Because I have no willpower, the other day I went and bought Wildstar, the new sci-fi/fantasy MMO from Carbine Studios. I’d been seeing hype for the game for a while, but it’s probably been one of the few recent MMOs I haven’t preordered or been in the beta for. Mostly because… I dunno. The game reminded me of a cross between World of Warcraft and Firefly, and I’m majorly disillusioned with the former and can’t stand the latter. Or something.
Anyway, over the last few weeks I’ve started seeing good reviews of the game by people whose Opinions on Gaming I trust, like Cuppy and Pewter. So, in a moment of weakness, I picked it up.
And then, eight hours of download later…
Look. I tried to play Exiles. I really did. But c’mon. How can I resist a guy with horns?
For those non-gamers (or non-MMO gamers) out there, the basic plot of Wildstar is that a new planet, Nexus, has been discovered and is currently in contention by two factions (because this is an MMO, so of course it is); the Exiles and the Dominion. The Dominion are the Standard Evil Repressive Space Empire, a la The Empire of Star Wars fame, who are looking to take over Nexus for their own Nefarious Ends. Meanwhile, the Exiles are a rag-tag group of rebels and outcasts, a la The Rebels of the same, displaced by the Evil Dominion, who discovered the planet and hope to turn it into their new home. This is the story Wildstar presents from the outset, all drawn in big, exaggerated, good-versus-evil lines.
So… yeah, okay. I figured I’d be the Good Guys. And I tried, I really tried. It’s just… those horns man. Horns.
Okay. So I rolled up the Baddies and…
I kinda don’t want to spoil it, but let’s just say; the Dominion is not your generic Evil Empire, and nor are the Exiles the unambiguous good guys. Sure, Dommies get the standard sort of “torture the informant, kill the traitors, mwahaha corrupt nobles and mad science” stuff but… but.
One of the early zones is a savannah. One of the quests there sees you assisting a guy in investigating poaching in the Dominion-run game preserve. The trail leads you to a noble who, since this is an MMO, you eventually kill because apparently preserving wildlife on behalf of the Emperor is more important than covering up corruption by the aristocracy. In the same zone, you battle a group of Aurin–nature-loving bunny/cat people–who’ve set up some kind of terraforming device and intend to turn the area into forest. Because… they like forests, I guess? Which sounds all tree huggy except, um hello? You’re on a savannah. Like, with its own thriving ecosystem that would be displaced by such a massive upheaval in the climate. Ecoterrorism is ecoterrorism, y’know?
There are some other examples, on both sides, but what it comes down to is the fact that the Dominion, far from being the Exaggerated Villains, are instead portrayed as an imperfect nation of imperfect people with a variety of goals and motivations. Some good, some… not so good. Not to mention that, while it’s true the Exiles discovered Nexus, the Dominion didn’t “chase” them there For The Evulz; instead, Nexus is the promised land to the Dominion’s official state religion, the past home of the ascended beings they consider gods (and who, according to Dominion lore, “uplifted” first Dominion Emperor and founded their empire). Wildstar being very firmly in the magic-and-spaceships genre means these “gods” really did exist, and a lot of the game’s quests involve investigating the tech they left behind. To the Dominion’s Church, the Exile presence on Nexus is a defilement of their sacred dogma. Quite literally in the case of the Mordesh, whose very presence in an area corrupts it with madness and poison (the subject of another early Dommie quest).
The point is that things aren’t quite so simple as pure galactic expansionism and capital-E Evil. And if the Dominion represent the imperialism of things like the Roman and British Empires–and they definitely do–then the Exiles represent the colonialism of the early American West; a narrative of “freedom” bought on the blood and suffering of native peoples (because, yeah, did we mention Nexus was already inhabited before the rest of the galaxy showed up?).
Which is all kind of heavy, and I don’t mean to imply the game is DEEPLY OVERT with this narrative. Mostly, it’s about running around performing mad science on cyborg attack animals while wearing a hazmat suit:
I’m in the honeymoon phase of Wildstar right now which means it’s fun. Mega-fun. Wish-I’d-preordered-and-played-in-beta fun. Feels-like-early-days-vanilla-WoW fun.
Yeah. Let’s get that out of the way right now: Wildstar‘s studio, Carbine, was founded by ex-Blizzard employees and it shows. The game plays pretty much like WoW would’ve played if it was released, well, now as opposed to back in 2006. It has the bright, cartoonish aesthetic of WoW, a lot of the mechanics of WoW, the runes-and-lasers genre of (post-Burning Crusade) WoW, and, of course, the exaggerated machismo humour of WoW.
