Okay, so let’s get this out of the way already. Yes, I did play Wildstar a weekend or two ago. No I did not pay any money to do so, thankfully. Carbine opened up a Beta weekend to everyone who they ever invited before and I got a chance to get in and see if this really was the future of MMO’s like I had once thought it was. Below are my thoughts on the experience.
The visuals are stunning. Well done. The art palet lends itself well to the design and appearance of the game. I’m a huge fan of video games that try to look like video games and Wildstar succeeds at this in spades. There’s no dull grey world filled with dull grey things on the planet Nexus. The space cowboy/steampunk (with emphasis on the punk) synthesis is bright, eye-popping and easy to drink in. The almost caricature style of the avatars give them an expressiveness most games don’t even bother to try and shoot for. Also, I’m a sucker for the use of weather and two of the zones made use of weather effects, thus making the gameplay in that zone feel cool and different then 90% of what I’ve played out there most of the time.
The gameplay does very little to deviate from the WoW model. The notion of limited action sets are worth digging deeper into but the Beta weekend was barely 3 days long. The game has all the major problems that WoW fights with now, in that the issue of bar watching becomes how you play. You watch your powers for when they’re done cooling down and then you activate them and watch again. This is made even more complicated by the fact that you now have to watch the floor for where you’re aiming (as well as where your foes are targeting) too. And if you try not to watch the floor then you take a beating you could otherwise avoid. I’m not a huge fan of games that make me watch the controls instead of the game itself to know what’s happening.
I only got to try out 3 of the 6 classes. The gunslinger was my first choice and also the most problematic to play. Without a dedicated lock on to target or auto-aiming mode, aiming and shooting down a foe was extremely difficult. Perhaps I need to alter my configuration to turn with the mouse instead of using the keyboard but my default movement scheme for MMO’s and all other games is to be a keyboard turner. But, keyboard turning made lining up my single target shots very difficult. Also the myth of the run and gun style class in MMO’s remains just that, a myth. There’s no option to move while shooting as all attacks (on all the classes I played) seem to root you to the ground. Very disappointing and I’m not sure if this gets any better the higher up you get in level.
The stalkers was my second choice. Stalkers were a good mix of the typical melee fighting while trying to be sneaky and take advantage of hitting opponents from behind. I couldn’t get too deep into the stealth tactics as the majority of the good stuff in the Stalker power sets comes later. It was a reasonably decent experience for new players though, as I could move around without fear of getting eaten alive and in combat I never felt too under-classed versus my opponents.
The Engineer was my last class I got to try out. They’re a nice mix of mid-range AoE with an all out damage dealing mode. This class was the most fun of the three that I tried. The AoE combined with the 5 to 15 seconds of going all out in full battler armor made for some fun playing and greatly reduced the strain of trying to make sure every shot was lined up properly to hit my targets. Sadly, I didn’t get a chance to get any pets going as this is the primary pet class in the game.
The biggest issue I have with these classes, and classes in general in MMO’s is that the game’s definition of a fighter/stalker/gunner/whatever may not be the same as my definition. And for the most part, there’s no way to alter the playability of a given class to accommodate play style very much. Sure you can tweak what they give you, but these classes aren’t really built to allow you to heavily alter them to suit your play style. You use the stealth on a stalker because otherwise you’re hobbling your character’s performance. The system is brittle and trying to play outside of the accepted norms gets you nowhere fast.
The writing of the game is easily it’s worst aspect. Carbine decided somewhere along the way to go with a very Saturday morning cartoon version of good and evil. In the game, the Exiles are the down on their luck, desperate to survive, good guys, looking to find a home against the all mighty evil and oppressive forces of the Dominion. The Dominion is filled with evil people and there is no doubt you’re one of them by the end of the tutorial. It really irritated me that I’m forced to be a murderer in the opening walk through on the Dominion side. The writers have chosen though to leave nothing to the imagination here. If you go Dominion than you are evil. It’s very simple and straight forward, which I guess some people think is all right but I think it’s really one of the worst and most simplistic forms of story telling out there.
Absolute good and evil really bothers me. It’s not that I can’t get the idea of what it is as a narrative construct, I watched the original He-Man and the Masters of the Universe when I was a kid. I loved that show. I still do. And look, I’m not asking for Hamlet in my RPG’s, but whatever happened to the rpg in an mmorpg? By forcing these decisions for me, all it does is remind me that I’m playing in someone else’s game and I don’t have any true agency over my own character in it. And that’s the real rub. While it’s true that all video games are scripted, many games struggle very hard with at least providing the illusion of choice. Absolutism takes the wind right out of those sails. It’s a construct for young children to help them understand the most basic concepts of morality. By utilizing it, they’re removing entire swaths of characters and story possibilities that can help make a game feel vibrant and alive. All while trying to maintain an edgy, punk-rock take on the business of the game itself. These two styles are bound to class in ways that I can’t imagine will work well as the game progresses.
Also, just a personal gripe here, but did anybody else notice that the opening story of the Dominion appears to mirror the exact same opening story of the human faction in World of Warcraft when it was first released. Missing emperor you say? Nobody knows where he is, you say? Are you sure he’s not named Lo’Gosh and fighting in an area somewhere? Just checking.
So, how do I feel about Wildstar now that I’ve gotten a chance to see what’s on the inside? This is a standard MMO with standard MMO quests, objectives, and activites. That is not a criticism. So many MMO’s that come out these days try to do something new and different and end up screwing up the formula completely. Wildstar doesn’t screw up the formula. It gets the MMO part right. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the new tricks and items they add, while welcome additions to the MMO arsenal, just aren’t enough. There’s nothing transformative here. Which, to be fair, may not have been what they were going for.
The great setting and environments are wasted due to exceptionally poor writing and the combat mechanics are simply the next evolution of WoW combat only with even more bottom of the screen watching then before. It’s possible the writing improves in the later game but I did not have enough time to see any evidence of this. Classes are different enough that they have their own tricks and styles to make use of but again, nothing you couldn’t also get from WoW. If you want to give NCSoft money for this thing, well, it’s your money. But honestly, it’s not different enough from WoW to make it a need to buy. If you’re tired of Azeroth, then Nexus might be a place you want to pop over and play around with. The feel of the game from it’s combat mechanics, to the use of the trinity in it’s core design, to the grouping, questing, and crafting dynamics are all right there for you. But then you’d be supporting NCSoft, which is something I think we all know is bad.
If WoW is the shining city on the hill, then Wildstar is the young usurper trying to build an even shinier city on top of the next highest hill. They may succeed and reach up past WoW. But ultimately there won’t be much difference between the two. And personally, I’m more of a mind to go hit the road and see who might do things better, even if they do want us all to sail off the edge of the map with them. It won’t be the same as what’s come before, and that is something to get excited about.