Version tested: PC
Massively multiplayer games, from a writer's perspective, are a peculiar and often troublesome beast. On one hand, when they're truly at their best, they offer us a chance to write about a living, breathing game-world whose human inhabitants make it more unpredictable and fascinating than any single-player experience could hope to be. On the other hand, though, they defy the conventional tools of our trade. We are used to writing about monolithic products, chunks of code and content which are etched onto a disc, sold in a box, and form a single, locked down product - something you can play for a certain number of hours, form an opinion on, and even stick a number on the end of the review which represents, in theory, what you thought of the game on some abstract level.
You can't do that with an MMOG - not in the same way. We first encounter MMOGs when they're at the alpha or beta stage, clumsy and accident-prone toddlers just learning how to walk, and we are challenged to try and talk intelligently about how they'll look when they're past the age of majority and out there for anyone to play with. Even at that stage, however, an MMOG's life is merely beginning - with the content of the game changing on a monthly, weekly, and sometimes even daily basis. The best we can hope for at any point is to take a snapshot of how the game looks at one point in time, and to return months down the line for another snapshot, and another.
That lengthy caveat is simply a long-winded way of saying something quite simple: this review is merely a snapshot. We have played Vanguard throughout the beta, and given our impressions of that experience; now, having played since the launch of the game at the end of last month, we can talk about how the experience is at this moment in time - reviewing not the game as a whole, as such, but rather the game as it stands in February 2007. A snapshot.
Unfortunately, in this snapshot, it looks like Vanguard blinked as the flash went off.
Be On Guard
When we previewed Vanguard back at the beginning of January, we praised the game for its genuinely impressive ambition - for being a game which was willing to strike out and try to do genuinely new things in a genre where simply aping World of Warcraft is currently the order of the day. With the game now on shelves, the places where that ambition has been realised are the best things about Vanguard. These are the places where the team has had a creative vision of what can be done with the suddenly market-leading MMOG genre which will take it past the gameplay of Blizzard's all-conquering behemoth.
Take, for example, the diplomacy system. This is a unique new way of approaching dialogue in an MMOG which turns every key conversation into a clever and well-implemented card game. You play off various different cards, and they represent various kinds of flattery, threats and logic in order to help drive the conversation your way. If you can keep the balance of power on your side, you can "win" the conversation, and this allows you to move forward in the most beneficial way possible from this point in the story. It's a great idea, and it's been implemented well; it brings new life to the dialogue of the game, whereas in other MMOGs there's a tendency to ignore what NPCs are actually saying in favour of clicking through to the quest screen and finding out how many badgers you have to kill this time.
Then there's the crafting system. It's something that was in flux somewhat throughout the betas of the game, but has made it through a tricky development period to emerge as well-balanced, fascinating and extremely rewarding. It's not like standard RPG crafting systems; these call for you to have a certain set of materials, a recipe and a skill level, and not a lot else. But Vanguard turns the crafting of objects into a multi-stage process which requires just the right tools, materials, environment and skillset. Progressing through the pre-requisite tree to build a final object is altogether more interesting than just clicking a recipe, pressing Create All and going off to grab a drink. And in recognition of how much more complex the system is, the rewards are also correspondingly greater.
Both of these systems are largely unique to Vanguard, and each one of them gives a glimpse of some truly excellent design behind the game. Other elements, too, show rough corners being knocked off the MMOG genre in an impressive manner. Take the introductory quests, for example. Placing your character in the middle of a major event rather than just dumping you in a field surrounded by rats and telling you to kill 20 of them with a broken twig, is an extremely welcome piece of design. Starting off the game by storming through a village as part of a massive invasion force (the first introductory quest we played, for a Kojan human) is a great way to feel like you're right at the heart of the action, and serves as a cool prologue that gives your character some real background. The inclusion of crafting quests is another great idea; they guarantee an NPC buyer for your goods at the end of the quest and thus avoid flooding the player economy with worthless low-level items. Neat.
