Here's a quick backstory for you: Vanguard originally launched in January of 2007 when Massively was still months away from its inception, and it was a mess. Bugs as far as the eye could see! Believe me -- I know because I was there. I played Vanguard at launch and lasted about a month before I grew tired of the never-ending parade of bugs and glitches and left. In the six years since Vanguard's launch, it's been sort of the red-headed stepchild of SOE's stable of MMOs. Content updates have been few and far between, and most patches the game has received have been (sorely needed) bug fixes. And of course, the game ended up going free-to-play back in August of last year.
Now, six years after my first foray into Telon, I decided to jump back into Vanguard to give the game a fresh look. Did I find a diamond in the rough or just a big lump of neglected coal? There's only one way to find out: Follow me past the cut!
I think I'll start by stating the obvious. Vanguard is six years old, and it has not aged particularly gracefully. Now here's an interesting tidbit about me: I hate dolls; they give me the willies. It's unfortunate, then, that Vanguard's character models have an eerie doll-like quality about them. From their shiny porcelain skin to their glassy, lifeless eyes, they just give me the frickin' creeps. But really, that sense of dollishness isn't confined just to the character models; the entire world of Telon seems to be made entirely of the same material. There's really no variety in texture. Trees, rocks, and buildings all look as if they were molded from polystyrene and then painted with the appropriate texture. What I guess I mean is that the game has no style to it, no visual panache. It's just bland.
"Vanguard's flying mounts control with all the finesse of an eighteen-wheeler missing its steering column."
To its credit, Vanguard does have quest coordinates for each quest, but they're inconsistent. Some will tell you exactly where to go for each step of the quest, including the return to the questgiver. Others will give you only the vaguest direction and then leave you wondering where you got the quest from in the first place.
That's not to say that Vanguard isn't without some interesting ideas, though. The game's diplomacy feature immediately comes to mind. Essentially diplomacy is a card game that would take far too long to explain fully, and really, the card game's mechanics are the least interesting part of diplomacy. What's really neat about it is what you can do with it. By taking part in parleys with various NPCs, players can activate a variety of area-wide buffs to make life easier for themselves and their fellow players. It's really a great concept, but I don't think it's particularly well-executed. The mechanics are simple enough, but the game doesn't really give much direction as to how to be successful at it, and as such, I found it tough to enjoy (though perhaps I'm just dumb).
I also rather enjoyed the game's crafting system, even though it does get tedious in large doses. When crafting an item, players are given a set number of action points that can be spent to activate a variety of crafting abilities that increase an item's quality, progress, or both. On top of that, players will occasionally get hit by complications (such as spontaneously combusting materials, which is apparently a big problem in Telon) that cause penalties to crafting progress until the complications are remedied. I personally love it when games turn crafting into a sort of minigame, but if you prefer the gather-mats-and-click-button style of crafting, your mileage may vary. The game's harvesting system, which even includes bonuses for gathering in groups, is also nice, if not exactly groundbreaking.
There are other little things that Vanguard gets right. For starters, the game's class and race selection blows away that of 90% of MMOs on the market. The game boasts 19 possible races (including a number of different human cultures instead of humans-as-one-monotonous-empire, which I appreciate) and 15 adventuring classes that range from the standard Warrior, Rogue, and Cleric to the more exotic Disciple (a martial-artist-cum-healer), Blood Mage, and Psionicist.
Vanguard also gives players the ability to rent mounts, which is a feature I wish more games would adopt. Of course, you can rent them for only five minutes at a time, which wouldn't be so bad if you could refresh the duration, but no. Instead, you have to wait until the time limit runs out (and you can't just right-click the buff to get rid of it), so if you've got two minutes left and need to bring it back up to the full five, go make a sandwich or something.
Massively's Eliot Lefebvre really hit the mark when he described Vanguard as "proof that good ideas don't make a good game." Vanguard is overflowing with great, ambitious ideas, but a number of them fall short due to minor oversights or poor execution. The fact that the game hasn't felt the warm caress of a developer (save for bug-fixing and the rather small City of Brass content update last November) since sometime in 2008 certainly doesn't help matters. In fact, a number of the game's problems could probably be remedied with a few judicious patches.
Despite all of its shortcomings, Vanguard does have a certain old-school charm, but if that's what you're after, you could probably find better in EverQuest or even EverQuest II. And finally, to those who I'm sure will inevitably say, "but you didn't even get to the best part!": I know that there's a lot to Vanguard that I didn't get to see (such as housing, which was one of my favorite parts back in the day), but it took me a big chunk of time just to complete the three main Isle of Dawn questlines, and I can't imagine slogging through too much more of that just to get to "the good stuff." Vanguard simply has not aged well, and I don't think that anything short of divine intervention (or a god-like development team) will return it to relevance.
MMOs are constantly changing, and our opinions can change with them. That's why we're here to give some beloved (or not) games a second (or third) look. Has that game that was a wreck at launch finally pulled itself together? How do the hits of yesteryear hold up today? That's what we're here to find out as Massively gets its Second Wind!