Vanguard - The Anti-Review

"We will have a lot of work to do post-launch and the first couple of months post-launch will be just as busy as beta 5 with lots of patches, bug fixes, new feathres[sic], etc." – Brad McQuaid on beta concerns for Vanguard: Saga of Heroes performance

Honestly, you've got to respect the man's candor. Many criticisms may be laid at the feet of former Everquest Vision™ junkee and current Sigil Games Vision™ proselytizer Brad McQuaid but indirectness is not one of them. To be fair, I've poached a single sentence from one of a million forum posts by the guy, taken it out of context and placed it in italics to give it a weight beyond the scope of the original statement, so let's not pretend that this is some kind of mission statement on releasing the game. The thing is, having played Vanguard: Saga of Heroes whenever I could muster the fortitude over the past two weeks, Brad's post is a pretty salient commentary on the state of the game's release.

When in early February, a Vanguard review key wandered into my grasp I, as something of a Massively Multiplayer gaming addict, set out immediately with the intent of investing dozens of hours into its three-tiered gameplay structure to construct a fair and well-informed review of the title. I even joined with a colleague in what we termed a "blood oath" to achieve at the very least level 20 so that we had a clear impression of both the solo and grouping content of the game. What happened instead is that I kept finding excuses not to play a game that was mediocre at its best and flatly annoying most of the rest of the time.

My goal was to inform myself to a complete enough degree to write a review. This is not that review. That review will never exist, because I am simply not willing to force myself to play long enough to construct a fully realized impression of Norrath. No, wait. Norrath was Everquest. What's this place called again? Let me look it up, and I'll get back to you "…

"… Telon! Right, that's the place I've been avoiding.

Now, I'm going to stop fans of Vanguard right here, because I don't care about your vehement and impassioned emails. I honestly don't. First of all, as I mentioned this isn't a review, and I'm not pawning this off as a complete examination of the entire game, but more importantly I'm under no obligation to like Vanguard, and I'm not going to trot out the tired old conventions of picking out small and often insignificant things that don't suck to balance out against the overwhelming majority of things that do suck.

So, what's wrong with Vanguard? How long you got?

The engine seems tailor made for a Sony Online game – despite Sigil's years of work with Microsoft only to be unceremoniously, and maybe not mysteriously, dumped in 2006 – in that it:

1) Makes everything appear to be made of shiny plastic and,

2) Doesn't work

The landscapes feel lifeless, designed either as great open spaces where oddly shaped creatures wait to be slaughtered and harvested at the whim of the local constabulary, or equally often as tightly confined valleys between vertical cliffs of ridiculous proportions that look exactly like what I'd make with Maya if I wanted to try my hand at cliff making. Also, between these cliffs of insanity, are the same oddly shaped creatures, the slaughtering, and lazy constables. The quests come verbatim from The Big Book of MMOG Quests, and every phase of character development feels awkward. On any given swing of a sword a character might gain familiar skill increases for usual offensive and defensive attributes, but along with those one might receive upgrades in tactic recognition, spell recognition, perception, detection, light fandango tripping and smoothie making. Every conflict fills my chat bar with information that I don't really understand, and ultimately don't care about.

Much of Vanguard seems intentionally obtuse and as counter-intuitive as possible while at the same time wrapping itself in tired trappings that have been done far better. Judging an enemy's relative difficulty is itself a multi-layered exploration in cryptography. For example, a level 5 – 2 dot creature is actually less difficult than a level 4 – 3 dot creature. Do you know what that means? Well neither did I for about nine levels, and let me tell you it makes more than a marginal difference! Would it surprise you to know that, where at level 1 you hit creatures for the traditional handful of hit points, by level 6 you might have a critical hit for several hundred damage? Would it further surprise you to find that those hundreds of points of damage against a newbie mob won't do much serious damage, you know unless it's a level 6 – 1 dot. Obviously I'm talking about a level 4 – 4 dot or level 5 – 3 dot, which are clearly far more difficult that some 6-1!

