It's not easy to stand out amid the shambling MMO hordes, but if I had to take bets on anyone doing it, I'd put money on Carbine's new sci-fi fantasy game, Wildstar. Carbine brought their comedic MMO to San Francisco last week where they allowed lucky members of the press to give its beta build an early look-see. After getting a taste of what Wildstar has to offer, no joke—I believe it's shaping up to become one of my all-time favorite MMOs.
One of the reasons Wildstar's looking so good is well, its looks. Character creation offers you a range of distinct, cool-looking heroes, many of them faction-specific. Wildstar's got a very distinct graphic style and after so many MMOs being made in the shadow of the game-that-shall-not-be-named (WoW), it's refreshing to see it's still possible to create something with a look all its own. Gamers as obsessive as I am about character creation will probably find it was painful to choose when faced with so many interesting hero options. Carbine makes it worse by providing three selection layers: race, class and path.
Race and class are fairly self-explanatory, but Paths are something else. In addition to becoming things Mordesh, Mechari, Human and Aurin and choosing primary role such as Warrior, Esper (brainy types with psi-powers) Spellslinger, Stalker, Engineer and Medic, you can add a secondary specialization and become a Soldier, Explorer, Settler or Scientist. At the event I was really in a quandary. Did I want to be a creepy space zombie or a statuesque mech? Was I more interested in wielding magic and making maps, or was I more in the mood to become a real estate magnate by giving the competition a (literal) beat-down?
Thinking I'd never be able to decide, I looked deep within myself and realized an unacknowledged need to become a sociopathic, science-obsessed rodent. Fortunately, Wildstar has those, and so I made a pink, snaggle-toothed, mega-mustached Chua Engineer/Scientist who began his journey down the road to greatness in the reanimation chamber of Dominion headquarters.
Tutorials at best, are generally considered a necessary evil. Amazingly, Wildstar has managed to make theirs both informative and entertaining. As a new Dominion recruit, your job is to convince Wildstar's equivalent of Star Wars' Empire not to kill you. Doing that requires convincing them of your loyalty, and my little Chua was forced to jump through a few disturbing hoops. Some of the more innocuous tasks involved talking to giddy celebrity chasers and using my personal scanbot to gather useful information; the more sinister ones required me to ahem...interrogate suspicious characters. Although I was a little conflicted about what I was doing, (mind you, everything was skillfully presented so that it's hilarious even when it's morally questionable) it was nice to feel that my actions mattered so early in the game.
Integral to the training process was the combat portion which took place on the ship's holodeck. Four different rooms held holographic versions of the Dominion's greatest enemies and it was up to me to prove my mettle against them. The first three levels happen quickly and so I had three abilities early on: one that gave me a mech suit boost, one that allowed me to electrocute enemies and one that gave me the power to execute a pulse blast my faux foes with my Heavy Gun of Devotion. Being a scientist, I was also required to gather information, an activity that to me, was much more fun. Using my own personal scanbot, I ran around reading books and cataloging items and these in turn, unlocked various bits of lore. (Incidentally, if you're the type who loves lore, you're in for a treat because Wildstar's packed with it.)
My last task before leaving the ship was to meditate at a series of altars. This nicely-integrated bit of fiction and gameplay made me pay tribute to the six Virtues who stand for things like Purity, Strength, and Justice and then asked me to pick the one that best represented me. Intending to role-play a bookish researcher, I naturally chose Knowledge. My indoctrination complete, I was granted a visit to Emperor Myrcalus' inner sanctum. The approach to his chamber illustrated how alive Wildstar's world will no doubt feel and I enjoyed watching as rows of Dominion soldiers stood at attention and saluted me as I passed.
Part two of the tutorial shifted gears significantly as the Dominion high muckety-mucks sent me on an information-gathering mission in the Grand Museum. There, my little Chua cog-in-the-machine assisted the Dominion's biggest celebrity, Artemis Zin. Yet again, Carbine managed to use narrative to advance gameplay by creating a funny little mission that provided backstory while cleverly introducing the Dominion's individual races.
