Saga of Grinding

So Vanguard was released. Woopie! Yeah that’s sarcasm right there alright if anyone missed it.

Yeah as I mentioned before so I got into Vanguard in the “open beta” though my Fileplanet subscription and it was quickly apparent that the game wasn’t really done. I am not sure what it is with this genre of games… 4 years of development and they still need to add stuff in on last days before launch.

Vanguard has this “three spheres” thing going for it – in it’s marketing anyway. I already mentioned the idea is that you can play just one, two or all three and still have fun. Spheres one and two are the obvious ones as in: xp-by-killing-mobs-and-doing-quests and crafting-by-well-crafting. The latter is one of the “new” features of the game and is called Diplomacy.

Adventuring Sphere (the killing mob one) does not really offer much new. I am not sure what new feature could really get introduced in a system that is basically all about getting XP from killing stuff. There is a couple of nice surprises like the Bard songbook where you ‘compose’ your own songs from fragments of various buffs. But I suspect it will quickly become known what combinations is useful in what settings. It’s not like it has a lot of options anyway. Some games establish quite a nice flow in XP/quest grinding and helps the player along to figure out where to go next… Vanguard don’t.

Crafting Sphere looked promising at first glance. You can build ships and houses! Cool!!! Well…. After grinding to level 10 I am loosing my will to live real quick. The actual implementation of crafting has some ups and down. Crafting is almost always a grinders game. And games have to battle the obvious attraction to simply macro this process. This leads to some rather interesting implementations that even have the potential to become a game in itself. It is obviously therefor they decided to market crafting as a separate sphere of Vanguard.

So how did they do? Well first off it seems like they took a good look at EQ2 before they made this. EQ2 is a highly time-based system where you battle to overcome complications while balancing quality and progress. In EQ2 it quickly becomes trivial to make high quality items. But it does take a bit of time. The Vanguard system has some of the same qualities but with time replaced with an action point pool. The idea is simply that you need to finish your product before you run out of points and with the best quality rating possible. Added to that are the complications that spice it up a bit.

One of the neater things about crafting in this game is that you get more options as you improve your skills. So once you get a bit up in level you can specifically work more on quality, speed through the process or some combination thereof. Not a bad idea as you get to choose what sub-skills you want to improve and can therefor work towards where you think you need more options. And you get some concrete feeling of improving in your craft instead of just reading off your level number.

Okay so it sounds like a pretty good system so far and I’d agree it indeed has some potential. But then what does not have potential if altered enough? There is a number of issues as I see it. First off the complications can do a number of things if you do not fix them. Reduce quality, reduce progress or make actions more expensive. So basically they all make sure you need to spend more action points. Problem is that so far it seems very random when you get complications and how many you get. Oddly enough the order seems mostly static.

This does not mix very well with how the crafting is set up. Basically you have 4 steps. The first and last are not worth mentioning since they do very little. But the second and third ones is where most of the action points are spend. These steps will amount to a total of three actual steps. Either second step will have two steps or the third one will. And here comes the problem: only one of those steps is any good at building quality – at least at my level. This creates a huge problem when you want consistent results. You can be in a situation where you need to build quality in the second step and then end up spending too many points to finish the product because you get too many complications. Or you will get all the quality eaten up by complications because you does not have enough points left to fix them.

Now this can be excused to some extend. Making grade A (aka the best) quality shouldn’t be easy. But it does basically reduce crafting into a grind of crafting quests (called Work Orders). The reason for this is two-fold. On one side you do not get a lot of XP from actually crafting items for yourself. Instead you will ‘master’ your recipe after a go or two on it and not gain more XP if you make it again. And second at least at my current level there is very few recipes. From level 7 to 10 there hasn’t been any. But apparently on level 11 you get to choose your specialization and get new ones again. Second reason is that doing Work Orders you mainly seem to get XP from handing them in. Quality of the objects you make only seem to affect the additional reward. If you do not complete all the requested items of a Work Order you will loose some of the XP reward. So if you want to get anywhere you can just sit back. Get some Work Orders and quickly grind through them without caring about quality or complications. Rinse and repeat ad nauseam.

Maybe it changes on higher levels. But GOD DAMN it is boring so far!!!

On to diplomacy. Ohhhh… Something new and exciting in the genre. Finally! Yeah… maybe not so much.

Basically the Diplomacy Sphere consists of a simplistic collector card game. A bit like Magic The Gathering I suppose (I never played that game myself. But I tried a couple similar games). And it suffers from a myriad of issues. Many of them likely due to the fact that it seems the game wasn’t really implemented into the game-world until the last couple of weeks before release. When I first entered the open beta it wasn’t there at all or maybe only at select cities.

As said the game is very simple. You have a deck of cards and you select 5 of them as your “strategy”. These are the cards you can play when you “parley” (aka play the diplomacy game). Each card has a score for how much favor you get from playing it. It may have a cost and it may give your opponent some points to spend on playing his cards. The cost points are called expressions and are split into 4 types (Demand, Reason, Inspire and Flattery) and each race has a primary one that most of their cards are based on. Apparently classes do too but I haven’t noticed this much to be honest. So when you play the game you will see an indicator that goes from 10 points in opponents favor to 10 points in yours. On this is a marker where the favor currently is. The number on your cards will move the indicator towards you the number of points it’s marked with. You also see how many times you have to finish a round with the indicator in your favor to win and how many the NPC needs to have it on his side for you to loose. These numbers are based on a base number and the difference between you and your opponents diplomacy score. They – of course – go down as the battle rages on to show how close you are to winning (or loosing).

The initial gaming experience of Diplomacy is alright. It’s a bit like adventuring where you do quests and get reward items. This was hugely frustrating in open beta because once it was added most of the quests where broken in some way but it finally got working all the way through. But for release they decided to break it again (at least for High Elves) and for the couple of days we where blocked from completing the initial quest line and get our horse. But after that the sphere quiets down somewhat. Apart from the ‘Civic Diplomacy’ tutorial I have found no more quest lines so far. So doing Civic Diplomacy becomes the way of progression. The tragic thing about that is that the NPCs are so predictable that there are already rough step-by-step guides how to grind diplomacy. What targets to play, what strategy to select and what order to play them in. Not exactly a lot of challenge if this can be done inside of a week of the game being released.

The obvious response to this would be making the play style of the NPCs more dynamic. Shuffle their cards a bit. But this would be even worse! With only 5 cards to play in a parley session it is almost impossible to respond to unexpected things. Trial and error is pretty much the only one you can be expected to beat opponents. If the opponent does not feed you the needed expression points you cannot play your own heavy hitters. And cards that does not cost anything to play usually gives the opponent a bunch of expression points. With just 5 cards you need pack a strategy specifically for one scenario.

So in my opinion the Diplomacy sphere needs to be seriously changed to be any challenge of player skill. The only real option they have with the current game is to deal the NPCs better cards. And that will only lead to an extremely frustrating experience.

So in summery:
Diplomacy Sphere is a grind? CHECK!
Crafting Sphere is a grind? CHECK!
Adventuring Sphere is a grind? Well.. Maybe. Not sure yet. But it is not really anything new. And it has no real flow that makes it much fun.

But what can I do. I have 90 days of game time with my collectors edition of the game. And with a bit of hope I will start playing with the guild (AoJ) sometime soon. Maybe that will make it fun or at least worthwhile. Time will tell.

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