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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Vanguard Initial Impressions: Odi et Amo

Remember that initial impressions are just that. This is not a formal review. For instance, I haven't gotten to a high enough level to fully understand the combat system, so I'm not really getting into it at this time. The same goes for crafting and harvesting.

I Hate


No I don’t hate polish. The proper heading should probably be, “Polish, Lack Thereof.”

I would never tell any company working on an MMO that they have to imitate WoW. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t valuable lessons to be learned from WoW's success. No one would ever suggest imitating Anarchy Online but I would say there are clearly lessons to be learned there as well.

And the lesson is that players care about polish.

Maybe polish isn’t even the right term. Perhaps some would call it “a less than massive amount of bugs.” Others might define it as “a level of minimum functionality.” But I prefer polish because it incorporates those two concepts as well as adding the idea that the game is, in some sense, refined and ready.

However you want to define it, Vanguard doesn’t have it. Every play session I’m afflicted with scores of bugs, incredibly uneven content and just that general “beta” feel.

To me you can no longer debate the fact that a game should be released when it’s ready. And you can argue about what’s “ready” and “not ready” all day. But Vanguard is clearly not ready.

Look, even SOE has realized that polish is important by getting rid of their expansion policy (six month timetable) for EQII.

To not realize that players want a game that is, to some degree, polished at release goes beyond stupidity at this point and can only be attributed to sheer arrogance.

User Interface

The UI in Vanguard is just hideous. How that much development time can go into a game and produce a UI like that is beyond me.

When will developers understand that the UI is incredibly important? We stare at it and use it every second we play the game. It might not be the “sexiest” thing to work on but it deserves effort. Vanguard fails.

Now, there might be some great ideas incorporated in the UI. I love the fact that you can see what enemies are targeting you. I love seeing the icons that pop up under a mob to give you combat clues. But everything is just very off.

The map interface is particularly sickening. During the beta there was a big argument in a general channel because the map interface was non-functional. The gist of one side was that lack of maps leads to immersion. I suggested burning my subway map so that commuting could be more "immersive." But you can't hide behind immersion when you do implement a map system that works, but fails on every level of usability.

Someone's going to suggest downloading mods to improve the UI. That's fine, I love when the community tries to improve things. But a game company shouldn't rely on the community to complete one of the basic aspects of their game. And I paid my money for Vanguard to see the "vision" of the designers. If I have to turn to the mod community because the UI is just that bad, I find it hard to believe the designers really care about that vision.


I’ve heard people talk about how amazing the graphics are, but I sometimes think steep technical requirements are confused with amazing graphics. “This game requires 4 gigs of ram to play smoothly – so the graphics must be incredible!”

I’m not going to knock Vanguard for having high system requirements. For one, I think some of the reports on this are just a touch overblown. Also, it’s a valid choice, even if I don’t agree with it. I’ve changed my mind on the system requirement issue so I’m not going to criticize them for their decision.

But I think, as Uncle Ben might say, “With great requirements come great responsibility.” If you’re going to ask people to upgrade their machines to play your game, you simply have to hold up your end of the bargain.

Sure, some aspects of Vanguard’s graphics are amazing. The volumetric clouds, the grass, and, most of all, the vistas. You can look into the distance and see some amazing and incredible sights.

But on the whole, it fails. The character models are just bad and the animations go beyond bad to terrible. Some of the textures are laughable. And yes, I've seen it run on a high end computer.
On the whole, simply too many areas are just bleh, to use a scientific term. You can say that graphics are subjective, and they are. But if you lined up 100 art professors to judge Vanguard, WoW and EQII, I’d bet serious money that the results for artistic merit would be “WoW, EQII and Vanguard.” And that’s unacceptable.

As much as I do occasionally marvel at individual aspects of the graphics (coming across a beautiful structure for instance), my general impression is an unpleasant one.

Take the font used to display NPC’s names. It’s simply hideous. I’ve heard a lot of rigmarole about how this gives the game a “classic old-school EQ feel.”

Well, in the words of MC Serch to 100 Proof on the White Rapper Show: “There’s a difference between respecting the old school and paralleling the old school. You’re in a room with a bunch of wolves. They’re all hungry and they’re all in the now.”

I respect the old school. Vanguard parallels it. And players don’t deserve to dedicate a year or more of their lives to someone’s vanity nostalgia project.


