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"How is Vanguard?"

If there's one question that comes up time and time again, it's that one. It experienced a launch disaster, lack of content post 35+, bugs, duping, exploits, performance issues, and the sad "parking lot layoffs," yet Vanguard: Saga of Heroes always seems to generate buzz any time it comes up in conversation.

There's a certain aura surrounding this game, and even though it languished with low subscription numbers for years, it always seems to attract attention when it's covered at Massively. There's something about Vanguard that kept me playing solidly well past launch and still pulls me back from time to time. With a free-to-play launch just around the corner, it seems like the perfect time to explain why I play Vanguard.

Breathe it in

The world of Telon is open-world, and in an era of instancing and hubs, it's refreshing to be able to stretch out and just explore. Every horizon has something eye-catching that begs you to travel to it, and you can see for miles. There aren't mountains and tree-lined hills that artificially box you in. Heck, I can see Mount Stiirhad from my backyard.

One of the things I enjoy most any time I pop into Vanguard is traveling, but I'm not sure which I enjoy more: sailing my Kojani caravel or sailing the skies on Randolph the Reindeer (and yes, I was sad when he was recently grounded). Any time friends popped on to check the game out, I'd always hand them some coins and tell them to rent a flying mount, and they'd always end up reacting similarly to Harry Potter when he first rides a Thestral. Vanguard provided the freedom to fly at a time when it wasn't nearly as common as it is now, and it's the perfect world to explore from the air.

Telon looks amazing, but to me, the music adds another layer of depth to the world that's really compelling. From the peaceful tones of a Kojani fishing village to the exotic, adventurous rhythms of the Qalian desert to the hauntingly beautiful music of the mountains in Thestra, the music is done so well that it adds a level of richness to the world of Telon.

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Little gems of ideas

Vanguard has tons of little details that really make for an incredible world. Tread carefully in River Valley if you're carrying potent meat because you'll attract prowlers from miles away. Similarly, if you plod around Ahgram with a fish in your bag, you could be attacked by Smelly Cat (and believe me, he packs a punch!). There's the separate game of Diplomacy, which is a stand-alone way to develop your character. And one of the coolest (and weirdest!) things I've ever done in a game is group harvesting. One second, we're fighting rock elementals, and the next, we're donning our brown harvesting clothes and collectively gathering up resources. It's unfortunate that Vanguard was mired in bugs and performance issues because they've prevented players from being able to see all of the little details in the game that are really incredible.

A serious game

The world of Telon is enormous, and even with the addition of the Riftway system, there's still plenty of legwork involved in getting to a particular destination. But at the same time, it's a gorgeous world, and I often find myself getting distracted by an amazing view or a curious landmark along the way. Just this week, I was sailing along and heading to Mekalia when I decided to keep going and revisit the huge citadel that's located just off Skrillien Point. Once there, I got a quest that asked me to find a way to access the top floor and defeat the head Cyclops. I had hunted here years ago but never realized there was a special quest to get to the top, and it turns out that if you kill the flames that wander the courtyard, the rune that you loot ports you to the top floor -- but only if you jump off the broken balcony halfway up the tower.

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There were lots of really cool twists in Vanguard that are easy to miss if you are interested only in steamrolling through levels. But if you explore enough, you'll get to experience some of the most amazing dungeon crawls. One night, you could work your way through the twisted school of magic in Kaon and port up to the lyceum that hovered over your head. The next, you could explore the lush and dangerous River Valley and attempt the mysterious flower event in River Palace. Or you can head to the temple of Xennumet and don power suits that let you fly around the room to take on the boss, Iron Man-style.

In Vanguard, the things we accomplished felt legendary, and it never felt like we were on a hamster wheel, spinning as fast as possible so we could get to 50. Each night was about where we wanted to go explore, about carefully studying our surroundings to figure out the layers of content that revealed some unforgettable encounters.

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The undiscovered

Amid the tumultuous beta and launch, there was content that was either launched completely empty or not even launched at all. There's Sepulchral Chasm, which I accidentally discovered one day through a trap door in an empty adobe home. It's an enormous valley with a towering stone-carved doorway, and it just begs for some named mobs and itemization. There's the City of Brass, which I also discovered by accident when I fell through the world somewhere down near Afrit. It's an enormous city that resembles Razad and would make an incredible group area or raid zone. There's the Cavern of Wonder, which resembles the waterfall pit of RIFT's Ember Isle. Players in beta got to test the Cavern of Wonder, but it never made it to launch. And of course, there's Mount Stiirhad, the volcano that looms over the map of Qalia and takes you quite a while to reach the top by flight, so I can only guess how long it would take to fight up the switchbacks that lead to the temple inside. It's really too bad that Vanguard has had such a challenging five years, but I still have hope of seeing these places completed one day.

The future

Part of me is thrilled that Vanguard is going free-to-play because it will enable lots of people to see the game that they otherwise would not have. But there's part of me that feels free-to-play will take away some of what made Vanguard special. Despite the difficulties, there is a very close community there, and I wonder how that will be affected by the intrusiveness of cash shops, vanity items, and drive-by players. Hopefully, though, there will be a new appreciation for the title. There is a great game there if you look hard enough, and that's why I still play Vanguard.

There's an MMO born every day, and every game is someone's favorite. Why I Play is a column in which the Massively staff members kick back and reminisce about all their favorite MMOs. Whether it's the new hotness or an old fan favorite loaded with nostalgia, each title we cover here tugs at our heartstrings and keeps us coming back for more.

This article was originally published on Massively.