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With most games, and especially online only ones, they kind of fall into a category where players kind of like them, but don't really fall in love. Vanguard however will force you to pick sides. Either you will love the game and think it is the best MMO ever created, or you will hate it and wonder how long it could possibly live before going to the online graveyard with so many other titles. And which side you fall on will depend on what type of player you are. Hardcore players will thrive in Vanguard, but more casual players will probably not last a week.
First, let's talk a little about the world of Vanguard. It is here that the game's major strengths come out. There are three continents and many races you can play that live on each one. And each continent is separated by miles of ocean, which can be navigated at some point if you get the right kind of transport. Characters look very different from one another and have different skills. Even at low levels, the differences between any two characters is pretty vast, much more so than with other online RPGs.
And the world itself is pretty special. If you can see something, then you can travel there. Nothing is used as scenery or a wall to keep you inside an area. If there is a mountain range, then you can get to the top of it. Water too proves no obstacle (though you do need to surface to breathe) letting players dive down to find shipwrecks and all manor of interesting things on the sea floor.
There are also no server load times after you initially enter the world. You won't walk into a tavern and wait for the game to load the interior rooms. And you won't leave a town and have to wait for the server holding the countryside to load. And that's a pretty impressive feat of architecture for an MMO. The downside is that this puts a lot of the burden for serving up the world on your PC. After we had installed the game and ran the obligatory patches, the file folder for Vanguard reached 17.8 gigabytes, easily the largest file size for any game since the days of full motion video adventures. Pity those with tiny 80G hard drives, unless they want to play Vanguard and not much else.
I guess its worth noting that the sound for Vanguard is very poor, and does not match the graphics at all. In fact, the game features the worst voice acting I have ever heard. Supposedly Asian characters sound more like valley girls, and say the same three or four things all the time. Better to have no voices at all than ones that are total crap and don't match the characters they come from. The soundtrack is forgettable, but at least you don't notice it.
One of the first things you will probably notice is that there are three career paths for your character - adventuring, crafting and diplomacy. The adventuring part of the game is pretty straight forward. You get quests and go on missions. But they do seem to be a bit harder than most MMOs. Several quests will tell you what to do, but not how to do it. This is not delivering pies in Lord of the Rings Online. You will be told to catch some monster or find some objects and then, well, it's up to you to find out how or where. The game also tends to push you towards grinding, which some people like but most people hate.
The hardcore only aspects of the game will become apparent when you die. You will respawn naked somewhere nearby (if you are lucky). Then you have to go and retrieve your body to get all your stuff back, or pay a huge penalty in gold and experience points at a shrine. Excuse me but if a pack of monsters killed me in all my armor before, why do you think I can go back there naked and successfully grab my stuff. Guess I am not hardcore enough.
Crafting takes center stage in Vanguard, and it is a very difficult thing to do. In fact, crafting is a lot harder than adventuring. First you have to find a trainer and then go through a series of quests for them. Crafting itself requires the recipe and a lot of expensive ingredients. And that is no guarantee of success. As you work bad things will happen like a pot boiling over or a fire breaking out in your forge. This will create a dilemma that you have to solve. The best way to solve a dilemma costs you a lot of points, of which you have a limited amount of when you start working. The quick fix way costs a lot fewer points, but hurts the quality of the object you are trying to create. Objects are rated from A through D, with a D quality object considered a failure. You might also run out of points and get nothing at all, but lose all your ingredients for your troubles.
The bright side is that those with enough willpower to stick with it can eventually, and very slowly, become proficient in their chosen field. This means you can create some really powerful, almost game unbalancing objects which you can use or sell. So expert crafters make a lot of money, which they should given the many long and boring hours that went into that skill.
Crafters also are in demand for player housing and boats. It's not like most games where you just buy a deed and purchase a house or rent an apartment. No, here you not only have to have all the right papers, but you also have to have crafters come in and build the house for you. It's another cha-ching for crafters in the game, and another reason why Vanguard is so difficult to play and enjoy for more casual players. I would almost suggest renaming the game "Crafters: Supporters of Heroes" since they tend to steal the show.
As a sub-section of crafting there is also gatherers, who go out and grab wood and stone and animal hides from the dangerous wilderness. You don't know how to gather right off the bat either. For that you need a trainer and the right tools. But this is a roundabout way to get a little coin if you don't feel like grinding up the crafter profession.
Diplomacy is a unique aspect of the game and becomes the final profession you can follow. Diplomats challenge people to a Magic: The Gathering-like game where you play cards and try to defeat what cards they are playing. You can only have a limited number of cards in your deck and some require the right kind of energy in your pool to activate.
I actually had the most fun with diplomacy in the game, though when I realized that it does not really do anything, I was disappointed. Theoretically a diplomat can talk to key people in different towns and move that town in a certain direction. This can lead to town wide buffs. Say you influence the leaders to be more helpful to crafters, then every crafter will get a buff while they work within that town. It sounds good but each town slowly goes back to a neutral stance so that no one diplomat can really influence a realm. You would need many diplomats sliding the town in a certain direction, and even then, the effects would be limited.
Each profession has its own inventory that you need to keep track of. So if you have fancy shoes that help your diplomacy score, you will switch to that outfit when you are doing diplomacy. When you then fight a monster, you will automatically switch to your metal boots which are kept on a different character panel. It's like wearing four suits and having the right one come to the surface when needed. Anyway, it's all very complex, perhaps a bit too much so.
World of Warcraft is popular because it is so easy to play, and Lord of the Rings Online follows this pattern. Vanguard is looking for hardcore players, and makes no bones about driving the casual ones out of the world kicking and screaming. At this, they are very successful, but I am not sure there are enough hardcore players out there that want to grind six hours a day every day to become mildly proficient in their chosen field. As such, I don't really see Vanguard being around for too long. And if they become one of the top three online RPGs out there, I'll eat my hat.
Vanguard seems to forget that we play games because we want to have fun. And I found precious little of it in this hardcore online world. Some may feel differently, but if you will excuse me, I have a pie to deliver to the shire.
John Breeden II is the Chief Editor of GiN. While a forward thinking man he admits to a fondness for older video games. You should have seen him at Videotopia. John can be contacted at : firstname.lastname@example.org.