Death is a fact of life for the early adventurer, and not just the kind of death that comes from hyper-fast respawns and wandering creatures several levels higher than you, but the really annoying death that can only be achieved by not understanding what the holy hell is going on. Fortunately characters are not "eligible" for death penalty for the first few levels. I put eligible in quotes because I was always struck on my many young deaths by not being eligible to be penalized by a game. I wondered if there were people at level 5 running around anxiously anticipating that glorious day when they, like their fathers before them, would be "eligible" for in-game punishment.

But, of course, adventuring, such as it's called, is only one of the spheres of Vanguard's three-sphere gameplay model. There is also Crafting and Diplomacy in which, theoretically, one could invest themselves entirely without paying much attention to improving their Bleeding From Puncture Wounds skill. Of the two spheres, Diplomacy most intrigued me with its collectible card style play.

In Diplomacy parleys you and your mob opponent both start with a pool of points. The first person to get rid of all their points wins the conversation. There is a marker that is moved by playing cards, and at the end of each turn whichever side of the board the marker is on gets rid of one of their points. If you, as the player, remove a point from your own pool then the conversation progresses.

Here are the problems:

1) Despite having names like Forceful Demand, Complimentary Comment or Obfuscating And Slightly Suggestive Imperative, the cards themselves do nothing to altar the static flow of conversations. Even as you play Angry Non-Sequiter, your side of the conversation may end up being conciliatory and diplomatic.

2) Card Gameplay gets redundant. It's one thing to hit the millionth local bandit with a sword, but grinding a card game is a whole new level of hardcore that I'm just not prepared to explore.

3) Vanguard doesn't do a great job of drawing you into the stories. Names of places and people seem so equally unfamiliar as to be interchangeable, and proper nouns suffer from more apostrophes than an all-night marathon viewing of Conjunction Junction. I can only care for so long that the Jaa'bba'lly of F'za'nnnjj province want Kwagzatz of the Hoohanie dead, which is why they are hiring Zv'ii'tz of the K's'tt''ll clan to concoct a slow acting poison to be applied to Kwagzatz's F'oo'd', and it's your job to convince nine different people to give you the nine different components of the poison.

4) There's no real sense of advancement. Occasionally you get a new card, or some new piece of diplomatic clothing that grants you an extra green dot at the beginning of each parlay, but who cares?

Diplomacy is a clever idea that's not nearly engaging enough at lower levels to encourage the player to move forward. The Diplomacy game lacks the levels of nuance and strategy that make CCG games so addicting, and the actions of parley seems only barely related to what's transpiring in the game. It would be like giving your character all kinds of interesting combat skills, but every time you activate those skills you just swing your sword the same way.

But, so what? Right? Tired and redundant gameplay, barely interesting story, artificial environments populated with lame quests and an over population of sword fodder; I could be talking about any MMO on the market. The whole damn genre has run off the rails and become a parody of itself. Click the button and a gamer-treat rolls occasionally down the little pipe activating neurotransmitters in the brain that beg endlessly for more tiny little gamer-treats. So why pick on the little guy?

Fine, you want to know what really pisses me off about Vanguard; what voices me with the attitude that Sigil stole my lunch money? Vanguard sets a bad precedent for development and product release. In the months to launch Brad McQuaid made it very clear that regardless of whether Vanguard was actually ready for launch Sony, which had saved the game from cancellation following Microsoft's parting of ways, had set a firm timetable for retail, and come hell or high water the game only had enough money and time to reach that date. So, now that the game has released in its incomplete state, in a state that McQuaid himself describes as requiring patches, bug fixes and new feature implementation on par with a beta product, Sigil essentially comes to the consumer as the third investor in the process of the development cycle, and that is not just a terrible way of doing business, but an irresponsible step in the wrong direction for complicit consumers.

Let me put it bluntly, if a game is not ready for retail when the money runs out find another investor or shut the doors. We are customers, and the retail end of the industry is bad enough about not supporting incomplete or inoperable products without developers and publishers assuming we are investors in the development process. Your job as the industry is to create product, and then, and only then, we buy it.

