A screenshot from Vanguard: Saga of Heroes.
A screenshot from Vanguard: Saga of Heroes.
It’s been an active week for long-quiet Vanguard blogopshere. New videos, blog posts galore, and lots of discussion around the internet. Here are the highlights:
Here is a Vanguard Forever original production. I think it’s pretty good. Not just because it’s viewable in glorious 1080p, or because it shows off the beauty and grandeur of Telon and the magnificent Todd Masten soundtrack. And not just because I made it.
I am not a video-making geek. When I finished it I thought it was about as good as I could make it, but I’m already seeing opportunities for improvement next time. And oh yes, there will be a next time.
More or less arbitrarily I’ve decided that Ardwulf is pursuing the questline to get a unicorn mount. The whole line is said to take about 24 hours of play by itself, and I think that may be optimistic. It’s mostly soloable with caution, but there are times in the chain when a partner or two really helps.
The quest begins in Silverlake, where some Zar cultists are holed up on an island out in the middle of the lake. Killing a few particular cultists (Zar Ritualists) will eventually drop a unicorn horn that grants a quest to kill Zar himself. To do this, you collect 100 flowers in three different colors from around the island or from an outpost on the lakeshore. These are level 22, 3-dot mobs, so killing them is fairly time-consuming even at level 28, which I was — the point at which they also fail to grant experience. There are also a lot of roamers, so even overleveling the place, if you’re by yourself you can die fairly easily.
Once you have enough flowers you can sacrifice them up at the altar on the island to summon Zar. Unfortunately, I couldn’t kill him the first time and had to get help from Quert — which means that to summon him again I had to collect another 100 flowers. Thankfully, with help this goes a lot faster, and two Rangers knocked the 4-dot Zar down fairly easily.
Once you’ve turned that in you get an escort quest which involves traveling several chunks away, then returning to Unicorn Rock overlooking Silverlake with the escort. This is easy but it takes a bit of time. Then it’s off to Qalia, near Lomshir, to kill a large number of Dark Elves who are exploiting the unicorns. These are also 3-dot mobs, at level 24, but they are considerably less tough than the Zar cultists.
Next up is contacting several different scattered unicorns for your unicorn buddy. One is on an island well west of Qalia, and the other two are on isles up in Kojan. I’m in the middle of this part now. It’s a lot of running around, but in the process I’m seeing new parts of Telon that I haven’t seen before, and that’s fun.
I’m about halfway through level 29 at this point, and not gaining XP at a spectacular rate because the actual quests are pretty much at the lowest level that I still get XP for them. But that’s okay — later quests in the chain are higher-level and Vanguard is a “take my time” game anyway.
One side effect of the venture into Wailing Winds Asylum was that shortly after completing it, Mengku received a gift from a random friendly player; a yellow weapon that was about a 300% DPS increase from what he’d been using. Thus equipped, he’s been a bit more potent. That’s good, because upstairs from level 10 the challenges of Vanguard become more pronounced.
After ridding the world of some Gulgrethor filth Mengku is now level 14, has three very nice songs in his repertoire, and is disposed to venture into places like the Tomb of Lord Tsang, perhaps the premier dungeon on the Kojani isles. However, as he’s continued to mature I’ve started thing about how I’m actually playing Mengku. He’s doing a lot of work with his bow, for example. Mostly this is just for pulling, as the Bard doesn’t really have any archery-specific abilities. When enemies close it’s melee time.
Given that this mix of ranged and melee seems to be my preferred playstyle in Vanguard, my thoughts naturally turned to Ardwulf himself, who has been sitting in the second half of the twenties for four years or so, and a 28 for at least a year. A quick hop in to work a bit of the start of the Unicorn mount chain gifted me with a couple of deaths, despite the three and four dot mobs involved being low enough to grant me no experience. Getting killed and taking the XP hit without getting any back is a bad cycle — clearly, I was out of practice with the Ranger. So I went in and did a thorough ability audit, adjusted his rotations and made some small upgrades to gear. He hasn’t got all that much money for whatever reason, but I was able to scrape a couple of things out of the brokerage.
Venturing back down to the Trengal Keep area, it wasn’t long before I’d gotten a blockbuster 2-piece drop off a random mob, found myself in a TK dungeon group, and hit level 29 without even completing any quests in the area (though I did make progress.) And my retuning was effective. Our TK group consisted of a Monk, a Rogue and me (a Ranger,) so without a healer it was fairly harrowing and there was a full wipe near the end. It was also an incredible amount of fun.
It does seem like the population has ticked up a bit, although we’re in an SOE-wide double XP weekend and that may have something to do with it. In mere months, though, Vanguard is going to be free to play and at the very least Telon is going to feel absolutely packed with people. Imagining three or four group all clawing their way through Trengal Keep and other mid-level dungeons has me pretty excited.
This week (yesterday, actually) brings another game update of minor bug fixes to Vanguard. These are small but now coming almost every week, portending good things to come. Here are the actual update notes:
The latest Too Long, Didn’t Listen podcast starring Syp and Dodge discusses Vanguard’s upcomimg transition to free to play, and mentions my post from the other day pondering the potential reasons behind it. Besides this display of incredibly good taste, Syp revealed a couple of small tidbits from a conversation he had with John Smedley. Apparently, Smed was “really excited” about Vanguard going free to play and used the word “relaunch,” saying that SOE was trying to give Vanguard the good launch that it never had. Which is very encouraging to hear.
There are also a number of other interesting points raised as well, and the whole show is worth both a listen and a subscription.