Changing the Guard
Unfortunately, these innovations are let down badly by some seriously retrograde steps which Vanguard takes - betraying, perhaps, a certain arrogance on the part of its creators, who were widely considered as the founding fathers of the MMOG genre thanks to their involvement with EverQuest. It may seem cheap to bring up WOW constantly when talking about other MMOGs, but we all know how successful WOW has been. And let's face it, that success isn't because WOW was in the right place at the right time, or because of the strength of the Warcraft brand. It's because Blizzard made an incredibly good game which changed the MMOG genre in ways which make it fun; but, in places, Vanguard chooses to ignore the example set by its enormous competitor in a manner which simply seems sulky and churlish.
In Vanguard, the storylines of the various races, continents and factions are spread over the world more thinly than a condom over a blue whale. The "lore" of the game (the fantasy world which you uncover) feels like an amateur Sunday effort; it's patchy, hackneyed and badly written. And while the diplomacy system makes the delivery of the whole thing vastly more interesting, there's a constant feeling that diplomacy gameplay is just filling in the cracks for a pretty awful back-story. Comparisons with WOW - or indeed with many other RPGs - are inevitable, and unkind; and while many players probably won't care, there are a great many who want the worlds they explore to be more than just a lot of pretty pixels. The lack of rich lore in Vanguard is a black mark, and feels like a throwback to the Bad Old Days.
Another black mark comes in the form of another throwback - corpse running. Vanguard is cruel to its players; death often comes at an extraordinarily hefty XP penalty, and the only way to claw back that penalty is by running to your corpse. This isn't like WoW's easy runs through the spirit realm, which penalise you without actually ever leaving you completely stuck; rather, it's a case of running through dangerous zones (which killed you last time, remember) to find your original body, all the while in danger of dying again.
Or how about a black mark for this one; enforced grouping. Vanguard takes the "multiplayer" part of "massively multiplayer" very seriously. Even relatively early on in the game, you'll find that a huge number of quests can't be completed without playing in a party. Annoyingly, the game doesn't warn you of this, leaving you to get splatted a couple of times before working out for yourself that you're going to need help.
Perhaps stemming from a similar philosophy is the decision not to include instanced dungeons (dungeons which, once your party enters them, are for you and you alone - any other party entering the same dungeon gets their own version), which means that other parties can interfere with your quests, forcing you to camp out and wait for quest monsters to respawn, and so on.
For each of these things, and plenty of others like them, there are a few vocal defenders. But, frankly, these are the tedious random battles of the MMOG genre. They're a relic of the past, or should have been. Vanguard's designers should have looked harder at the WOW phenomenon and realised why the damn game is so popular; it's because Blizzard looked at long-time MMOG traditions like these and decided they were officially Not Fun. Corpse running is Not Fun. Forcing people to stand around looking for a group rather than giving them the option of playing solo for a while when they're not in the mood or can't find a decent one is Not Fun. Standing around waiting for a quest monster to respawn because someone else just killed it is Not Bloody Fun. If anyone ever writes a rule-book for videogame design, rule numero uno should be "If It's Not Fun, Don't Put It In Your God Damned Game".
Heroes of Right and Left Click
The thing about Vanguard is that for every piece of wrong-brained badthink you uncover in the design, there's another great idea, another lovely piece of innovation, shining out at you. It's like the game is simultaneously tugging back towards a past when only 300,000 people in the world played MMOGs, and reaching towards a bright future when tens of millions will be enticed by fascinating, rewarding and addictive systems to play, and beautiful, intricate worlds to adventure in.
Take the character customisation options. These allow you to fiddle with every element of the face and body individually; or the fantastic decision to run with having four character class groups (representing the four core MMOG professions: tank, damage-dealer, healer and nuker) which encompass 15 different classes, each with a unique style of play, but each of which fits into a core role in a given party.
How about the battle system in the game? This is one area where Sigil's cup truly overfloweth with innovation and a clear determination to make something better and more exciting than any MMOG combat system which came before. There's a wonderful system which is based on reactions to what happens in combat. Certain actions taken by allies and enemies can open up new abilities of your own, such as counter-attacks or defensive moves, which may in turn lead into powerful chain attacks. These battle options flash up on screen as they're available, and utilising them makes for dynamic, hugely involving battles which are quite unlike the auto-attack combat seen in many MMOGs. It's a welcome change, and one which makes even the eternal level grind feel a lot less arduous, because you're playing a game with some actual skill and dynamism to it.
