Vanguard: Saga of Heroes
While offline games flounder somewhat in the peaks and troughs of dying genres, accusations of unoriginality and cookie-cutter design, the online world is rapidly becoming the arena in which developers seek to push the envelope that bit more rigorously. Brad McQuaid did it back in 1999 when he co-created the Western world's most notorious MMORPG Everquest - and now he's seeking to do the same two gaming generations later with Vanguard. Although the game is some way off completion, we were lucky enough to get a sneak preview into just what kind of diabolical scheme Sigil has up its sleeve for finding new ways to suck the time from our fragile lives.
"We've spent the first part of the development cycle putting together the elements of a first-generation MMORPG,' explains Vanguard's art director Keith Parkinson. "This means all the features that are associated with those types of games, like different combat classes, trading etc. We did all this in quite a short space of time so that we could dedicate the rest of our cycle to the things that hadn't been done before and all the features that will be required in a third-generation title."
What's already there in the game looks visually spectacular even at this early stage. Towns and cities encompass a whole range of fantasy settings - from white-stoned, sublimely Tolkienesque villages that have been all built to scale, to Arthurian castles and closely built medieval towns that ooze grimy life.
Kevin explains that this mishmash of typical fantasy backdrops is a deliberate move to ease players into the game: "We've tried to keep the style towards what people might expect, but also tried to give it just that little bit more... It's important that players feel comfortable with the world but at the same time, that they are shown something exciting." Much of Vanguard is still under wraps although the developer has started revealing some of the back story on its website. With a strong commitment to community, player grouping and giving the gamer the experience they've always wanted, it's clear that the next phase of Vanguard's development cycle is set to be a very exciting one. With such a development pedigree behind it, not to mention Microsoft's backing, anything and everything is possible.
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When It comes to playing your cards close to your chest, no other MMO does it better at the moment than Sigil Games Online's Vanguard: Saga Of Heroes. This is somewhat understandable, since the game is being pioneered by Brad McQuaid and Jeff Butler, two key developers on the original Everquest. It you were behind the most famous digital drug on the planet, you too would probably be rather cautious about revealing too much about the next lifesapping adventure you were preparing to 9 unleash on an unsuspecting public...
This year, Sigil demonstrated what it's been working on since we last visited Vanguard, and how it's developing into what it describes as a third-generation MMORPG. Confused? Let Travis Williams, Vanguard's senior producer, shed a little light for you. It's a combination of all the things you might typically have seen in other MMOs, but much deeper and taken to the logical next step. The reaction we expect MMO players to have when they see this game is to say, I'd have done that if I was making a game'!" The combat area in particular is one aspect that Sigil has been working heavily on in an attempt to alleviate the grind factor. Every battle you have will be different and you will learn about the different creatures you fight through the level of perception your character has.
There are also plans for numerous linked attacks that can only be executed once your enemy is in a certain state such as stun, which Sigil describes as reactionary combat'. Expect to see more on Vanguard soon, because if anyone can make good on their innovation rather than renovation' manifesto, then these chaps can.
Five Years In the making, Vanguard: Saga Of Heroes is the brainchild of an A-Team of MMO developers, including some major players from the development team of former genre-king Everquest. Sadly, somewhere along the line this baby was dropped on its head, leading to a hollow, mind-numbingly dull MMORPG grind that stretches the boundaries of good taste and sensible design decisions.
Vanguard has been promoted as a 'core' MMORPG, harking back to the days before World of Warcraft and EverQuest II 'mainstreamed' the industry. Cutting through the hype of both fanboys and PR-types, this is referring to the days before instancing, quick levelling and fast travel, which have apparently removed all sense of adventure from the genre.
The world of Telon is a nostalgic stab at the old-school EverQuest format, dropping teleportation and fast-transport across a world crammed with content in favour of grand, meandering environs that lead more naturally to built-up areas. While in EQ's case this style of gameplay was pursued in the innocent exploration of a new genre, Vanguard's whimsical wandering feels synthetic when combined with its pragmatic quest-to-level progression.
In fact, the vast, unknown world that Sigil Games have created feels pointless when you witness quite how much of it is filled with repeating textures and the same handful of enemies. Soon enough you realise that Vanguard's 'exploration' actually means a succession of 15-minute jaunts across endless vistas of angry flora and fauna. It's a recipe for disaster when combined with a vicious levelling curve somewhat reminiscent of the original EverQuest.
Worse still, the content is spread drastically thin across the three major continents. Having to provide hundreds of hours' worth of questing for 19 races has clearly troubled the developers, and after your umpteenth 'kill X of this' and 'deliver this to here' quest you'll realise just how two-dimensional the game really is. And all along, Sigil have forgotten to make it charming. Vanguard desperately wants to be a fantasy epic, but only succeeds in being shallow and uninteresting. The game makes you walk great distances to do things you can do in many other games, with little hope of an endearing storyline or character to lighten the mood. Yes, Telon is big, but it lacks any of the innate charisma of Azeroth or Norrath, and it shows in every town, quest and NPC.
Tragic: The Gathering
The much-vaunted 'spheres' of crafting and diplomacy are an equal let-down. While the diplomacy card game is an interesting diversion, it all too quickly becomes repetitive beyond words. Crafting is worse still, hiding a hodgepodge of constant clicking behind a facade of three-stage forming and 'complications' that become tiresome far too quickly.
To top this off, as of going to press Vanguard veers between unstable and unplayable on many computers, even those that run WOW or EQII smoothly. The graphics are lush, but even on the 'highest performance' setting they can bring competent computers to a jerky, pitiful halt. With bugs galore and a stinking, stuttering engine, it becomes even harder to be positive about this game.
While taking inspiration from many of its peers, Vanguard fails to understand the keys to success. It's a classic case of quantity over quality, sporting so much repetition and needless grinding that it can hardly be called an adventure. I In a world of well-made, fun-packed MMORPGs like Guild Wars and WOW, Vanguard is in no way recommendable to anyone but masochists and those with more time and money than sense. Sadly, Sigil's vision is dead.