If the graphics are bleh, I would term the quest content "blah." There is nothing memorable or interesting there, nothing we haven’t seen a hundred times before. And it’s okay to do stuff we’ve seen before, if it is done very well. Vanguard quests are just mind-numbingly average. You will get a gem in there every once in a while, but they are few and far between.

It might get better later on in the game. I don’t know.

The content is also very uneven. Starting out as a High Elf in Thestra I was put to sleep with completely uninteresting, generic starter quests. But as a Dark Elf in Kojan I was immediately drawn in with exciting, emotional content.

Now, some people might not like the almost cinematic opening quests I am referring to in Kojan. It does give a history to your character which might conflict with the one you have created. But either way, these are two incredibly uneven openings.

And the Kojan starter quests show me the Vanguard team is capable of producing exciting quests with good storylines which create emotions in players. I just don’t get why I’m struggling through generic kill ten x quests when I see there is an alternative.

Character Creator

Yeah, it has a million sliders so if adjusting your “brow depth” is important to you, you can do it. But what do we really notice when we see players in the game world? Their face and hair. You can mess with the limited selection of faces with the aforementioned sliders. But the races I've played have literally only four hairstyles. And you will usually see the population latch on to one or two out of the four hairstyles. So, hello, attack of the clones.

This may seem like a minor issue. But connecting with your character and feeling unique is very important.

I Love

I've been pretty hard on Vanguard so far, but they should take that as a compliment. I haven't cared enough about a game since EQII to get this angry about it. It's my love for this game that sparks such a passion.


Wow, this is great. This is pretty much exactly the type of fun, strategic, skill-based game I was thinking of to replace the typical crafting "gameplay" in MMO's. Okay, so it's not about crafting, it's a whole new aspect of gameplay. That's still great.

The key thing is that this game just plain works. It's fun, exciting and challenging. I love getting a new card, I love deciding which cards to use against a specific opponent, I love winning a difficult parley.

Some might say that a game involving cards to represent diplomacy takes you out of the world and breaks immersion. But the way it's designed actually makes me feel more connected. By having the actual quest dialogue progress for each point you win, you make reading that dialogue feel like a reward and not a chore. I read every word of my diplomacy dialogue and I just can't say that for regular quests. What's more, the diplomacy quests I've done so far are just very well written and exciting.

Of course, diplomacy suffers from the same fate as the rest of Vanguard - lack of polish - and it kills me to think of what diplomacy could have been at launch with sufficient development time. My excitement at getting my first timed diplomacy quest was immediately killed by finding the key NPC was just missing. There are other minor bugs and issues I've had and I am reading that things get very "grindy" once you finish the quest lines. I don't expect features like Diplomacy PvP or raiding (which are being discussed) to be in the game at launch. But stuff like broken quests, writs and informants should clearly have been fixed.

I don't blame the diplomacy team for this. When I first played the beta, the entire concept of the diplomacy game mechanic was different (and to be honest it didn't look at all promising). The current card game was nowhere to be seen. So I appreciate that the diplomacy team did such great work in such a short time, and I'm happy with the direction they are headed. I pretty much love every post Aruspex has made concerning diplomacy. I just wish they were given a little more time to work on the system prior to launch.

Finally, I do hope Diplomacy fits into the game as a whole and does not suffer from a feeling of isolation. I think the Civic Diplomacy concept is brilliant (working together at moving metaphorical levers in each city to give city-wide buffs). But it's also a little too altruistic for me. Diplomats need their phat lewtz just as much as any other class. Crafting and adventuring gives direct, tangible rewards. I hope Diplomacy doesn't feel unrewarding.

I've pointed out some concerns but I absolutely love this aspect of the game. I can't wait to play it more and I can't wait to see what the future has in store.


Ah, freshocity: that well-known combination of pure freshness and newness. How sweet, how very sweet it can be.

The reality is that Vanguard is the first fantasy MMO worth wasting my time in since EQII and WoW launched. And that's been a while.

Even though it's unfinished and I don't agree with some of the decisions made, the fact is that you can be online playing Vanguard right now. And it is playable (barely but it is). Sometimes you just feel the weight of history and levels is too much in the more established games. Sure WoW and EQII have their expansions, but it's not quite the same thing. Sometimes you need to feel you're exploring a new world along with everyone else.