After acting as personal assistant to Ms. Zin, I was told that the Dominion needed me to serve in one of two ways: by accompanying Artemis Zin to look for treasure or to help fend off an Exile attack at Mondo's Beachhead. Having gained a new gun, a shield and some fancy armor, I felt ready to take on the world and chose the beachhead. (Actually, when the time came, I had no choice. The beachhead appeared to be the only option.) Consequently, I was sent to a red sand desert that looked anything but beachy. Ah well.
There, things took on a much more familiar MMO feel as the psychotic Mondo commanded me to kill a slew of big, scorpion-like bugs called Scrabs. Fortunately, in between kills I was able to continue gathering information about the local flora. This turned out to be surprisingly rewarding since by doing so, I unlocked special Path (for me, scientist) missions. It was exciting seeing my actions trigger missions rather than being wholly reactive to them, and I gleefully used my scanner to look for more. Regardless of my scholarly obsessions, the point of this area was to undermine Exile attack plans by freeing Dominion prisoners and disabling land mines (or in my case, detonating them by repeatedly getting too close and blowing myself into the stratosphere). I found the Exile POW camp crawling with mechs which made freeing the prisoners pretty sticky; still, since freeing them required jumping smack into their bodies as they floated in cylindrical force fields, it was a good bit of fun.
While after such limited time with the game it's impossible to arrive at a holistic impression of it, arriving at a quick impression of its many cool features is not. Once again, let me emphasize, Wildstar looks spectacular. Beyond the awesome characters, the environments are a total knockout. The Dominion ship interiors are rendered in neutral grays punctuated by neon reds which make it look like some kind of incredible military base/science lab/Vegas casino hybrid. All the locations thus far are of tremendous scale which gives the world a really expansive, even intimidating feel. (I learned just how large things really are when I took a holo-elevator—which was cool because it was activated by solving a puzzle— up, up, up to a skyscraper-high platform. (Of course, the elevation didn't really hit home until I fell off the platform and plummeted twenty stories to my death. Ouch. You should have heard the chorus of “Ohhhhhhhhs” all around me when I did that.)
In addition to looking great, Wildstar is pervaded by an edgy humor who's closest relative might be the writing in the Borderlands games. Characters say some pretty funny stuff, even stuff you hate yourself for laughing at. At times though, the environment's so chaotic, it's hard to focus on what people are saying. At the moment, not only do characters have voice lines, they also sport text bubbles that say different things than the voice, and this makes it hard to absorb either one. Add to that a datachron (effectively a cell phone) that keeps ringing with people offering you various side missions, and your distraction level can't help but jump. The balance among these things will no doubt be refined before launch (one hopes) as will the Voice of God, as I call it. It's bizarre, but every time you manage a chain kill or attain a new level, this bodiless, booming voice comes out of nowhere like some kind of celestial radio announcer. I'll admit, I'm not a fan.
Of course, graphics and story are mere seasoning; it's gameplay that's the meat. At this stage it's hard to tell how Wildstar's notions of dual DPS/Healer (or tank) characters will really work, either alone or in groups, and more time is definitely needed to see how the different character builds play out. The good news is that the game has ample attributes to tinker with and plenty of opportunities to develop your character. (Personally, I'm tickled that one of the attributes is “moxie.”) The controls are also nice. By holding down the Shift key, characters can sprint for a short period, which makes running less of a chore, and things like talking to people and picking up loot are automatically streamlined through the use of keyboard controls. Finally, a quick double tap on the S or W keys allows you to dodge attacks.
From what Carbine showed us at last week's event, Wildstar is developing into a formidable MMO. Nothing out there is as distinct-looking and nothing else has the potential to bridge the genres of fantasy/sci-fi/comedy adventure quite as well. The game has characters with character, wondrous locations and PvE you can really sink your teeth into. It's also removed many of the inconveniences so prevalent in the last generation of MMOs. While it's true, we have yet to get a meaningful glimpse of the game's dungeons or multiplayer dynamics, I'm confident that if as much care is taken in the design of these things as has been employed in the creation of the single player game, the game as a whole should be well worth exploring.