I’ve never been much for massively multiplayer games. What I tell people is that my first MMO was Runescape, and it kind of turned me off the genre altogether. This is only partly true. What really stopped me from getting into MMOs, WOW in particular, was the subscription fees. I’ve always had a tendency to play games like a designer – in other words, I’d play a lot of games for relatively short periods of time so that the experiences would stay fresh. I couldn’t really justify paying (or having my parents pay, since I was 13 years old at the time) 15 dollars a month on top of a 60 dollar purchase for something I’d play sporadically and then drop. Cookie-cutter quest design and low-skill, tab-target combat only exacerbate that feeling.
So you can imagine it’s a little odd that I’m almost ready to pull the trigger on WildStar. Not only is it as hardcore an MMO as they come, but it’s based on a 15-dollar-a-month subscription service when most of the world has gone free-to-play. On the other hand, Carbine studios have gone to great lengths to ensure the grind to 50 is fun and varied, and my word, is the combat here ever skill-oriented. Aiming, positioning, and reflexes are vital thanks to WildStar’s unique “telegraph” system, and you’d best be able to manage that because the game doesn’t even give you an auto-attack to fall back on.
Telegraphs started as a way of making enemy AOE attacks more clear and interesting, but Carbine realized that they could make player attacks more dynamic too, and now they lie at the heart of everything in WildStar. Other MMOs have been built around action combat (most notably Tera), but telegraphs feel like a true hybrid between the tactical number-crunching of high-level MMO play and the twitch reactions of more visceral games. The real advantage of the telegraph system, though, is that it facilitates non-verbal communication in the heat of battle. Obviously huge raid parties and PVP groups will still rely on vent servers, but telegraphs make co-ordinating with a pickup group much more intuitive.
The game has plenty of more standard communication options as well, including plenty of emotes. What’s not so standard is the quality of the game’s animation and art style. The various races are all deeply expressive, and their every motion is fluid and weighty. Carbine were aiming for a timeless look, and I have to say, they’ve damn near nailed it. This game will be a treat to look at for years to come, and I have a feeling the machinima community will absolutely adore it. On a more fundamental level, this means movement in WildStar feels incredibly satisfying. Whether you’re running around doing platforming challenges, exploring the wilderness, or dodging fireballs, every action looks dynamic and solid.
So WildStar provides a neat answer to one of my chief problems with getting into MMOs, but that still leaves the rather troubling issue of the subscription. This game will cost me at least 60 dollars, and I’ll need to pay 15 a month on top of that. Fun as it might be, how can it possibly counteract my basic nature as a player? Well, aside from unique combat, the other pillar of WildStar’s design is Player Ownership. This goes well beyond just customizing your appearance and your house. Put simply, WildStar does everything it can to let you play how you want to play. For me, that means trying a bit of everything.
At the outset of WildStar, on top of picking your race and class, you pick a “path” that will determine much of the content you experience throughout the game. The paths are “Settler,” “Soldier,” “Explorer,” and “Scientist,” and they’re based roughly on the 4 player types described by the Bartle Test. Settlers get quests that encourage them to socialize and build up quest hubs, Soldiers can start public combat events and get loads of assassination missions, Explorers have access to exclusive hidden areas and are rewarded for finding secrets, and Scientists can interact with ancient tech and uncover additional lore about the world. Even when it comes to quests handed out to everyone, your path can subtly alter the content.
This is especially true of adventures, one of WildStar’s more unique features. Like most MMOs, WildStar has plenty of dungeons to delve into, and they offer a meaty challenge (the first boss of Stormtalon’s Lair kicked my ass more times that I’d care to count), but adventures offer something a little different. They’re still 5-player instances that take you through a string of bosses, but they take place in the open world and they’re narrative-driven. They also introduce mechanics that wouldn’t otherwise show up in the game, such as MOBAs, tower defense challenges, or even Oregon Trail-style caravan management.
Adventures present interesting opportunities from a storytelling perspective as well, since they take place in a discreet “virtual reality” within the game world. Every adventure is a “what if” scenario created by a (slightly insane) AI called the Caretaker. This setup allows the game’s writers to tell stories that might otherwise break areas or contradict established lore. As a player, it’s cool to explore a world you’ve visited before from a different perspective, and see how things could have gone.
Throughout each adventure, your party will be presented with a series of choices that determine the outcome of the story. What course you take is put up to a vote, and certain choices will be better suited to one particular mix of player paths than another. Not only do these choices lend adventures a great deal of replayability, they also determine which loot table you roll on when you complete them, meaning you have good reason to go back and try a different approach. There are also veteran variants for each adventure, so you can experience them in a new light once you reach level 50.
