Last Chance to See: Vanguard (Part 1)
A vast, empty landscape stretches before Pus Pus, my Cat-Thing Psionist. Clouds swirl overhead, slipping across a starlit but moonless sky. Sparse trees dot a distant shore. Harmless bug-things scurry about in the brush. Where am I? Playing Vanguard: Saga of Heroes. Why am I playing a game that was declared brain dead in December 2009 by the medical experts at Sony Online?
Because I must.
I must explore dying worlds, I must go where no one goes any more and I must bring the story of these empty expanses of crushed developer dreams, of endless fan tears, to you, my dear readers, in the hope that when the money finally runs out and these worlds are switched off for good we may look back fondly on these adventures and say to ourselves “surely that game was worthy of a better write-up than what this hack produced?”.
Vanguard was released January 30, 2007 by Sigil Games Online. Sigil Games, co-founded by Brad McQaid, was supposed to be a next-generation MMO that built on the hard core style of EverQuest with added rich content and depth. Fan anticipation was high, but as the closed and then open betas rolled around in early 2007 whispers of discontent became shouts of panic as fans discovered a buggy game that barely ran on even brand new machines. The game initially sold 240,000 copies but after the first month subscriptions dropped to about 130,000, slumping to 40,000 within a few months. Shortly after the disastrous launch Sigil was entirely acquired by Sony Online and all Sigil staff were fired.
Since then there have been a few game updates, the last major one arriving in December 2009. The only beeps from the heart monitor since then have been hot fixes and server merges. For all intents and purposes Vanguard is legally dead, its assets divided among the shareholders of Sigil, with the Sony doctors and nurses keeping the life support machinery on so long as the odd visitor comes to pay their respects.
To help make sense of all this history I made this fantastic graph of fan anticipation and fan tears over time!
December 2006 marks the start of beta, January ’07 the launch, May the acquisition of Sigil by Sony (and cessation of major development work) and January 2008 the launch of “Trial Island”, the location of our story. Coincidentally, fan anticipation of Vanguard has led the performance of the S&P 500 by precisely 4 months! If you suddenly see Vanguard’s popularity rise, it’s probably time to go invest!
Grabbing Vanguard’s 14 Day Free Trial is painless enough and with the game installed you’ll be at the character creation screen before you know it. At this point you’re presented with a plethora of options. There are some 19 races and 15 classes to chose from. Races can broadly described as varieties of humans, a number of elves, and some greenskins and some animal people, so far, so Standard Fantasy Setting. But despite the fairly generic options there are some interesting features here. Each race has a special ability, and race choice also influences diplomacy (more on that some other time) and other game features. Unfortunately, if you haven’t bothered to research what any of this means you’re left blindly choosing a combination that sounds good. Not necessarily a bad thing, perhaps, but a choice that makes completitionist min-maxers like myself a little nervous.
In the end I settle on a cat-person-thing and name her Pus Pus. She’s a psionist, which means she can mess with people’s brains! If you’ve ever had a cat you’ll understand this is a very natural race/class choice – I mean, check her out, daaaawwwwwww, so cute!
Character creation lets you mess around with your proportions and head shape, but as with most games of this type the changes feel fairly pointless. Once you slap on some armour and a magic hat you’re going to look pretty much like everyone else in the world and only the giant neon letters hanging over your head will serve to tell you apart. But, for the sake of it, I fiddle with the settings and marvel as Pus Pus slightly changes in height, colour and whatnot. I have to say that only the Superhero MMOs have ever made me really enjoy character creation. Who hasn’t spent thirty minutes perfecting a super hero in City of Heroes? In fantasy MMOs there never seems to be much point, and I have always thought that deep down the game developers know this too and simply tack on a few options to keep the RPG geeks happy.
And that’s it for character creation! Lets enter the land of Standard Fantasy World!
It’s night when Pus Pus arrives and clouds partially cover the night sky.
It’s not long before I’m being sent on a quest from Generic Newby Town 1. Can you guess what Pus Pus has to do? Yes! She must bash some bugs!
I feel strangely comforted that my first quest is to bash some small critters. It isn’t really a fantasy game if your first quest isn’t to kill some rats, bugs or spiders, is it? Clearly the Vanguard developers knew their roots and weren’t about to rock the boat in any way whatsoever.
So, as legions have before me in countless worlds and across decades of gaming, I head out of town to unleash my fury on the generic pest du jour.
