Monday, June 11, 2007

Playing: Vanguard Saga of Heroes™ - sort of..

You know, the more I try other MMO's, the more I seem to have an appreciation for the ones I consider 'core'.

Let me firstly type a couple of lines about Vanguard: Saga of Heroes.
Yes, it's an SOE game, but it was developed by a company named Sigil Online, headed up by Uber Wanker #2 Brad McQuaid (of EverQuest I & II fame).

If you spend no less than 5 secs searching the net for anything to do with 'Vanguard' you will soon see that the subject has more flames coming from it than a charcoal firestarter cube soaked in petrol sitting underneath a lit blowtorch.

Why? Because, according to all those who have played it, the game is effectively.. well.. 'still in beta' would be a nice way of putting it.
In other words, it's riddled with bugs, glitches, performance issues, and other such goodies. So badly in fact, that it's a miserable launch failure - underpopulated and the laughing stock on the online community.

SOE partnered up with Sigil a couple of years back, thinking Vanguard would be The Next Big Thing and, why wouldn't you think that! I mean, the guy responsible for the EQ series (who had already worked with Sony obviously) was at the helm. Sure, he quit Sony to form Sigil a while back but hey..
..and how were SOE to know that Brad would be capable of churning out a product under his command with absolutely zero quality control..?

So, SOE decide to buy out Sigil (only but a couple of weeks ago in fact) and actually, if you go to the Sigil website you are now greeted with the formal buyout announcement: http://www.sigil.com/

In other words, Sony spat the dummy at the poor release, and have decided to take matters into their own hands. Which should presumably be A Good Thing™.

Except for the fact that Mr McQuaid (who LEAD the product to the dismal state it's currently in) retains a position on the team! Go figure. At least he's not in charge any more.

Anyhow, you're most probably wondering why on earth I would decide to purchase a game that is widely known to be technically awful, and where subscribers are basically paying to play a beta?
Curiosity, mainly.
Well - let me quantify that: The premise of Vanguard is actually very appealing on paper
  • player housing
  • ships (building them with the skills of your friends, plus of course sailing them to far-off lands)
  • ground and flying mounts for all
  • a card-game-based diplomacy system
  • 4 'spheres' of characteristics per toon (separate outfits and equipment and abilities depending on which 'sphere' you have active such as harvesting, adventuring, diplomacy, crafting)
  • a unique crafting system
  • caravans (travelling with a group of people making a trek together, even when you're offline, and also being able to purchase or build a wagon to follow your caravan carrying supplies and loot for your party)
  • a huuuuge world (and yes, from what I can tell already, it is)
  • very purdy graphics..
..all features which would appear to set it apart from standard MMO fare.
So yes 'curiosity' to be able to take a close look at some of these 'new' features.

Also, in terms of needing an 'excuse' to pick it up, EB Games had it on special for $29.00 so, with a month's free subscription it seemed that an 'excuse' had arrived.

After going through a minor drama to create the extra twenty gigabytes of hard disk space required for the base install (yikes!), only to then have to endure 5.5 hours of content patch downloads (god knows how many gigs), I went to bed.

The next 'morning', I was off!

..and then I discovered why the game is such a hot topic in online discussions.

Let me put it this way: Even after only having spent one afternoon with it, and creating two toons and getting them to Level 4 each, I have never in my entire life come across anything so buggy and sloppy that I can remember. EVER.
It truly defies words..

