Sometimes, starting fresh makes a big difference. Mnembao, my new Psionicist, is now level 10 in Adventuring, level 11 in crafting (Tailor) and level 4 in Diplomacy. At 17 hours in I still have not left the Khal chunk nor visited the third Adventuring quest hub. I had seen the Cliffs of Ghelgad (starter area for the Qaliathari and Mordebi humans) more than once, but despite having done some crafting down in Khal, I’ve never gotten much past it.
I’m working on that now; Ksaravi Hollow is a dungeon in the chunk intended for levels 7-11. Like all Vanguard dungeons it is open to the world and a large piece of it is pretty soloable if you’re careful, even with a brittle Psionicist. But I did get in my first corpse run, which was unexpected — the death penalty doesn’t take effect until level 11, but level 11 in any of the spheres will do, and I had already hit that as a crafter. Thankfully, all was well once I made it back down there and the XP hit really is pretty modest unless you manage a streak of deaths. And yes, I have seen a couple of other players down there, but have not (thus far) felt the need to group.
I’ve also taken up Diplomacy again, something I’d let slip by the last couple of times I’ve been playing Vanguard. It’s hard to keep track of stuff after leaving it alone for a long time, but starting from scratch there’s a lot to do. Level 4 gets you a bigger strategy hand, which helps a great deal. There is one quest in the early Khal diplomacy chain that’s hard to follow: you’re told to talk to some guards until the nearby guard sergeant has finished up whatever it is he’s doing, but you’re not told explicitly what will trigger the quest’s completion. It turns out that this is hitting level 4, which, if you haven’t done all of the lower-level diplomacy quests (I hadn’t) can take a fairly large number (like twenty) parleys to reach. I almost stomped off without completing it before I figured it out. I’m glad I didn’t, because if I had, it probably would have been another character I’d abandoned Diplomacy on.
Coming off of my experiences with SWTOR and Rift last year (both of which I decided not to buy based on their “strengths” in beta,) ancient, teetering old Vanguard seems like a breath of fresh air. Those games, like WoW, are highly polished — and like WoW today all of the fun seems to have been polished off of them. What was once an unquestioned virtue has now become, to my mind, a liability, with openness, dynamism, atmosphere and interactivity sacrificed at the altars of balance, ease and accessibility.
Whatever deficiencies it might have, there is meat on the bones of Vanguard. It’s a bizarre twist when the great strength of WoW becomes a weakness, and the great flaw of Vanguard becomes an asset. I have a funny hunch that Vanguard’s dilute “old school” pedigree, never satisfying to EQ veterans who wanted something similar to the old hardcore grind, is something that fans of vanilla WoW who have grown to dislike Azeroth as it’s evolved might find appealing. It’s still a themepark game, and it gives you some guidance and direction, but you also have the ability to run off the rails and do what you want to a much greater degree than in those other titles.
Whether that potential audience will actually try Vanguard when it moves to freemium is another story. Deciding to launch EQ2 Extended instead of making Vanguard free to play in a market that wasn’t yet dominated by games with no cover charge represents a huge missed opportunity on SOE’s part. It would have been a gamble, but, y’know, sometimes you should gamble. What I hope for now is a nice boost to the population, which should help the game a great deal.