It's almost hard to believe, but it's been seven years since NCSoft acquired Carbine Studios who at the time was working on an unannounced MMO. Formed by a team of talent comprised of 17 original World of Warcraft development members, and an armada of other experienced programmers, artists, and designers, Carbine Studios quickly became the most promising studio in the MMO world. By 2011 it was finally revealed that the MMO was an ambitious game looking to move the genre to a new era. Called WildStar, it's finally here after years of painstaking labor and over a year of beta testing to reveal the vision of its veteran developer cast.
Many MMO fans, including myself, have been watching WildStar diligently for the past few years, eager to move on from recurring cycle of imitative World of Warcraft. Will WildStar break the trend?
First and foremost it's important to note that WildStar is a brand-new IP. Set in a fictional sci-fi world, all of its zones are based on the planet Nexus, a place where the mercenary-like Exiles and autocratic Dominion factions collide. Due to the nature of WildStar being a new IP, Carbine Studios has had the freedom to design the game however they would like from the ground up. Although that means everything here has no connection to other mediums, it also means the game has been made in a way that is focused on the gaming experience, rather than having to make sacrifices to adhere to lore or laws. This proves to be one of its greatest assets.
As with most MMOs, the game begins by allowing you to make a character. There are several options to choose, beginning with a selection from one of two factions you want to play on, and which of the four races on each suits your style. Each race has no benefit over another, so it's merely a stylistic choice. In regards to Exiles versus Dominion, neither is necessary evil, but the latter certainly comes across as the much more domineering of the two. Depending on which you choose you'll begin in a completely different area of Nexus, and will spend the majority of the leveling experience in faction-specific zones.
There are also six classes, each of which manage to stray from MMO conventions enough to feel individualistic. For example, the Esper might appear mage-like, but is actually quite immobile, and calls upon psionic illusions to slaughter foes. Meanwhile, the Medic is equipped with medium armor and uses mid-range skills and fields to control the battlefield. What is perhaps the best element about the class design is how every class can fit two roles. The Stalker might be rogue-like, but is fully capable of main tanking a raid. The Spellslinger is a master of acrobatics and quick damage, but is also a very competent healer. This, combined with the multi-spec system, allows every player to experience multiple play styles. It also helps with queue times which are known to be ridiculously long for DPS classes in other MMOs.
When making your character you also have the option to choose a Path. This is a decision that has huge ramifications in the game experience as it determines what type of side-quests you will have. While the Soldier is more standard in that it is tasked with going out and hunting down enemies, the Explorer is rewarded for straying off the beaten path, finding hidden locations, and even platforming. Leveling your Path is never required, but is worth the investment since you're granted unique skills and cool items. Whether or not you invest yourself in your path relies on whether or not you choose one that suits your interests. Given their dramatic differences, there's a path for everyone.
For a long time I have wondered how MMOs can successfully evolve from the tab-targeting style that the genre has been infatuated with for more than a decade. I think WildStar answers the call better than any recent MMO. Combat is based around a telegraph system, which is one that requires both players and A.I. to aim their skills. Where skills are directed can be seen by everyone, represented by colored markers in the game world. This, in tandem with a great dodge system and the ability to double jump, is an evolutionary approach to MMO combat that other games will be sure to follow.
If enemies only used frontal cone attacks, the telegraph system would be unfulfilled potential. Thankfully, Carbine has adhered to a philosophy throughout development that a challenging game is a rewarding one. Not only do players have a variety of different skills that have different telegraph shapes, but A.I. do as well. By level 25 you'll see telegraphs that are absolutely insane and require immediate observation and quick movement. Players who have difficulty reading their environment and reacting to danger are punished with death. Those who are attentive and precise are bestowed with electrifying satisfaction.
The success of the telegraph system is shown in how the skill system has been designed. You can only have eight abilities equipped at any given time. Yes, you can macro potions, food, and even a Path skill, but for the most part it comes down to a rotation of eight skills, none of which have lengthy cooldowns. While that might not seem like a lot, the constant dodging, aiming, and repositioning takes up so much of your focus that if there were more skills it'd probably be downright overwhelming.
Speaking of the skill bar, character customization comes in the form of selecting which eight skills to take into your combat scenario, which you choose to upgrade with ability points, as well as an AMP system. Upgrading skills works well and makes progression fun, while allowing for flexibility. The AMP system is sufficient. It's basically a more complex replacement for a stat allocation system, allowing you to dump points into one of several paths to improve your effectiveness. Unlike upgrading skills, AMPs must be acquired through either purchasing at a Quartermaster after earning reputation, or through drops. It's strange having such a system behind a wall, but it does serve as a reason for farming or heading to the Auction House.
