Is Wildstar the next big MMOG?

While I usually do full-scale reviews on products after I’ve played them to end-game, I felt it Wildstar was deserving of a preview due to the quality and nature of the product. After playing BETA for a substantial amount of time, I believe this game has the potential to be the largest MMO release of 2014.

In an industry where players have a monumental (and growing) number of products which contain years of extensive content offering thousands of hours of gameplay to choose from, there’s no question breaking into the MMO genre is becoming more and more difficult, especially as players are now accustomed to and expect more than some companies (and budgets) are able to deliver. For these reasons, the breadth of features and content required to bring in and keep players into a MMOG has dramatically increased the barrier of entry on new products. The upside is players get massive worlds to play in and explore, the majority of which are built on existing and familiar products. The downside is the expected size, scope and playability of a game paired with the increased complexity required to compete with the established products almost ensures any new MMOGs capable of competing with the other established products are overwhelming to the very players they are attempting to secure and hold.

Wildstar has been in development for 9 years. I don’t know of any other MMOG with such an extensive development cycle, and it shows. I have never played a MMO with so much content available at release. The variety of refinement and things to do is astounding, and the community pulse is one of excitement and support. Players are very impressed with this work of art, and rightly so. The “space cowboy” theme of Wildstar is also a popular one, a mix of the cartoony style of World of Warcraft, futuristic combat with laser guns and robots, and great humor. There’s no doubt this game has a lot going for it. However, there is also the issue of failing to qualify as a true “next generation” MMOG. Are players going to embrace a refined MMOG that takes the old formula and enhances it rather than redefines it? That’s the question.

Wildstar has a scheduled release day of June 3rd, 2014 with a 3-day headstart for pre-orders. It was in private beta for months and recently opened to public beta on May 8th. This public beta runs until May 18th, so if you are reading this prior to the 18th and wonder if the game is right for you, head on over to their beta registration page and you can be up and running with the game in just a few hours.

Prepare for battle!
Prepare for battle!

Quick Snapshot

The combat is the strongest feature of Wildstar, offering the most interactive and responsive experience of any MMOG I’ve played. It’s strategic, visually intuitive and fun. While some other games (such as Guild Wars 2) have embraced the “dodge” and “mark” approach, Wildstar takes it to the next level of refinement. Enemies also utilize a wide variety of attacks and act in more of a variable nature (using their special attacks) than any other MMOG I’ve seen. While the game is extremely responsive and focuses on strategic placement and facing direction during action execution, it is also very area of effect oriented. The game is designed for players to cause a lot of damage to more than one enemy at a time, and is constantly reminding the player through exploding bodies and narrated statements of how awesome they are.

The sci-fi “space cowboy” world, environment & theme are very well done, and the humor of Wildstar is slapstick, fun, and often hilarious. While it does follow the cartoony look of World of Warcraft, it has a refined edge to it that enhances the overall immersion. The map system (which guides the player around the world) is fairly standard except it uses a hexagon structure border and exposure presentation, giving the game more of a sci-fi feel.

The game is level and class-based, offering: Warrior, Engineer, Esper, Medic, Stalker and SpellSlinger. There are two sides, the Exiles and the Dominion.  Each side has custom races. The Exiles can be Human, Aurin, Granok or Mordesh. Dominion can be Cassian, Draken, Chua and Mechari. Each class has custom abilities that are gained through level, purchased, or unlocked through AMPs. Each class has four categories of abilities: Assault, Support, Utility and Path. AMPs are the secondary point-based class customization system that allows a character to enhance things like critical damage and shield strength. The game also allows the player to configure multiple ability & AMP loadouts for a character, so you can configure different ability and AMP configurations for PvE, PvP, Raiding, etc.

Customization is a big part of the game, allowing the player to adjust the way they look in-game through multiple costume configurations, regardless of the equipment they are wearing. Players can even customize their mounts (to an extent never seen before in a MMOG), build their own plots of land complete with a house and decor, and even build warplots (which are player-built PvP arenas). Until Wildstar, Everquest 2 had the most advanced housing system in the MMOG market. While Wildstar doesn’t feature guild halls (yet), I believe the housing system may surpass that of EQ2 and set the new standard for games to come. It’s very well done and the extent of decor items is quite impressive.

There is plenty of world to explore.
There is plenty of world to explore.

Challenges spring up everywhere you go, often starting when you kill a certain monster or loot a certain item for the first time. This creates a timed event where you can achieve bronze, silver and gold ranking within a time-based window (usually a few minutes). It’s fun and can be quite rewarding as you roll for rewards within a predefined loot table.

The difficulty of the game scales well. When a player begins, combat is easy to learn and it’s nearly impossible to die, but once the player leaves the starting area, things begin to get interesting. Players will encounter their first prime (elite) and named monsters, and by level 10, they are managing groups. By level 20, a player must be very cautious about where they go and what enemies they engage. The built-in game tutorial does a good job of explaining the basics to the player and walking them through the core features of the game. The most common complaint I’ve heard (and experienced) is players don’t know how to unlock AMPs once the first tier is complete because it’s never really explained. Second tier+ AMPs are unlocked either through purchasing from reputation vendors or as drops from enemies.

