Wildstar hands-on: choose your path, wisely

WildStar is an MMORPG that looks like a slightly demented Firefly universe got sucked into a tumble dryer with some Pixar artists. The promise of actually being able to get into this hot pastel-coloured tumble dryer is quite pants-wettingly exciting in those terms. Nothing is ever as the trailer makes it look.

 

For most of the presentation of Wildstar it looked like this game was an easy sell: though many people sigh like Nick Clegg just farted whenever ‘MMO’ is said, I have no such predilection. I feel like I am in the target market for this game: I am a person in her late twenties who identifies watching Firefly with the time in her life when she mostly got laid, ate curry or pizza for dinner every day, and the most outlandish responsibility she had was something like not puking on her new shoes or straying into the wrong IRC channel.

The trailers are well made and quirky-funny as well as being clear and instructional about how the game works. It was pleasant enough to play: there was a vast hilly area to explore with enemies to kill, crystals to bounce around collecting and I completed two quests to kill bandits and free some wolves in exchange for a nice hat and some cash.

Yet, I felt slightly stifled. In Wildstar, your character development is funnelled in a quite dramatic way. First you choose from two factions. Then eight races. Then six classes. And then four ‘paths’.

Paths are odd: they’re meant to define your play style by choosing what sort of quests you can do. There’s the Soldier path if you like assassination, there’s the Explorer if you like going to weird places. Wildstar just announced two new paths (videos below): the Scientist and the Settler. The Scientist is about the interrogation of your landscape, scanning and collecting data. The Settler builds and constructs as a public service, and adds to civil defense capabilities.

Soft-spoken, lilting-voiced Game Design Producer Stephan Frost told me about the Scientist path: “For the Scientist, what’s really cool is finding out all the lore and information that you can get unlocking the archives, but also the information you can get about the Exile labs, the scientific labs that were left over from the Eldon which are the race which suddenly disappeared from the planet. Finding out what those meanings are and having the AI construct talk to you about that is pretty cool.” (He uses the word cool a lot.)

“For the Settler, it’s building in buildings. It’s pretty cool to have all those different structures pop in. Not only that, but they help out everybody, it’s not just for the Settler, and all the Settlers can contribute to that to either keep it around longer or build more in the first place is pretty sweet.”

Both of these are interesting ideas. But while wandering through Wildstar I felt like instead of creating my own narrative, WildStar was bent on making it for me. What if I want to be rewarded for exploring in new places, looking at odd new structures, killing things and building a pub in my hometown? Why can’t I do all of those things?

Wildstar also wants you to group with others. If someone wants to solo play, will they miss out on a lot of the content? “Yeah they will,” replies Stephan. “About 3/4ths of the path content. It’s not going to hurt them though. They can still level up from 1-50.” Stephan did tell me he expects people to have a lot of alts so that they can test out other paths and ways of playing, but this sounds like a much bigger time investment than I’d ever be willing to make. But that may appeal to die hards. What do I know? I have so little patience. I hate huge raids at the best of times, I’m always the one at the back knitting a sock.

Take the new Settler path. I was initially excited about choosing a Settler path and placing buildings where I wanted to put them in the world, but when I had time to sit down with the game I found that you can only activate buildings where the designers had previously designated by pressing a cog button. My fantasising about opening an outlandish divebar in the thickest part of a jungle and naming it It’s A Jungle Out There were scuppered: I had to place a particular building in a particular place in a village or not place one at all.

Stephan tries to assuage my pain over losing It’s A Jungle Out There by telling me about campfires. “The path has an ability as a Settler called a campfire. The campfire is an ability you unlock. You can place it anywhere in the world, and when you do anybody can click on it and get a 24hr buff that helps them out. But the thing is that they can’t click on another campfire after that point. …You also get path XP when someone clicks on your campfire. If you place that in say, a capital city, it’s probably not gonna get clicked on a lot because everyone and their mom is going to be putting down their campfire there. But if you go to a hub where there are not a lot of people and not a lot of campfires, then you’re probably going to get more people clicking on it which means more path XP. You can place these by yourself anywhere in the world, it’s not like it’s predetermined where it’s gonna go.”