..perhaps just a sprinkle then:
  • bugged quests (ie: select an option in a quest dialog, only to be taken back to the original question, round and round in an endless loop.. aarrgh!)
  • glitchy graphics (falling through the world ~ walking through walls ~ being able to see through closed doors ~ doors not opening.. you get the idea)
  • bugged NPC's (stuck on objects yet still damaging you no matter how far you run away from them, and subsequently being killed)
  • weird anomalies (flickering world objects like rocks and walls just flashing all the time ~ mysterious pauses in gameplay where everything just freezes for a few seconds)
  • equipping a belt but it not showing on your ingame toon (same with gloves and most items)
  • no picture of your toon in the 'character stats' window, despite there being controls for rotating your character - its simply not there to view!
  • no stats updates to the (paid for!) Vanguard Players website
  • logged back to my character select window, only NONE of my characters were there all of a sudden (What The!?!? Where'd my HARD WORK go??)
  • reeeeaaaly poor quality voice acting and recording (sounds like a bunch of nerdy students got around a cassette deck and recorded trite and stereotypical phrases for Ultima Online in their living room, complete with the sounds of traffic passing by in the background)
..I could go in, but I shan't.
Remember - all of this in only a few initial hours of playing. WOW. (or, not WoW as it happens..)

Perhaps it's my 'reasonable expectations', but surely one would not even consider releasing a title, let alone anything as complex as an MMO, in such a state?

It would appear that they would, and indeed did - right Brad? :-o

Anyhow, I have a 'free' month to noodle around within Vanguard, so I might as well do so, in-between my usual MMO gametime. I'm sure if anything, it will provide great material for further blogging.
Plus, SOE have committed to an incredible 'fix up' schedule, openly stating that things are a mess and that they will be turning it around now it's under their wings. And if the frequency of recent (and very large) content updates are anything to go buy, I believe them for sure.

But I digress - my main point at the outset of this ramble, was about an appreciation of MMO's that 'get it right'. And by that, I mean that there are a core set of MMO's that I consider to be 'core':
  • World of Warcraft
  • Guild Wars
  • EverQuest II
  • EvE Online
They are all highly polished, have very few bugs, have intuitive User Interfaces, run as expected, and generally make sense whilst enabling the player to have a bunch of fun.

In thinking about these core games, I realised they all has something in common: time.

I've come to the conclusion that there's a sweet spot with all MMO's. Or rather, that there most definitely isn't a sweet spot with all MMO's, at the beginning of their life.

Even all of the core games I mention above, which nowadays run like buttered silk, had numerous issues at their birth. Once again, a simple search on Teh Intehnets will bring up varied and sordid pasts for these frontrunners. Bugs, balancing issues, slack programming, poor customer support - you name it. They've all been through it.

Thing is, all of these games are at least 2 years old (some a lot more) and as such have had the benefit of time bestowed upon them, making them run smoother and quieter than every previous incarnation.

So, as I look jokingly in the direction of games like Vanguard and Lord of the Rings Online, I realise that whilst they may be frustratingly full of holes and poor support at the moment (and none other can top those two games - trust me!) I also realise that they both have an absolute ton of potential.

LOTRO for example, looks beautiful and has a real atmosphere of 'kinship' and a relaxed pace (no compelling urge to level up before everyone else - instead promoting social exploring and quietly chipping away at the main storyline) which is extremely complimentary to the fantasy setting (Tolkien).
Vanguard on the other hand, is trying to push the MMO envelope a little, offering things that simply aren't standard fare in other MMO's, which is sorely needed right now.

It's just that both of them are still in nappies. And there's fluorescent green baby-shit seeping out the sides, running down their legs. Yes, they smell. Bad.

So I have come to the conclusion that I must simply dial back my expectations. The potential is there, and hopefully in about 12 months time I'll be able to enjoy the worlds they have both crafted, minus the frustration.
And if I choose to play either of them in the meantime, I must be prepared to take the bad with the good - even if the bad most certainly outweighs the good at this early stage.

One final thing:
It really really REALLY makes you appreciate the old favourites. It's been an absolute age since I played WoW, but I logged in the other night out of curiosity and was pleasantly surprised to be greeted with a slick and unintrusive gameplay experience - one that I had forgotten about completely after being burnt out after a year of playing solid.

Same goes for Guild Wars (uber slick - slickest of all in fact, in my opinion), EvE and EverQuest II. All of them have had a hot iron running over them for the past 2+ years, leaving very few wrinkles or creases.

So for now, I will resign myself to expecting that anything that's just come out, or is coming out this year, will be great for whiling away the winter hours of 2008.

Hey - at least I have something to look forward to, right?

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