It was the best of trials, it was the worst of trials.
Let’s get this straight: Vanguard has the best trial set-up I’ve yet seen in a MMO. You get to play on a separate island using a ‘small’ (2GB) client that is set-up to both provide a storyline and a chance to get your character to level 10 in combat, crafting and diplomacy. Having played through the trial I know exactly what Vanguard is about. That’s fantastic. Too many trials I’ve played are too short and / or too broad to actually teach you what the game is like. By having a specially set-up area known as the Isle of Dawn that is only for trialists, Vanguard avoids this problem. The story is engaging enough and some of the systems, like the diplomacy card game, really shine through.
Of course, the problem with showing off a microcosm of the game to trialists is that any flaws become apparent more quickly. For a title as ‘old’ as Vanguard (launched 2007) I’d have expected no problems playing, but I actually suffered through a number of crashes and graphics issues – flickering screens, objects having ‘lines’ that shot off into the sky and so on. After some tweaking I fixed enough of these issues to be able to ignore them, but ultimately a trial needs to be a smooth ride if the aim is to get them to put down their cash. In the final form I was seeing, graphics and sound were acceptable but not outstanding.
Oh, and on the note of putting off players: nothing screams out “DON’T BUY THIS GAME!” like seeing update notes that are coming up to their first birthday whenever you go to launch. I’m sure Vanguard has been updated since then, but someone really needs to fix that issue with the SOE Station launcher.
Starting out I went as a Dark Elf Monk named Incand on Sartok, the FFA PvP server. Gameplay was okay, with the diplomacy card game being the highlight. It takes a little while to figure out a strategy / card range that works, but it certainly provided a different experience to Vanguard. Crafting (as a blacksmith) was alright, with it being a matter to just pick the order you press the various buttons in. Combat was dull and has probably dated the worst – stand in one place, hit the buttons and try not to aggro more than one opponent at a time.
Vanguard’s quests were a mixed bag. By far the best was the completely unnecessary but incredibly pretty scouting mission on the back of a pegasus. It game a great view of the large size of the trial area and how much of a world Vanguard looked. Diplomacy quests could be fun, but often required finding the right clothes / items to have the right standing with the right diplomacy faction before you could complete them.
The worst quests were those that required you to repeatedly run back to the same target / location / NPC to complete them – I’ve just come from there and now I’ve got to run back? That’s just a pure, unfun timesink. And then there were the ‘dungeon’-style areas that could easily see you run into two (or more) mobs which would mean a quick trip to a rez point.
And here is where I felt that Vanguard really shoots itself in the foot – having completed all other quests, the final quest set sends the player to an occupied temple in an attempt to free it. Since this temple is occupied, it has lots of mobs wandering about – mobs that can quickly gang up and easily kill the light fighter-type Monk. I have no idea how other classes would deal with this situation, but if a fighter class is struggling in killing one, maybe two mobs at a time I ended up wondering how hard some classes would have it.
Constantly running from the rez point to buy a pegasus mount to get to the temple, then fight my way in, then fight through a room or two until being overwhelmed and starting the process again wasn’t fun. The whole final part of the trial was a massive kick to the groin and a large block over any desire to sign up and play.
To my way of thinking, the final quest of a trial area should be more aimed at getting the player psyched to buy the game rather than grinding down their will to play with repeated character deaths. Maybe this was the intent – maybe Vanguard really wants to hold onto its (former?) hardcore crown and to let me know that I was not l33t enough to play. If that’s the case, mission accomplished – my trial ran out before I could clear the temple. Having started out incredibly impressed with the scope of Vanguard’s trial, the final area killed any enjoyment I had in the game.
In my opinion, a MMO trial has two goals:
- To realistically show a player what the game is like and to teach them how to play (with as little as possible bait-and-switch occuring); and
- To encourage the player to sign on and pay for the full game.
Vanguard succeeded brilliantly on the first goal and bombed out horribly on the second. I highly recommend playing the Vanguard trial to all other MMO players and developers – it’s rare that you end up seeing such a polar mix of right and wrong in one place.
It was the best of trials; it was the worst of trials.