I have a confession to make: While I was waiting for the Age of Conan launch, I decided to dip my toes back into Vanguard for a bit. It wasn't as crazy of a proposition as you might think. I've always liked Vanguard. It was never the design that was flawed -- it was the execution. Vanguard failed not because it was a bad game, but because when it launched it was a horrible, buggy, crashing, slow, unplayable mess. I know this because I was in late-stage beta, and that experience made me pass over the game when the launch date finally rolled around.
However, a crack SOE development team picked up the pieces of the broken dream of "the Vision," as McQuaid called it, and they've been working feverishly to stitch them together into something both exciting and stable over the last year. Last week, spurred by a desire to just have some fun, I dusted off the copy of the game I bought this fall and rolled up a Necromancer. I didn't expect much. I was just killing time until the Age of Conan launch started. Surprisingly, Vanguard grabbed me. Without really intending to, I was having more fun in an MMOG than I had had in a long time -- so much fun that when the AoC servers finally came up, I was still playing Vanguard. All this week, while logged into AoC, I've been thinking about Vanguard. I'm seriously contemplating putting Age of Conan on ice for a while to go play Vanguard some more. I was enjoying myself that much. What's so great about this allegedly terrible game that I'm willing to play it over the brand new blockbuster flavor-of-the-month?
Well, a lot of things. Lets start with what I think is the crowning achievement of the game: The dungeons. Oh. My. God. If you're a game designer, or you ever want to be a game designer, you need to go right now and play Vanguard for no other reason than to explore the dungeons. Vanguard's dungeons are cool for a number of reasons. They're non-instanced. They're enormous. They're dangerous. They have character. They're epic in both scale and feeling. I love Vanguard's dungeons because they often work like an onion -- each time you peel back a layer, you find another one underneath. It's really hard to understand what I mean unless you see them for yourself.
The dungeons often start off with some unimpressive opening: a cave mouth, a temple entrance, or a crashed ship. You explore a little ways in, get a feel for the place, and say to yourself, "Okay, this is a cool place. I could level here for a bit." Then, you notice a small door that you can click on, which you didn't see at first for some reason. The door swings open and reveals the next part of the dungeon... which is huge. You realize that everything you've seen until now is just the foyer of the real dungeon, which is deep, enormous, mysterious, and full of treasure and fascinating things to see. You repeat this process three or four times before you make your way to the bottom of a truly epic dungeon experience.
Speaking of epic experiences, that's a feeling that stays with you wherever you are in Vanguard. While the buildings, architecture, and landscape are impressive in other games, they're simply amazing in Vanguard. When I'm riding through enormous canyons with impossibly high walls on my way to some distant city, I really feel like I'm exploring some distant land. Travel is meaningful, and there's a lot to see on the way. Since they give you your first horse at level 10 (and a variety of other interesting mounts as you level), you can go do all of the exploring you always wanted to do. EverQuest's motto has always been, "You're in our world now," but Vanguard is the game where you actually feel that way.
Quests are plentiful wherever you go. Vanguard doesn't take you by the hand and lead you on a carefully planned ride from spot to spot. When you've outgrown your current area, you just open your map, pick a new place with a dungeon around your level (the dungeons are marked by level on your map), and start your journey. You inevitably find stuff to do on the way -- at any given level, I've had more quests to do than I could possibly complete before out-leveling them. Granted, my highest character is in his mid-20s, but I suspect the pattern continues on into the higher levels, given the massive size of the world. It really makes you feel like you're living an adventure instead of running on someone else's pre-planned quest track.
Combat is complicated, challenging, and fun. Skill plays a very definite and observable role in the process. My Necromancer, through careful use of his fear, DoTs, pet, and special abilities, can fight 4-5 opponents at once under the right circumstances. One slip-up and I'm dead, but if I play skillfully I can keep it up indefinitely. It's like riding along the razor's edge, and when I do it well and win it's a major adrenaline rush. Doing it in dungeons is even more satisfying, because victory is sweeter and death is punishing (fighting your way back down to your corpse is both frustrating and rewarding -- you have no one to blame but yourself).
Many dungeons and group quests are built for 2-3 players to tackle them, making Vanguard the perfect game to duo with a friend in. The harder dungeons are designed for full groups, and any class in the game can solo. Vanguard can accommodate any playstyle, whether you want to dungeon crawl with four friends or just grind out some XP questing by yourself. The most fun I've had in the game was definitely doing the two-man dungeon runs with my brother. Small, tight-knit groups exploring sprawling and deadly dungeons is a great recipe for memorable and fun gameplay.
The technical issues have dramatically improved since launch. There's still some hitching when you cross zone lines (something that will supposedly be much better after the upcoming update), and graphical glitches still crop up from time to time, but I have yet to run into a bug that crashes my game or makes things unplayable. It runs just fine on medium settings and looks fantastic. With a live team working on putting out consistent updates, the problems get smaller and the game gets better all the time.
Vanguard has had a long and difficult history. The game might still be rough around the edges, but it's constantly improving. It's good enough now that you can actually dig in and see the meat of the gameplay, and what's there is pretty amazing. The community is friendly and helpful, the world is exciting, the quests are everywhere, and the game is fun. With some more love and work, this really could be the EverQuest 2.0 I talked about last week. It certainly has that feeling. Like I said, it's good enough that I'm itching to play it even while Age of Conan sits waiting in my lap.
I agree with everything Thom Terrazas said in his recent interview, and I really think SOE should re-launch the game, from a marketing standpoint. Vanguard today is not the same game that it was a year ago -- it's much, much better. It's a really fun game. Having spent some more time with it, I'm really hoping that SOE continues work on it. It would be great to see the same ideas carried forward into more content at high levels, more stuff to do, possibly even an expansion. A jungle continent or a snowy northern continent perhaps?
Do yourself a favor and give the game another try, if you haven't yet. It's a pretty amazing ride, and there's a lot to like about it.
|Cameron Sorden is an avid gamer, blogger, and writer who has been playing a wide variety of online games since the late '90s. Several times per week in Player vs. Everything, he tackles all things MMO-related. If you'd like to reach Cameron with comments or questions, you can e-mail him at cameron.sorden AT weblogsinc.com.|