[First up, a reminder of what this post is: One week, one MMO, one person’s thoughts and experiences reflected in the text below. A more thorough explanation/apology can be found here]
[One more thing: Wildstar shuts down forever in just a few weeks time and the game was already in “Buh-bye!” mode when I played so I’m aware that I didn’t get to see the game exactly as intended as far as player activity, server-wide events, etc, were concerned. This means that this write-up isn’t necessarily a fair representative of pre-death Wildstar but as it’s literally now or never I’ve got to work with what they’re offering or not play at all.]
Before playing I’d been generally aware of this game’s existence but as discussed in the previous blog post giving up precious paid-for time in other MMOs meant I’d never gone beyond the “Huh, looks like some neat sci-fi/Western… thing…?” stage until now. And it was pleasantly easy to slide in even at this eleventh-hour stage as registration, installation, and signing in were straightforward, fast, and painless – and there’s even a helpful note on the character creation screen to remind you to check which server your friends are playing on before you go any further. These are all small details that should be virtually invisible when done right but can become massive game-uninstalling headaches when screwed up, so I appreciated how easy it was to get it all done right the first time.
Which naturally brings us on to character creation: The magical “secret sauce” of MMOs where it’s not so much about the customisation itself – which can range from as detailed as individual forearm length to as little as “Face 2 with Hair 5” – but whether the player feels they’ve come out the other end with an avatar they don’t mind whacking bears with for a hundred hours or more and would quite like to dress up in a very fancy hat. Wildstar had lots of options for visual customisation and it was easy to see what was changing as I prodded and poked all the sliders and buttons, and I generally liked the selection of different preset body builds/jewellery/other optional fripperies on offer too. However certain races are locked out of certain jobs – it’s far from the first MMO to impose these restrictions, mind you – which did make for a bit of back-and-forth between the job/race menus as I was trying to work out exactly who was allowed to do what. It was here that I noticed every job seemed to be classed exclusively as either a tank or healer which implied a different setup from the usual tank/DPS/healer trinity but I could’ve used more info on how these choices play out in game (coming up in a bit) to make my decision feel more informed.
I say “informed choice” like I care about being anything other than either a Final Fantasy-y White Mage (REZ PLZ) or a Phantasy Star Online-y FOnewearl (will /dance for Trifluids) type but the fact is as soon as I saw the Aurin with their ears the size of sails I knew I was going to be whatever the heck they could be no matter what, those adorable aural appendages were far too good to miss.
The game kicks off with a set of instanced tutorial areas that felt very thorough; I loved how it started with the absolute basics of just moving around, getting to quest markers, and jumping. When taken alongside all the other little bits of help dotted around these early parts of the game it helped Wildstar come across as a game that really wanted everyone to join in and have a good time. Much love to games that are prepared to help with everything, as no matter how long people have been playing games something always has to be someone’s first ever. These explanatory segments were straightforward without feeling condescending and visually varied and pretty inventive (basic movement followed up by a “pass through the rings” hoverboard ride to make sure you’ve really got the controls figured out? Now that’s fun!), allowing people to get to grips with playable examples of basic concepts such as item manipulation and AoEs before smooshing all of these practised skills together in a climactic boss battle.
All of that was great, and I think giving newbies the chance to play around in an obviously closed-off space before the game started proper was a really good idea. There’s a huge fly in the ointment though, and it’s the inescapable cost of playing one of these “Free” games: Part of the tutorial also takes you on a compulsory tour around the player housing and real-money cash shop menus, even going so far as to force you to use the cash shop with a literal “first hit’s free” test payment. Anyone who’s ever played a mobile game that involves mooning over an SSSR .jpg of some attractive person bought with orbs/crystals/tokens/tickets will find this experience a familiar one, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it (or that Wildstar’s “premium” users escape this arm-twisting either).
Let’s move on to more positive things: Wildstar’s bright art style comes across as pleasantly chunky and bouncy no matter how underpowered your computer may be, and the fantasy/sci-fi mish-mash works really well with neither dark underground laboratories or lush forest havens feeling out of place even when you’re doing something as potentially jarring as riding a spaceship from a beautiful little town to a B-movie themed asteroid full of monsters. As we all know I may have only played for a week, but these opening zones (not a major city or dungeon amongst them) always looked impressive and even a screenshot-crazed lady like myself found plenty to coo over.