So, what to say in capping off my thoughts on Vanguard. First, to you Vanguard faithful who, even now, are anxious to point out all the little things that make Vanguard great on which I completely missed the boat possibly because I'm just some World of Warcraft lamer who can't handle a man's MMO, go suck a sock. I don't care about the stuff I missed because the larger picture, the game itself that's supposed to facilitate my giving a crap about the exploration was barely functional, obtuse and uninspiring. To the guys who made Vanguard and for whatever reason maybe put themselves through reading this, I'm sorry to kick your baby down the stairs, but too many game writers these days are so busy tap dancing around offending someone in the industry that they've lost sight of telling consumers not to buy mediocre games. And, finally, to the reader who is wondering if Vanguard is worth playing, had I to do it all over again I sure wouldn't, and my copy was free.

- Elysium

Comments

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Powerful. Have you considered contributing to the PS3 Haterade thread?

Having participated (I won't say played) in closed beta for the 15 minutes (maybe it was more like an hour) it took me to reach the same conclusions, I completely agree with you.

I think what bugs me the most was the supreme smugness of the Vanguard crew and fans on the forums during the development of the game. With the end result, I have to wonder what the heck they were so smug about all that time?

And I'm not saying this because I hate Brad McQuaid or anything. I loved Everquest and my memories of that game will always rank near the top in my list of favorite gaming memories.

Bravo, just the fact that you wrote an Anti-Review, solidifies my perception of this site possibly being the greatest site ever created.

A review should be a description of an individuals experience with the medium in question, so I wanted to scream "AMEN" when you said;

...but I think too many game writers these days are so busy tap dancing around offending someone in the industry that they've lost sight of telling consumers not to buy mediocre games.

Anyway, thank you for being honest, it is very refreshing.

I'm sure theres an audience and a fanbase for Vanguard.. you know the type of people that just love this type of game and worship at the Quaid altar.. And these same people are people I never want to know or have anything to do with.

I agree Elysium in that having the consumer finance this beta is a travesty.. and shame on everyone who is paying a monthly fee financing Quaid and his posse of Maya, Poser loving fools. For in the end when your game gets canceled you'd only have served funding this man's lifestyle for a few more years.. and probably letting him develop another Everquest... that will also suck.

Burn it down, Elysium, burn it down.

As also a closed beta tester I agree with what you said.

What confuses me is how people can defend this product in its current state as fun.

Then again I am confuse by S&M so maybe I just don't get it in that sort of way.

I so wanted to believe that Mr. McQuaid was just being oppressed by SOE during EQ and this game would reveal his true, unfettered magnificentnessitude. In hindsight, maybe SOE would have been better off just locking him in an attic, true to the Southern stereotype.

Drat.

Wounder wrote:
I so wanted to believe that Mr. McQuaid was just being oppressed by SOE during EQ and this game would reveal his true, unfettered magnificentnessitude. In hindsight, maybe SOE would have been better off just locking him in an attic, true to the Southern stereotype.

Drat.

The southern stereotype is a Gothic cliche?

Can we finally put to rest the idea that meaningful experiences in MMOs only come through artificialy enhanced hardship?

I mean seriously, every great and memorable moment from EQ was replaced by WoW moments several times over. And that was in the first 6 months of WoW's launch.

I mean the only memory I may still cling to is those few nights with Goodjers on teamspeak in that level 12-20 tower at the end of the kunark newbie zone (field of bone?). And I can't even remember its name anymore. It was where Frogh (Lawyeron) issued the ultimate famous last words, "I'm staying. I only need a few more kills to level."

Also, what is going to be Elysium's punishment for breaking the bloodoath(tm)?

Now that is some nice haterade.

I think Vanguard has TONS of potential, and could be a fantastic game. But I think Ely makes a lot of solid points regarding the game's design and execution as it stands right now.

We don't need no water, let the motherfracker burn!

You know, Lum the Mad parlayed this type of commentary into a free trip to visit Sony headquarters. Maybe you could get the same deal.

fangblackbone wrote:
Can we finally put to rest the idea that meaningful experiences in MMOs only come through artificialy enhanced hardship?

Can we finally put to rest the expectation of anything meaningful ever having anything to do with MMOs?

If you want a chat room, there are easier ways.

