The Fun Factor: Hands-On with WildStar

To kick off WildStar week, we give our updated hands-on impressions. In particular, we take a look at some of the elements that help up the fun factor in a given MMO, and how WildStar currently fares in each.

WildStar Hands-On

WildStar Week Episode One
The Fun Factor – Hands-On with WildStar

WildStar made an initial splash late in the 2011 event season, featuring a playable demo on the show floor at both gamescom and PAX Prime. While the team at Carbine has kept fans in the know in the time since through the ongoing WildStar Wednesday blog series, we haven’t had the opportunity to spend more time playing the game in quite some time now.

That finally changed last week, and we got to spend a full day playing a recent build of WildStar, hanging out with the Carbine team, and learning a ton of new info. If you haven’t already seen the announcement, I decided that a single article attempting to encapsulate the entirety of the experience simply wouldn’t suffice. Instead, I’ll be running a new WildStar article each day for the next week, culminating in a spectacular information blowout next Wednesday.

To kick things off, today I’ll be sharing my thoughts about the game based on my recent hands-on time. The results will no doubt shock and amaze you, so its best you strap yourself into a comfy chair and be prepared to be swept up in a whirlwind of intrigue, mystery, and suspense!

Part One: Going to the Prom

During my recent hands-on time with WildStar we danced, we laughed, and we even spiked the virtual punch bowl. It was an MMO prom date for the history books – the kind you whisper about in the ear of your grandchildren’s grandchildren as a disembodied spirit while they sleep. Admit it: you know you totally plan on haunting your ancestors to tell them all about your wacky MMO gaming adventures… or is that just me?

In all honesty though, WildStar is like that really hot girl/boy/hermaphrodite you mustered up the courage to ask to the prom; sexy as hell, and more fun than a bag full of mutant snow worms*. Of course, fun means different things to different people. While it’s the gameplay Holy Grail for most game developers (or at least hopefully that’s the case) it’s really hard to quantify exactly what that really means.

At least for me, I can get a fairly decent sense of the fun factor for a given title fairly quickly based on a loose set of criteria:

1. Do the character models and animations feel fully developed and invoke a direct connection to my character?

For me immersion only begins to happen if I enjoy the look of my character, and get a tangible sense that my input is directly controlling their movements both in and out of combat.

2. Do I get the sense that there is a wealth of content to consume, or does the gameplay feel a bit too linear from the outset?

This one can be tricky, because there’s definitely a fine line between providing players with plenty of options early on, and overwhelming them with too much new information too quickly.

3. Beyond the obvious character levels, do I get the sense that there are meaningful advancement systems hardwired into the game?

I’m not the type of player who tends to rush to the level cap in the least amount of time possible, but I also want to feel like there’s a more multidimensional aspect to character advancement; that it’s not all about the mighty XP bar.

4. Is there a rich storyline, or a purpose behind questing beyond loot and experience?

This is perhaps one of the weakest areas in the genre, which is a shame really. MMOs have the potential to be a great storytelling medium, but all too often you can spend hundreds of hours in a game without ever knowing any of the lore, or even your character’s purpose (beyond being a kickass bear butt collector for hire) in the grand scheme of things.

5. Does the game have systems in place that encourage social gameplay?

As the industry has grown, so has the phenomenon of players approaching MMOs like a massive single-player game. But for those of us who want social gameplay options to kick in before hitting the elder game raid grind, those options are far too often few and far between as a result of developers attempting to crank out more solo-friendly content.

6. Do combat systems feel both intuitive, but deep enough that my choices for skill usage and character stats have meaning?

While I know there are plenty of gamers out there that can tell you exactly why X build using Y skill rotation is the 100% optimal DPS for a given class, I still don’t buy into the number crunching philosophy behind it. The numbers alone don’t account for human input, and meaningful combat systems should offer choices based on differences in playstyle.

Naturally there are a number of other factors involved beyond those listed above, but those are some of the big ones. So how does WildStar score at this point? Find out the thrilling details following this brief commercial (page)break!

WildStar Hands-On

Part Two: The Fun Factor

Within the first few hours of gameplay, I can usually get a feeling for how well a game addresses the things listed above. Let’s take a look at how well WildStar addresses each area, and how they feed into the overall fun factor of the game.

1. In terms of character models and animations, WildStar is one of those games that completely nails it. While the world of Nexus and its inhabitants are highly stylized, the vibrant colors and oftentimes overemphasized gestures add to the overall charm of the game. Not only that, but combat animations and general movement feel very responsive, and lend themselves well to the sense that I’m directly in control of my character’s actions.

