Trengal Keep… Without a Net

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.

Music, Death and First Group

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.

Alts For Freemium and the Demise of Randolph

I made another handful of characters in Vanguard, in preparation for the transition to freemium. The consensus as to how things will shake out is that SOE will grandfather in existing character races, classes and character slots, much as they did for EQ2 (after considerable and justified bitching.) So the strategy is to make those characters now, so when f2p goes up you’ll be able to play them without necessarily having to pay out of pocket for whatever it is you’d ordinarily have to unlock. There is, of course, no guarantee things will work this way, and the grandfather date could be set to or before March 21, when the announcement was made. But this will irk some people, including myself.

Despite this variable I would not be terribly surprised if SOE’s implementation of the freemium model in Vanguard ends up being a bit more liberal than it is in EQ2. I don’t expect any radical departures, mind you, but it seems to me a great shame to lock such a variety of races and classes behind a transaction. Vanguard’s class design is unique, and I think it’d be wise not to lock those great designs behind a paywall. I won’t say that the Warrior, Rogue, Cleric and Sorcerer are entirely uninteresting, but all of the game’s great classes — the Bard, Blood Mage, Disciple and Necromancer, and all those that are almost as neat, like the Psionicist, Ranger, Dread Knight, Shaman and Monk — would be unavailable to free players if the EQ2 model is ported over verbatim. But SOE has a lot less to lose now, and Vanguard has more to gain. It would be very good strategy, in my judgement, to limit the game as little as possible while still building the infrastructure needed for robust microtransaction sales.

With this in mind, though, one of the reasons I resubscribed almost immediately after the announcement was to get character made with an eye to them being grandfathered in if possible. Since I had lost a lot of characters to the server merge purge (all under adventuring level 10, and a bunch under 5,) and only had four characters on my account, three of which I created when I came back last year, I set about figuring out everything that I would realistically want to play and filed all twelve existing character slots. I’ll be happy to buy unlocks should the need come up, but there’s no sense spending more money than I have to — the SOE f2p model is not alt-friendly, and I am. Particularly in a game with as much variety in races and classes as Vanguard.

One buried but big change with this week’s update (updates which are coming noticable more rapidly now,) is that Randolph the Reindeer, the flying holiday mount that was given out several Christmases ago and subsequently made a year-round flying mount, was stripped of his flying ability. Some people are upset about this, and Randolph was incredibly handy, but more people are relieved to finally see the change made. I, personally, am in the latter camp.

The problem is that Randolph, in addition to being kind of silly, broke the game in some minor but non-trivial ways. You could use him to fly in and out of outdoor dungeons, for example, despite the fact that these tend to nominally be no-fly zones. Granted that this points to a problem with the underlying no-fly mechanic rather than being an issue specific to Randolph himself, but still. As an odd goodie during the holiday event I don’t mind it, but year-round flying was a bit too much, and additionally eroded the value of Vanguard’s other flying mounts, which take rather a lot of effort to get.

Now, the thing is, flying is one of the great beauties of Vanguard. Anything you can see, you can get to if you can fly. I am all for a flying mount at some accessible level and with a reasonable effort that doesn’t break the lore. Word is that there’s a level 20 questline in the works that will grant one, and I’m fine with that. I’m also fine with (as I expect) flying mounts bought through the store, as long as the best ones (currently the Griffin, the most spectacular mount in all MMOs as far as I’m concerned) remain things that you have to get through play.

Crafting, Diplomacy and the Hazards of Overpolish

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.