The leveling experience is much more traditional than a game like, say, EVE Online or The Elder Scrolls Online. You'll advance through main story missions, while coming across zone quests and some surprises peppered around the world. Many of these are derivative, calling on you to kill a superfluous number of mobs or gathering materials. They can also be a bit of a headache to decipher since the map feels a bit underdeveloped. Nonetheless, just when you feel like you're playing the same MMO leveling content again, it'll toss a well thought out quest your way that brings a smile to your face. With its wacky personality and gameplay mechanics, WildStar has the ability to deliver quests that few other MMOs are capable of.
Content is extremely important for an MMO. To put it bluntly, no game in the history of MMORPGs has ever packed as much content at launch as WildStar. It comes with everything you expect from a highly polished post-release game including worthwhile raid content, several dungeons, adventures, a group finder, and more. Zones are dense with quests and missions. There are plenty of different materials in the game for its multitude of tradeskills, giving crafting aficionados something to hook on to.
There's some content that puts it on an equal platform with already-established MMOs, and then there are the things that put it ahead of the competition, player housing being a great example. Instead of it being a half-baked implementation, what's here is shockingly good. You're able to own a plot of land, and customize it to your heart's content with collectibles you earn and purchase from around the game world. You can then neighbor your friends, and even share your creation with the public. What makes it particularly great is how much control you have over your plot of land. You can scale objects, rotate them to any angle, and more to make your home unlike any other.
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Raiding is another example. At launch there are already deeply interesting instances for the group-friendly player, with endgame content already being abundant. Classically-styled 20 and 40 man raids are here, and offer a unique approach to earning epics and legendaries. Boss encounters take advantage of the telegraph system in addition to double jumping and dodging. This is a game where every player has a ton to manage, whether it be avoiding telegraphs, platforming, or even paying attention to where healers are targeting their heals. It wouldn't surprise me if this soon becomes the flagship raiding MMO.
As a result of there being so much content, there are a few bugs. While some are a mere hiccup in the experience, others halt progression in questing and dungeons. Frequent patches, and there's already a major update on the way, are sure to sort things out, but for now there are a few headaches to deal with along the adventure.
There's one secret that WildStar has to anyone unfamiliar, and that's that it's not easy. This might come across as a colorful and light-hearted game, but it's more punishing than you can possibly imagine. Chances are your group will wipe multiple times on the very first dungeon you enter, and you can consider yourself fortunate if you manage to complete it. By level 20 regular monsters require careful skill rotation and movement. If you get lazy you'll find yourself dying a lot. This difficulty permeates itself throughout the leveling experience, and into endgame where content feels much different than other contemporary MMOs. This isn't a game that necessarily tries to hold your hand, it makes you fight and earn not only your levels, but your gear. For hardcore players and raiders, this is great news. For casual gamers, well, they'll either need to be patient or constitute why they're playing the game.
The world of Nexus is gorgeous, with its cartoon-like appearance and wide palette of colors. There's a great attention to detail, both in the game world and on character models. Even at early levels you'll be adorned with cool-looking gear, and have the ability to dye your armor or toss a customized costume on to alter how you look. It only suffers from a lack of optimization which, even after a post-launch patch, leaves many players (including myself) with lower framerate than they would expect.
Nexus is also a place with a lot of humor. Although the game is by no means childish, it never takes itself too seriously. When you level up, the announcer acknowledges it with funny lines. Quest NPCs have entertaining things to say, making quests dialog worth reading. If any MMO is going to make you laugh, WildStar is likely the one to do it.
At this point, I know a lot of you are going to ask, "is WildStar better than World of Warcraft?". That's a really difficult question to answer, but I can say with certainty that it's the best MMO since World of Warcraft. Despite having a similar visual appearance, WildStar is based in a sci-fi world that feels substantially different. In a way, it is reminiscent of the early days of World of Warcraft where content was much more challenging than what we see in this day and age. However, with its action-oriented combat, uniquely-stylized classes, and 10 less years of age, I'll leave it up to you to decide.
WildStar marks a new era for MMORPGs. It proves that action-oriented gameplay is the future, and combines that with an incredible amount of content for casual and hardcore players. It isn't perfect, though. It's got its share of bugs and could use improvements to its map and quest instructions. But ultimately, it's a game that is more well balanced than any other MMO has ever been at launch. Any MMO fan would be mistaken to miss out on at least giving WildStar a try.
Jonathan Leack is the Gaming Editor for CraveOnline. You can follow him on Twitter @jleack.
PC copy provided by publisher. WildStar is exclusive to PC.