You know, Lum the Mad parlayed this type of commentary into a free trip to visit Sony headquarters.

Honestly, I can't think of anything Sony can show me right now that I want to see. I'm not saying it's likely, but if Sony dropped me an invitation tomorrow, I might pass.

what is going to be Elysium's punishment for breaking the bloodoath(tm)?

I'll let Certis comment on his experiences if he cares to, but I didn't get any sense of disappointment from him on the idea of not having to play again.

Powerful. Have you considered contributing to the PS3 Haterade thread?

Seriously. That was some good high quality haterade. I've had dark baker's chocolate that wasn't as bitter.

I fully support and endorse the tone and attitude of this anti-review.


I can only care for so long that the Jaa'bba'lly of F'za'nnnjj province want Kwagzatz of the Hoohanie dead, which is why they are hiring Zv'ii'tz of the K's'tt''ll clan to concoct a slow acting poison to be applied to Kwagzatz's F'oo'd', and it's your job to convince nine different people to give you the nine different components of the poison.

This is also one of the biggest issues I have with WoW's location and character names. Oh, and quests themselves.

This reminds of the Old Man Murray reviews that asked why someone *has* to play a game through to review it. If the first x minutes/hours are crap and make you want to vomit, why go through that to get to some mystical creamy nougat which may or may not exist around the bend?

Great anti-review. As someone who was losing interest in McQuaid's latest Vision, you put the nail in the coffin. Vanguard seems like nothing more than self-plagiarism with a buggier 3D engine.

I played the FilePlanet beta for about two hours and yep, I have to agree with everything the article said (though I didn't get to ry out Diplomacy.) While I applaud Brad McQuaid for being honest with his fanbase and not putting stupid PR spin on the situation, the fact is that doesn't justify a product shipping in this kind of horrendous state. The problem is that he likely couldn't just "find another investor or shut the doors" as Sony Online likely owns the Vanguard IP now and if not, probably insisted on its release as they did fund development for a period of time. But yes, in an ideal world that's what should have happened. But this is the "release now, patch later" world as so many recent games have demonstrated. I have to admit though, it takes on a different paradigm when you're required to pay a recurring fee for that.

Brilliantly written. There's some real gold in this. Send this along to the "game journalism doesn't have to be stupid" society, mkay?

I fully agree with this article. I was in the closed beta and played for a couple of months and came out with the exact impressions. Clearly they've made little effort to improve upon all the issues I had with the game 10 months ago or so. After playing for a bit it felt far too similar to EverQuest, although not in a good way. Vanguard feels dated even though it is a brand new release. There are a few interesting concepts in the game (I particularly like how they divided the classes into four main groups while still having plenty of diversity in any given group) but overall the game is just a mish-mash of ideas that don't come together in any cohesive fashion.

I don't foresee the game being around for long. The only hope they have is that enough people with Sony Station passes give it a try and end up recommending it to friends. Of course I don't see many people actually asking their friends to play it after spending time with the game. I know I told all my friends to stay far, far away.

Speaking as someone who will never pick this one up, I am very sorry to hear that Vanguard turned out as horribly as it did in terms of functionality. This could have been the MMO for those who don't like WoW/GW/CoH, and any other of the more casual-friendly games.

I for one hope they are able to get their act together, although from reading the above it sounds there are too many flaws in the overall design.

I just joined the site after reading this review-- I like that you decided to call it like you see it. I started playing VG because I've been out of the MMO genre for a number of years, and I agree with many things you said but not all.

I agree with Dreaded above that the game feels like Everquest with some tweaks. It feels that way because of the client and that you just get dropped into the game with NO tutorial, nada. Basically it's designed for people who have played EQ and know generally what to do.

So far I've only played one char up to lvl 10 on the PK server. I get ganked constantly cuz the character I rolled up is a weakling. There are a whole contingent of griefers on the server ready for those who experienced the love that was Rallos Zek. Which is fine if you like that sort of thing-- but again it's just more EQ.

