Back to Vanguard: A Choppy Return Journey

Posted by: Randy at 3/24/2008 2:37 AM
An eventful year has passed since I'd finagled with the Vanguard: Saga of Heroes beta.  A lot of good things happened in 2007 that propelled MMORPG gaming into a brilliant, well-deserved spotlight:  The World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade expansion not only kept the core game afloat, it veritably blew the original out of the water content-wise; the decade-long wait ended for Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar (nee Middle-earth Online) with droves of Tolkein-ites celebrating with Halfling pipes in hand and "Tainted Love" played by characters in various ribald taverns; the free-to-play Dungeon Runners hit the randomized environments and equipment sweet spot for a Western Hemisphere that isn't too keen on the free-to-play model in the first place; and the completely overhauled Tabula Rasa (pardon me, that's Richard Garriott's Tabula Rasa) was met with enough mixed critical acclaim to eventually render the red-hot title into something a bit more room temperature, but still kept itself a hot topic of conversation throughout the year.

Vanguard, on the other glaived hand, went from a cautionary tale against hasty, bug-ridden launches ... to something that was rather un-talked about for many, many months.  And while Oscar Wilde hubristicly chimed, "The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about," having Vanguard politely step out of any sunburning limelight may have been a godsend for the overly-ambitious MMO that could...



[If you want to skip the wordy part, scroll to the bottom to look at some medium-quality pics.]

...Vanguard made touchstones out of many elements that MMO critics (by now) relegated to blacklist (read: outdated) status.  Touchstones like "corpse runs" and "experience penalties."  Gameplay that smacked of scheduled "grinding" between unscheduled "spawn camping."  And overland travel required lengthy commutes and a harrowing amount of backtracking from sometimes-redundant mission structure.

But Vanguard wanted the rewards to be well-worth the heartache and effort.  A completely non-instanced world, letting you travel as far as the eye can see without load screens, watching the rise and fall of sun and moon cycles in the sky, witnessing clouds on the horizon shipping themselves acrooss the land until rainfall replaced the blue tracts of sky above.  Complex crafting rules yield everything from furniture to fill your (non-instanced) homes and (non-instanced) guild halls, all the way to manmade ships sailing off through uncharted waters toward multiple other immense continents.  Plus, as no small feature, they launched a diplomacy card game, adding a completely untapped element to the typically skip-worthy motion of MMO conversation, but also making that diplomacy shape the make and mold of politcal machinations across the realms.

was so ambitious as to be comparable to a fantasy-fiction version of EVE Online (take that comparison with a grain of salt.  Nevertheless, the comparison is worth examining...)  Even with developer Sigil's company statement printed on the game box -- "Set Yourself Free" -- critics instead came to bury Vanguard beneath a ton of soil that stank of hitching graphics, stutter-stop frame rates, and the unfinished feel of a game that was, well, quite unfinished.  It appeared that, at launch time, Vanguard was not worth more than the sum of its parts.

So, full disclosure:  I caught onto the rise of mainstream MMOs a few years after the turn of the century; sometime with the release of Final Fantasy XI.  I'd only taken cursory glances at EverQuest, though at the time I just didn't get it.  And, as Vanguard is the current crown holder of shamelessly hearkening-back-to-the-old-school-days-of-EverQuest, I was still treading personal virgin territory in Vanguard.  This world, Telon, was everything I thought I was looking for in a hardcore MMO.  Telon was the Promised Land.  Though, as I had found out during the beta, it was more of a Too Promised Land.  Too much undertaken by the developers, too little funding to see it through, Keith Parkinson -- Sigil's visionary leader -- passed away too soon, and perhaps us starry-eyed desert wanderers expected just a little too much.

I'll still admit in Vanguard's favor, however, that I did not personally scribble down pages of notes regarding the rampant bugs and glitches that were ceaselessly being blasted over world chat by disillusioned Vanguardians.  Or, as is more likely the case, my attentions were simply drawn elsewhere.  It's possible I didn't receive the proper amount of copper pieces for stabbing previously disclosed amounts of rats ... as I was probbably mesmerized by the symmetric grandeur of the city of Qalia, stunned as I stared out from a Cliffs-of-Dover height from above.  Perhaps the graphics were hiccupping all the way down to ten frames per second ... but my attention was drawn to the square-rigged sailing vessel coursing between the Colossus-sized statues flanking the harbor entrance.  Sure, even I couldn't help but be put off by the bland severity of my character's grandpa-high waistband on my bland (yet shiny) pantaloons ... but it mattered less and less the more I got sucked into the gravity well of the complex and startlingly-addictive diplomacy card game.  And yeah, the enemies pacing across the map freely handed out tombstones to anyone willing to overdo their Han Solo pursuits.  But that only meant that together we lived, and alone we died.

And now, somewhere around 14 months later, I've returned to Vanguard's world of Telon.  On the surface it's hard not to notice that it's still getting walked all over by rough frame rates (even with a sturdy rig at medium graphical settings), and its artistic direction -- with all due respect to the late, great Keith Parkinson -- isn't necessarily winning any awards, beyond its impressive draw distances.  The textures and character models weren't showstoppers in January 2007, and they haven't improved with age.  When you move from one 'seamless' zone to the next, there's definitely seams showing when all sound effects and movement freezes to sub-zero temperatures.  And you know what?  I'm playing on the exact same laptop I played on during beta, but it's quite possible I'm encountering more graphical errors flipping through menus than I ever did before.

But you know what else?  That first look out across the bay from atop the cliffs above Qalia is still one of the most breathtaking sights ever crafted in any MMO before or since.  The diplomacy game taught to me just outside of the city walls is still a wholly original idea untouched by any other MMO.  And it's getting harder and harder to complain about those darn frame rates when I can run for an hour across a landmass and still not hit the opposite shoreline.  I'm scoping out places to eventually build my home, none of which are in some tucked-away, instanced neighborhood.  And I'm also keeping an eye out for a strong guild to join, perhaps one that doesn't even have a guildhall yet -- because then we can still place that guildhall wherever we want.

I understand that there's a lot of work involved.  Probably much, much more than I can eventually spare, I'll be honest.  It's not like I'm still 16-years-old with a part-time job bagging groceries with summer vacation just around the corner.  I ain't got that kinda time anymore (who does?)  But I'm willing to give the journey a thoroughbred effort and a fair shake.  You can't say that Vanguard never gave you anything, but it sure as heck isn't going to give it to you for free.  I'll see how immersed I can become in this one.  At least until Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures starts lopping off heads on May 20th of this year.  But with Age of Conan falling under the exact opposite mapping model, hyper-instanced from one end of Hyborea to the other, we'll just see how claustrophobic that does or doesn't render me, after setting myself free in Vanguard.

[Randy is playing Noman Resden, a rather pensive and slow-going human Mordebi sorcerer on the Xeth server.]