By now nearly everyone has heard of World of Warcraft. It's dominated the mmorpg market like no other and it's going to take a pretty solid competitor to steal from WoW's massive subscriber base.
Over the past week I've been playing with two of the games with the most potential to take on WoW. First up is Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, produced by Sigil Games and published by Sony Online Entertainment. Essentially this game is coming from the same minds that brought us Evercrack...err...Everquest, the mmorpg that has defined everything to come after it. Vanguard is actually on shelves now and seems to have a pretty large player base trying it out at the very least.
The most promising part of Vanguard for me is that it feels very much like Everquest. The character creation process is the most pliable I've seen in an mmorpg. You have incredible control over every aspect of your avatars appearance. The game also brings with it a wide variety of character classes and races, catering to the play styles of nearly any player.
Unfortunately, things start to fall apart once you start playing. There are a lot of obvious bugs, like mobs randomly teleporting around. The world design looks like they might have done it only a few weeks before launch. The graphics engine looks like it has potential, but I get the feeling the developers haven't really tapped it or refined it to it's full potential. NPCs feel static and bland, only there to sell you things and hand out quests, not really adding anything to the character of the world. Even the interface feels rough and unfinished.
I find all the flaws frustrating as I can see a lot of potential in Vanguard. The daily list of bug fixes they are publishing is a clear indication that Vanguard is just not ready for release yet. Give it another 6 months and it will most likely be awesome. In the world of mmorpgs though an unfinished release could mean the end of it before it even has a chance to get started.
All my concerns with Vanguard are only exaggerated when I take part in the stress test of Lord Of The Rings Online this weekend. LOTRO is only in the midst of beta testing and the stress test this weekend was meant to push the limits of their servers while the actual release of the game is still several weeks away.
Things start off not looking as good as Vanguard due to the limited options for race and class and mediocre controls over appearance. Unlike Vanguard things only get better from here. This game feels very polished, everything is clean and simple and easy to figure out. They throw you right into the action with an introductory instance geared at setting the stage for the story and getting you comfy with the controls. The graphics are gorgeous and the environment is richly textured.
Perhaps the best part, even better than when I took part in the open beta for WoW, is that despite the hundreds of players flooding the newbie zones, there is no shortage of things to do. They nicely managed to split things out into these instances based on your progression through the story line. For example, as a human, after completing the main quest line, I'm sent to save my starting town in a solo instance and when I'm done I'm thrown into a burnt down version of the town with all the other players who are at this stage of the game. It will be really interesting to see how these story telling techniques carry through the rest of the game, if at all.
If you are an early adopter and willing to work through the bugs, Vanguard may be the way to break you from WoW. There are also a handful of new games like LOTRO to look forward to over the next year. Or, as I'm guessing most people will, just stick to WoW for now and keeping working through all the great new content that The Burning Crusade has brought to Azeroth.