Vanguard: Saga of Heroes

So there I was, alone in my room eating a grilled cheese with peanut butter while making a PhotoShop of Aretha Franklin’s breasts on Ali Larter’s body (as in, Varsity Blues Ali Larter, not Heroes Larter), when I heard terrified cries from the hall.

So there I was, alone in my room eating a grilled cheese with peanut butter while making a PhotoShop of Aretha Franklin’s breasts on Ali Larter’s body (as in, Varsity Blues Ali Larter, not Heroes Larter), when I heard terrified cries from the hall. I stepped outside and saw a group of freshmen guys running past with fear in their eyes, for they were being chased by a rather rotund female brandishing a double-headed dildo like a holy sword as she huffed after them, screaming that she would offer anyone of them a free rectal massage with a happy ending if only they would give her a ride to the nearest Boston Market.

That made no sense at all, did it? Neither does this online RPG mania. But with more than 20 million subscribed network gamers in the country, online RPGs cannot be ignored. The reigning champion of online RPGs is World of Warcraft (WoW), and it has rumbled with many contenders to keep the top spot for more than three years. Everquest, Diablo and Guild Wars still hold some of the market, though their collective subscribers total just under 4 million, half of WoW’s eight million players.

The newest game claiming to be a WoW killer is Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, developed by Sigil Games Online. Sigil Games collaborated with Sony Interactive to produce a more traditional online RPG, focusing heavily on character development and player interaction outside the battlefield. The overall result is a decent bit of online gaming that is neither revolutionary, nor reprehensible.

The most notable difference between this game and WoW is the visual engine. Vanguard features a more sophisticated graphics feast and the character models are all here: the elvin healers, the dwarfish magic casters and the ogre-like forward attackers, among others. The world itself is a luscious set of landscapes that make the adventuring mode a blast and the fun of exploring this gorgeous fantasy world makes the game worth the buy. Vanguard has three different facets called “spheres” that each offer a different format of character development and story progression.

The meat ‘n’ taters of any online RPG is the adventuring mode, and Vanguard’s adventuring sphere offers a seemingly limitless amount of space to explore. The game hosts three gargantuan worlds, each of which are ridiculously full of things to do and items to find. Sigil Games seemed hell-bent on making an environment much larger and more complex than WoW, and they succeeded in this right-it would take months just to visit every battlefield once, let alone move onto the harvesting fields that comprise Vanguard’s character development sphere.

Character development in Vanguard takes a lot of pointers from the Star Ocean series, utilizing a system of harvesting and pillaging to collect resources. These resources are broken down by class and certain items are exclusive to specific job classes, such as miners or lumberjacks, which are gathered for later use or trade. Gathered resources can be crafted into equipment at a player’s dedicated home.

Crafting is similarly broken down by character class, and, depending on your chosen class, you can smith a sword, tailor some new armor or alchemize an accessory. There are more abilities and talents that are unlocked with experience gained through adventuring, though the crafting class of your character doesn’t change during the game and thus leads into Vanguard’s system of trade.

Trade is conducted through the “diplomacy sphere,” an interface modeled after a trading card game. The cards are debate-themed and a gauge on the right of the screen tracks the progress of a player’s diplomacy, with the victor able to claim items from the fallen. As diplomacy develops, certain sentences and phrases that are unlocked have specific meaning in the game itself, and the game progresses accordingly.

This diplomacy focus is meant to give players the option of constant adventuring and battles or else advancing the story without repetitive hacking and slashing. This is where the first downfall in game play occurs, for even though there is some diplomatic strategy moving the game along, most of the progression sequences require menial tasks such as killing a set number of enemies before a team of players can advance.

The teamwork and guild elements are well done, though it can be a bit cumbersome to move as a group through the entire world. Unlike WoW, there is no instant travel function, and adventuring from one place to another can get tedious when all you want is to get from one player’s house to the next, and each time you want to go back and do some crafting, it means breaking off from the team and turning your weary feet homeward, alone and lacking the talents of your team members.

Vanguard doesn’t offer any generalist player categories and this creates the biggest gripe players have had with the game. If you’re a magic caster, for example, and your trip home requires passing through a forest laden with physical attackers whose magic defense is strong, you’re not getting home without a physical attacker by your side.

Vanguard is a hell of a game, though Sigil Games ultimately got caught on the double-edged sword of massive multiplayer gaming. Vanguard is both massive and conducive to the multiplayer approach, but the world can be overbearing and it’s hard to get through most of this game without teamwork, making this game an option for experienced players only. Newcomers to network gaming will simply lose themselves in the ether of Vanguard and wind up starting WoW instead.

It would be morally remiss of me to not warn you of Vanguard’s addiction potential. This game has such depth and complexity that you forget about time in a hurry as your soul is lost among the pixilated images and the clicking of your mouse. This game is completely capable of adding10 pounds to your ass and making you scoff at homework, so if you have an addictive personality, avoid Vanguard like you would gonorrhea.

To sum up Vanguard, it’s a great game, but a WoW killer it ain’t. You’ll love the visuals and if you know your way around online RPGs, buy this one. No expansion packs have been announced, though Sigil Games still has a contract with Sony, so some addition is likely just around the corner.