Diving into WildStar

To be honest, I was a little nervous about reviewing WildStar. I’ve never properly played an MMO before (I always end up feeling burned out in the early game), so I’d hardly know where to begin. What if it’s just not the genre for me? Could I still give the game a fair shake? On the other hand, there was a niggling worry that I might like the game TOO much. I’ve seen friends go down the WOW rabbit hole and never return, and I’m not exactly known for my impeccable self-control to begin with. What if the changes WildStar makes to the tired MMO formula – skill-based combat, personalized character paths, and an emphasis on movement – are all that the genre needs to grab me and never let go?

Having sunk about 30 hours into the game over the last five days, I can say that’s a very real danger. I can also say that I’m dangerously close to not caring. From the simple satisfaction of power-chording up another level (because dinging is for babies, cupcake), to the sense of wonder I get when I discover something new on Nexus, I’m finding it easy to get lost in Carbine’s world. There’s so much to do that I’ve barely scratched the surface, and I’m itching to go back in and see more. Of course, this presents a different challenge to a reviewer – it takes a lot of time to see everything in the game. To keep you guys sated I’ll be posting review updates as I grind my way through, but it’ll be a while before I can give the game a score.

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From what I’ve played so far, I give the game a hearty recommendation. I’m having fun with everything. The quests are nicely varied, with a good balance between mowing down random animals and exploring unique mechanics. There’s enough content to keep the grind fresh across multiple characters – between the different factions and starting zones you can get to level  14 about five times before you see repeated content. Of course the skinner box grind of leveling is enjoyable on a primal level, but that’s not what I’m talking about when I say the game is fun. I’ve spent a significant chunk of my time in the game exploring without any quests or goals, just going around killing things and seeing what I can uncover. Outside the skinner box, I’m having a good time. Why is that?

A lot of it comes down to WildStar’s  movement mechanics. Put simply, they feel GOOD. Every character is remarkably well-animated, and while it’s nice to see how expressive the denizens of Nexus can be, the most vital part of this is the game’s run and walk cycles. Whether you’re a lanky Mordesh stalking through a forest, or a chubby little Chua darting around on his stubby legs, tucking and rolling as he jumps, everything looks and feels smooth (even at low frame rates – which I’ll get to in a bit). WildStar also features a double-jump, which has allowed Carbine to populate Nexus with a lot of tall geometry without getting in the players’ way. To me, the game feels far more three-dimensional than the likes of WOW. Movement also plays a heavy role in combat, which has an increased emphasis on evasion.

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WildStar gets combat right. The telegraph-based fighting feels immediate and dynamic in ways that traditional tab-target games don’t. You have to pay attention and react, rather than simply cycling through the same rotation over and over. However, you can’t react to everything, so traditional MMO skills like resource management still come into play. It’s a lot of fun to run up and solo an enemy meant for groups, dancing around telegraphs and trying to keep your health up when you’re unable to stun them out of their bigger attacks. And if you fail, it’s not necessarily a question of going out to grind, or get better gear, or even change your loadout. You can dive back in having learned the ins and outs of the fight and do better with different tactics. The game lets you challenge yourself in a way that’s intrinsically rewarding, which in my (admittedly limited) experience of MMOs is a remarkably rare thing.

Even normal enemies in the open world can provide a meaty challenge, especially in packs. And, of course, you’re more likely to run into a pack when you’re running around trying to evade attacks. There’s a very real chance that you’ll die while exploring or questing, and not just by accidentally wandering into an area that’s above your level. It can be a little frustrating to die so frequently, but it always feels like your own fault, and even dying is amusing in its own way. A gruff narrator mocks you with a wide variety of funny one-liners whenever you resurrect at a holo-crypt. It can feel insulting at times, but it falls right in line with WildStar’s attitude.

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What really impressed me about Wildstar is how funny it is. Whether you’re playing charmingly inept Exiles or the fanatical Dominion, the NPCs around you are bursting with amusing anecdotes and quips (though the Dominion’s psychotic Chua stand out as the funniest). There’s not as much voiced dialogue as in other MMOs, but what’s in the game is fantastic, delivered with aplomb and a great sense of comedic timing. Carbine has managed to inject humor into a lot of the game’s systems as well. Levelling up is delightfully over-the-top, with a garish heavy-metal-style icon accompanied by an intense power chord and the aforementioned gruff narrator saying something like “Way ta go, Cupcake!” It’ll put a smile on your face every time, and not just because of your boosted stats.

It must be noted that the game is absolutely gorgeous, with a bright, cartoony style that’s reminiscent of Dreamworks’ CG films. The texture work, modelling, and of course the animation are all top-notch, giving WildStar the sort of timeless look that all MMOs strive for. There are also some impressive effects at play, from detailed dynamic shadows to fully-reflective water. “Eye-candy” is the only way to describe it. Unfortunately, the beautiful graphics have their downside.

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Wildstar is a bit of a resource Hog, and you’re going to need at least a mid-range gaming rig to run it. This isn’t exactly a big hurdle for their hardcore target audience, but it could prevent more casual players from seeing how fun the game can be. Moreover, even on high-end rigs, performance is a bit of a crapshoot. Carbine is still in the process of optimizing the game, and a lot of builds have yet to be accounted for. My rig is nothing to sneeze at – a GTX 660 with an AMD FX6300 CPU – and I’m barely topping 40 FPS at even low settings in the open world, with mission hubs dragging the game down to 20. Carbine is actively working to expand their coverage, but PC gaming is an optimization minefield and it’ll take time for them to address every issue.

That’s not my only big frustration with the game, though. As much as I love the action combat, it might be a little too complex for a keyboard and mouse setup. In addition to aiming, you need to move and queue up attacks at the same time, and both actions have to be performed with you left hand. It can be a little finicky to jump between WASD and the number keys so often, but with a standard setup it’s hard to imagine any decent alternatives. You practically need one of those expensive, multi-button MMO mice to play the game efficiently, which is a bit of a pain. It isn’t particularly frustrating to play with standard controls – you’ll still be able to kill a lot of tough foes – but it isn’t particularly comfortable either.

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All in all, I’m really enjoying what I’ve seen of WildStar. I’ve just opened up housing with my Chua Medic Lonnie, and on the Exile side I’ve had a lot of fun getting my Mordesh Gunslinger Arakune up to level nine. I’ll be sure to tell you all about my experience with housing, PVP and shiphand missions in the next update, and hopefully an adventure and a dungeon if I can squeeze that in. Naturally a big part of these games is the people you play with, so if you see me wandering around the Caretaker server, say hi, maybe group up with me, and who knows? Maybe you’ll give me something else to write about.