Combat felt good too, with a strong emphasis on moving around and actively dodging attacks as well as manually aiming your own offensive skills at enemies too. All damage markers were easy to see in the heat of the moment and I never struggled to read what was going on even with a dozen or more critters baying for my blood. I never could quite tell if double-tap-to-dodge action was tied to character position or the camera, but that may just be my plain old beginner’s idiocy showing.
Beyond the standard “hitting stuff” part of combat lies a whole bunch of customisation settings and skills that I hadn’t a hope in hell of getting the hang of before my week was up, so I’ll decline from talking about those other than to say “Wow, there’s clearly a lot of something going on there”. What I did like though was how limited the all-important action palette was, forcing you to choose a few skills to use and use them well over dumping so many spells and fancy moves on you that you needed one of those mice with a thousand buttons on the side just to stand a chance of accessing everything you’re supposed to do. These restrictions naturally bring with them the looming dread of making a character “wrong”, of spending months fine-tuning a character into something you love only to discover nobody wants to party with someone who didn’t follow the accepted builds on letsmakemmosnofun.wiki, but this is avoided entirely as you’re able to freely switch back and forth between unlocked abilities at will. So you can have a solo-play action palette, a “I’m the dungeon healer/tank” palette, and just generally have a go and find out what you like doing best without having to commit or fuss over spell text minutiae.
At this point I do have to bring up the most Marmite of all of Wildstar’s unique quirks, and that is Voiceover Guy. On the surface his KHURAYZEE “Crazy Taxi announcer on Killer Instinct duty” delivery is just a fun way of keeping track of your kill combo and level gains but over time it did begin to undermine the action on screen and felt downright inappropriate when I was supposed to be busy helping people escape a massively destructive enemy force before they burned alive or was searching through corpses in an abandoned lab. I adore games that take their stupidity seriously (Dino Crisis 2 will be with me until I die), or games that take time out for a daft segment or bonus mode (Lara Croft and the Temple of Light’s Soul Reaver DLC is an unexpected delight), but Wildstar would give me an earnest quest about helping a concerned queen connect with the voice of a magical techno-tree and then TRIPLE KILL or YOU LEVELLED UP WAY TO GO CUPCAKE come booming through my speakers and the mood whiplash was frankly staggering.
The misstep carried through to the storytelling, too: At first I was impressed with Wildstar’s copious amount of dropped books and notes to collect and read at my leisure, as well as quest dialogue that allowed you to optionally ask a question about the task at hand before ploughing through with the latest checklist. But because this is all optional the game just assumes that you’re not really all that interested, and made caring about the characters and the places I was in feel like more work because it was all on me to give enough of a damn to break off from the “C’mon, hurry up! We’ve got people to save!” quest chain and make sure I was picking these things up and going through them all – and even when I did it didn’t help my character specifically become any more involved with surrounding events. I ended up feeling like a random nobody who was a mere convenience to the various NPCs who never interacted with me long enough to remember any of their names; presumably part of the rush to get me to hit the level cap and start the “real” game (endgame grinding for loot), although as I didn’t get anywhere near there that’s obviously all conjecture on my part. The quests themselves were at least as varied as anyone could reasonably expect them to be, including goals that had me protecting NPCs or piloting water-spraying aircraft in addition to the usual “Kill X of Y then go for the boss” business.
Overall Wildstar was… OK. Not bad enough for me to regret playing it, but not good enough for me to feel sad I hadn’t played it sooner. Battles were engaging even if enemies were universally on the easy side (for a game with such a punchy action-led style it could’ve done with forcing you to really get stuck in there), but between the game not really taking itself seriously but not being silly enough to go full comedy, and the world-building being best summed up as “Eh, we don’t really care if you care, here’s another book you don’t have to read, ever.” it’s one MMO where, sadly, I feel justified in sticking with what I already knew when it launched back in 2014.