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.