In my last post, I talked about how I was still in between EQ2 and Vanguard for my high fantasy fix. Then, a very helpful commenter (thanks Ardwulf!) pointed out some very salient points that make EQ2 really stand out. I was intrigued. As I sat at the download page though, I realized that I wanted the opportunity to form my own opinion on a game that’s been much maligned since its release. As much as I’m interested in giving EQ2 a whirl, I decided to try Vanguard first to see if all of the criticisms held water. Maybe, I thought, they’ve fixed enough in the time since release to hold up some of their lofty pre-launch goals.

So, I downloaded the client, made my character, and leveled up to 5.

Now, before I continue, I should disclose my current system specs:

2.8Ghz Pentium D (read: one of the first released dual core processors)

3GB DDR2 RAM

200GB HDD

MSI 8600 GT 256MB DDR2 Video Memory

Windows Vista Premium SP1

As you can tell, my system is a bit dated. For your knowledge, I’ve included my FPS in many of the screenshots. I’ll get into how the game performed in a little bit.

Here are my first impressions:

Character Creation:

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Click to enlarge

Vanguard offers you more ways to customize your character from the onset than any other MMO I’ve seen. You’re able to adjust everything from your characters height to the arm to leg ratio. To put this in perspective, you can also choose your body width, cranium size, ear positioning and depth (are you Dumbo or Johnny No-Ears?), lip fullness, cheek height and fullness, arm width, breast size (and yet no one was dancing naked on mailboxes), beginning clothing (or lack thereof), eye size, eye width, skin, hair, and eye color, and hairstyle. And that’s not all!

I must say though, for all of the options you’re provided for proportioning, I wish that there were more hairstyles. There are only four hairstyles to choose for a Thestran human and about as many facial hair variations. Overall though, character creation was incredibly detailed and very impressive.

Classes/Races:

Before I even got to customize my character, I had to choose a starting race and class. Vanguard has no shortage of each. In total, there are 19 races and 15 classes. Believe it or not, based on descriptions, these classes don’t appear too homogenized either! The endgame would be the true test of this, but I was pleasantly surprised to see so much choice right off the bat.

Click to enlarge (sorry, he wouldnt move from inside of me here!)

Click to enlarge (sorry, he wouldn't move from inside of me here!)

The different races have racial bonuses and attributes. Race seems to be an important decision in Vanguard. If you’re going to play a brutal warrior, a class with a strength or damage mitigation bonus may be good for you.

My Necromancer

Ultimately, I settled on a human necromancer. The class just looked cool and, being a pet class, seemed like it would be good for a newbie. The necromancer was fun to play with and had some neat skills right off the bat. Plus, I was able to summon my “abomination” by level four. My Abomination looked kind of like Venom from Spiderman – mean and evil looking. My only criticism with this is that I wasn’t quite sure my pet was doing what it should have been. My pet action bar had a little “+” above the “always assist” setting and yet I always had to tell my pet to attack my current target. Maybe I was doing something wrong but, if so, I wish this could have been a little clearer.

Questing:

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Click to enlarge

Questing is pretty straight forward, at least on the Isle of the Dawn. Kill ten rats, go find this guy, etc. Since I only leveled to 5 though, I don’t feel that I can give an accurate first hand analysis of how quests in the game are.

Some research online indicates that grinding xp may be an issue in the later levels. The implications of this are vague, however, as we must compare the xp to level to the difficult of mobs and their experience reward per kill. Vanguard does feature a rested xp system which may help a bit.

I did like how quests are split up between spheres of play. Which leads us to…

Leveling:

Covered in questing, right? Wrong! Vanguard is unique in that you can level in three different spheres: Adventuring (killing for xp, quests), Diplomacy (a card game, of sorts) and crafting.

Diplomacy:

I haven’t been able to try this yet, but it sounds neat. Effectively, you talk to people throughout the world and engage in a battle of words via a card game mechanic. To my understanding, diplomacy allows you to sway the community and manipulate things to your advantage. Sorry that I don’t have a more on-point analysis for you but I’ll get there in time.

Crafting:

Just as it sounds, you have a level specifically for crafting. Throughout the game, you can get crafting specific quests and “work orders” where you must create certain pieces for NPCs in exchange for a reward. I love craftin

g in other games so this aspect of Vanguard really appeals to me.

