Taking A Look At WildStar

I first saw WildStar, Carbine Studios’ flagship MMO, at PAX Prime 2011 running alongside NCSoft’s other products. I’ll admit I wasn’t impressed at the time. It felt very much like most traditional MMOs with only a few added twists (notably, buttons for dodging). This wasn’t even that new of a twist – Age of Conan had tried something similar with its directional attacking and blocking mechanic, and Terra Online has a dodge mechanic as well. However, it was very early stages at the time and I resolved to hold my opinion until it was closer to release.

Well, that time has come. A few weeks ago Carbine posted a state of the game update, as well as a few gameplay videos. Notably, they also said that they are hoping to release WildStar some time this year. Since it seems that WildStar is in a state that they are happy showing and it is unlikely that there will be any massive design changes after this point, I decided I would take another look.

Now, a few words of warning: I haven’t had any hands on experience with WildStar since PAX Prime 2011. My opinions hereforth are based entirely upon developer videos, interviews, and my own gut feelings.

Lets start with the good news: WildStar doesn’t look to be a bad game. The team clearly holds itself to a high standard, which is good news for the players. The game looks much more fluid than most MMOs, and there have been a number of interesting improvements and additions, the two most notable (in my opinion) being Paths and telegraphed attacks.

A Path is an additional option in addition to race, class and what I assume will be token character customization. Each Path has their own set of missions and rewards tailored to a particular playstyle. A soldier may have a mission to kill a particularly hard enemy, while an explorer would have one to reach a certain hidden location. This is a cool idea, though tying it to character creation could backfire since players often don’t know which playstyle they prefer until they have played the game.

The other improvement of interest is that both players and enemies will very clearly telegraph their attacks with highlighted markings on the ground. This demands a higher degree of mobility and tactics on the player’s part to avoid taking damage, as well as making the movement of the game more fluid and combat less static.

The interviews and press material spend a lot of time talking about what Carbine has changed about the formula to try and make it more interesting, but it doesn’t take much to read between the lines and figure out what they haven’t changed: level-gated content, quest hubs, reliance on a large bar (or multiple bars) of abilities instead of focusing on a few key abilities, high level mounts in lieu of just letting you travel easily, simple recipe-based crafting.

The majority of WildStar’s gameplay is based in the trappings of a genre that is famously very tough on even moderately successful titles. If even Star Wars: The Old Republic is crashing and burning, how well does that bode for this WildStar? The devs have made it clear that they don’t want to be just another “themepark” MMO, but they also don’t want to take the risk of breaking out of the formula enough to create an actual sandbox.

What they’ve ended up with is not a sandbox. Instead, they’ve made a ball pit – amusing for a while, but ultimately not as interesting.

In WildStar’s defence, many of its problems stem from the genre itself rather than WildStar’s take on it. I also have to acknowledge my dislike of their publisher, NCSoft, as that company has a history of killing off games that I like (City of Heroes, Auto Assault, Tabula Rasa…). WildStar looks to be an interesting set of improvements on the genre, but I worry that it will be too hampered by its source to be anything more than a diversion on the way to a better game.