For those who like their post-cap content even crazier, there are always raids. At launch there will be 2 available, which might seem underwhelming, but they’re both doozies – one for 20 players, the other for 40. Every mob in every room is designed as a puzzle, and from the first encounters of each raid you’ll need intense coordination to get by. No enemy here is “trash.” When it comes to bosses, you end up having to solve several puzzles concurrently. Most will challenge you to make use of your environment in some way while also dealing with mobs and the boss’s own attacks. With all the telegraphs that end up flying around at once, it can almost feel like a 20 or 40-player co-op bullet hell.
If you’re more into PVP, WildStar has you covered. Starting early on you can play in objective-based battlegrounds or deathmatch-style arenas. These are MMO standbys, although Carbine have put some clever twists on them. Players have a shared pool of respawns in arena, and a heavy part of strategy will involve co-ordinating their use. Teams might rally together to spawn all at once, or save every spawn they can spare for their healer. This creates a new paradigm where the standard strategy of “attack healer first” is no longer quite as valid. Hopefully this will translate to some interesting tactical mixups.
What’ll really get your juices flowing (along with more vital bodily fluids) is WildStar’s unique PVP mode: War Plots. War Plots pit 40-player “war parties” against each other on customized battlefields. Each war party can purchase and maintain their own plot, plugging various defensive or offensive zones into it that do things like create hazards and spawn mobs. The objective of a match is to cross from your plot into your opponents’ and destroy the generators at the back of their base. These battles essentially amount to 2-way raids, and there’s even a special zone that lets you spawn bosses captured from dungeons and raids. If the massive co-ordination required doesn’t scare players off, I can see this mode developing a hardcore following and an insane metagame.
Me? Honestly, I’ll probably get scared off. The prospect of going into battle with 40 allies is certainly thrilling, but the high pressure of a situation where my single mistake could wipe all of them at once is a bit too much to handle. Besides, I’m a story dude at heart, and fortunately the guys who crafted Nexus and its inhabitants happen to be as bad at raiding as I am. I had a chance to sit down with lead narrative designer Chad Moore and creative director Matt Mocarski, and they told me, on record, that they’re the worst raiders at Carbine.
They also told me that, because of this, they wanted to let players stop and smell the roses. There’s a lot of story in WildStar, but it was written, first and foremost, to be played in an MMO. Players who just want to get to the action can simply go up to NPCs, click, and accept, but there’s always opt-in storytelling. With any quest, you can ask for more info, and you have access to “galactic archives,” essentially codices that fill in as you advance through the game.
A lot of effort was made not to limit the story to quests. There are frequent Comm calls that inform you of ongoing situations, Datacubes and “Tales from the Fringe” pulp novels scattered about that lend flavor to the world. As you walk around, you’ll see NPCs sit around and gossip. The environmental art team also did a hell of a job giving the story context. Little details, like how shabby Exile ships are compared to those of the Dominion, help to paint the world and its conflicts.
Obviously the team wanted to spread the story out over the entire game, but they also wanted to make it accessible to solo players. Unlike in WOW, where the ultimate badguys are all raid bosses, WildStar offers solo players the chance to take down major antagonists. And when you beat a huge boss or do something incredible, the game will reward you with a beautifully-animated cutscene. And don’t expect all this to run out when you hit the cap, either. Most of your grind up to 50 is spent setting things in motion, whereas the main story, or the “world story” as the devs call it, only kicks into gear once you’re at max level. Once you hit the cap, you’ll be able to follow a compelling storyline to a satisfying conclusion.
That’s not to say, however, that the raids or other hardcore content are devoid of narrative importance. Matt and Chad said they like to think of the game narrative like a comic book universe. Taking Marvel’s Civil War as an example, the main plot was told in the Civil War miniseries, but every other marvel series was running a related storyline that expanded on the mythos. It seems like a solid approach for this sort of game.
I still don’t know I’m ready to bite the bullet and pre-order WildStar, but it’s certainly made a good argument for itself. The story is expansive and built on some interesting principles, the gameplay brings a lot of cool and unique ideas to the table, and the art and animation are some of the best I’ve seen. While the more hardcore aspects intimidate the hell out of me, I can’t deny that the raids and war plots look REALLY fun. Assuming I have a lot of friends to play with (and the way this is picking up fans I doubt that’ll be an issue), this may well be the MMO that finally gets me.