The last time I played Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, it was a couple months after launch, when my patience with the game’s many bugs had completely run out.  Despite how much I wanted to see the game fulfill its promise, I quit mid-quest — complete with a big F-U to Brad McQuaid‘s much-ballyhooed “Vision”.

As the spiritual successor to McQuaid’s EverQuest, Vanguard did indeed have a great deal of promise.  Featuring tons of races and classes, meaningful crafting, a huge non-instanced world (Including Ultima Online-style player housing), and some pretty fine audio-visuals (even if largely uninspired), there was a whole lot for the MMO veteran to like in Vanguard.

And I really did want to like the game, but every time I would log in, it seemed like some annoying technical bug would show its face and kill any sense of immersion and/or fun I may have been having.  I expect, and can look over, technical issues with newly-launched MMOs (these types of games are typically broken in the beginning), but Vanguard‘s problems seemed a bit too much for me at the time.  (Looking back, things weren’t quite as bad as it may have seemed, and I suspect that the level of polish Blizzard had achieved with World of Warcraft by that time had too much of an influence on my perception of Vanguard.)

Vanguard Skip Skipperson on Pegasus

The mighty halfling ranger, Skip Skipperson, catching some air-time on his Pegasus.

So here we are, a few years down the road, and Vanguard is back in the news with reports of going free-to-play this summer.  Noticing there was a free 14-day trial being offered, I figured I’d revisit the game and see how things had turned out.  After all, I had been hearing good things about the current state of the game from my various MMO-related Internet haunts, so it seemed like as good a time as any to return.

Stepping back into Vanguard, the first thing I noticed was that a newbie area called the Isle of Dawn had been added while I was away.  This zone locks your character in at 10 maximum levels, and you’re not able to level up anymore — or leave the zone to enter the game world proper — until you subscribe.  I leveled two characters to 10, and to my surprise, quite enjoyed the process.  The game still looks great, I encountered only a couple of very minor bugs, and I really enjoyed the rich, somewhat complex nature of the game’s classes.  In fact, I enjoyed my two runs through the game’s starter area so much, that I went ahead and subscribed.

At this point, I’ve only been out of the newbie zone for a few minutes with my favorite toon (a halfling Ranger named Skip Skipperson), and much remains to be seen as to whether Vanguard‘s real game has been improved or not.  I really hope so, ’cause I’m a big fan of the MMO genre, but have grown utterly tired of all the easy and soulless “themepark” MMOs that have appeared in World of Warcraft‘s wake.

Until some developer grows a pair and makes a virtual, sandbox MMO world like we used to have before everyone wanted to make their own version of WoW, niche games like Vanguard are likely to be the closest we’re going to get to a deep, fulfilling MMO experience.