Recently I played several hours of NCSoft's next big MMORPG, Wildstar. Developed by an MMO supergroup of sorts, with ex-Blizzard and Mythic folk staffing its highly experienced team, it aims to make this oddly static genre fresh again. WE SHALL SEE.
It's an MMORPG. Other games of late have almost shied from the title, but Wildstar makes no bones about what it is, how concerted an effort it is to appeal to a particular sort of gamer. I can respect that: at least it's not pretending to be something other than it is, unlike some of its recent peers. If you say "it's another MMO" to it, it will look you square in the eye and say "yes, yes I am, what of it?"
In fact, it's trying to out-MMO every other MMO. Not with big talk of moving narratives or ever-changing worlds, but by ramping up the unreal theme pack nature of its peers and predecessors. This is a game where you're constantly presented with a legion of things to do, numbers to increase, boxes to tick, things to collect, factions to impress, points to earn, monsters air-dropped in to battle without warning and/or preferably all of the above simultaneously. It might even be too much, too overwhelming in its parade of sideshows. It's difficult to gauge this even after a solid afternoon of playing with a recent build, partly because I was dropped straight in to level 6 and partly because my motives in playing a game at a press event are so different to my motives in my playing a finished game privately.
See everything! Run about! Try everything! Kill! Jump! Collect! This was as opposed to investment in my character's future. Because this could only be a self-contained afternoon of play, I wasn't selective about what I did, didn't worry that I'd made wrong, or at least inefficient, decisions, because I knew my character would cease to exist in a matter of hours. Would you kindly keep that in mind throughout this piece?
In a big way, the build of Wildstar I played last week wasn't enormously different from the one I did at GamesCom last summer, which I would imagine speaks to a clear, determined development plan. There was much more in there, in terms of both content and polish, but the key concept and look was the same. There are two major differences to tell about you, though. The first is these guys:
We've already met Wildstar's goodies, the Exiles, and now their opposite takes centre-stage. The Dominion are Wildstar's Horde analogue - nominally the baddies, although though don't consider themselves so. As you can tell from the above, they are more openly boo-hiss than Warcraft's noble savages, and hopefully that playfulness will carry into the game proper. I didn't get too much sense of such flavour from the stuff I played, but again I was busy nosing at systems rather than trying to establish myself in its colourful world. My means of experiencing said systems was newly revealed Dominion race the Draken, and newly-revealed class the Stalker. Which is less to do with making unrequited love interests feel deeply uncomfortable and more about being a rogue/stealth sort:
A fast, responsive melee character, in other words, with specs focused on either damage or evasion. What that video doesn't show is the second major addition since the last time I saw/played Wildstar: reactive combat. While Wildstar obviously has many, if not all, of the traditional hallmarks of a post-World of Warcraft MMO, it's not the plodding, hotbar-centric combat you might expect. Active evasion and near-constant movement is required in fights with even the lowliest beast, with broadcasted attack patterns and damage radiuses requiring you to pay attention, react and dive out of harm's way throughout.
Sure, it's nothing novel within the grander sphere of videogames, but it lends the adrenaline and engagement of a third-person action game to proceedings - very different to so many of its more mechanical, staccato peers. Each type of enemy has different attacks, and with it different cones, spheres and whatnot denoting where you're going to get clobbered from, unless you can double-tap a direction to dodge, or perform a heroic jump, that sort of thing. Here's some footage I cackhandedly captured myself showing this in action, though I'm afraid a) something in my recording settings made it all jerky and b) I'm not playing it all well. Also - and this is important - apparently the current UI is placeholder, so please just ignore any glimpses of that.
The area I played in was packed with differing threats, from the workaday angry wildlife to angry guys to roaming (in the open world) gigantic monsters which require a concerted effort from multiple players to beasts being dropped from the sky in crates then proceeding to attack whoever they happen to land next to. There's also the Soldier path's ability to conjure up on-the-spot horde mode fights, culminating in a boss. Plenty to do, basically - and I think that, for all the other high-falutin' goals Wildstar might have, its greatest success may turn out to be simply keeping players engaged by cheerfully throwing endless activities their way.
