WildStar, Carbine Studio's cartoony Sci-fantasy MMO, feels like it's been in development for ages - but with less than a month until launch, the game has entered Open Beta. I created my finest cat-rabbit-man-thing, slapped on a pair of magic blaster pistols and headed to Planet Nexus. Does it live up to the hype?
First things first with MMO, character creation - and WildStar offers a pretty robust suite of customisation choices that really emphasises the strengths of its character art. It's largely template-based, except for facial details which can be customised even further with a suite of sliders for everything from eye socket spacing to chin depth. It's a genuine shame that this level of granularity isn't applied to the other customisation features (everything else relies on a handful for preset template options - and they can vary between races and gender. I don't know if it's just beta limitations or otherwise, but there were more customisation options for Aurin males than there were for Aurin females, for example), but on the whole WildStar still feels like you're crafting your own avatar rather than simply picking a mix of pre-made parts.
And here's mine - Teyran, the Aurin Spellslinger. Races like WoW's Worgen and FFXIV's Miqo'te have long engendered me to the 'anthropomorphised animal' race trope, so naturally I had to pick the hippy prettyboy (or pretty girls, I'm all for equal opportunity prettiness) Aurin. Spellslingers, who can be DPSers or healers, are basically magic Han Solos - so what's not to love? On to Nexus!
Considering you'll be spending most of your time there, it helps that Nexus is a brilliantly realised world. WildStar's zany cartoon art style is utilised excellent, creating a varied environment bursting with colour - but Nexus is a compelling environment beyond its art. It feels like, unlike so many other themepark MMOs, a living world. Yes, there's still your relatively linear path through a zone, but it's all connected and sprawling and teeming with life, hostile or otherwise. Bodies of water have currents you have to fight against to cross them. There are natural hazards to contend with, like swarms of flies or poisonous clouds in swamplands, or forest fires after a certain area comes under enemy attack. The night part of the day-night cycle actually feels dark enough to be night, unlike a certain other MMO, as this picture of me leaping around this floating treescape can attest:
It's little things, but they come together in going a long, long way to selling Nexus as a world, not just the canvas for your gameplay experience.
A shame then, that so far at least the Questing content of WildStar is nothing new.
I've heard talk that the Open Beta has locked out some of the earlier main-story content, I can't confirm that, but even with the interesting idea of having 3 separate narrative arcs in questing - a localised Region Story, a larger Zone Story linking those Region Stories together, and then the all-encompassing World Story, each made up of smaller quest chains - you're still doing the exact same sort of stuff you've been doing in MMOs for decades: Go here, Collect/Kill/Interact with X things, and Robert's your father's brother, have some XP and some loot. WildStar tries to hide its 20 Bear Butts nature by marking objectives out in percentages, but that's just a poor attempt at cover up - whether you've destroyed 75% of the weapon racks or 9 of 12 racks, it's the exact same thing. It almost feels worse that they're trying to hide it like that, and it was pretty boring from the get-go. Consensus seems to be that post-level 20 (I'm 16 as of writing) the questing becomes more interesting, but when your player base is advocating almost half of the levelling experience being a boring slog, it's a bit of a problem. At least some quests allow you to use your communicator to complete them, rather than having to trek back to the quest giver in person!
But back to some more positive thoughts - at least WildStar's relatively rote questing system chucks you into a ton of the game's exciting combat mechanics, perhaps one of its biggest draws. Like the poster child for the action MMO before it, Guild Wars 2, WildStar's combat focuses on active player input and ability dodging over dice rolls. There's no such thing as an auto-attack, or white damage as it's known in MMO parlance, all your damage comes from the activation of your abilities - and even more importantly, the aiming of them. As you can see above, every attack (including your enemies) has its own telegraphed area of effect - whether that's a tight column, a wide cone, a circle or any other kind of shaped - where the ability will 'hit'. This weighting towards telegraphed attacks also means you can dodge almost every attack your enemies make (you're quite sprightly too, thanks to the ability to roll in any direction with a double tap of a movement key), but at the same time your enemies can avoid your own attacks if you're not aiming them correctly. It's a bit more active than just locking onto a target and tapping out your rotation (although there is an option in the menus that allows you to automatically face opponents when using an ability - but after being used to the default aiming technique, it felt a little clunky and restrictive), and creates a fast, frenetic bit of engagement that's hard to criticise. I've yet to see how such a freeform combat system works in the tighter environments of something like instanced dungeon content or a raid that will make up WildStar's 'Elder Game' content, but for soloing at least it feels fresh and exciting.
My most recent travels have brought me to my faction's Captial city, Thayd, and unlocked access to one of WildStar's other big selling points: Player Housing. At first, you don't have much:
But after a few quick clicks in the game's easy-to-manage Editor interface, this unfinished pile of bricks and dirts became quite the little Homestead!
Apart from your house at the heart of your plot, each of the other six sections of your floating chunk of property can be used to build plots that aid your journey on Nexus - my plots, for example, feature a vending machine that I can purchase health consumables from, a garden to plant seeds for flowers or food, a small mining excavation to gather crafting materials, and then a quaint little BBQ area to rustle up some food if I ever get into the Culinarian tradeskill. It's not just the exterior that you can mess around with too - I ended up spending most of the scraps of gold I'd acquired early on in the game to begin turning my little house into a home:
It's not much, but hey, I'm only just starting out on my adventure. Gotta live lean, and all that. The interior decoration aspect of player housing has an almost Sims-like addictive quality to it - you can tweak, scale, rotate and place all the décor you purchase or acquire during your time on Nexus by hand, allowing you to fine tune everything from the carefully placed stack of books you can just about make out in Teyran's lounge area, to the size of that frankly still humongous wedge of cheese on my kitchen table. You can't really do too much with the housing stuff when you unlock it at level 15, mainly because you don't have the cash to be decking out massive houses with lavish gear, but it's a fun, quaint little side-project to all your questing and fighting that gives the game a nice bit of causal-play to it outside of the strict progressions of PvE and PvP - and I believe you'll be able to invite other players to your housing plot too, so they can marvel at your own landscaping skills. Or just watch you chill out on your bed, earning rested EXP. All that questing is tiresome work!
So it's so far, so good for WildStar. Whilst there's a twinge of disappointment that it's yet another traditional themepark MMO in a market crammed to the gills with them, even with the little that I've played during this beta so far attests to it being at the very least a vibrant, well polished one. Time will tell if their subscription approach (it's monthly fee, but you can buy and sell subscription time in-game with your virtual money) and things like the coveted end-game content will play out - and whilst I don't think I'll be continuing with it beyond the Open Beta, WildStar seems for all intents and purposes to being a pretty solid, enjoyable MMO experience.
WildStar hits stores on June 3rd, but if you're interested in trying it out for yourself, the 10-day Open beta is currently running until May 18th - you can get access to it here.