WildStar developer Carbine lays out an attractive stall with its sci-fi Wild West mash-up, but can it take on the kings of the MMO genre? Dave Cook gets stuck into the beta to find out.
”What I realised early on is that WildStar takes several facets of MMO play and makes them more interesting. While you’re still clicking on enemies and hitting hotbar commands to dish out pain during combat, the move-set is chunky and satisfying.”
I've just strolled into a Dominion encampment swarming with robotic footsoldiers and explosive auto-turrets to help liberate the snowy Northern Wilds from the empire's oppression.
Basic grunts fall screaming one by one as I cut through them with ease using my aqua-tinted blade, while mortar bombardments explode all around my bearded warrior. I fight my way up a hill towards the last of the hostile army, only to be met by a towering Megabot that stomps through the tree line unexpectedly.
We size each other up for a moment. It's about 30 feet tall with balled up fists the size of Land Rovers, and I'm a rough six-foot something or other. No matter. I ready my blade and charge up the grassy peak before striking the first blow, triggering a preposterous battle of between flesh and steel. My solider is only level five, but I'm already taking on foes multiple times my own size, and it feels good.
Making things bigger, funnier, louder and more kick-ass is what WildStar is all about, and it's a strategy that sets it apart from the other big MMO players out there today. I used to think long and hard about what it would take for a new online RPG to match or even surpass the success enjoyed by World of Warcraft, but then I realised that it's probably an anomaly the likes of which we'll never see again, so what teams like Carbine need to do is offer an alternative that fills gaps left by the competition.
”WildStar is a funny, bright and cheerful game that seems to draw influence from several sources. The ‘Level Up’ sting is pure Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, along with a booming celebratory line from the announcer who talks utter nonsense.”
I wasn't kidding either; you really do start fighting colossal enemies within WildStar's opening two hours, and that sets the tone for the rest of the game. It's got the same comedic vibe and gut-punching combat you'd expect from the Borderlands series, and I'd be foolish to overlook the similarities between both franchises.
They each take place in a fringe world swarming with prospectors looking to strike it rich, and there's an unmistakably Wild West veneer coating their colourful sci-fi settings. Even the NPCs talk with over the top southern drawls and whip out snappy lines now and then.
Though similar to Gearbox's shooter in tone, WildStar has plenty of neat features to call its own, and in something of a Battlestar Galactica twist, it sees several exiled races - Human, Aurin, Granrok and Mordesh - fleeing across the galaxy to escape the villainous Dominion. It's worth noting that you can also play as a Dominion race - Cassian, Draken, Chua and Mechari - if you want a different perspective. The Exiles eventually arrive at a newly-discovered planet called Nexus, and the opening tutorial takes place on a vast starship as it comes under fire from enemy forces. It's not long before the vessel crashes, triggering the core quest line. It's pretty epic.
What I realised early on is that WildStar takes several facets of MMO play and makes them more interesting. While you're still clicking on enemies and hitting hotbar commands to dish out pain during combat, the move-set is chunky and satisfying. My Soldier class human is capable of sticking his boot in and knocking down whole packs of foes with one kick, before slicing them up with a sword air combo. The inputs are the same as other MMOs, but the result looks and feels more satisfying.
”The humour and weighty combat drives me on, the world is inviting and there’s never been a mandatory need to squad up, which is something I’m not fond of as a gamer who likes his RPG experiences to be personal and solo.”
Even traversal benefits from the simple inclusion of a double jump, which comes in handy when exploring the colourful Nexus terrain, while an early quest sees your avatar imbued with an anomalous material that enables them to jump about four times higher than normal. There's some great displays of imagination here that break the monotony of simple tasks, such as fetching an item or killing so many of one enemy type. Those filler missions still exist here, but feel less redundant due to the range of mechanics and XP challenges at play.
One challenge saw me roaming the plains of Tremor Ridge, deactivating a series of landmines in the quickest time possible without taking damage, which was hardly ground-breaking but still a departure from bog-standard quests. There are varied challenges in each zone, which are bolstered further by class-specific 'Path' quests. During character creation you can set your avatar's vocation, and in my case I went for the Solider Path due to its focus on combat. I like hitting things, basically.
So whenever I encountered a Soldier Path quest, I was typically asked to defend an area against multiple waves of increasingly aggressive foes, much like a Horde Mode mission. These gauntlets also feature modifiers, for example, in one instance I had to fight waves while defending friendly NPCs from being killed, and in another I had to outlast the clock, rather than simply defeat all of my attackers. Again, it's these little differences that keep familiar MMO staples from feeling stale, and they're worth doing to boost your Path level, which unlocks new rewards and challenges. It's also separate from your character's level, which adds another layer of progression into the mix.
Speaking of levels, I found that simply killing enemies didn't yield that much experience compared to completing quests. I know that is usually the case in MMOs, but here the gap felt wider, and I suspect that's a conscious decision to remove the boredom of grinding. Also, after hitting a certain level, weaker enemies will start ignoring you unless engaged, and that's definitely a welcome decision that stops you being attacked by fodder when trying to get from point A to B.
Walking through Nexus is enjoyable in itself, as it really is a bright and well-realised world. Each of the player-races has flocked there to lay claim to Loftite, but each has its own reasons for doing so. The Mordesh is perhaps the most tragic species as it suffers from a degenerative disease called Contagion, which was brought on by disastrous experiments in alchemy. It is believed that Loftite holds the cure. What's interesting here is that each of the exiled races have arrived at Nexus to flee the Dominion, but are now essentially fighting each other to claim its spoils. I'm curious to see how this develops as the plot thickens.
I'm perhaps looking at the Mordesh plight too deeply here, as WildStar is a funny, bright and cheerful game that seems to draw influence from several sources. The 'Level Up' sting (below) is pure Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, along with a booming celebratory line from the announcer, who talks utter nonsense about how much more ass you can kick and the likes. There's also the deadpan rasp of your commander Deadeye Brightland, who has a ridiculously '80s action flick name, and ludicrously deadpan dialogue that I just can't take seriously. The tone is spot on, and helps keep things fun.
There's also Nexus itself, which began for me as a snowy wasteland kept hostile by storm generators. Once deactivated, the gale gave way to frosty plains and twinkling caves that sat before grasslands. Looking out over a cliff edge deeper into the continent of Alizar reveals grand vistas populated with hovering mountains that pierce the blue skies. It's a colourful experience that falls in line with World of Warcraft's palette, and the characters have an accentuated 'Disney' design about them, but it all helps WildStar stand out.
Regular readers will know I'm still relatively new to the MMO genre, so it's possible that a seasoned player might think differently about Carbine's debut, but right now it has me interested. The humour and weighty combat drives me on, the world is inviting and there's never been a mandatory need to squad up, which is something I'm not fond of as a gamer who likes his RPG experiences to be personal and solo. Like Guild Wars 2, there are live missions that reward players for their participation should you wish to engage in some light co-op, so rest assured that you're catered for there.
But can WildStar go on to become one of the big MMO titles of our time? The right ingredients are there certainly, so it'll be interesting to see how it's received by the public come June.
Disclosure: To assist in writing this article, NC Soft sent Dave a beta key for WildStar.