Is this MMO truly as wild and wacky as the videos suggest, or is another case of "World of Warcraft but different"? James takes a look.
By James Pinnell on March 18, 2014 at 5:46 pm
Nostalgia is not usually a quality that many MMORPGs tend to strive for when they set out to create a new universe. WildStar is unique in that it is one of the first Western MMOs in quite a long time that was designed by a small team on a limited budget, but with lofty ambitions to succeed where many others have failed. As a result, it has ended up much closer to the fold of traditional MMOs, such as World of Warcraft and Warhammer Online, in offering what is unabashedly a conservative play system geared significantly towards hardcore players.
From the beginning, WildStar pulls few punches, avoiding much of the fairly monotonous control and quest tutorials and instead offering tooltips during the first few starter missions that can easily and quickly be turned off. It doesn’t explain how armour and weapons work either, instead allowing you to run around and experiment without feeling like your hand is being held.
It’s a lot to take in at first; the environments are fairly large and detailed, brimming with NPC activity. Your UI is thick with various screens, bars and notifications — if you think it looks familiar, then I wasn’t the only one — from the quest guide to the minimap, much of WildStar‘s interface harks back to the early days of World of Warcraft. But there are improvements — finding specific quest objectives in what feels initially like an enormous maze of teleporters and corridors is simply thanks to a large arrow that appears on screen at the click of a button.
I can’t over-emphasise how much this game goes out of its way to simulate an active world – in one area, random strikes of lightning would hit both PC and NPCs alike, and in a another – search beams would highlight the player (if found) and draw mobs from all around to their position. In some areas, very tight path design finds you almost overwhelmed with large numbers of hard hitting mobs, quickly forcing you to get well acquainted with WildStar‘s take on a realtime battle system.
But it’s once you start the fight that things tend to unravel a little. Combat feels very jerky and unintuitive — your weapons have specific ranges, as do your enemies, and these are shown on screen in the style of red and blue squares. To do damage, an entity has to exist in that square. Simple, right? Well, not every attack offers an easy box to dodge — some enemies will simply throw heavy attacks at you with little warning, which made me wonder if everything could be blocked or if certain attacks were simply mandated to hit. Other MMOs with real time systems have employed “tells”, such as the red dot in FFXIV and the “build up” in TERA Online — but many mobs don’t have tells, or obvious ranges for attacks to hit.
There were many, many occasions when I would be well out of the radius of attack but the game still registered a hit. This is concerning primarily due to how heavy most attacks will land — I was playing as an Engineer (Settler), with around 1200 health. Standard attacks by mobs at my level ranged from 200-300 a pop, meaning that unless I killed them quickly, no amount of dodging, jumping and running would prevent an early death. Here’s some combat footage for you, so you can see what I mean:
Things are made worse by the combination of real time combat with a 0-9 key format — straight off the bat, this is a poor choice for key placement. Normally, assigning a light and heavy attack to the left and right mouse buttons allows the left hand to be freed up primarily for movement. WildStar‘s curious choice to avoid using the mouse buttons for anything but clicking on the UI means that unless you are using a MOBA/MMO mouse with numbered buttons on it (as I do, thankfully), you’ll be fumbling to hit the right keys as you attempt to dash, dodge and flip around enemy movements. It’s clear that the developers want you to move — there are little roadblocks to traversing the land as you like, and the same goes for interacting with enemies — so it was a curious choice to heavily restrain movement during the activity you will be doing most of the time.
Unfortunately, things don’t tend to improve once you start questing. As is now the norm, missions are provided via NPC hubs, pickups and via your communicator — a cool little addition that allows you to accept and complete quests remotely — as well as directly to your UI when you enter certain areas. But questing is a dull, repetitive and mind numbing affair. “Kill 5/5″ is now replaced with a percentage. Your “path”, which is designated at character creation and allows for a string of alternate missions, many of them with the option of non-combat — is probably one of the coolest functions of the game. But sadly, the concept is just not taken to an interesting place. As a “Settler”, I thought I could help to build new structures or elements that made a long standing difference to the game. Instead, I spent most of my time running around to find resources (random world drops), and converting them to publicly accessible buff machines. And herein lies the rub: regardless of the hype you have heard, what we have here with WildStar is Theme Park 2.0.
Straight off the bat, let me say that there is intrinsically nothing wrong with theme park MMOs — and while I have made my case fairly clear as to why they are detrimental to the genre as a whole, the continued success of WoW largely points to an enclave that adore them. NCSoft and Carbine are squarely aiming at that market without pulling a single punch — from the art to the music, from the PVP to raids and through to character and class creation to skill assignment, WildStar is creating a logical path of access for those wanting something new and easy to transition to.
The focus of the marketing spend so far has been on hefty, long 20-40 man raids, competitive PVP with customisable aspects and PVE that requires little more than kills and clicks. I do like that the “Path” system opens up a significantly large amount of varied content based on a playstyle, but its optionality and lack of long-term impact on other players and the world at large makes it less MMO and more like filler to complete in between story slogs or while you’re waiting for your raid to start.
The game does, however, feature an extortionate amount of lore, and voice acting is actually pretty damn good considering. I found the plot relatively convoluted at first, especially as it tries to balance a serious, world ending conundrum with fairly heavy, silly, doses of humour that tend to pull away from allowing you to make an established connection to any characters or events. But its in the presentation — a mixture of short cutscenes and standard quest info spliced with optional discovery of logs and other story tidbits – that WildStar elevates itself to the SWTOR style of communication. For those that actually pay attention to these elements, I would assume the back stories of the various antagonists would flesh out over time, but during my short beta weekend play I didn’t tend to feel enveloped or gripped by the proceedings.
It’s due to these and a host of other reasons that WildStar didn’t grab me as much as I wished it would. While it has built on top of the foundations created by its inspiration, adding player favourites like player housing and dynamic options during content, there is little new here in terms of mechanics. The combat system also needs a lot of work, as does the variety of quest content and how public quests work (the two or three I did in game seemed to be extraordinarily easy and didn’t offer a reward) but, over time, these things can be ironed out. WildStar is due for release in a few months, and its’ interesting monetisation strategy that allows hardcore players to “earn” paid time from casual players, could lure a lot of players looking for an updated experience. Time will tell.