A perfect example would be the active dodging system. This will feel very familiar to anyone who has played Guild Wars 2. A quick directional double-tap will allow you to dodge attacks, with a simple meter displaying whether or not you have enough energy to dodge again. Given the wacky shapes that ground-targeted skills often use, dodging is something you’ll be doing quite often. The good news is that it helps combat feel more vital as a result, and that feeds directly into how connected I feel to my character.

2. In terms of how much content there is to consume, WildStar scores astoundingly high marks. While you do have the option to stick to a more directed quest path, you can also scamper out into the world and find plenty of things to do without being directed to by an NPC. In many ways, WildStar represents a true hybridization of the best that theme parks and sandbox MMOs have to offer.

One example here would be your choice of Path. During my hands-on time I spent some time playing both a Soldier and an Explorer. For the soldier, I was able to initiate a number of progressively more challenging combat scenarios, such as defeating numerous waves of enemies at a set location. On my explorer, I was able to discover sections of a vast underground cave system that opened up entirely new gameplay areas, and also served as a secondary means of quickly traversing the map.

In both cases I regularly stumbled across a multitude of content in Deradune, the low level zone I spent the afternoon exploring. Timed combat challenges can kick off at any point, and put an interesting spin on the tried and true kill-ten-rats formula. Meanwhile, ships flying overhead regularly swoop down to release cages containing a variety of mobs which tend to be more difficult than your usual combat scenarios.

3. Advancement is another area that I thought was done particularly well. Your chosen Path can be advanced independently from your character level, complete with a whole suite of unlocks that happen along the way. There are also systems that track your completion on a given map (another nod to GW2), and while I didn’t get the chance to dive into crafting or the player housing system, both will offer even more options for how you want to advance on a per-character level.

Speaking of crafting and player housing…

Another thing I learned about during the recent event are Warplots which extend elements of the player housing system to allow you to create your own custom PvP areas to play in. While Warplots won’t be unlocked until you reach max level, I’m all for systems that foster a better sense of personal investment in PvP beyond leaderboard rankings and bragging rights.

4. From what I was able to experience in terms of story, this was another area I genuinely enjoyed. While games like AoC, SWTOR, and GW2 made effective use of instancing to allow you to experience more direct storytelling in a controlled environment, WildStar makes sure to weave interesting threads throughout your open world gameplay experience.

For example, in one area I stumbled upon a quest line that culminated in procuring a powerful staff for one of the local NPCs. In and of itself it was an interesting slice of storytelling, but as I learned while chatting with the Carbine team, the plotline of that particular quest chain will be picked up again later in the game as that same friendly NPC begins to abuse the power of the staff.

Another point brought up by Carbine is that they feel story needs to advance on a monthly basis, and not feel so static over longer periods of time. One of the ways this will be addressed will be through the regular introduction of new solo dungeons. This is where some of the other titles noted above will have the most direct influence when it comes to story.

I tend to be that person in groups that wants to stop and smell the roses rather than rush headlong towards the next pile of loot, including stopping to read through any interesting lore that might be present. These solo dungeons will allow those of us who enjoy the actual RPG aspects of MMORPGs to do so at our own pace.

5. One of the most notable aspects of WildStar when it comes to social gameplay is that in many instances the difficulty of combat situations can scale based on the number of players present. A perfect example here would be the combat challenges for the Soldier path mentioned above. With more players present, more difficult mobs have a chance of spawning with each incoming wave, and there will generally be more enemies to defeat overall.

There are also interesting overlaps created based on pairing up with players who’ve chosen different paths. An example here would be taking my Soldier character and grouping up with an Explorer. My Soldier progression quests will become more challenging due to being grouped, while the new gameplay areas opened up by the Explorer can also be fully explored by the both of us.

By all means WildStar is an incredibly solo-friendly game, but from what I’ve been able to experience so far it also provides ample opportunity for social gameplay even at lower levels.

6. Combat in WildStar is, simply put, a total blast. Between the massive variety of ground targeted or directional attacks involved, the active dodging system, and your ability to customize your build to single- or multi-target attacks, the overall experience was pure fun from start to finish. I have a lot more to say about combat in general; so much in fact that I’ll be tackling it as a separate topic early next week.

The Verdict

When it comes to the fun factor in MMOs, far too many games take a utilitarian approach by assuming that if the majority of gamers in one title consume X, then obviously that is what a game needs to have to appeal to the broadest audience possible. On the flipside, plenty of games are released that spread themselves too thin, or attempt to cater to the broadest market possible but ultimately failing to really succeed in providing very deep gameplay.

WildStar is proof positive that you can not only stuff an MMO full of awesome content that appeals to a broader spectrum of gamers, but regardless of your personal playstyle you get a very real sense of depth to the content you choose to consume. While it’s too early to tell just how rich the overall experience will feel at the later levels, so far Carbine has certainly made a true believer out of me.

*No mutant snow worms were harmed during the creation of this article!

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