I chose to ignore the fact that the bugs are endless and my slaughter does nothing to stem the tide. If I were a true roleplayer I would be stuck here for the rest of my time in Vanguard, valiantly trying to reduce bug numbers (as requested), but forever doomed to fail by the strictures of standard MMO systems. Fortunately, I’m anything but a true roleplayer, and quickly finish this and other quests of killing, visiting, collecting and clicking on things. One particularly amusing quest sees me almost die and teleported back to Newby Town 1 where I’m healed by the trainer. Good job, that NPC!
As I hit level four and leave Newby Town 1 for Newby Town 2 I meet my very first fellow player! I figure they are a hard core roleplayer with a name like Elishcar Darkstorm, but my efforts to say hello are soundly ignored.
It’s now that the visual style of newby island hits me like a gutshot from a five year old (surprisingly painful, believe me). It’s faux fantasy Asian mixed with Standard Fantasy Setting. The end result is surprisingly generic with a few oddities and uglies that stand out – even keeping in mind the fact that the game is four years old now.
First up, roads are lined with giant logs, but the tress in the forests are relatively small. This and other scale discrepancies really break any sense of scene immersion for me. Second, the names over players and NPCs are so bright and ugly that in moments of mental weakness I imagine for that I’m playing the original EverQuest.
When the cold sweat passes and the rasping moans from my now-dry mouth die out I realise that I’m not playing EverQuest, just its bastard offspring and I’m left unsure whether I should feel good about that or not. Then I notice the giant tree log path markers and the cycle begins anew.
On arrival in Newby Villge 2 I am presented with the irresistible temptation of slaughtering many innocent chickens, carelessly left out (and targetable!) by an NPC. The Great Chicken Masacre 2011 proceeds apace, with endless chickens replacing any I kill. And my effort wasn’t without reward, either! One of the chickens was carrying a bent shield! Thanks, chicken, I shall loot your delicious corpse!
I have to admit I’m disappointed that not a single chicken drops any meat, feathers or even chicken feet (which really aren’t that bad, you should try them next time you’re having Dim Sum). Shields, yes! Meat, no! Disappointingly, you can’t even eat the shield. I checked.
In Newby Town 2 I engage in a few more quests – travelling, killing, talking, the usual fare of every fantasy story ever made since Agamemnon said to Achilles “yo dood, LFG 4 troy raid?”. Between the wanton massacres of assorted wildlife and Generic Orc Substitutes I discover crafting! This is thoughtfully introduced with a series of quests which only bugged-out twice (requiring a complete restart of the quest chain).
Crafting in Vanguard falls into three categories: Artificing (making magic rings and staffs and whatnot),Outfitting (making armour etc), and Blacksmithing (making weapons). At least, I think that’s how it works out. Doesn’t matter really, I’m only going to be talking about Artificing here!
The basic crafting concept is that you take some raw material and have to hand some other components which get added in as you work through a recipe. You click through each step in turn, expending action points as you go. Sometimes you chose differing actions based on whether you want to hurry production along, or increase the item’s quality. All the while you’re using some of the extra resources you’ve bought as well as watching your available action points to make sure you don’t run out of either (which causes the build to fail).
Complicating things are, well, complications! It seems that as the quality goes up the chance of a complication increases. Complications cost action points to resolve, and if not resolved, reduce the quality of the item you’re working on (I think). Complications also may cost a resource (water to put out a fire, bandages to heal the gash in your hand, you clumsy oaf).
Overall, the system is pretty interesting and crafting stuff nets you experience that is used to give you crafting levels. It seems theoretically possible for a player to be a legendary crafter while still being a level 1 adventurer. Oh, it’s worth mentioning that everything you craft is based on a recipe. You gain recipes from NPC traders or, temporarily, from a quest (to make quest items). Additionally, players can request items be built through an auction house type system and if you accept the contract you are temporarily provided the recipe required. Pretty interesting all round! Pity there are nothing but NPC orders on Newby Island. These are great for levelling your skills, but not terribly interesting. There are, however, a ton of trade quests which are entertaining and provide a nice break from killing bugs.
It is probably a good time to talk about bags. Bags are everywhere in Vanguard. You have bags in your taskbar, bags in your bags, bags on your character paper doll (in fact, you can have multiple tool belts and bags on each of the various pages of your paper doll (one for adventuring, crafting, harvesting, diplomacy, your mount, and one (I think) just for looking good in). In the next screenshot I opened every bag I had available at level 9. Yes, it is easy to lose things inside your endless bags. Yes, you will sometimes spend a few minutes clicking around to find that quest reward (if your main bag is full, say). No, I have no idea why Vanguard was built like this. It does, however, make me think of an awesome new name for the game! Vanguard: Saga of Bags. What do you think? Perhaps we’ll chat more about it in the next episode of Last Chance to See.