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. In part one, she covers the first 18 levels of combat, questing and exploration.
"Help! Bees! Bees everywhere! HELP ME!"
This recent Wildstar experience reminds me of that bit in My Girl where Macauley Culkin angers a bunch of hostile buzzbings several levels higher than him, realises his questing partner Anna Chlumsky has wandered off to sell loot and tries to escape by falling into a lake. He dies, tragically and so do I. But where Macauley Culkin stays dead and loses his glasses I am resurrected and resolve to give those weaponised bees a combat-based telling off that will become the stuff of legend.
I'll get back to why I decided to pick a fight with the bees in a moment but first, an introduction to Wildstar. Its Carbine's sci-fi/fantasy MMORPG set on the contested planet of Nexus. The two factions vying for control are the Dominion (who enjoy militarisation, capitalism, religious zealotry and, like, walks on the lightning-frazzled beach) and the Exiles (who enjoy not being under Dominion control, hating the Dominion, being the scrappy underdog to the Dominion and walks in the forest). Nexus itself is festooned with quests, landmarks, collectables and other opportunities to explore as well as other MMO staples like PvP, dungeons and crafting and trading systems. I'm writing this having reached level 18 and spent about 26 hours on my main character and level 8 on a secondary with 3 hours of play time.
In terms of how it feels to play, it's not a million miles away from World of Warcraft. That's not surprising given a) WoW's status within the genre and the fact that as it approaches its tenth birthday it still has a subscriber base larger than the population of Bulgaria and b) Carbine was founded by seventeen former employees of Blizzard including senior and lead developers from the WoW team.
I confess I quickly fell away from World of Warcraft - a combination of finding the early questing monotonous, not warming to the art style and living off partially defrosted Scotch pancakes and dubious clotted cream because of 6am bedtimes and not being awake when the shops were open. Wildstar's tone reminds me of the joyous humour of old Cartoon Network shows as well as throwing up echoes of Joss Whedon's Firefly. That's not to say it does everything perfectly but it's this mood - this sense of fun - which permeates the entire game and is threatening to bring the Scotch pancake problem back into my life.
Once you've picked a faction in character creation you'll need to pick a race. These differ slightly between Dominion and Exile. Dominion includes robots and tiny goblin creatures, Exiles have the undead and furries. Humans are common to both sides and I have one of each. For the Dominion there's Cassielle, an Esper which is the game's equivalent of a mage and uses psychic attacks and illusions. She's also a scientist which means each area will have a collection of objects and data entries for her to find in order to discover more about the planet and its lore.
On the Exile side there's Jenah (named for the America's Next Top Model contestant Jenah Doucette who was unfairly exiled from the show's ninth cycle by Tyra Banks - how Saleisha won that season I will never understand). Jenah's a Medic, a class I picked so I could join parties as a healer but which also seems to be fantastic as a DPS. She's a settler which means that her path involves collecting objects in order to construct things like stations which dispense buffs. These can be used by anyone, not just Jenah, meaning you have a positive impact on other people's experiences without even fighting alongside them.
Going back to the My Girl situation, the reason I was taking on those bees was to experiment with the combat systems, seeing if I'd understood them enough that I could take on something just a little out of my level. Combat works using telegraphed attacks. Red patterns on the ground appear telling you where an attack is going to hit and allowing you to either try to interrupt the attack with a stun or to move out of range. There are also non-telegraphed attacks which do less damage. The idea is introduced early on with big simple circles denoting where lightning or monsters are going to strike in one of the starter zones and gets more complex as you level up. You'll sometimes find yourself zipping about trying to dodge what looks like a crop circle or a disco dancefloor. Landing a stun or knockdown during this point can switch the enemy health bar to purple indicating it's unable to defend itself and will take increased damage.
But although the complexity of the system increases gradually, it's not introduced as well as it could be. As far as I could tell there was nothing in the tutorial for either faction which ever explained how the stun and moment of opportunity mechanics worked. You can likely work it out but I can't see any reason for not explicitly arming new players with that extra nugget of information from the start. There are a couple of other things which I would have appreciated being made explicit too as someone who doesn't habitually play MMOs. I didn't realise that I could add recipes and AMP to my repertoire from my inventory by right clicking them, nor did I realise I could add decor items to a separate system by doing the same. It's not a problem that's likely to affect people familiar with how MMO systems work but little things like this can hamper a newcomer and are easily fixed with a few lines of explanation.
There were also a couple of bugs I encountered. One is a quest which simply can't be completed at the moment as it doesn't reset properly, the other was to do with the game's taxi system. The system itself is lovely, transporting you across zones fast while a hologram taxi driver offers up taxi driver anecdotes but it relies on you having activated all the taxi stations en route to a point. I'd missed one but still managed to get to the taxi point beyond it and became stranded with no way back to my starting point except a long walk. It wasn't in any way game breaking, but it was a little frustrating. Obviously that's no longer a problem, partly because I've activated the offending taxi point, but mostly because I now have a super speedy dinosaur mount which I love using and wish was my friend in real life so we could go for long rides and I could brush his scales and we could sit on benches and eat jam sandwiches in companionable silence.
I'll be delving deeper into how the game progresses beyond level 15, the dungeons, the crafting and the home building in a couple of future updates, but the broad strokes of Wildstar are that it's starting its MMO lifespan with engaging storylines, a neat sense of humour and solid mechanics. It's most obvious to me in the fetching and collecting quests where the difference between fun and tedium lies in how the quests are framed in terms of engaging dialogue and in varying the interaction mechanics, both of which Wildstar manages well.
The standard edition of the game costs £34.99 and includes 30 days of game time. After that there's a subscription model or you can use in-game gold to purchase C.R.E.D.D. as you might PLEX in EVE Online. The latter system has only just been put live so it'll take a while to see how that shakes down in terms of its community-set market value and how viable it is as a way of sustaining your game time by simply playing regularly. The subscription is a flat £8.99 per month. I'd say it's definitely worth the initial cost. The ongoing subscription value will depend on how the team continues to develop and maintain the game and how the community treats C.R.E.D.D. At launch, it's clear that the development team care deeply for Nexus and its inhabitants and that bodes well for the future.
Part two will arrive early next week.