Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, Sony Online Entertainment’s struggling MMO, has recently adopted a Free to Play Model. While not truly “free”, the game client and several races and classes are indeed free to play all the way up to the game’s maximum level (currently level 55). With the game’s recent release on Steam, it seems to be experiencing somewhat
of a population boom. Just how much does one get for nothing, and perhaps more importantly, is the game in general worth playing? The Pittsburgh PCGE recently forayed into the land of Telon to take a look at the state of the game.
Let’s get this out of the way first – it’s no secret that Vanguard’s population has been flailing. With such concerns, is it worth it to roll a new toon? Surprisingly, the F2P model and subsequent Steam release seem to have addressed this issue quite well. As a low level
character I experienced no issues finding people to group with right from day one. The continent-wide chat channel frequently displays messages from players of all level ranges seeking groups for dungeon runs, harvesting endeavors, and end-game raids. Conversations, on and off-topic, are consistent and the community itself is as a general
rule mature, helpful, and friendly. Yes folks, Vanguard is very much alive.
Fans of the MMO genre will initially find little to surprise when beginning their journey into Telon. Character creation is straightforward: Choose a race, choose a class, customize the character’s appearance, and name the brand new adventurer. One then meets the usual NPCs to hand out the standard questing fare for the genre such as finding rings and killing a certain number of mobs. What sets Vanguard apart, however, are the classes. While the usual archetypes still apply in this game to a degree (You’ll find tanks, healers, and damage dealers) the classes manage to feel fresh and most importantly, fun. It’s easy to forget, for example, that a Disciple is in fact a strong healer as the class is so proficient at melee combat.
Combat itself is also somewhat unique to Vanguard. While spellcasters have many of the usual methods of dealing damage, when the combat is up close and personal the same old auto-attack method is typically a guaranteed grave-run. Melee combat makes use of a number of special attacks and the concept of “Jin”. Some abilities build up Jin, while
others drain it. Chains of attacks may also result in combos, and the effective management of Jin and the use of possible combos can make all the difference in soloing a difficult mob, or on the other end, dying to an easy one. All in all, the combat system is interesting and often quite enjoyable.
Vanguard has also done quite well in providing players various methods of leveling. While “grinding” mobs for XP is viable and can often provide gear or other items as a reward, there is no shortage of quests, both group and solo, for the player to engage in. Missive
boards are also placed at various locations – these missives are typically the “go kill x number of a specific mob” type, but doing enough of them will reward the player with a decent piece of gear (though the reward may or may not be useable by your class – and there’s no way to tell beforehand what you’ll get).
While adventuring is the primary focus of most of the playerbase, Vanguard also offers two other “spheres” of gameplay: Crafting and Diplomacy. Crafting in Vanguard is rather more complex than in many MMOs and can result in quite useful items – weapons, armor, and
clothing are all available to be crafted along with critical components for player-owned houses and ships. Diplomacy is an area of gameplay that is unique to Vanguard. Each race has innate abilities which can be used to their advantage when conducting diplomatic parleys, along with the more important diplomatic skills that can be leveled up just as Adventuring or Crafting. The results of successful diplomacy often come in the form of a city or region-wide buff for all players.
All in all, the gameplay of Vanguard is familiar enough that fans of the genre will recognize, but is based on a deeper and slightly more challenging model than many of the current-gen MMOs. Vanguard: Saga of Heroes is indeed decidedly more along the lines of a classic and even slightly “hardcore” game.
Graphics and Environment
Vanguard is not a cutting edge title; the original game was released way back in 2007. Some of the models are not attractive, particularly horses. Still, the game world itself is quite beautiful. The continent of Thestra, especially, is at times striking. Players may find themselves stopping to admire the forest, the night sky, or a fortress situated a cliff’s edge. The scenery is truly more than the sum of its parts and the environment is almost always immersive. While not a graphical issue, perhaps the one environmental flaw is the NPC population of cities and towns. Many of these locations feel almost abandoned, and the static population that does exist often is quite humorous – shouting out a collective “Meh” as though they’re bored to tears with life in general.
Still, this doesnt detract too much from the game, as much of it is spent outside the cities and the real interaction is with other player characters, and thankfully a few NPCs have some truly hilarious lines.