Here's another glimpse of combat, where I pitch ineptly in with a Soldier character's fight, wherein he can summon an on the spot horde of enemies as part of his special Path abilities. Anyone can join in, and benefit from, these, and the game generally has a focus on unspoken, everyone-wins co-operation:
Combat is only an aspect of Wildstar, though. I've wittered about its 'Path' system several times before, and honestly you're better off reading my earlier preview than suffer me impatiently try to summarise it yet again, but sadly the collector and socialiser paths still aren't on show. It's the latter I'm most interested in, as it relates to player-made housing and even towns, a much called-for former MMO mainstay that's so often been abandoned by the post-2005 crop. I'm looking forward to seeing how that works, because if Wildstar is serious about catering to its players rather than vice-vera, it needs to get that stuff right.
What I did get to experiment with is the now-expanded Explorer path. This is designed to fulfil the wandering-free needs of those of us who tire of objective arrows and stabbing things in the face. What I've played is only level 6-ish fare, so hopefully more elaborate exploration awaits later, but so far I wasn't convinced by it. Exploring in this instance meant following pop-up directives and performing a series of vaguely irratating jumping puzzles to, for instance, reach the top of a tall tree or a rock spire, then plant a beacon at a pre-ordained spot. A little something like this, in fact:
I don't mind telling you that I fell off that tree so many damned times I had to go and drink a glass of beer to calm down, for fear I might go and shout at a passing developer. It's not what comes to mind when I think about exploring in games, but I suppose it is in keeping with Wildstar's general ethos to be activity-packed and loaded with quickly-obtained short-term rewards. Speaking to one of the devs in an interview afterwards, I was told of two things that might take exploring closer to my personal preference.
First of those is that the objective arrows for Explorer goals can be turned off, so it becomes about what you stumble across or where you intuit might have something lurking at the top/bottom of it, as opposed to simply heading where the quest tells you to. I like that - the concept of gazing at the hills and trees in the distance and thinking 'I reckon that'll have something.' On the other hand, I know what I'm like - the knowledge, and attendant temptation, that I can be told exactly where to go, and thus get my points and prizes without wasting any time, will probably get the better of me.
The other thing I was told about exploring is that later in the game it might involve a little detective work. For instance, being told that someone went missing within an approximate area, then having to scout areound there to find out what happened to them with the help of environmental clues. It Exploring can keep up variety and summon up a regular sense of discovery, I'm all for it. If it's all just jumping puzzles it's quite simply not going to be for me, though.
I should say something about the game's general look. It's attractive, with a lot more detail and flash than even more recent MMOs such as SWTOR and The Secret World, though it's hard not to argue that it knows exactly which particular game it wants to evoke even despite a more science-fictional focus. The area I played in, Deradune, is best described as a massively amped-up version of the Barrens, but littered with sprawling caverns, looming mountains and towering alien towns in addition to deserts and streams.
It looked great, but at the same time it was a bit too overtly Here Is An MMO Zone. It's overtly game-y, with mad things happening all over the place, and there's no way you could ever convince yourself this place actually existed. That's OK, of course - I just want to warn you that Wildstar is a videogame which brazenly declares itself to be a videogame, as opposed to a virtual world. It's a circus, with both the variety and the attention-hopping distractedness that might imply.
I suppose I worry that what it's done is to deconstruct the MMORPG formula only to essentially put it back together the same way - that in attempting to identify why players tire of such games and how to stop that, it's rammed the essential gotta catch 'em ethos into overdrive, not re-invented it. It's impressively determined not to let its players get bored, though, and to give those folk who love MMOs with all their hearts exactly what they want - and I say that without having seeing a huge portion of the distractions it promises.