Much like Vanguard, you should consider this review unfinished. Which isn’t just to say that Vanguard is an evolving game, but that is was quite literally released in an unfinished state. Developer’s Sigil had a furious accountant held to their heads, and after almost five years of development, it was decided they should just released the damned thing.
Billed as one of the next-generation MMORPGs and the spiritual successor to Everquest (being produced by its co-designer), Vanguard has a lot to live up to. It’s a very traditional RPG – elves, gnomes, druids, sorcerers, robes, beards, that kind of thing. On paper at least, this is one of the most complex and in-depth MMORPGs to date. So it’s an acquired taste, and if the prospect of living an alter life as a dwarven carpenter or elven ranger doesn’t appeal to you, then that’s fair enough. For those who do like that kind of thing, Vanguard goes to extreme lengths to facilitate.
At the heart of every addictive online RPG, are the missions to kill entire species. No boar shall go left unharmed. Vanguard is no different here, and on route to reaching the endgame you’ll have killed your fair share of wildlife. ‘The grind’ as they call it. It’s stupid and rather pointless, but Vanguard isn’t specifically to blame here, the whole genre is. At least you’ll get to crawl through challenging dungeons with a party of players, once you’ve gone through the game’s initiation. That is essentially the highlight of MMOs – killing monsters with a group of strangers you’ve just met on the internet.
Vanguard isn’t just about the hacking and the slashing though. The gameplay consists of three spheres – adventuring (with the hacking and the slashing), crafting (virtual labour) and diplomacy. The diplomacy system is quite intriguing at first glance – you start with a set of diplomacy cards (a conversational Top Trumps if you will), which you use to converse with various NPCs throughout the world. Certain cards build up points, which you can spend on special cards to push the conversation in your favour. As you progress with diplomacy, you can earn new cards and unlock access to different areas of the game, or change the agendas of towns. Unfortunately in practise it’s a little underwhelming, as the type of card you use (aggressive, persuasive, charming) really has little impact on the conversation. You just use the cards to unlock the conversation, which remains almost entirely linear. The game is constantly changing though, so improvements may still be made.
The crafting system is where Vanguard really shows its depth. At the basic level, you can harvest materials as a miner, a lumberjack or a variety of other professions. You can then make things. Lots of things. Not just a new sword or a nice pair of pants, but an entire range of gnomish lingerie. Or better yet, build boats and houses. Yes, you can sail around the game’s vast oceans as a pirate, or decorate your little house with the D&D equivalent of Ikea. The possibilities aren’t quite endless, but go further than any other game. Unfortunately owning an impressive virtual castle isn’t as easy as playing Animal Crossing – materials and land, though virtual, are limited. There’s a real economy at play here, and if you want to be at the top of the pecking order, you will be required to play the game as a second job. Some people will love the idea of it, others will despise it – we won’t comment.
The size of the game world is constantly stressed, just to emphasise how vast it is. Like much of the game, it’s a love-hate relationship. Riding through a comparatively tiny portion of the game’s landmass (thankfully horses are available cheaply and even for low level players), can literally take more than ten minutes. Quite literally just running in a straight line. That’s nothing though – trying to meet up with a player from another continent can take the best part of an hour, just travelling. We don’t even want to consider how long it would take to run the length of the game world, but we’re talking hours. Right now all this land mass seems a little overwhelming, and in places, very sparsely populated. Travelling between areas, extreme boredom and the feeling of being trapped in a landscape simulator can set in. This is billed as a selling point though. The empty wilderness is ‘potential’. Or ‘an unfinished game’, if you’re a cynic. It’s not our idea of fun, but then nor is spanking, and some people certainly seem to enjoy that.
The game’s incomplete state can’t be ignored. This is a game that’s being patched every week, with a lot of expanded content on the horizon. Today it’s full of bugs, regularly crashes and often leaves players at dead ends with broken quests and missing content. Worse than that, the game’s performance is abysmal, bringing even the highest spec PCs to their knees – and yet the visuals it produces are unremarkable, a world of frequently bland environments and charmless characters. A little style and intelligent design wouldn’t have gone amiss. Don’t even bother trying unless your system comfortably exceeds the game’s recommended specifications, and even then don’t expect anything amazing. Hopefully the game’s performance will be optimized with new patches, but as it stands today, you’re paying for the game (including a monthly subscription) in what is still essentially a beta state.
On paper Vanguard is a brilliant game. In reality, it has a lot of unfulfilled ambition. This is a game that will be different in six months time, and could be completely changed in a couple of years. Play it at your discretion. Or don’t, if the idea of spending most of your free time in a virtual fantasy world sounds pointless.