Crafting:

By the time I got around to crafting, it was about 2AM so I wasn’t able to play around with it as much as I would have liked. I was able to do the beginning tutorial though.

Crafting in Vanguard is more complex than in most other MMOs. I was an artificer (woodworker), so the first thing I had to do was get specific tools for my profession. It seems that each profession will have several tools you have to use to complete a recipe. My trade had about five, not including additional materials that had to be purchased from an merchant. Thankfully, the five were quest rewards in the tutorial, as well as a toolbelt to save me some inventory space.

When you go to fulfill a recipe, you are presented with a menu featuring several steps that must be done in order and within a certain amount of available action points. Each step can be repeated to achieve a higher quality which results in a better end product both statwise and valuewise. Repeating steps uses additional action points, which is where the strategy of crafting comes into play. Generally, steps will feature a more expensive “quality” technique and a cheaper “quick and easy” technique.

Your ability to craft the item increases with practice and features a grade rating. As you get better, your grade on that item increases.

I liked the system. It seemed like it could be a lot of fun and have some real benefit. It also looks like it could be really engaging, especially since (I hope) you’ll be crafting items of comparable, or better than, what you’ll get through adventuring.

Equipment:

Gear in the game features traditional stats. Con, dex, wisdom, intelligence, and so on are found. Others I’m not so familiar with, like vitality, are also present. Now, by toying around on my character sheet, I was able to see that these attributes were also my base stats. Left and Right arrows would have allowed me to allocate points and decide what I was to emphasize.

While I was happy to see some of the stats from my MUD days in a game again, I was unsure about what they affected. In MUDs, con and int affected hp and mana gains per level. Dexterity affected how much you can hold. In Vanguard, I really have no idea what they do. I’m sure it would be easy enough to find online but I believe that this is something that should be explained in the game.

One neat thing I found was that named mobs tend to drop good named loot. I killed about four named mobs while I played and each one had an item with his name in it. For example, Darok dropped “Darok’s mask of something-or-other”. Every other mob did the same and the stats on the gear were on par with quest rewards. It looks like named mobs will have more value in Vanguard than in many other big titles.

Visuals:

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Click to enlarge

Simply put, the game is a visual masterwork. It is far more realistic than any other game, save LotRO, I’ve played. Due to my PC, I was forced to reduce the graphics quite a bit but they were still quite impressive and afforded playability. I also really liked some of the graphical effects you can enable as well. Tone Mapping was one that especially stood out to me. This option allows the game to render changes in light as the human eye would perceive them. Combined with the bloom effect, it’s totally possible to come out from a dark wood and be momentarily blinded by the light only to see a magnificent vista before you. I could see this lending a lot to the immersion factor of the game.

Client Stability/Performance:

This was a point of high contention in Vanguard’s early life and, in truth, still is today.

Performance:

My machine, far from the best, is able to run the game and get some good visual affects. That being said, I’m forced to reduce the graphics options to “High Performance” which is a step down from the default “balanced” setting. All of the screenshots feature this graphics setting, so you can still see how visually impressive the game is.

On this setting, I was able to average about 20-30 frames a second, which is very playable. With a newer system, I’m sure you could do much better.

Client Stability:

Overall, the game seemed relatively stable. In two hours I received two CTDs but each followed extensive switching between the graphics settings. Apart from that the game ran well and once I quit switching graphics profiles I didn’t crash again.

Population:

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At the hour I was playing, I figured the Isle would be a ghost town but it actually wasn’t. As a matter of fact, there were people pretty much everywhere, which is impressive given the sheer size of it. I have to reflect upon the fact that it was the trial island, however, so it’s more likely that more people would be found there at any time of the day than elsewhere in the world.

Despite this, general chat was extensive and mature. Several veteran players were around to help and answer questions, which is also nice.

Overall, I was quite happy with my first play session. Does Vanguard still have issues? Absolutely. However, it’s no where near as bad as it’s made out to be. At least in the beginning. The game was fun, the quests were good, and it has some novel approaches to leveling and crafting. It also seems that Sony updates the game all the time to continually fix issues that plagued it at launch, as well as bring in new content.

If you’re interested, I’d encourage you to download the trial. It’s worth checking out.

If you do though, don’t plan on playing the day you begin the download unless you have an amazing connection. I’m on broadband and the game took forever. It seemed to go in two big chunks, the first took 6.5 hours and the second took about 11. Don’t let that phase you though. Just start early.

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