We always feel that MMOs are difficult to review in a single article, and Wildstar is even larger than most. To give a broader sense of what playing it is like, we asked Philippa Warr to venture inside and report back in three parts (part one). Part two covers more combat detail, and getting to grips with PvP and dungeons.
In a piece of advice likely cribbed from Game of Thrones, the Wildstar respawn narrator has just told me to "use the pointy end" while fighting. I went for the Esper class so my weapon is actually a shuriken. The whole damn thing is a pointy end and yet I'm still dead. Maybe I've been hitting them with the flat side.
It is at this point I decide to investigate exactly how combat works. Becoming more efficient should speed up the levelling process which in turn opens up level-gated abilities, dungeons and so on in MMO land. It should also mean I cease banging my head repeatedly against quests which are allegedly aimed at my level.
MMO hotbar combat doesn't come easily to me. My fingers seem to turn into gigantic hams, smooshing inaccurately at the number buttons and sacrificing any sense of where WASD might be in relation to that. But I'm determined to find out how well Wildstar can teach me about itself. I want to get a sense of exactly how easy is it to figure out.
The figuring out stage feels rather opaque given I'm not well-versed in MMORPGs. Concepts like how abilities can be used to generate points which in turn power other abilities are introduced early on and prepare you for picking your own toolset when ability slots open up, but there's so much information and so many statistics to deal with on all fronts that I'm soon alt-tabbing to the wiki and forums or asking a few questions in zone or guild chat to try to piece them together into a decent overview.
The grand finale of the figuring out stage is me self-medicating my way through the confusion by eating an entire tub of olives in fifteen minutes. It is at this point I turn to my friend Chris for help, as he has a formidable number of MMO hours to his name. He turns out to be the most voluble and helpful corpse on my in-game friends list.
His own experience of the game is that it assumes a certain level of familiarity with RPG character construction and roles. "If you've built a character in WoW or Guild Wars or Diablo then you have the tools necessary to unpick Wildstar's reworking of those ideas. It doesn't stray too far from the norm, but it alters the terminology and that means reading tooltips until you've figured out how it all fits together. This was actually impressive and appealing to me, particularly when combined with the amount of freedom to customise ability loadouts and AMPs. The game gives you a tremendous amount of power to express yourself and your expertise."
"It's hard to figure out exactly what's going wrong without being there," Chris adds as he tries to help me with my own unpicking. "It could be anything from being undergeared to using a suboptimal rotation to not having the right balance of stats and so on and so on." Through some Gchat detective work ("Was it a prime monster that killed you? Skull round its portrait, ten times more health - that sort of thing?") we work out that it's actually all of the above problems at once.
Wildstar combat requires mobility, particularly from its light armour characters. I seem to have been favouring abilities which need me to be stationary. I've also taken up vital damage-dealing ability slots with healing options from back when I tried a dungeon, and have been trying to kill mobs alone which were intended for groups, thanks to looking at their level rather than their health bar. I picked armour by whether it offered more improvements instead of paying close attention to their effect on attributes. A DPS build would be most useful to me so I should have been favouring the brutality, moxie and finesse attributes because of the assault power, critical chance and burst damage boosts they offer an esper.
Some time spent rebalancing and experimenting is all it takes to solve the main problems (alas there is a limited amount anyone can do about my hotbar hamfistedness). The leveling returns to a regular pace and the better build also opens up the world of PvP possibilities.
There are currently two 10v10 arenas available to my level 21 character. One involves capturing masks and bringing them back to base, the other is about capturing and holding points. They're fast-paced opportunities to show off your aforementioned customisations and expertise. They're also bloody good fun. At one point some unexpectedly skilful hotbar manipulation on my part saw me dancing around between telegraphed attacks, dodging and weaving just enough to stay alive. I'd infuriated and distracted enough of the enemy team that the rest were unable to stop my Dominion group dragging another mask back to base. It's a heady mixture of showing off and having fun.
I've had less luck with the dungeons. There are adventures which let your group of five choose which particular quests to complete as part of a mission and then there are dungeons proper which don't involve the choice element and behave like traditional MMO dungeons. The adventure currently available to me is one I've completed a few times, but never attaining higher than bronze rank. It's the nature of working with strangers - playing pub Dota versus playing team Dota. People wander off, or aren't quite syncing up their actions with other players and as a result someone (then everyone else) dies.
In dungeons the issue was magnified. When I tried one, players kept dropping out for whatever reason so we were frequently idling as we waited for a new party member. Then when we did fill out the group the lack of in-game voice meant it was incredibly hard to work together properly. When everything was working well, the dungeon itself was an enjoyable and satisfying challenge, but the peripheral issues mean I wouldn't want to do it without being a guild party or with friends on voice comms.
A week further into Wildstar the quests are still maintaining my interest in the world and its story, but getting to grips with the PvP has been by far the more rewarding and given me a great degree of attachment to my character. As a less experienced player when it comes to MMORPGs it felt very easy to get lost in the flood of concepts along the way which affected how easily I transitioned from pure PvE to a mixture of the two. That said, friends who spent the last decade ensconced in Azeroth adapted very quickly. There are also a wealth of third-party resources dedicated to offering information when you can't consult your own personal Friend-ipedia or are drawing an in-game blank. Besides, confusion can sometimes serve as a great acid test: asking what might be incredibly stupid questions is an easy way of working out whether you've signed up to a patient and friendly guild.
The third and final part of our review will land next week.