After pulling some new bags out of the mailbox Mengku ventured forth into the Blighted Lands east of Jalen’s Crossing. There lay the Wailing Winds Asylum, which is more a tranquil cliffside retreat in keeping with Kojan than the depraved nuthouse you’d expect. I though this was kind of cool, but while there are some constructs keeping the inmates within, there’s still crazy people running around, and once inside roving mobs make dangerous adds common. Hilariously, almost instantly upon reaching level 11 I died and left a tombstone and all my stuff in a slightly inconvenient place. Bard’s aren’t all that tough and are far from their best when solo, so I was glad to group with a Warrior of similar level, and together we completed the short chain there, including taking down the mini-boss at the end.
Small as it was, this was my first group on Mengku. Vanguard really sings in group play. Not just because there is a lot of great group content (which there is) or because the best rewards are gotten through group play (also true) but because the classes and the combat system have a synchronicity to them that makes characters be more effective in a group than they are alone, even aside from the extra firepower. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and when the group is highly proficient the effect is even more pronounced. When you’re dealing with five and six dot mobs like the raid bosses or overland raid targets, it needs to be.
I also rented a flying mount to scout out the local area, particularly the Arks of Harmony floating high above Jalen’s Crossing, and snap some screenshots. It’s sometimes said that Vanguard’s graphics are dated, which is true in some technical respects, but as far as I’m concerned the game still looks fantastic, and even great screenshots don’t do it justice. Only when you get in-game and see the waving of the grass and trees with the wind does it have its full impact.
One of the other great things about Vanguard is its fantastic soundtrack. I have yet to hear another MMO soundtrack that’s as effective, although several games (WoW, Guild Wars and AoC) have individual pieces on par with it. To me it adds tremendously to the atmosphere and sense of place. It’s one of the reasons I can hop into Vanguard just to hang out.
Since I have the whole soundtrack, one of my back-burner projects is to do some sightseeing in each area that has its own theme and make videos along the way featuring the music. Kind of a project which will hopefully happen at some point. Meanwhile,I have a couple other things in mind ramping up to the f2p launch.
As anyone reading this blog should already know, Vanguard is going free to play (freemium) some time this summer. Details are mostly still pending, but the major variables are the details of the model, the exact launch date and the content package that SOE is going to release alongside it. The big picture, though, points to a healthier game after all is said and done, even
A couple of SOE MMOs have gone away lately. The big one is/was SWG, of course, but you can’t necessarily say that was shut down because SOE wanted it shut down. But there’s also EverQuest Online Adventures, shuttered at the end of last month, and that’s a call that can most certainly be laid at the doorstep of Smed and the people making the decisions at SOE.
SOE does not seem to me to be a daring company. I know that they considered launching a freemium server for EQ2, their most popular title at the time, to be a big risk, but viewed from the outside it was anything but. The success that SOE has claimed for it and the subsequent total conversion of EQ2 to freemium looks like it was inevitable to me. Too, their freemium model is very conservative, aimed at giving free and microtransaction players a good taste of the game and allowing for casual play but definitively steering them towards a subscription if they want to play seriously.
SOE has some projects in the pipeline that are big and expensive by its standards. Planetside 2 is headed to release probably next year, with a whole new engine that SOE designed in-house. EverQuest Next, which will share that engine, is further out, and is the third (well, fifth, but you know what I mean) installment in their flagship franchise. If they’re not going all-out with it, they’re making a huge strategic error. Big money spent elsewhere is often accompanied by cuts in marginal corners of the business.
Vanguard had been allowed to wither on the vine by SOE for a long time. We started seeing very modest updates last year, and those have ramped up lately, but there was a period of over two years where not a single update of any kind was forthcoming. Not just no new content, but not even bug fixes. The only updates were to patch in holiday events and to fix server issues that actually took the game down. During this period there was very little indication that SOE had any interest in Vanguard at all. A few statements were made here and there that the company was still behind the game, but not often, and words are empty without action anyway. FanFaire was barren of even offhand talk of Vanguard for two years.
So here we have a game with the clear appearance of being unloved by its publisher, with a visibly minuscule player population, in a period when cancellation would have surprised absolutely no one and would seem to make sense on the face of it for a number of reasons. Yet Vanguard, despite all this, and despite the proclamations by naysayers that shutdown is right around the corner, gets a new lease on life this summer. Why? I can think of four possible reasons:
Vanguard fans have rejoiced at the news, by and large. Oh, there’s been some of the typical anti-f2p and anti-SOE grumbling, but mostly it’s getting drowned out. I’m also seeing a surprising number of people saying that they’ve resubscribed already just based on the news alone, although I can’t say that there’s been a meaningful impact on in-game populations, at least yet (but bear in mind that I play at weird hours, too.) Words like “renaissance,” “revival,” “relaunch” and “second chance” (and “last chance,” too, which can’t be argued with,) are getting thrown around, not entirely without justification. I worry that words like these imply more optimism than is warranted.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m optimistic, too. And there’s a lot of space overhead, if you take my meaning. But we shouldn’t pretend that Vanguard’s history doesn’t leave substantial cause for pessimism. The game is also coming to the freemium market rather late — a market that is now quite crowded. I think we will, even in the direst case, see a significant uptick in players in Telon, and it’s my hope that it gets some attention from people who would like the game if they gave it a chance. But how big the increase will be is an open question. Predictions of new servers opening up, for example, are premature, to say the least.
On the other hand, one of the limits of the technology behind Vanguard may actually prove to be a backhanded asset in this respect; unlike EQ2, which is heavily zoned and which spawns new instances of zones is response to heavy population in those areas, Vanguard is uninstanced except in one raid dungeon, and that’s limited to six copies. All players are right out in the same world, and SOE doesn’t have the ability to stack a finite but very large number of active players onto the same Vanguard server. A tenfold increase in active players, which is not at all unbelievable, might well trigger the launch of a new server. And that would be the “holy cow, the Vanguard Renaissance is real” moment for a lot of people who might otherwise doubt it.