, Vanguard could keep me happy for a very long time. Everything about Telon has a serene, calming effect on me. It’s not as crowded as World of Warcraft, nor is its subscribers as friendly to immature players. It has most of the fun features of EQ2 but with greater detail. It lacks the storied intellectual property of The Lord of the Rings Online or the PvP of Warhammer Online, but its massive world outshines both for explorers. Perhaps only Age of Conan and Aion rival it for graphics.

Vanguard, the game that it is rather than the collection of promises made during its development, is a terrific MMO well suited for the casual but serious gamer. The title received the criticism it deserved at launch, but it’s come a long way since then. It’s time to give Telon another chance.

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