All the "revolutionary" things in the game just in my view aren't that fun. Diplomacy is confusing and boring. Crafting is... well I don't play games to collect 10 pig snouts and turn them into a vest. Chain attacks are ok but seem broken to me. I wish it wasn't a big race to get L33T gear too-- even though it's supposed to be "harder" there's stat-increasing gear all over the place already. I really don't care if i have a house or not.

All that said, I don't think it's a horrible game. On my system it runs fine and looks great, which is surprising given all the reviews. I played one of the longer quests that was offered and it was pretty fun once I grouped with some people. I've played EQ, CoH,DaOC, FF, AC2, and DDO, and although it's not saying much, this game is really no worse than any of those and may be better. You're right to expect more though given the current state of the market. It's a tweaked 1st-generation MMORPG rather than something new. Even still I haven't found a crazy Kurn's tower type experience yet, but it may be out there.

Maybe when it's finished it will offer more, but the design doesn't seem to lend itself to it. I liked the idea of DDO because of the more involved dungeons etc, but I can't see how they fit in here. Supposedly the higher l(15+) level content has some pretty expansive dungeon crawls, but I wonder if I'll run out of patience before I see it.

Basically, if you liked EQ and are patient to see what happens in the next 6 months or so, it might be worth it.

wordsmythe wrote:
Wounder wrote:
I so wanted to believe that Mr. McQuaid was just being oppressed by SOE during EQ and this game would reveal his true, unfettered magnificentnessitude. In hindsight, maybe SOE would have been better off just locking him in an attic, true to the Southern stereotype.

Drat.

The southern stereotype is a Gothic cliche?

As in Falkner. See "Absalom, Absalom"

Gnomon wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:

The southern stereotype is a Gothic cliche?

As in Falkner. See "Absalom, Absalom"

Just because it showed up later doesn't mean it wasn't all over the literary landscape in the 1800s.

I've been avoiding MMOs like the plague for years now. It wasn't until I read about Vanguard's design that I decided to get back in. Does the game feel like EQ? Yes, but it feels like EQ done right. Sigil made some very conscious design decisions that actually work.

The reviewer mentions having to decrypt the "dot" system for mobs:
Before I point out how this system is actually good, let me point out that the in-game npcs and tip system (on by default) informed me of how this system works within the first two minutes of play. No, the game is not noob friendly but c'mon people, read the starter tips or the manual, ok?

So why have the dots at all? Lets say you are in a level 10-ish dungeon and you get to a boss. The designers could simply make bump this guy up a few levels to make him harder right? Yes and no. The game calculations for attacking and defending are based on level and skill-levels. For anyone that played EQ, you remember well that anything slightly over your level was going to WHOMP you. With the dot system, you know you can fight this level 10 boss mob. You will be able to hit him, dodge his attacks, etc, just like you normally would. The dot simply signifies that the mob is a boss of sorts.

This greatly simplifies end-game dungeons. If players are capped at 50, you don't want them fighting a level 80 mob just to provide challenge. The designers likely put a lot of thought into how attacks and such are calculated; artificially bumping mob levels would break that.

Also take into account that these mobs are somewhat rare. The reviewer makes it sound as if they are mingled in with all the other mobs and "you'd better watch out and really know the system or you'll be randomly killed by tough enemies". I've not been playing long but I almost never check the dots. If the creature is named or is the end of a quest THEN I will check. And only then will I even need to check.

The engine:
works fine. sure there are some graphical glitches but the characters don't look like plastic like EQ2. Anyone playing modern games will find the characters on par with current high standards.

About looking forward to death penalty:
Would defeating a dungeon feel like an accomplishment if death had no penalty? Would you hesistate to walk your low-level character into the dragon's lair if you could respawn instantly with no loss? Why have a health system at all I wonder? I realize the Vanguard way is much harder-core than most other games but it fits in perfectly with the design.

Diplomacy
Haven't gotten into it but that certainly sounds weak sauce.

Misc.
Sure, character development might be a little confusing. The reviewer mentions gaining points in odd skills while fighting and such. True, combat can fill your chat box with lots of messages but did the reviewer happen to notice you never NEED (or want) the chat box to successfully combat mobs? Visual icons over enemy heads show you what actions mobs are performing. Damage is bright and visible (and damage taken by you is displayed by your name, not in the center of the screen; a very nice touch that avoids clutter and confusion about WHO was hit, you or the creature).