You have that amazing feeling of exploration in Vanguard. The excitement you get when you come to the edge of a cliff in Qualia and see Khal in the distance for the first time is incredible. And Vanguard is a huge world to explore, that is certain. While games like Dark and Light clearly prove that size doesn't matter, the sheer amount of places to see in Vanguard is a pretty nice aspect. And so far I enjoy the combat, items and abilities (though I'm not overly impressed with any...yet).

This might not sound like a lot. It might sound like just being in the right place at the right time. Well that might be enough. For a time everyone thought it was easy to start an MMO. It's not. Vanguard may be a failure in many respects, but I don't think it will fail, and that's saying a lot.

If you're enjoying your current virtual world, I say keep enjoying it. There's certainly no rush to play an unfinished game. But it is a valid, if shaky, option for the more jaded player looking for a new journey. Keep an eye out for me in Telon.


Blogger Anskiere said...

You didn't mention the best bug, where sometimes when you log in your character looks nothing like the character you created, and every time you log in it completely changes to something random. AWESOME! :P

8:16 PM  
Blogger Aggro Me said...

You mean the magical-character-appearance-randomization "feature?"

That's just too next-gen an innovation for me even to comprehend let alone discuss...

8:45 PM  
Anonymous RickR said...

I am left wondering why everything seems to have the specular turned on. Why is my character's shirt and hair plastic-shiny?
Maybe the graphics wouldn't be so demanding if the GPU didn't have to calculate specularity on linen.

My other HUGE gripe is inconsistency, especially in the starting areas. If you start as a Thestran Human, the area is so devoid of decent mobs and the quests and quest rewards so lame that you're left wondering why you bother logging in. Yet the very first "welcome to the world" quest for a Wood Elf rewards you with a staff that more than triples your weapon DPS. Start as a Vulmane (wolf people) and the quests are rewards are extremely good, so much so that by level 8 I had twice the money and gear of any of my other characters at a similar level.

Overall I find Vanguard an enjoyable game, but not enjoyable enough to justify subbing. I'll come back to it in 6 months and see how far they've come.

9:12 AM  
Blogger kirkgibson said...

Way to take it from Catullus to the white rapper show, aggro :;

10:05 AM  
Blogger Cyndre said...

This is a pretty fair assesment of Vanguard. I Beta'd Vanguard for a while and was deeply disappointed. It was quite possibly the biggest let-down I have had since starting online gaming. I blogged my thoughts here.

If I was burned out on my current game, I might have done what you suggest and just plod through hoping for a revolutionary makeover, but I just think The Burning Crusdae was too good for Vanguard to compete. Why they released early AND tried to out-do the biggest MMO in histories, acclaimed first expansion, must be ultra-sekret business accumen, that a simpleton like me will never fully understand.

12:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The graphics are horrid. They are slightly a step up from the original EQ. I love customization but it is way too much in areas that aren't needed and not enough in the areas that are. Plus of course like you mentioned, why customize when the character changes everytime you log in! That is if you don't get booted once you do. I had high hopes for this game at one time, but atm it looks like something my preschooler made.

1:17 PM  
Blogger Relmstein said...

I'll probably choose between Vanguard and Lord of the Rings during the summer once the content in the Burning Crusade starts to get old. At the moment though World of Warcraft is delivering in the fun department even if it isn't the most complex of MMORPGs.

3:34 PM  
Anonymous Saylah said...

Vanguard has left me pre-release buy shy now. I was so SURE this was going to be what I wanted to play. It talked the talk, but by the time I got into beta, I knew it wasn't walking it.

This was a HUGE let down and, something possible even worse, made me appreciate Blizzard more for the quality of their games. I had to eat my crow and take my azz back to WOW and am enjoying TBC.

9:37 PM  
Blogger darrenl said...

Your comments are floating around in my head as well Aggro, plus a few more. But, we've seen this kind of launch before with EQ2 and we all know how that game turned out.

Going to hold off my judgment for about a month or so...just to see what they do with it.

11:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Vanguard is such a disappointment because of all the hype associated with it. We were promised a next generation game.

I thought we would get something entirely new and innovative. Vanguard is just EQ1 is updated graphics. That ship has already sailed for me.

2:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When will developers understand that the UI is incredibly important? We stare at it and use it every second we play the game. It might not be the “sexiest” thing to work on but it deserves effort. Vanguard fails.