That’s nice, I guess. What else have you got? “We have housing,” Stephan replies.

Now this is where I can get on board. Playing at houses – that’s where the good stuff is in an RPG. In Oblivion I had a rubbish little hut where I accidentally stole items from myself, and then sort of sheepishly put them back.

“You get your own plot of land, and you can place whatever building you want, you can decorate however you want inside the house,” Stephan remarks. “You can also have them lift off, can’t you,” I say, glad to have actually done my homework for once. “That’s kind of how we actually explain where the houses are they are basically floating in the sky,” replies Stephan. “The Protostar Corporation [sounds like an intergalactic drug manufacturer] has basically dug into Nexus itself, thrown some rocket boosters under the earth, launched it, and yes, floating houses in the sky.”

WildStar will launch with player housing; it won’t be in an add-on or patch. “We have loads of content in it already,” says Stephan, “and we’re still making more.”

The game also has an interesting combat system. It’s more dynamic than most MMORPGs: spells are aimed in real time. As enemies charge spells you can see where they will hit, giving you time to dodge outside of the area of effect. “It has actual movement, things that you have to avoid, telegraphs that you have to interrupt – with the dashing and the double jumping and the sprinting, it makes it way more entertaining.” It also makes it a lot more difficult, as I saw when I played. Because of this requirement for movement, “PvP is way more fun that most MMOs,” Stephan says. “And in dungeons the telegraphs [from monsters to show what’s about to happen] are insane: we have a boss who where the entire ground is a telegraph. He has something called interrupt armour, and so you can pull an interrupt on him but it won’t work because he has an interrupt armour of four. If I get four people to CC me in a very short amount of time, then it will interrupt it. …We have forty man raids planned, we have dungeons that are going to be pretty insane.”  I mostly hope to god that ‘telegraphing’ is not sitting down to Morse Code someone or I think the game industry is in trouble.

What else makes WildStar unique? “A lot of other MMOs launch and they don’t have an elder game and that sinks them,” Stephan says. “There are these hardcore guys that get there in the three days or four days when it should take months. We wanted to have stuff there, ready and available for them the second that they get there.”

War Plots also figure in the ‘elder game’ (the end part, for you laymens). Stephan says that War Plots are essentially ‘violent housing’. I imagine a bungalow with a butcher’s knife attempting to forcefully separate semi-detached houses from each other. That’s not an accurate image. “I can build up a fort, and I can put these fortifications on as a player. I take my death fortress and forty of my friends and fight against another forty and we just have these all-out wars.” I ask if they can lift off too, sort of like Starcraft buildings, and imagine twenty death bungalows hovering towards each other at 1mph. Sadly they can’t.

The playfulness of the WildStar trailers reminded me of a quirky humour I thought only existed now in Team Fortress 2. I’d like for the humour from the trailers to carry into the writing of the game. Yet from what I played, I didn’t see much humour worked into the game. “That part you played,” Stephan said, ‘there’s a part where you have to disarm mines… Sometimes sheep walk in the way and blow up, stuff like that I think is humorous that we can put in. Sometimes what we have to do is put humour in the gameplay itself. He tells me that there is a good mix of the dark and humorous for balance, as he thinks “if you’re too humorous people won’t take you seriously, and if you’re too dark, people won’t take you seriously”.

I am always aware of jerks online. Jerks everywhere. Mostly in League of Legends. I ask what Stephan plans to do if jerks migrate to his game in typical jerk fashion with jerk on top. “Okay I’m going to tell you our idea, and I’m not going to guarantee it’s going to make it into the game,” he says, ominously. “We would have a prison server for people that were like, griefers. Cheaters will probably get banned outright…but when it comes to having these people that are just griefers and being in general a-holes, we could just have a PvP server where you could continue to be an a-hole to your heart’s content. I’m not saying we’re going to launch with it, but it’s an idea we’ve had. At some point I’m sure some players are going to do stuff on purpose just so they can say they’ve gone there but… yes. An Alcatraz, if you will.”

So there you go. It is an MMO that is coming out soon where you can make violent housing, set fire to things, click on some things to make buildings appear, and possibly get sent to Alcatraz if you grief too much. In conclusion: Stephan Frost has rad glasses.

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