Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Stylish Space Cowboys - Wildstar (review)

I'm of two minds when it comes to the current MMO lineup. One part of me enjoys the satisfaction of working tightly with a team and downing a big boss, the other part hates the repetitive grinding play to get there. I've sampled almost every MMO since Dark Age of Camelot and none has ever been able to sell me on the leveling experience. WildStar is the brainchild of Carbine studios which is comprised of a bunch of ex-Blizzard developers and promises to cater to the hardcore player with pull-no-punches raids that offer minimal hand-holding. Carbine ultimately does an admirable job of porting classic MMO tropes to a modern feel but doesn't bring anything groundbreaking to the table.

The Short
+a refined interpretation of the traditional MMO
+end-game offers a genuine challenge
+combat is fast-paced and gets the adrenaline pumping (at least in group content...)
+great style with lots of humor

-solo play is a grind
-underneath the style is little genuine innovation
-traditional pay and subscribe model feels antiquated


The Long
If you take a look at the class introduction videos on the official WildStar website, you'll understand that Carbine takes the MMO genre with a grain of salt. This isn't to say that the development has been slapdash or that they don't care for things like class balance (quite the contrary) but rather that they poke fun at the conventions of the genre and are highly cognizant of just how ridiculous these conventions can be. This approach shines through in all aspects of WildStar from the cartoonish character designs to the bombastic level up animation to the overzealous dungeon boss comments as they unleash their ultimate attacks. It's as if at every turn Carbine has said "we know you've seen this before, but have you ever seen it presented like this?" and then does something silly and smile-inducing. Where many recent MMOs (I'm looking at you Elder Scrolls) have gone the route of stone-faced seriousness, WildStar takes the refreshing attitude of tongue in cheek self-mocking. It definitely made my trip across Nexus more entertaining but I could see how it might irk others.

Anyone familiar with keybars and cooldowns will feel instantly at home with WildStar. Skills are unlocked as players level up and fit into damage, support, and utility categories. Every class is capable of filling a tank or healing role in addition to being able to deal damage. Utility skills supplement these roles with crowd-control abilities and stuns. Where Carbine shakes things up is by limiting characters to eight active skills at a time and having combat rely heavily on positioning. The emphasize in combat is thus not on memorizing deep priority trees and pushing as many buttons as possible but rather demonstrated situational awareness and saving the right tool for the right moment. Most attacks and heals in WildStar have an associated area where they're effective (a telegraph) and the game prominently highlights beneficial areas in green and danger areas in red. On paper, combat is simply a matter of standing in the green and not standing in the red. This is pretty easy to accomplish in solo questing and I found the limitation of eight abilities made every encounter a repetitive affair. Once I got to group dungeons, however,  the sheer amount of telegraphs happening at any given point made for a frenetic experience where successfully managing my limited action set was a genuine challenge.

WildStar is definitely at its best during group content. Every dungeon is meticulously designed to provide a challenge that feels fair despite the difficulty. Enemy telegraphs are all avoidable or specifically designed mechanics that can be countered and I never felt a group wipe was anything but my group failing to work as a team. My sentiments on dungeons and raids carry over to PvP where every class is reliant on another in the group to make up for their shortcomings. For example, the stalker can dish out crazy damage and sustain in single target fights but will easily succumb to multiple targets - the medic is the exact opposite capable of locking down groups but lacking a strong burst ability to finish targets off. Put a medic and a stalker together and you get a formidable team that exceeds the sum of its parts. This synergy plays throughout the group dynamic as players must make decisions on how to best aid their team if they want to be successful.

Unfortunately, for as great as the group play is, the single-player leveling experience is ho-hum. Quests run the gamut of killing baddies to delivering crates and are less free-form than they could be (Guild Wars 2 is incredibly flexible with how to tackle leveling and WildStar would have done well to take a page from their book). Zones technically follow a story arc but quests are unvoiced and by the end I found myself just skipping the dialogue as most players seem to do in MMOs. The grind to the level 50 cap will take average players a few weeks and sees little change in rotation or mechanics past level 20; my main character, an engineer, quite literally spent the majority of his post level 20 grinding pressing just two different attacks. Sure you have to dodge a few telegraphs and make sure to hit your stun attack on time, but the difference between group and solo play is like night and day in terms of difficulty and fun factor. On the bright side, the world is well constructed, visually compelling, and accompanied by a great soundtrack that manages to collectively pique just enough interest to get players to the end-game.

The Extras
Rounding out WildStar is a fairly robust suite of activities. Player housing is fully implemented and has been demonstrated to be flexible enough to create some truly awe-inspiring creations (a quick google image search for WildStar housing should give you an idea). Crafting is a fun diversion that offers a great deal of customizability in what items can be created (albeit with a fairly heavy dose of randomness). Also, end-game content including raids, dailies, and a few maximum level PvE zones are well developed and provide gear rewards appropriate for time invested.  Marry this with impeccable server stability and the myriad of quality of life features like a working group finder and full UI modding support and you have the most complete MMO launch in history.

But should you buy it...
For as complete and solid a package as WildStar is, the savvy reader will have noticed that I have mentioned nothing above that revolutionizes the genre. I have a feeling that I say this with every MMO, but if you're burnt out on the likes of World of Warcraft, the traditional model of a one-off purchase and monthly subscription is a hard sell. On the other hand, if you want something to change it up from your current online game of choice, WildStar is a fantastic option. The end-game content is challenging and worth the slog of getting a new character to the cap but it really isn't enough to reincarnate a lust for MMOs where it has been long been dead or never existed in the first place.