Anyway, the main reason the reviewer hates Vanguard is its early release and this is perfectly valid. That said, I've never seen a company work so hard at fixing and completing a game after release. We're not talking about everyone waiting a week or two for each patch and we aren't talking about a short list of patch notes. We're talking almost daily patches with huge lists of fixes. That minor bug you ran into last week? Fixed already.

I didn't bother writing all this to attack the reviewer. He hates the game and his reasons are valid to him. I've been reading various reviews around the web and they aren't glowing. Apparently because they aren't slamming the game like this guy, they are afraid to step on publisher's toes. Or maybe they know their job as a reviewer is to look out how the game is designed, judge it on those merits and inform the public how it works. If the game is really hard (as Vangaurd is and is designed to be) they tell you so. They don't yell about how it should be easier.

Kal wrote:
the Reviewer

Call him Elysium, he's standing right there.

Hehe my bad

Well he stated that he doesn't care what we think, so I wanted to address the readers.

I greatly appreciate how the reviewers on this site call 'em like they see 'em. And their reasoning tends to align with feelings i've encountered with games. Sometimes difficulty seems to be present only for its own sake, and in my experience, can often hinder my enjoyment of the game. Not to say i don't like a challenge, but if certain elements strike the player as unnecessary or inappropriate, let it be known. It's not that i'm drawn to negative reviews, just critical ones.

Or maybe they know their job as a reviewer is to look out how the game is designed, judge it on those merits and inform the public how it works.

Aside from the fact that I pointed out twice in this article that this is not a review, the game is simply not very good. Compared with other MMOs on the market I can't come up with a compelling reason to recommend this game to anyone over far better games. Were I doing a review, which again I'm not (though I see I have been linked as such) my job would be to be honest with readers, not to be confined within only the scope of the game's abilities to meet its own arbitrary goals of design.

I'm glad you're enjoying the game, though.

Ahh but you do need to consider the goals of design to a great extent. If a gameplay element does not match the intent of the game, the game as a whole suffers. Had The Burning Crusade shipped with Katamari Damacy-type gameplay the people would rebel. It could have been done really well and been fun but if it doesn't jive with the game Blizz is trying to make or the game players are trying to play then its a bad thing.

So the key here is that some of your readers will enjoy something different from you. When you review (not this time of course, as it wasn't a review) you have to take that into account. You have to look at the design decisions - see how the whole things fits together. Think about Why things were done and Who might like it that way. This doesn't involve being dishonest and you certainly don't have to recommend a game because it "works well". So, a good review will say something like "Vanguard is geared towards the hardcore MMO player for reasons A and B but if thats not your bag, you probably won't have fun."

Half your anti review seemed to focus on Diplomacy. You really dislike that the actions of the cards don't match what really happens in the game/conversation. Now lets look at the overall purpose of diplomacy. Imagine a dungeon guarded by some magnificent deity. The only way players might be able to enter is by talking their way through. Or (stepping outside of Vanguard's fantasy realm) an MMO based on Shadowrun or the like: You could talk your way into a guarded facility where others might have to fight their way in. Or perhaps there is a powerful character (NPC) in an area that is extremely selfish. A player could "talk" him into helping everyone in town. I have received buffs already in Vangaurd that help everything from crafting to regen-ing health and these buffs were because another player talked to some NPC and got things "happening" in the game world.

That sounds like a damn cool feature to me. But you didn't stick around to see that. You have no idea how much of that feature's potential Sigil may have implemented (nor have I) and anyone reading your non-review will walk away thinking Diplomacy to be the dumbest feature ever. That is the thing that bothers me. I'm not one to think every reviewer has to play each game to completion (and props to the poster who mentioned Old Man Murray! :)) but try to look at the whole picture. On a basic level, Diplomacy could very well be really, really dumb. But if turns out to work in that overall picture, if it happens to fit in the overall design and intent of the game, then couldn't it be judged to be a "good thing", flaws and all?

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