To stand out among the seemingly endless crowd of MMOs, a new title has to offer something different. Something that tells players that this isn’t going to be the usual MMO experience. Some games go for full-genre shakeups (Guild Wars 2), while others might use an existing franchise to bring in players (Final Fantasy XIV) or offer a unique approach to player-created content (Neverwinter).
If that kind of genre revolution isn’t what the game is going for, then it needs something else to set it apart. A unique setting or art style, perhaps, or a mechanical element that changes how you interact with the world. This the approach that Carbine Studios have taken with their first title, Wildstar.
The first thing I noticed when diving into Wildstar is its uniquely cartoonish art style. It’s not unlike World of Warcraft’s look, but even more stylised and, of course, set in space. Characters all look like they stepped out of a Saturday morning cartoon, and the game uses WoW’s trick of making buildings and world objects look slightly exaggerated, as though they’ve been painted by a cartoonist, but not cel-shaded.
It may not be surprising, then, to learn that Carbine itself consists of former WoW developers, and the techniques and ideas they learned from that game have carried across to Wildstar. Don’t mistake that for blind copying, however; Wildstar brings enough of its own ideas to the table that it’s definitely not just WoW in space.
That said, something about the game evoked my earliest memories of WoW in a way that no other MMO since has. Maybe it’s that art style, or maybe it’s the way my cat-eared, long-tailed Aurin (a race that’s kind of a mixture of Night Elf and Gnome) stalks about the place with her stealth ability, pouncing on unsuspecting mobs with murderous intent, just like my Night Elf Rogue used to do in WoW.
Whatever it is, I found myself enjoying Wildstar immensely after I got out of the game’s somewhat lacklustre starting zones. The overall gist of the game is that there’s two factions: The militaristic totalitarian Dominion and the rebellious, righteous Exiles. The names should give an idea of the backstory here, as it’s certainly not the most original aspect of the game. That said, it’s pulled off with aplomb, using well-directed cutscenes and suitably cheesy voice acting to provide the starting story for each side.
Each faction consists of four races. On the Dominion side there’s the Cassians, a human race who started the whole thing; the Mechari, a robot race that reminded me of the CAST race in Phantasy Star Online; Draken, a large beastial race that are reminiscent of WoW’s Tauren or Guild Wars’ Charr; and the Chua, a single-gender race of sociopathic rodents that remind me of WoW’s goblin race.
The Exiles bring with them another human faction— Exile Humans, long ago exiled from the Dominion, they’re basically what happens when you turn the Firefly cast into an MMO race; Granok, a race of rock people that are pretty much giant dwarves; Aurin, the aforementioned big-eared, long-tailed space elf-gnome hybrids; and Mordresh, who are, weirdly enough, a race of undead aliens with a backstory not entirely unlike that of WoW’s Forsaken.
The big problem with Carbine’s two-faction approach, and something that they seem to have missed from WoW is that the Dominion is, at least in the early part of the game, repulsively evil. Compare them to the Horde faction in WoW, and it’s clear they don’t have a lot of redeeming qualities. The entire Exile faction exists because of how evil they’ve been in the past, and your character as you go through the early stages of their story is doing some pretty heinous things.
It’s not helped by the fact that, when playing as the Exiles, the story quests show the Dominion solely as a destructive force. By making them so clearly the bad guys, Carbine miss out on what makes WoW’s faction balance work. In WoW neither faction is truly, genuinely evil. Sure, they don’t like each other, but the story makes it clear that both factions do pretty horrible things, as well as pretty good things. The overall story of the Horde is, in fact, one of redemption for the sins of their past, and the continuing hostility they face for those sins from the Alliance.
All this is important because it means players can choose a faction based not on being good or evil, but on the nuanced moral choices of that faction. Wildstar’s Dominion faction has none of this at first. While it’s possible that their story advances further and that kind of nuance does come into play, I have no interest in playing the faction for long enough to really find out.
If that’s the weakest aspect of Wildstar, then the game’s combat system is its strongest. The game sits somewhere in between WoW and Guild Wars 2, not entirely eschewing the concept of a combat resource, but at the same time limiting its use to certain skills and abilities. Generally a class will have a few skills that consume a resource, while the rest either have short cooldowns, or are intended to be spammable. There’s no skill tree, instead skills can be boosted by using skill points that are awarded upon levelling up. These points are freely reassignable, and skills themselves can be activated or deactivated at-will.
The other aspect of the character development system is the AMP (Advanced Modification Protocol) system. This is a passive skill tree, although there are some active abilities at the higher tiers. The AMP tree provides the main source of stat customisation for individual characters, and allows them to either specialise in specific roles, or take a hybrid approach.
This ties back into a combat system that offers three primary roles for classes: Assault, Support and Utility. Assault is the damage dealing or DPS role. Support mixes things up a little, as it’s the role into which both tanking and healing fall into. Finally, the utility role is mostly about providing crowd control and managing combat encounters with debuffs. It’s unique to break this aspect of combat out from the standard triangle, but Wildstar does it well.
Actually being in combat is a joy. Wildstar feels very much like the early days of World of Warcraft (not surprising given Carbine is made up of developers that worked on “vanilla” WoW). Stalkers feel so much like the original Rogue class, right down to often being able to destroy an enemy from stealth with only a few strikes, for example.
The biggest feature of combat, and perhaps Wildstar’s headline feature is the combat ‘tell’ system. Every attack in the game lays down a visible field on the ground of where it’s going to land. Combat is primarily about seeing these tells and reacting to them. If attacks have cast times, they will be indicated within the field as well. The result is an extremely flexible and active combat system that never feels like it takes the player by surprise. Every hit can, in theory, be predicted and avoided. The system also allows for enemy attacks that are very complex in their ‘shape’, creating a sort-of combat maze to work within.
Even player attacks use this system, meaning that enemies in the game’s PvP system will have their attacks displayed just like mobs will. This is really important because if there’s one thing that Wildstar brings back from WoW, it’s world PvP. If the glory days of stalking around Stranglethorn Vale looking for Horde (or Alliance, if you swing that way) to gank have returned with zones that encourage players of both factions to quest and keep an eye out for the enemy. It helps bring the conflict between Exiles and Dominion to life in the same way it did with the Horde and Alliance.
I surprised myself at how much I enjoyed Wildstar. The early areas of the game aren’t the most exciting, but once I found a class I enjoyed, and started to explore the world I began to have more and more fun with it. This isn’t a game about redefining the MMO genre like Guild Wars 2, but it brings enough unique new ideas along that it can hold its own against the competition.
Carbine have chosen to go with a monthly subscription approach, which may limit Wildstar’s audience somewhat. The system is not unlike that used in EVE Online or even the fictional MMO T’Rain from Neal Stephenson’s novel Reamde. In essence, it’s possible to play Wildstar without taking out a subscription fee if you’re willing to farm enough gold to purchase “CREDD”, an in-game currency that effectively translates to the game’s subscription.
If you felt let down by the recent launch of Elder Scrolls Online, or if World of Warcraft or Guild Wars 2 or Final Fantasy XIV aren’t doing it for you anymore, then I definitely recommend checking Wildstar out. It’s a well-made MMO with a growing community and some unique ideas, especially with combat. The art style is quite different, and there should be enough here to keep you interested for the free first month, at the least.
Unique visual style
Fast-paced action combat system
Well thought-out user interface
Same old fetch quest-based progression
Hokey voice acting
Exaggerated female character models may be offputting for some players