WildStar Beta – Hands-on Impressions

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If you’re reading this, you probably already know a little bit about WildStar, but just to bring everybody up to speed, it’s the first MMORPG by Carbine, a studio made up of industry veterans. Colorful and quirky, it’s full of refinements and innovations to the typical MMORPG formula. It’s also a new MMO in the year 2014 using a subscription model when practically everybody except for World of Warcraft has gone freemium, so it’s got its work ahead of it. I settled into the beta to see if it seemed like WildStar was shaping up to be worth it.

The core of WildStar is a lot like a more refined version of the core of World of Warcraft. You start off by picking a faction. The Exiles are disenfranchised space cowboys – Think Firefly in a universe with aliens and space wizards – while the Dominion are an interstellar empire in the grand tradition of interstellar empires in science fiction. Each has their own set of races and their own storyline to go through. To try and get a taste of both sides, and try out how melee and ranged combat feel in WildStar, I went with a Aurin Spellslinger Explorer with the Exiles, and a Cassian Warrior Scientist in the Dominion.wildstar1

The Aurin are a species of anime-influenced aliens with the requisite animal ears, huge eyes, and tails. The Spellslinger, meanwhile is a class that pulls on the space-fantasy western vibe, a wizard with a pair of pistols, who can boost their combat abilities by enchanting their guns. Meanwhile the Cassians are the humans from the Dominion, slick, stylish, and British, and the Warrior is… pretty much a warrior, with a sci-fi twist. They get a massive sword, and eventually an arm cannon, and mostly hack and cleave. Each class in the game is capable of building toward a damage-dealer role or a support role, and the game embraces the classic DPS/Healer/Tank trinity.

All of the combat is based around area of effect attacks. The Warrior swings his sword in a broad arc, the Spellslinger fires lines and cones of damage. I definitely dug this, since MMO combat is at its best when you’re killing multiple guys at once and dodging around attacks rather than just standing in place dialing in a rotation. The AoE-based combat can even apply to healing, as Spellslinger healers will need to aim their heals to best hit allies in need.

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Now, Paths are WildStar’s big new thing. Designed to give players an extra layer of stuff to play with, the Paths are designed to appeal to different sorts of players and all interact well together. It’s also, I think, probably WildStar’s weakest point as it currently exists. Soldiers have missions where they fight masses of enemies, Explorers get missions to do jumping puzzles and fill out the map, Settlers get missions to build things that will help out other players, and Scientists get missions to scan stuff and open up areas.

All of these are fine, and fun, and great, but whenever I saw something for a profession I wasn’t currently playing, it grated on me. I’m the kind of player who likes to explore and learn lore, but I’m also the kind of player with a compulsive need to complete stuff. The kind of guy who swept zones in World of Warcraft for quests 70 levels below me before Cataclysm so I could get Loremaster achievements; the kind of guy who lives for Guild Wars 2 map completion. There was nothing more obnoxious than seeing the starting point for another Path’s activity and thinking that I’d need to start a third and fourth alt just to check it all out, and that any one character wouldn’t see all the content a character of that faction could.

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Additionally, it seems like Scientists have the least to add to the group experience. Their scavenger hunts are largely self-contained, and it seems like while everyone else is exploring and building and fighting, they’re looking around for plants or pieces of paper, or weird ephemera to scan. It feels like a lonely job, and as I played my Scientist, I was struck by the feeling that I’d rather pair it with something more active rather than having it stand alone on its own.

With all that out of the way, let’s talk about the content. As an Exile, you start out on a ship under attack, a ramshackle space barge that’s clearly been made a home, trying to save the life of a pregnant woman as she suffers from complications related to cryo-sleep. You go on to help drive off attacking Dominion forces, and save the ship, the food supply, and the research that led them to Nexus, home of an ancient progenitor race, proving yourself as a hero and ingratiating yourself to the leaders of the Exiles. It ends up being a pretty solid introduction to the faction, with some dramatic tension, and it gives you some bad guys to fight against.

