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Wildstar: ex-Blizzard developers take on their own legacy

Wildstar is a new MMO from NCSoft, developed by ex-Blizzard developers Carbine Studios. It’s sassy, it’s got some good ideas, but it also seems haunted by the spectre of its spiritual ancestor, says Joe Robinson.

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"It’s a unique game that feels like a breath of fresh air, while at the same time telling you that the past ten years of MMO design just didn’t happen."

For the past decade, the MMO agenda has been firmly and irrefutably set by World of Warcraft. Sure, there have been more experimental MMOs, better designed MMOs, even prettier MMOs. But to date none has managed to capture the business and interest as Blizzard’s behemoth.

But now we have a new contender. Wildstar is a sci-fi/fantasy mash-up by Carbine Studios, a company formed in 2005 by former members of Blizzard Entertainment. Does this game have a shot at becoming a new MMO favourite? As always, the answer is never that simple.

Playing Wildstar is a lot like looking into the past. Perhaps it’s Carbine’s heritage, or perhaps they are just one those companies that decided to iterate and improve, instead of trying to reinvent Blizzard’s wheel. It’s a unique game that feels like a breath of fresh air, while at the same time telling you that the past ten years of MMO design just didn’t happen. It’s weird, but on the whole, it works.

Wildstar is set on the distant planet of Nexus - Home of the ancient and suspiciously absent Elden. Both of the games’ main factions, the Dominion and the Exiles, want to settle and claim Nexus for themselves and you, plucky adventurer/tyrant-wannabe, are going to be part of this glorious journey.

The game’s single biggest strength is definitely its atmosphere – it permeates everything from quest-design to visuals. The story itself is actually pretty forgettable – ten levels into the Exile game and I still wasn’t really sure why I was doing what I was doing – but as you can see from the trailers, that refreshing willingness to be just a little bit silly is everywhere. Well, nearly everywhere. I’ve enjoyed playing as the competing faction, The Dominion, the most so far. Being the evil autocratic empire that they are, they’re wonderfully and humorously portrayed in the opening levels as evil snobs who have very set, and very inaccurate, views on the world. The Exiles, while less endearing, are never-the-less portrayed as the plucky pioneers wanting to escape the oppressive yoke of the Dominion. It makes some of the less impressive parts more bearable.

Questing is the meat and potatoes of any MMO, and this is where things start to get a little complicated. Wildstar has its fair share of stock quests. Some are more inspired than others, and every now and again you’ll have a kill quest, or a fetch quest, that’s presented in a much better way then what is typical. But it’s inconsistent, and almost jarringly so.

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It’s not that the quest design is lazy – there are some rather funny, quirky tasks that you’re asked to do. There are also some well thought out multi-part quests, and overall, you’re gently tugged through the world at a respectable pace. Wildstar also makes decent use of micro-instancing, where the game world will change at key times depending on where the player is in a quest. Carbine has put some effort into it, but it’s almost like it has done so well in some areas, that when you come across something that isn't as accomplished, it’s painfully obvious. And there are far too many ‘kill ten rats’ quests.

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At least combat is interesting – Wildstar’s ‘telegraph’ system is definitely unique, and forces you to play in a completely different way. Movement is key, and each class's special skill means you have to learn how to combo and chain your opponents in different ways. It certainly keeps you on your toes, although sometimes I find myself staring at the floor (where the telegraphs are) as much as I do at anything else.

You’ll have heard a lot about the Paths by now – this secondary class choice that allows you to tailor your journey in specific ways. Choosing between Soldier, Settler, Explorer and Scientist unlocks unique content for that path, along with unique quests and unique ways of interacting with the environment. Soldiers in the early levels seem only good for extra opportunities to kill things – bonus XP and loot perhaps. The Settler, which should be the most unique path of all, still needs some work to fully come into its own, but this is geared towards people who like to help others. The Explorer and Scientist remain the most interesting of the four, as they at least allow you to discover new areas and reward players who go poking around the place. Explorers can access secret paths and areas, for example, and if you team up with an explorer you can reap the same benefits.

"The influence of Blizzard is more than a bit obvious, although the blend of science-fiction and fantasy works rather well from a visual perspective."

The first ten levels of an MMO can be crucial, and I fear Wildstar’s inconsistency here could hold it back. There is a lot more that this game has to offer – Player Housing, Warplots, Battlegrounds - not to mention the more advanced paths. Due to NDA reasons, I’m not allowed to talk going beyond level 15, but it can take you about that long to get to some of this stuff, which is a shame.

Tradeskills are unlocked at level 10, but these are especially forgettable. You have all your stock trades - mining, hunting, gathering - but all in all I can’t help but feel Carbine missed a trick to do something really unique here, like they’ve done elsewhere in the game.

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Can Wildstar take on World of Warcraft? It has as good a chance as any new IP. The influence of Blizzard is more than a bit obvious, although the blend of science-fiction and fantasy works rather well from a visual perspective. There is a hub town on the Dominion side of things that, when looked at from afar, looks like it could also be found in Azeroth, or amongst the dwelling of the Night Elves. This (perhaps deliberate) alignment of styles could make it attractive for the WoW crowd who are dissatisfied but don’t have anywhere else to go right now. Or those who are just waiting for Warlords of Draenor.

The main thing about Wildstar though is its flexibility. Carbine is keen to let players have the option to play how they want to play – all of the classes are multi-role, and the paths allow you to gain access to additional content that fits your interests. Plus, for every weirdly antiquated facet of Wildstar’s design, there is also something pretty awesome. Even little things, like how levelling up tells you exactly what you get, or how you can phone 80 percent of quests in, are things not to be underestimated, and are always appreciated.

Ultimately, whatever it lacks in imagination or design, Wildstar more than makes up for in accessibility, flexibility, and unshakable charm.

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