Let’s talk about that for a second, because this is the one place Wildstar could fuck up immensely and, I think, actually, surprisingly… doesn’t.
First up, watch this:
See what I mean? Because, yeah. It’s not like the video game industry needs more of this sort of chest-beating posturing, right? I mean, hell. World of Warcraft itself has been coming under fire recently for the same attitude that Wildstar practically uses as a game mechanic. And maybe this is just me, but I personally think Carbine gets away with its enthusiasm in a way Blizzard currently doesn’t. Because I don’t get the impression Carbine really “buys” its own hype. Actually, I kinda get the impression it’s satirising WoW in general and Blizzard brand face Chris Metzen in particular.
That voice-over guy isn’t just in the promo videos, either; he talks to you in-game. Enter a new area and a little tip screen might pop up with that guy’s voice announcing something about OOOH YEAH DESPERATE REFUGEES LOOKIN’ FOR A HERO ^%$& JUST GOT REAL YOU UP FOR IT CUPCAKE!!!??!?!?!! or whatever. It shouldn’t work but it does, in the same way it works when Saints Row IV describes its “casual” game mode as “kicking ass at your own pace”.
Wildstar uses its “Cupcake Mode” just sparingly enough to be an accent, not a constant. I mean, if you don’t laugh out loud at the first level up, then I don’t think you know how to have fun. But, wisely, the game starts portioning out its “flavour” a little more cautiously after that. Basically just as much as it needs to remind you that, yeah. This is a game and it is pretty ridiculous. So have fun. Seriously.
That being said, the game might be over-the-top macho but it also has a good slather of memorable female NPCs. In fact, one of the reasons I fell in love with the Dominion over the Exiles was the opening cinematic featured two female Mechari talking empire politics (read: you) rather than an irritating cowboy-talking doode having manpain about his missing wife. Not to mention decent attention paid to the representation–both in plot and character design–of (human) characters of colour. Like, I was actually able to make a black Cassian who, yanno, didn’t just look like a white guy in racially-inappropriate makeup. (This shouldn’t need to be a “feature” in a videogame but, sadly, it all-too-often is.)
That being said, the choices for the female body types are… um. Well, you know what they are. Some of the anti-grav boobs and wasp-waistedness is, er, interesting… but I guess my male Draken’s waist is smaller than his head, too. So… yeah. Not the best, but not the worst.
Gameplay-wise, Wildstar feels like a cross between WoW and Guild Wars 2. It has the map-scattered questing of the former, with combat mechanics closer to the latter. There are no targeted abilities in Wildstar; everything is lining up ground-based AoE indicators. I quite like this kind of combat, but not everyone will (my dad, for example, who loves MMOs but is in his 60s and a keyboard-turner, would find the game basically unplayable). Also have I mentioned recently how much I love limited ability decks? Because I do. It took me a while to come around to it, but I do. Ten buttons really is more than enough.
Also: no mob tagging. I’m not sure if this works cross-faction, but at least within your own faction feel free to wail on other people’s mobs. This, admittedly, doesn’t work as smoothly as in some other games (coughGW2cough), but that mostly has to do with conflicts between different types of quests/challenges occurring in the same area. There are a few too many “kill x mobs in y time” challenge events stacked into locations with a “use item n on p mobs” quest. Carbine, watch out for that in future, please? I get wanting to make this convenient for players, but because the respawn rates don’t seem to adjust based on how heavily an area is farmed (or, if they do, it needs some serious tuning) it’s too easy to run into situations were too many people in the one room make it impossible for anyone to progress.
There are a bunch of other things. I actually kind of like the crafting minigames (says she who hates crafting) and Paths–basically secondary, “non-combat” classes (although one of them is about combat)–are pretty cool. My first character is a Scientist, which is sort of a multitude of Click On n Rats quests that give buffs and occasionally break you into secret rooms. My second character–and, honestly, probably all subsequent characters–is a Settler. Which is ironic in that it’s the most “social” path–group world kills are part of its quest base–but, on the other hand, allows you to build things like vendors and buffing stations out in the world. Everyone loves Settlers. Everyone.
So… yeah. Wildstar. For a game I was very skeptical of, I have to say I’m a convert; it’s bright, fun, polished, plus it has a species of player characters who are basically horned space demons. Horned. Space. Demons. Wave goodbye to your productivity, cupcake, because @*#$ just got real.
(Now. All I need to do is find a guild. Hrm…)