The quests are pretty basic and follow the MMOG standard, including storyline and miscellaneous (or support) goals.

Paths are a second form of quests, progress and support that offer fun and enhancements in the form of Explorer, Settler, Scientist and Warrior. This feature is a nice alternative leveling system based on what the player enjoys, allowing Settlers to build things, Explorers to discover things, Scientists to analyze things and Warriors to kill things. Each path can also bring tangible benefits to other party and raid members that can make a difference before, during, and after a difficult fight.

The music is probably the best I’ve heard for a MMOG. There are pieces in this game that are memorable and on the same unique level of nostalgia we heard from Diablo 1 & 2. Yes, it’s that good.

Resource gathering is traditional with a fun twist. For example, when you mine ore or relics, the node can come to life as a little creature and try to run away. The crafting skills follow the norm, focusing on weapons, armor, etc. There are also hobbies, runecrafting (socketing) and salvaging. While the tradeskills follow the traditional approach, the application of crafting is a bit different from other MMOGs. Each crafted item can be augmented in certain ways to improve it’s resulting stats. On top of that there is a tree system which unlocks achievements that award crafting “talent” points that can be spent in a multi-level support system.

The game also features mentoring, allowing you to level down to play with your friends when they are lower level than you. The game also supports the same level matching system for instances and PvP called rallying.

Wildstar is very addon supportive, allowing for some great enhancements. I personally recommend Bijiplates, AMPPurchased and Iconloot to start out.

The game features traditional guild support which includes reputation-based growth and bonuses.

End game focuses on a wide variety of traditional content including 20-40 person Raids, Dungeons & Adventures, Shiphands (mini adventures), PvP (Warplots), Reputation grinding, Elder Gems (for gear and AMPs) and Crafting, but we won’t know if it’s solid enough to retain players until a few months after release.

Potential Issues

While Wildstar is content rich and presents a new (and fun) twist on the existing MMOG genre, it can be very overwhelming to new players. I’ve talked with some people who tried BETA and didn’t even get to level 10 before they gave up because they found the game too complex and overwhelming. But, as mentioned before, in order to compete in today’s saturated market, games must release with far more content and complexity than they did years ago. Some gamers have just gotten worn out on jumping into a whole new world where they have to start from scratch. This isn’t a mistake by Wildstar; quite the contrary, it’s the scope and complexity that may drive new players away that makes this game fantastic and a direct competitor with the rest of the products on the market.

Repetition can be a problem in Wildstar, but no more than any other MMOG, and will generally only impact veteran players who are worn out from playing so many other MMOGs. New players will have a blast.

Another key issue is the concern of end game. A lot of people are sick of raiding and having group-play based requirements. While Wildstar has taken the existing PvE (Raid), PvP (Team), and Grinding model and refined it, they really haven’t added anything new. This could result in a negative impact on retention. The economy is also unproven, and critical to the long-term success of any online product.

There are bugs, but the game is still in BETA. The biggest problem seems to be with engineer pet pathing (AI behavior), and some UI problems. There are also frame rate issues on slower machines, but some people have resolved those problems by cleaning up prior beta data.

Ultimately, the biggest potential issue with this game is that it’s not a next-generation MMOG. It’s a refined fun, immersive and enjoyable representation of what we have already seen in other games over the past decade. Will that be enough to ensure success in today’s market and justify the costs of a 9-year development cycle? It’s very hard to say. I do know players are getting worn out on traditional MMOGs and are hungry for something new. Wildstar does provide a few new twists on what players have come to expect, but it doesn’t redefine the genre by any means.

Don't let his cute nature fool you. He'll shoot you in the face, and laugh!
Don’t let his cute nature fool you. He’ll shoot you in the face, and laugh!

Final Thoughts

There is little doubt in my mind that Wildstar is going to attract a lot of players its first few months. Given the fact the BETA servers are very busy, the forums are buzzing like crazy, and the players crashed the web servers when they put guild and character name registration live (this indicates a healthy amount of people playing BETA and planning to play at launch), the initial outlook is good for this game.

The marketing campaign of Wildstar is extensive, which includes well-crafted enjoyable videos and guides; this helps greatly with visibility, which many MMOGs have trouble obtaining. People are also looking for a new MMOG to play that is something different from the traditional fantasy genre. Wildstar provides that.

But the MMOG industry is also one of the most volatile and difficult industries to obtain any substantial market share of, and since Wildstar is not a next-generation MMOG, but a refinement of what we’re accustomed to, it’s hard to say if it will be embraced to the point of success to ensure the future and longevity of the game.

Personally, I have been impressed with this game during the final BETA cycle. The developers are responsive, the community supportive, and an air of excitement and anticipation exists at a level I haven’t seen in years. So here’s to Wildstar’s success; the team at Carbine has put together a fantastic product, and I hope it does very well. I’ve already pre-ordered and will certainly be playing when the servers go live. I will also write a complete and in-depth review after the game’s release which will include hands-on experience with the end-game. Until then, enjoy!