Thursday, October 15, 2015

Returning to Nexus: Is WildStar free-to-play worth your time?

WildStar launched last year to generally positive reviews lauding it's artistic style and refinement of MMO mechanics. Despite the critical praise, subscriber numbers steadily declined and ultimately forced developer Carbine to merge all of the players onto a megaserver to ensure population levels high enough to complete content. Megaservers addressed the needs of the existing player base but offered little incentive to attract those on the outside. Finally, after months of rumours and rumblings WildStar took the plunge and switched from a subscriber to a free-to-play model. A lot has changed in the last year and with no barrier to entry, it may be the time for the masses to finally check out WildStar.

What hasn't changed?
Like a lot of players, I played WildStar at launch but didn't renew my subscription past a few months. Personally, I grew tired of the familiar MMO mechanics and my reasons for quitting WildStar were more about weariness with genre itself rather than any failing of the game. While the switch to free-to-play has come with overhauls to many aspects of the game, the fundamental MMO mechanics are still there. WildStar's gameplay is heavily focused on reading enemy telegraphs and deciding whether to interupt or dodge the attack; gameplay isn't novel but is an example of smart refinement to existing tropes. WildStar takes this refinement and throws in genuinely challenging group content that typically inspires mixed reactions. One one hand, tackling a boss as a precision team is exhilarating and leaves everyone slapping virtual high fives. On the other, more casual players reach the end game and hit a brick wall unable to progress with pick-up groups and unwilling to dedicate the time to a serious guild. In short, if you played WildStar already, you should have a pretty good idea what to expect in the free-to-play iteration and if you haven't tried WildStar then you should expect a solid, if not revolutionary, MMO with a no-nonsense endgame.

Character creation is a lot better and offers the option to skip tutorials!
What have I missed?
Since launch, most of the added content has been focused on fleshing out the world story and making quality of life changes. New end game zones and quest lines have a cinematic quality and are engrossing to the point where you may actually want to read the quest text. The cartoonish veneer of the visuals belie the dark plot of scientific hubris and genetic manipulation. New players will be invited to participate in the world story periodically through the leveling process. Fortunately, the major plot points are handled through an instanced dungeon accessible from faction capital cities so returning players won't have to run around the entire world to see what they've missed. In terms of leveling, group content as been adjusted to provide a steady drip of dungeons and adventures to break up the solo content and zones have been re-tuned to ensure that most quests can be handled without assistance. Further, a new early tutorial dungeon has been added that introduces players to MMO group play and WildStar's interrupt mechanics. Also worth mentioning, the free-to-play launch has seen an overhaul to crafting and player statistics to make things a lot more intuitive. For end game players, there is minimal new dungeon and raid content but a plethora of daily quests and challenges have been added to keep you busy while waiting for the group finder to match you. WildStar has made itself a lot more accessible to new players and starting with a fresh character shouldn't feel daunting. Veterans don't have as much new stuff to play with and the few elite who managed to clear top raid content (Datascape) will find little to entice them back.

Is it pay to win?
Nope. WildStar's free-to-play model is quite generous. All content is available to free players and pretty much every item in the cash shop is purchasable with in an in game currency (omni-bits) that steadily accumulates as you play the game. Most items in the cash shop are cosmetic except for buff flasks that do things like increase experience gain which really only has an impact on those below the level cap. Quality of life purchases like expanding the number of auction or character slots can be selectively bought with omni-bits so players can tailor their purchases to their preferences. Players who had previously purchased the game start with many of these quality of life features already unlocked and should feel even less compulsion to purchase from the cash shop. Continuing subscribers get boosts to things like reputation gains and crafting success but nothing essential to reaching the highest raid content. To put it in perspective, a free player can easily go from level one to raid ready in a month of regular play without ever spending a penny or even feeling compelled to. Considering the success of Star Wars: The Old Republic's horrendous free-to-play model, I commend Carbine for taking the high road and truly making their game free. The only complaint I can levy is that cosmetic item purchases are bound to character instead of account which disincentives playing a second character.

The one 'cash only' item in the shop lets you gamble for rare cosmetic items.
It's no secret that Carbine needed to take drastic steps if they wanted to attract a sustainable player population to WildStar. The implementation of a generous free-to-play model demonstrates that the developer is confident that the product will sell itself rather than need to tease content locked behind a pay wall. I've had a blast in my return to WildStar and hope that free-to-play will finally bring the player numbers the game has always deserved. See you on Nexus cupcake!