If the noises coming out of beta are accurate, WildStar is currently riding a wave of popularity. But will that translate into a successful launch or long-term appeal? If you listen to the cynics, Carbine’s inaugural MMO has a number of crippling flaws that will ensure its rapid demise.
Is such criticism valid? As MMO veterans, we’ve sometimes been seduced by the promises of an upcoming title, only to close our wallets with regret a couple of months later. Even with praise being lavished on it at the moment, will WildStar take the same path to disappointment?
From what I’ve seen so far, and from conversations I’ve had with the studio, they seem to be on track to avoid many of the pitfalls that have hindered other MMOs. But there are still legitimate concerns from MMO gamers that have been largely ignored in the rush to froth about new features and content. It’s why, this time round, I’m going to be acknowledging the elephants in the room, and addressing some of those most common doubts.
I’m going to start with a confession. Back in February last year, I sat down to play WildStar for the first time. A number of press had been invited to play an early version of Deradune – a Dominion questing zone that starts at level 6. The distinctive art style was already present, with Pixar providing the inspiration for bright colors, smooth texturing and cartoony exaggeration. It’s a choice that worked well with the easy blend of humor that the MMO was already earning a reputation for, but it just didn’t grab me.
I found myself looking for the ‘Oh Wow’ moment, where the scenery or landscape would open up to offer a breathtaking view. It’s much easier to provide the visual feast on a tightly built shooter that demands a high-end machine. For an MMO that has a huge and diverse open world, has very few loading screens, and aims to run on a range of PCs, it’s more of a challenge.
And then it hit me. I’d stopped doing traditional questing and swapped to Explorer path missions – I’d always enjoyed finding the beauty in MMOs, and felt it was a good match. After climbing to the top of a gigantic vine, I looked down at Bloodfire Village and the surrounding area. The paths that I’d been following and hills I’d been climbing over – they all had patterns woven into them, as if they’d been deliberately sculpted and manicured. As I’ve found out more about the lore of Nexus and the Eldan, that first glimpse has taken on renewed significance. It’s something that’s easy to miss when you’re scanning through screenshots or watching the videos, but the setting, the art style and the lore all work together.
Even so, the cartoony appearance isn’t going to be to every gamer’s taste. While I’ve had several other moments of amazement exploring the recent beta, they’ll be difficult to appreciate if you prefer an MMO with more grit and realism. And yes, it’s a group that I know is currently under-served in the genre.
Breaking the Theme Park Mold
Without looking at some actual gameplay footage or experiencing it for yourself, it’s possible to think that WildStar resembles other titles at the theme-park end of the MMO spectrum. This results in accusations of cloning, as Suzie Ford herself mentioned recently. But while some aspects of the genre have been with us for over a decade, there are indications that Carbine is trying to push in new directions.
For the MMO veteran, gameplay mechanics matter hugely. We’re quick to immerse ourselves in a virtual world, devouring the story and becoming heroes. But, when we hit level cap, that journey is placed on pause until more content is released. Until that happens, we end up playing on repeat, visiting the same locations and pressing the same buttons. The setting and scenery starts to fade into the background, making any similarities even more noticeable.
With me, this would always become apparent during combat. I went from High Fantasy Hotkeys, to Hotkeys of the Sand, and finally to Hotkeys In Space. As long as I remembered what sequence to hit buttons in and avoided the bad stuff on the floor, I’d be successful at the game. It got dull.
WildStar changes this by using an active combat system, with targeted abilities that can be (mostly) cast while moving. It’s not the first MMO to try this – both TERA and Guild Wars 2 have tried something similar. But, after trying all three, Carbine’s telegraph-heavy implementation is my personal choice. There’s no longer any guesswork, and combat feels fluid and natural regardless of the class I’m playing. Combined with double-jump and tap-dodge, it’s made the moment-to-moment gameplay fun and enjoyable, and it’s something that I miss noticeably when I drop back to other MMOs. Hands-down, WildStar’s combat is good.
There’s also an argument that WildStar only caters for an easier crowd. From my own experience it actually goes the other way, where I’m encouraged to use my skill to get better rewards. Sure, I can blast through mobs one at a time, but that’s easy. Start pulling and killing two or three at once, and I earn an XP bonus for showing off. I’d also get a 30 second buff, leaving me asking if I should step out and pull more, or ease off and heal up. In this way, skill isn’t required, but it is rewarded.
That surprise extends to other mechanics. Mine an ore node and it might grow legs and try to run away, or erupt from the ground as a huge ore worm. It might even uncover the entrance to a cavern full of ore nodes to chew through. What would normally end up routine and repetitive now has an element of randomness attached. Crafting is similar, with deeper recipe trees and talent choices.