I tried all kinds of computer games (single player) and the occassional odd MMORPG before discovering EQ1, and I was hooked. Know why?

The UI.

That's all it took - yes, when I started EQ1, the actual play screen was like 25% of the screen and the buttons took up the rest. But gosh-darnabbit, the UI was so user-friendly and player-intuitive that I barely had to crack my player's manual to get going and running around the world.

Now, I would've thought EQII, which was built from a lot of folks coming from EQ1, would've at least used the same keyboard commands so that when people jumped back and forth between the games, it wouldn't require any brain cells. And although the keyboard commands are similar, they're not 100% the same - which means after playing EQII die-hard for half a year, I went back to EQ1 (which I'd already played 3-4 years) and could barely remember how to open my inventory and bank bags and do an inspect or trigger an item.

Oh well. I've moved on to EQII and haven't even signed into EQ in over a year now (just got my 3-year veteran's reward in EQII), but if the UI wasn't so easy, I wouldn't play.

I tried all the big ones - Anarchy Online, DAOC, etc - and I just don't understand why more game companies don't GET that the easier/more intuitive you make the interface, the more likely players will stick with the game. (Oh sure, content counts, too. But if I can't figure out how to get past Newbiespawnpoint, I don't care if I just spent $50 for the game, I won't play it.)

- Meryddian

11:38 AM  
Anonymous MrrX said...

Nicely done. Shouldn't you save the Latin for Gods & Heroes though ? ;)

Now, don't fade back into the woodwork and leave Anskiere all alone to blog the site. Glad to see you back in the MMO space.

1:38 PM  
Anonymous Alukan said...

Nice review and I agree with much that was said. I will say that I am still playing it and find that as I level more and more, I am enjoying the game more and more.

Part of that is you class doesn't really start to shine until the mid-teens to low 20s. Plus the game bugs seem to be slowly disappearing.

I do agree with some of the otehr comments people have made. There is a HUGE difference in enjoyment of where you start out. Kojani is great for the start (but sucks once you hit level 15 so you need to go to Qalia or Thestra at that point).

And the lack of character model customization is mind-boggling on a new game. Just mind-boggling.

But all in all I am playing it and enjoying the game.

2:59 PM  
Anonymous Cuppycake said...

Nice review, and I agree with mostly all of it!

My favorite part of this review is where you tie in The White Rapper Show. Priceless.

11:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i know that somewhere i read an article where the guy in charge apologizes to would be players and states the game isn't actually "done" but that they had to release it anyway due to financial obligations. i would imagine this has to do with SOE forcing them to release before they wanted to. i don't completely hate SOE but they certainly do take an "all for greed" stance with thier MMOs.

2:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Vanguard's a little shaky but they have been doing a pretty good job crushing out bugs.

The big selling point for me are huge dungeons starting at level 15 and a big immersion factor. You can tell they really put a lot of thought into this world.

For instance you mentioned disliking the Leth Nurae plotline, but I actually enjoyed it very much. If you continue in the area you'll find out that the Kaon chaos forces that are invading the region emanate from a nearby magic school that was taken over by a small sect of cultists in the turmoil of the Orc and Goblin War, one of the recent shaping events on Thestra. The Lyceum is just a really awesome dungeon, both aesthetically (floating chunks of the academy over a deep chasm with waterfalls and stuff) and from a plot perspective. The questline that starts you off forces you to pick between the high elves and the Sages Arcane (think the local police versus the FBI). You can find out a lot of the relevant lore just wandering around talking to people, it's not just out-and-out given in a quest dialogue -- for instance, you discover that the outpost is actually being slowly torn apart and warped by the chaos effect, which you can actually see in the game world. It leads into a questline where you uncover the tricks to beating the three headmasters of the different magic schools of the academy and eventually work your way up to the guy in charge. And the thing is pretty much everywhere you go in Vanguard there's a dungeon that has this sort of flavor.

Diplomacy, on the other hand is by far the weakest sphere, with little point to grinding it and one of the most horrible grinds I've experienced to get the skill up. The newbie diplomacy questlines are awesome, some of the quests are fun, but the meat of it is lame.

10:23 AM  
Blogger Pai said...

Players don’t deserve to dedicate a year or more of their lives to someone’s vanity nostalgia project.

I think that pretty much sums up the problem with Vanguard, in general.

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