Perhaps the strongest aspect of Vanguard is the breadth of options for gameplay. The game is ripe for exploration and indeed rewards it – if of course your character survives. Telon is rife with dungeons, some of which seem to be virtually forgotten. Finding an out of the way cave or ancient ruins filled with mobs that drop new gear for your character is an enjoyable and satisfying experience, and Vanguard emanates a sense of mystery about what might be around that next corner – little gems are literally everywhere.
Vanguard’s soundtrack deserves special mention. The music always seems to be appropriate for the part of the world one ventures to, and at times during combat is suitably aggressive. The tracks are varied enough that with sufficient travel they do not become irritatingly repetitive as MMOs often do, and actually add a layer of atmosphere to the game that most will appreciate.
Much of Vanguard’s population trouble has been due to what many consider to be overwhelming technical issues and bugs within the game. Indeed, my first 3 days in the game were met with numerous and frequent lag spikes. These often occurred, of course, when my character was engaged in combat and at times resulted in death. Sony reps, however, have stated that their focus right now is to remedy the technical aspects of Vanguard and fortunately, this does seem to be the case. Following the initial issues, I have experienced no bugs or other problems with the client.
On my aging gaming rig (8 gigs of Corsair Vengeance memory, an AMD Radeon 5850 at stock speeds and an Intel i5-750 overclocked to 3.7 gigahertz) running at 1600×900 the game frequently runs at between 50 and 80 FPS and feels quite smooth with all options set to max except the clipping plane which is set to approx. 75%.
Free to Play
There’s no doubt that Vanguard is a solid game, offering unique and enjoyable classes, a fantastic community, a beautiful virtual world, a seemingly endless variety of places to explore and gives players the impression that they’re a tiny dot in a huge world. With successful efforts to eliminate most of the technical issues having been implemented, it has become an excellent and challenging MMO. For those players on a tight budget, or for those who are otherwise unwilling to shell out a subscription, how worthwhile the game is to play on a strictly free basis truly will depend on the individual. From the official website:
- “The six free races included with Free Membership are: Thestran, Halfling, Kojani, Half-Elf, Qaliathari, and Mordebi.
- All classes are playable for Free members up until Level 20. After Level 20, the seven free classes included with Free Membership are: Warrior, Rogue, Monk , Cleric, Disciple, Sorcerer and Necromancer. “
Choosing a race and class combination free of any restriction is easy enough. Players are aware from the outset that if the desired class is not on the list, a subscription will become necessary after level 20.
The real restrictions come in the form of gear. Many of the most desirable weapons and armor pieces require a Gold Membership ($14.99 monthly). These restrictions will not be immediately obvious to the low-level player, but to participate in high-level content such as raids, a Gold Membership will become almost unavoidably necessary.
SOE has another tactic to entice players to spend real cash: the lockboxes found throughout the game world. These random drops can contain anything from a simple and near-useless potion to a flying mount, an elite weapon, or anything in between. Unlocking these boxes requires a Skeleton Key which can only be purchased with Station Credits. These credits can be purchased with real currency, or alternatively will accrue at a rate of 500/month with a Gold Membership.
While the boxes drop the elite loot only very rarely, the chance to acquire some of the elite loot can prove to be quite tempting. Indeed, I have witnessed the rewards being broadcast in general chat, resulting in several players immediately spending real-world currency to take their chances on opening their own.
Vanguard harkens back to the demanding and challenging MMOs of yesteryear, and succeeds in creating a worthwhile experience. Players who are used to more casual MMOs may find themselves disliking the death penalty or the comparatively slow experience. Still, it is more forgiving than games such as Everquest and Dark Age of Camelot and strikes a balance between casual and hardcore. For the player who wishes to become truly immersed in a virtual world and is willing to put time and effort into a character, Vanguard:Saga of Heroes will deliver.
As for the Free to Play, this reviewer suggests that potential new players think of it more as a free trial and not a sustainable gameplay option. No matter which race/class combination, the restrictions will prove eventually to be too much. The Gold Membership is in line with the MMO industry standard, however, and so long as the game remains free of bugs and technical issues should prove to be worth the monthly subscription.
(The opinions expressed in this review are solely those of the author)