Then there's the decision to give players a mount at level 11, and upgrade it progressively to more and more impressive steeds as you progress through the game, culminating in flying warbeasts which soar over the expansive terrain of the game. There's the promise of being able to own property, build houses in the cities, open shops which have specific opening hours and make money for you while you're not even logged in, not to mention being able to build and sail boats, and, if you're in a guild, enormous ships of war. The basics of these systems are there for you to walk around and gawp at from the outset. Few games offer quite so much incentive to get to the high levels and really start playing around with astonishingly cool stuff.
Speaking of things to gawp at, the graphics of the game largely fall into this category, with Vanguard standing head and shoulders above most other titles in the genre in terms of what it tries to accomplish with its graphics engine. At its best, it's a truly stunning looking game, with beautiful atmospheric effects, incredibly long draw distances and hugely impressive environments and architecture. The world's flora and fauna is also gloriously rendered, and the game does an excellent job in the early stages of putting more and more striking vistas in front of players, to entice them to explore ever further into the world of Telon.
Now, if this were a conventional review of a standalone game, this would pretty much end the commentary. We'd now sum up the good points and the bad, and award a score. However, this is not a standalone game. and as such, there's something else to consider. This, as previously mentioned, is a snapshot of Vanguard as it stands right now; and right now, there are other aspects to the game which are not pretty in the slightest, and which warrant discussion in any review.
It comes down to this: Vanguard is not a finished game. It's certainly a game which has come on in vast leaps since the last beta, but one that's also nearly indistinguishable from the shoddy, creaky beta code of six to twelve months ago. You know, the one which generated such bad word of mouth for the title. The graphics engine is perhaps the biggest culprit; it's buggy, prone to glitches ranging from tiny peculiarities up to the entire environment being incorrectly lit or just plain disappearing. The game may be beautiful, but even on a top notch system it runs like a dog; it's a beauty which comes at the cost of framerate. [For the record, our test system was an Athlon X2 4800+ with an ATI Radeon X1950 Pro. Not cutting edge, but certainly powerful enough to play any other game we've thrown at it so far, and even with plenty of options tuned down, the game still struggled to maintain a playable framerate.]
It's not just graphics which are at fault, however. In our time in the game we've uncovered all manner of other bugs. We've been teleported into bizarre locations, lost items randomly from our inventory, found quests which we couldn't complete and god knows what else. Certain areas, visually as much as anything else, just don't seem to be remotely as finished as others. Overall, there's a strong and somewhat embittered feeling that those playing the game now are still beta testers - they just happen to be paying for the privilege. While the phrase "When It's Done" may be the most infuriating ever to be trotted out by a game developer, the sad fact is that Vanguard could have done with being released when it was done, because right now it feels pretty far from that.
The advantage of an MMOG in this situation, of course, is that it's got a chance to make good. Telon has evolved even in the short month we've been there. Sure, many issues still persist, but many others have been fixed. Patches emerge with incredible regularity, and almost every time you log in the team has shored up another problem with the game, all of which is driving Vanguard towards being a far more playable, interesting and fun game. Right now, though, the main caveat about the game isn't the occasional unwelcome blasts from the past in the design; it's the fact that buying Vanguard now is essentially paying for beta software.
In the final analysis, giving a score to this game pains us, because we have to award a score which represents Vanguard as it stands now, warts and all. This isn't a preview, and we can't make optimistic assumptions about things that will be fixed down the line. This is a review of a product which you, the consumer, are expected to pay for, and right now that product has problems. We're harsh on MMOGs at Eurogamer, because we understand the vast investment of time and money which they represent for players, and under any kind of harsh light, Vanguard comes up wanting right now.
We sincerely hope that when we return to the world of Telon in a few months time, it will truly be an experience that lives up to the promise of the game, and which is worthy of re-review and altogether more praise. For now, Vanguard is a game which has plenty to offer a brave adventurer with a stunning PC. Aside from any design or content problems we've identified with the game, potential buyers need to be aware that they're entering a world which, as a prominent WOW character would have it, is not prepared.
6 / 10