On one of the many occasions online RPG Vanguard managed to depress and amuse me simultaneously, it gave me a quest to go and shear five goats. The NPC next to the quest-giver had just addressed me as "hero", and thanked me for coming to help his beleaguered community. So, hero, go cut some goat hair for us, because we just can't be bothered.
With stung pride, I right-clicked on some goats nearby. Suddenly, I was attacked by a big, angry boss goat. Understandable, I suppose - if some stranger showed up and started forcibly cutting my friends' hair, I might intervene too. But I killed that boss goat, and guess what he dropped? Goatskin gloves. This goat was carrying a pair of gloves made from its own skin.
Vanguard is a game of ambition, but not of imagination or presentation. It's a sort of absent-minded professor, with a headful of clever formulas but a droning voice and completely unaware that he's got bits of egg in his beard. Mostly, it slavishly follows the same formula as any other post-EverQuest MMORPG. As the silly name hints, its world, Telon, is yer standard high-fantasy setting of elves and dwarfs and magic. A vast amount of lore is available online should you require it, but the game itself gives almost no sense of an overall story, of why this is a universe worth living in.
Vanguard does, however, try to approach its over-familiar model in far more substantial fashion. The choice of races and classes is huge, and the game is split into three equally time-sinking 'spheres.' Adventuring is very much the World of Warcraft mould of combat. It's a game playable either solo or in parties, but the greater emphasis is on a casual implementation of the latter (rather than hardcore raiding). Certain abilities are even only available when you're grouped. There are no instanced dungeons, so the big quests and bosses are free-for-alls - the design rationale for this is that the world is so big that curtained-off areas just aren't necessary. Given that there's also no PvP as yet, it's certainly taking some chances.
The trouble is, it's all presented with machine-like coldness. The writing and voice-acting is miserably flat, while any game that announces "establishing ownership" in its ugly, cramped font when you start attacking a foe hasn't stopped to consider whether you're having fun or not. There are so many numbers to keep track of that most become meaningless - just running around doing nothing creates an irregular flow of messages about some obscure ability improving.
There's logic behind it - if you haven't practised jumping off buildings, it's understandable that it'd hurt more when you do fall off something - but there's no attempt to mask the mechanical nature of this role-playing model. The quests and creepily static NPCs are unrelentingly bland, while combat is stilted and robotic, mostly a hollow facsimile of what's gone before.
It's also sloppy. It's clear that Vanguard isn't finished - not just from the graphical glitches, uncompletable quests, lag, disconnects, spelling mistakes and crashes, but also from patch notes such as "Envoy Wyria is no longer missing her thoracic and abdominal cavities." Playing as a rogue, several times I found myself knocked out of stealth because of a stat-boosting aura emitted by a nearby temple. Cue un-invisibility in the midst of an angry mob, and, invariably, death.
Though lacking player empathy, Vanguard doesn't set out to be the sort of vacuous, instant gratification game WoW or City of Heroes is, and that's a noble goal. When there is hard graft, it is entirely intentional - it's trying to achieve a more believable world.