The Trouble With Vanguard

Since shuya asked about Vanguard, I’m going to talk a little about where I think it is now, why I think it’s got the most potential out of all the big-ticket MMOs currently running, and why, despite that, I am not currently a subscriber.

(This blog entry slightly revised from the first version on the live GAX site.)

The antics of Vanguard’s original developer, Sigil, are well-documented elsewhere, so I won’t get into them aside from noting that Main Man Brad McQuaid may have done a great job selling the game to investors and hyping it to the public, but he sure wasn’t able to handle leading the development team. As a result, there were false starts, much effort was wasted, and the game went live well before it was ready because Sigil ran out of money and needed a revenue source to keep afloat. SOE bought it out, and despite the negative opinions of some, that was the best thing that could possibly have happened to the game – it would have gone under otherwise, and Smed’s on the record as saying so.

Problems at launch included a lack of content, class and gear balance issues, rampant memory leaks, abominable stability and performance even on high-end systems, wonky crafting, and many, many, many bugs. There has been substantial improvement in the 11 months since, and the game is now about where it probably should have been at launch, stability and performance issues excepted.

Despite that spotty history, Vanguard had a lot of great features even at launch, starting with a seamless, zoneless, totally persistent world. I find this very appealing for reasons which will be obvious to anybody who’s followed the discussion here for the last couple of days. Vanguard manages to avoid the traditional pitfalls of complete persistence partly by incorporating good ideas developed elsewhere, like encounter locking and short respawn timers, but mostly by providing a very large quantity of varied content in a very large world, so that very large numbers of players aren’t all hunting the same mobs in the first place. At its best, there’s plenty to do in Vanguard, between solo and group questing, Crafting and Diplomacy, and just plain exploring.

Telon is also the in my judgment the best-designed setting in MMO gaming (Middle-Earth doesn’t count, since it’s an existing property developed for another medium and LotRO’s interpretation of it is fairly lousy anyway,) from a world-building perspective. It has a wide and appealing variety of both races and classes, and some of the class implementations, monks, blood mages and bards in particular, are really fresh and different from what others have done. And some of the starting questlines are also really fresh, cool and interesting.

But these virtues are uneven. The starting Kojani questline is awesome, but the Varanjar line (the one I started with) is nothing special at all. Halgarad in particular seems underdeveloped, with broken diplomacy questlines, lackluster kill-and-collect quests and a racial settlement that looks lame and is a pain in the dick to navigate through. Globally, the content is really uneven in this way. Some areas are chock-full of stuff to do and obviously well-designed, while other areas offer very little and were seemingly slapped together at the last minute by “programmers” recuited from Monkey Zone. And by “areas” I mean not only geographical locations, but places in the level curve. And while the total amount of content in the game is actually very high, because the world is so big, in many places it’s hard to tell. One whole “continent,” Kojan (really an island chain,) lacks any content at all over 20th level, since it was tacked in right at the end of development. There are tons of barren, unpopulated islands in the archipelago just crying out for a reason to be there. The housing and ships are nice looking, but both lack functionality and variety. I want Ardwulf to be able to build a Viking Dragonship, by Thor’s velvet-smooth arse!

Graphically, the game looks generally very good, especially the landscapes, at least on high graphics settings, although a lot of the structures show signs of having been slapped together – I point to the dopey trapezoidal buildings of the Varanthari as my example. And the character models, while not exactly terrible (they’re better than EQ2’s default models,) suffer from a lack of options in faces, clothing and hair and beard styles that really hurts efforts to make characters look distinctive despite the best character customization toolset in MMOs.

I have some idea of what EQ2 was like when it released. A friend described it to me as “scoured totally clean of anything cool or flavorful,” and while that doesn’t describe Vanguard, it gives me great hope that the same company that has turned EQ2 into an absolutely terrific game in two years will do the same to Vanguard, which in terms of content and flavor is way ahead of where EQ2 was. I would say that it just needs “polish,” but that’s such a broad statement that it’s practically meaningless. Vanguard developers need to go over every inch of content and mechanics with a fine-toothed comb, adding where necessary and fixing elsewhere. And it still needs substantial improvement in performance and stability – a month ago I was still guaranteed a crash every hour or two, and that’s simply unacceptable for an MMO 11+ months old.

This last thing is why I am not a current subscriber. I have the most powerful video card in the world and Vanguard runs poorly on it. It’s not that I couldn’t get good framerates – I hit 100 FPS on occasion on very high graphics settings – but it was never consistently good, and hitching would bring my framerate into the single digits very frequently. I know there are specific problems running on 8800 cards due to Nvidia driver issues, but the fact is that no other game suffers from them like Vanguard does, and it’s really SOE’s responsibility to fix it at this point, and not Nvidia’s.

If you have a card along the lines of a GeForce 7900 or 7950 or an ATI equivalent, Vanguard should be able to run reasonably well at moderate graphics settings. And the basic gameplay and mechanics are generally very good, if you don’t mind scouring for quests or grinding as an alternative, or being unable to advance crafting because there’s no toolbelts available between crafter level 1 and 25, or getting stuck in Diplomacy because the quest that will get your Diplomacy level high enough to start several promising-looking quests is broken.

Vanguard is a good game that happens to have some very unfabulous features at the moment, and is frustratingly close to balls-tighteningly awesome in a number of areas. If anyone’s interested, I do recommend checking it out – GameStop has the collector’s edition priced at $19.95 right now. Buy it while you can. But wait until Game Update 4 is out to activate the account.

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