Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Vanguard Beta: Initial Thoughts

So I had the chance to check out the Vanguard: Saga of Heroes beta this weekend. I alloted myself 10 hours of /played time to get a feel for the game, and I wanted to check out the diplomacy and crafting features in particular.Here are my initial thoughts.

I began by choosing to play a Dark Elf Necromancer. Character customization options are very detailed. But, having 20 different sliders for facial features seems extraneous when you almost never see anyone's face closeup anyway. While it can be fun to completely customize a character down to the length of their eyebrows, this is not a selling point for me. In my mind, character customization should focus more on the larger look (City of Heroes did an excellent job on this part). And there are plenty of options for this as well such as altering height and body mass. But after some cursory poking around, I chose a name, made my character and jumped in-game.

First off, I immediately noticed that the graphics would be an issue. I dont have a top of the line system, but its more then enough for WoW with all the bells and whistles on. I turned the graphic settings down and still had a lot of video lag and stutter. Waving grass looks nice, but if it's slowing me down, I want to be able to turn it off. So I was a bit dissappointed with the video options. This alone would likely keep me from buying the game.

But, it was definitely playable, so I began my adventures with a quest to kill ten slaves. Adventuring seemed pretty standard. Quests were along the lines of kill, collect and deliver. Spells and attacks were also pretty standard fare. One interesting thing I did notice is that my pet (an abomination), had a button to let me manage it's 'grafts'. I never saw anything that explained what this is, but I assume that at some point I would be able to create specialized upgrades for him. Being able to customize your pets is always nice. I died a few times once I got to the tougher mobs, but I never had to do a corpse run (those dont start until level 7). I did hear from various players yelling across the zone that you can choose to pay money at an altar to have your corpse brought to you. Seems like a decent compromise to me.

I found the crafting interface and options interesting, but I couldnt figure out how to actually pursue a crafting profession that interested me. The Artifice trainer only offered me a total of 3 recipes at level 6 (and only listed a handful of others for higher levels), and of the various taskmasters, only one offered any tasks, and those were all about making wooden frames and oars other such stuff I had little interest in. I dont know what these things are used for or why I'm making them. Initial skill gains were quick, but, by the time I hit crafting level 5, it felt like a grind with nothing interesting to work on and no signs of it getting any more interesting in the near future. I also noticed on the crafting supply vendor that there were a number of tools that I couldnt use, but could find no explanation as to why I wasnt able to use them. I managed to get the necessary raw materials to make 2 out of 3 of my personal recipes, but, after one succesful attempt, I was proclaimed 'master' of that recipe and could no longer learn from it. I found this a little frustrating as I was a bit tired of making wooden frames and had purposefully gone out to gather materials that I could craft with. And also, there was no indication in my recipe list that these recipes had been 'mastered'. So I was left with the choice of continuing to make quartz gems that gave no skill gain and for which I had no use, or continuing to do a series of endlessly repeating tasks to gain skill. Not very encouraging.

The little random events that can happen during the crafting process are a nifty addition, but they also tend to get repetitive rather quickly. And crafting is not for those who are worried about carpal tunnel syndrome. Each item crafted took a good 30-40 clicks to make! Considering that the work orders with the best rewards ask for 5 of an item... thats a lot of mouse clicking for a few copper! It wouldn't be a big deal if each and every crafted item were important. But work order items simply vanish into the void and I didnt really get the feeling that personally crafted items will be that important either (but I could be wrong since I haven't been given the opportunity to really make much of anything). I love that they've gone beyond the simple-minded concept of 'collect ingredients, push create button' style of crafting. But overall, I think that the system doesnt go far enough to make crafting fun or interesting over the long-term. Perhaps if I was able to move on to a larger town more options would open up, but at crafting and adventuring level six, I have no breadcrumbs to lead me anywhere else, and doing more taskmaster work orders is much more of a grind that I'm willing to pursue at the moment.

Diplomacy is one of their more innovative features. It's basically a little mini-game within the game. Kind of like a Collectible Card Game in many ways. You collect various abilities (cards), build your strategy (deck) using 5 of those abilities and then match your strategy against your opponent, choosing when to play abiliites. Each ability you play has effects on your various point pools, which then allows you to play more useful cards. The first diplomacy encounters are pretty easy, but as you progress it does require some strategy and forethought. I found that I would often have to change my available abilities for each match, which required some tactical planning. But the interface was a bit awkward. I couldnt close my deck without opening my abilities book for some reason. Often, as I tried to drag an ability from my strategy deck I would end up dragging the whole deck instead, and dropping abiliites onto the deck usually required two attempts (this may be an additional issue with the lack of mouse sensitivity). The diplomacy quests felt very linear, and after the 3rd or 4th one, I simply stopped reading the text beyond finding out who I had to talk to next. I had hoped that I would have some choices in how I dealt with my diplomacy options that actually had an effect on the quest results. No such luck. So while it's fun and different, I still feel like I'm on an amusement park ride, just going with the flow and unable to make any signifigant choices.

Bugs were a problem. I had several weird interface issues that basically forced me to logout and back in to keep playing. And sometimes I would find my view forced to first person suddenly and I would have to struggle to get it back to 3rd person. But, the worst one came last night. I had finally managed to get the two harvesting skills I wanted (you have one primary and one secondary, but nowhere could I tell which was which so I accidentally replaced the wrong one twice before I figured out what was going on) and I went out to gather some plants and rocks. However, out of the blue, for no apparent reason, all of my harvesting gear suddenly turned red (meaning that I cant use it) and I could no longer do any harvesting! Logging out and quitting the game had no effect. I paged a GM who responded promptly. Unfortunately, he said he didnt know why it was happening and he also had no tools to try and attempt to fix the problem. So i guess this character will just be unable to harvest. :{

Mouselook was very kludgy. I couldnt turn the camera more than 90 degrees without lifting my mouse off the pad, even with mouse sensitivity turned all the way to max. I find this particularly frustrating, as the lack of peripheral vision in MMOs always bothers me, so I like to be able to quickly and easily look around me.

And finally, as Lifebane said, the timing of their release just seems an odd decision. Attempting to go head-to-head with the Burning Crusade is just a recipe for low sales. Especially given how much press BC has been getting (it was Yahoo's headline story on Sunday, and I also noticed that Best Buy had a huge ad for it in their advertisement in the paper). Vanguard has some interesting features, but seems to lack polish (especially on the various interfaces) and is not newbie-friendly at all. I consider myself a serious gamer and a veteran MMO player, but the explanation of the diplomacy and crafting interfaces was confusing and seemed to not proceed in a logical manner to me. I ended up just kind of muddling my way through it.

Final totals for this character: level 6 Necromancer, level 6 crafter, 26 skill in diplomacy and 30-something skill in harvesting.

I know it's been the trend for a long time to release MMOs well before they are ready for mass consumption, but one day, some company somewhere will learn from past mistakes others have made. Apparently Sigil is not that one.

At some point before the open beta ends, I will likely try to create an Orc Warrior/Smith (same as the character I play in WoW), skipping the diplomacy game completely, and see if my experience varies with my newfound knowledge of the basics of gameplay.

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