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Meanwhile, as a member of the Dominion, you’re unfrozen as you approach Nexus, do a little bit of lab work, check out a cathedral, agree to help an archaeologist, and go through basic training. Doing this somehow proves yourself a hero worthy of the emperor’s attention, and then you go down to Nexus. It’s got no stakes and gives the player character a level of import entirely out of keeping with their actions, leaving me with the impression that the Dominion was kind of an afterthought to the Exiles’ more exciting story.

After the tutorial, as my Spellslinger, I headed to a lush forest, where the land itself was rising up against the Exiles trying to settle there, and met the source of the disturbance, an ancient cybernetic tree that the progenitors had made into a living library. Of course, learning the secrets of the ancients at level five would be a little too much, a little too fast, so the Dominion show up to kill the tree, and I led an advance through enemy lines, making a way for the refugees to follow.

Meanwhile, on my Dominion character, I followed the archaeologist down to another source of progenitor information, an ancient communication center. After fighting through some wildlife and spending some time bringing the communication center back online, the Exiles attacked and the data was lost, leading the survey team to fight the Exile strike force and hijack one of their dropships to escape. It seemed like both plotlines mirrored each other, but while the Exiles were fighting for a home, at Nexus because they needed to be, the Dominion didn’t really have stakes. They were at the planet because they felt like it, and their story through the first two areas fell flat as a result.

There’s more still to come, but betas being what they are, the game’s too unstable on my system after the latest patch to continue at this time. Check back for future updates as the beta progresses!

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2/22/14 Update – The Adventure Continues…

After resolving my system’s problems, I returned to the Dominion warrior, under assurances that the Dominion plotline picked up around level 12. I found myself in a hilltop mission on a peninsula. Compared to the more focus tutorial zones, this new zone was sprawling. I found myself flooded with quests that chained into episodes, often with several going at once, as well as a plethora of tasks, which found me wandering across the zone, new quests often leading me further away from where I actually wanted to be. There’s something to be said for quests that crop up in the world and drive exploration, but I found myself missing the more directed quest hubs from World of Warcraft. Eventually, I gave up entirely on standalone quests, as they took me too far afield and focused on the episodes, with their plots that revealed things about the world.

Around then, I hit level 10, and was told I could start crafting. Crafting had been on my character screens since I started, and having read nothing about it, I was pretty curious to see how the game would handle it. Once I had trained in mining and weapon smithing, I found myself looking at a crafting menu, which was basically expected, and then two things I hadn’t even considered. There was a tech tree, where I could learn new recipes by producing ones I already knew, and a talent tree. While I wasn’t able to see the talents until I unlocked them, the idea of being able to specialize in crafting specific types of items could be interesting.

When it came time to get gathering, there was a slight hiccup in that all resource icons in the map are currently indistinguishable, though I wouldn’t be surprised if this was fixed in the future. I harvested some iron ore by attacking nodes, and on my fourth node, I was met with a shock. Midway through the harvesting, the node rose from the ground as a giant iron worm, spraying out elaborate area of effect attacks, after beating it back, and taking the iron I hacked off of it, it left a hole to a cavern full of resources and gave me two minutes to grab as much as I could. It was a fascinating twist to the usual drudgery that gathering can be in an MMORPG.

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I should not here that, as big as telegraphed attacks are in WildStar, this is where they started getting really interesting. It started off as cones and circles, but this is when the game started adding more elaborate patterns. Hollow areas to stand inside of in large effects, moving effects that spun, making me move with them, that sort of thing. WildStar really starts to develop a visual language of AoEs that I haven’t fully mastered, but it’s an interesting concept.

The first few episodes were interesting, but nothing inspiring. A plot to poison the natives starts a war you need to finish, wildlife is going mad, spiders… exist, I guess, and are enough of a threat to be destroyed because of that. At level 12, though, I got an episode about the Eldan recombination complex, a nightmare laboratory where local wildlife and sentients were made into mindless, murderous cyborgs. It ended up providing the sort of direction that the rest of the campaign might benefit from, though it got shuffled into the background, presumably to come up again later.

After that, my adventures led me to the next zone over, a pastoral farmland and seemingly much more settled area, where a plague was spreading, pretty clearly spurred on by the Exiles’ space-zombies. This is about where I broke for the day, though, as I had hit level 15 and was ready to try adventures. Look for the next update to the preview, where we see how these branching, open-world experiences work!