It’s a strange feeling coming back to WildStar. I played it when it launched back in June 2014, both for professional reasons and personal curiosity. It really did feel... different. The bright, bold aesthetic, the humour, the ambition, the fresh setting, Carbine’s pedigree, it all combined to project a powerful air of confidence about the game.
Despite myself, I was swept up in the pre-launch hype. That gorgeous Pixar-esque trailer! I started planning my characters, their races, classes and names. An Excel spreadsheet may have come into play. Unfortunately, while I very much enjoyed my colourful space western adventures on Nexus, it was surprisingly easy to untether and float away as soon as a distraction presented itself. How has WildStar changed in the past eight months or so? Is it successful? Populated? Has the original vision stayed firm, evolved, or been compromised? Let's find out.
After a surprisingly small patch, I log in. There’s an immediate change that tugs an eyebrow quizzically skywards – my characters all get two names now. I have no idea how long this has been the case, but it’s kind of a big deal. Stamping any kind of distinct identity on your characters is critical to keeping players in a game long term. The name is a huge part of that, and now I have way more opportunities to pick something that suits the fantasy I want to create, rather than just going for Darrrth_m4u1 because the name I really wanted was taken.
So far so good, and I haven’t even started playing yet.
I’m on a new server for some reason, but that’s fine. The guild I was in has assuredly booted my sorry arse to the spacekerb months ago. Here we go. I appear, blinking, on some snowy ground in a forested area, surrounded by enemies and alien technology.
A Soulcore Interrogator is heading right for me, accompanied by two Doomtide Corruptordrones. Presumably they are just returning from their record-breaking fourth consecutive victory at the annual Sinister Name Championships. Honestly, it takes mere seconds to feel like I’m back in the saddle. My abilities are still neatly arranged in a line, and hitting one after another is going to do me just fine until my muscle memory fully returns.
It’s a wonderfully bouncy game, WildStar. Your character sprints, leaps, rolls, jumps, double jumps and soars in a way that I have rarely felt in a game like this. It’s responsive, and the moment-to-moment combat is more engaging and satisfying than the vast majority of other MMOs I have played. Of course I’m coming in fresh and haven’t just spent a hundred hours using the same sequence to kill a million hapless foes. So there is that.
Running around, I’m reminded that this game always felt very assured, very complete. There’s tons to do, with distractions a-plenty – in a good way – luring me off every beaten path. Frankly, playing WildStar now feels exactly like playing WildStar then. I’m only level 27, and I know that the focus of the three Ultra Drops (significant content patches) so far have been at endgame players. I can’t begrudge them that. Those are your dyed-in-the-wool supporters, your evangelists.
I want to dig a bit deeper. The capital city for my faction is called Thayd. Let’s see what’s happening over there.
I’ll be honest, I’m expecting a ghost town, but it’s packed. Heaving, even. Players zoom all around me on a variety of impressive mounts, wearing crazy outfits. I’m both impressed and relieved. Of course, literally everyone is level 50. I mean, without exception. The game hasn’t changed, but the players certainly have. They all seem to be at a very different part of the journey to me, which doesn’t bode well for low level group quests, dungeons and the like.
About those Ultra Drops. The first one, Strain, had a goopy, infectious vibe. It covered almost every base but did not bring anything new to the table as far as PvP is concerned, which was a shame. Strain did happen in July, pretty damn soon after launch, so my guess is that sticking to an aggressive content release schedule (something Blizzard struggle with) was deemed a higher priority than ticking every box.
Ultra Drop 2 was called Sabotage. It seems to have consisted almost entirely consisted of the PvP stuff that didn’t make it to Strain. It’s a pretty involved new match type, but unfortunately all the battlegrounds are level 50.
Ultra Drop 3 – Mystery of the Genesis Prime – is the most recent (November). It’s a lore-heavy beast, but took longer to arrive than the previous two. It also failed to fix or introduced more bugs than many players were happy with.
Ultra Drop 4 is fast approaching at time of writing. Before we dig into that, let’s step back and look at the bigger picture. Let’s look at the way WildStar was originally pitched.
Carbine knew better than most that WoW’s shadow is impossible to avoid completely – not least because the company was formed by seventeen ex-members of Blizzard. They used a ‘new leaf’ narrative that had an undeniable visceral appeal. ‘We’re going to build on successes, learn from every mistake, and bring back the good old days!’
One of vanilla WoW’s key retention mechanics was 40-player raiding (long since broken up into tiered raid difficulties). That’s a ton of people and a high degree of challenge – not just from the encounters, but herding all those cats. The metagame became ridiculous. It’s a big part of the reason playing WoW developed a reputation for creeping into ‘second job’ territory.
WildStar was pretty keen on bringing that old school feeling back. Forty people! Huge, difficult raids! They’re back, baby! But here’s the thing: MMO design is a brain-scramblingly complicated business. Teams of people spend years and years conjuring up an intricate matrix of intersecting systems which shimmers, delicately. Ooh. Ahhh. Then the game launches and a throbbing mass of players descend. They push, pull, stretch, snap. They have an inherent, irresistible power to course correct based on their own (sometimes hard to fathom) desires and needs. Sometimes they know what they want, but not what they need. Sometimes vice versa. That power, the ability to apply warping pressure, happens regardless. I have been on both sides of this phenomenon, and it’s endlessly fascinating to observe.
Those 40-player raids didn’t last long in WoW. Lengthy, demanding attunement processes were also introduced with Burning Crusade, the first expansion, but as soon as Blizzard realized how terribly few people were actually reaching, let alone completing their carefully crafted endgame content, those were quietly taken around the back and shot too.
WildStar committed to bringing both 40-player raids and strenuous attunements front and centre again. So far, they only have one raid of that size, called Datascape. This is where we skip back to Ultra Drop 4, which I believe still lacks an official name.
One of the biggest changes, as per the information available right now, is that Datascape is being re-balanced down to a 20-player raid. This is huge. Carbine has listed lots of really good reasons why this is happening, and it’s probably the right move, but I can’t help but think… Couldn’t they see this coming? WoW players already went through this journey many years ago. They showed that the metagame is simply too much. It’s not a matter of boss mechanics, of class abilities, of balance. It’s a matter of human patience, and a tipping point was inevitably reached.
Carbine have already reduced attunement requirements across the board, and seem happy with the dramatic spike in players who are now able to run the raid. But once again, this is history repeating itself.
My suspicion is that an important chunk of WildStar’s original mission statement – to recapture the feel of the ‘golden age’ of MMOs – was doomed to meet this fate. You can absolutely harken back to the day when raids were desperately punishing, when it took weeks and weeks of eye-shrivelling grinding to make the tiniest step forward. You can talk about risk and reward. You can yearn for savage death penalties, enforced grouping, walking uphill both ways in the snow. This is a completely valid playstyle, and offers unique emotional peaks (and troughs) that the current, gentler MMO market generally can’t – or rather won’t – deliver.
Why? Because that’s not where you find a critical mass of players. The players you absolutely need to come to your game, and more important stick with it long term, in order to offset the absurd cost of having hundreds of people make it for over six years.
WildStar is exceptional. Playing it again has absolutely rekindled my love for this endearing world. So while it may not stray terribly far from the formula, its update schedule might be frustrating for its most committed playerbase, and it may have been beaten back from its nostalgic experiments, but if you have any interest whatsoever, now is as good a time as any to give it a trial.