Carbine’s MMOG challenger Wildstar isn’t afraid to be a theme park

Wildstar

Publisher: NCSoft Developer: Carbine Studios Format: PC Origin: US Release: Q1 2014

The MMOG didn’t set out to become a theme park, but that’s what it has become. The term is usually used as a pejorative, denoting something false or, in the worst case, exploitative. WildStar is an exuberant and carnival-bright action MMOG that wants to remind its players that there’s a fun side to theme parks, too – that it’s no bad thing to be entertained, to simply play.

Set in a sci-fi universe rendered with the tone and palette of an ’80s Saturday morning cartoon, WildStar revels in its game-like trappings, and that is its most striking and attractive quality. The game’s two factions – the Han Solo-ish Exiles and scenery-chewing Dominion – are each comprised of colourful and diverse races. Humans are angular, exaggerated and expressive (art director Matt Mocarski cites Pixar, and particularly The Incredibles, as a reference point) while the Chua are three-foot-tall, villainous mouse-people that bound like Looney Toons.

On the Dominion side there’s also the Draken – hulking beast-people, somewhere between WOW’s Worgen and Wolverine – and the Mechari, towering fascistic robots. The Aurin are lithe Exile humanoids with rabbit ears and tails, and the Mordesh are a strange take on the undead, space zombies seeking a cure for their degenerative illness.

As one of these characters you complete quests on Nexus, a world divided into traditional MMOG zones and biomes. The game’s structure will be familiar to anyone who has played a game in this genre in the past five years – what does make it feel fresh is the work Carbine has done to celebrate, rather than bury, the theme park beneath.

The sci-fi setting is loose enough to allow for swords, forests and fantasy elements when the devs want them.

Grow in power and the words ‘Level Up!’ explode onto the screen in pink-and-chrome ’80s type, something more befitting Guitar Hero than a sci-fi MMOG. Quests are delivered in Tweet-length snippets and can be handed in over the phone rather than having to backtrack. Killing multiple enemies in a row triggers timed challenges that deliver rewards through a Jetpack Joyride-style loot roulette system, and a booming narrator calls out multi-kills, kill streaks and so on.

“We decided to add a narrator to draw out this aspect,” Mocarski explains. “Mortal Kombat introduced that idea; it didn’t necessarily fit in the world, but it made you feel like a badass. It reminds people that it’s a game. Let’s recognise that, and celebrate it.”

And WildStar is fun. The feeling is that of dashing around an arcade, never lingering long enough in one place to get bored. It may not be enough to shake genre detractors out of their antipathy, but it’s a welcome change of pace nonetheless.

Combat is where WildStar gains traction as a serious proposition for experienced players. It’s incredibly mobile – almost every attack has an area of effect and a charge period, telegraphed on the ground as transparent coloured panels. You roll, run and dodge to stay within safe areas, painting your own damage onto wide areas of the landscape to counter your opponent. Each class is a variant on this template. Warriors and Spellslingers are the most traditional: melee and ranged respectively, they emphasise mobility and accuracy. Spellslingers have the highest skill ceiling in the game, requiring fast reactions and the ability to combo aimed abilities into one another – a setup that’s more MOBA than MMOG.

You can fiddle with your character’s specialisation by changing your skill loadout. The Engineer can double-down on the power of their robots, or focus on their own exoskeleton and weaponry.

Recently announced are the Medic and Engineer, the game’s take on healers and pet classes. Medics use holographic projectors to create healing, damaging and debuffing fields: they’re very much about positioning, and their abilities are accompanied by pulses of digital noise (Mocarski jokes that you can compose dubstep on the fly). Engineers summon robots and a mechanical exoskeleton to control the flow of a fight. They’re a good example of the game’s Pixar influence – each robot has distinct and characterful animations as well as an ASCII ‘face’ that flashes red and looks cross when combat begins.

The most significant problem with the game at the moment is a lack of impact. Combat is flashy but the focus on area damage reduces the sense of an encounter between two specific combatants. Dealing damage feels more technical than it should, which isn’t a dealbreaker considering the rapid pace of play, but is something Carbine should focus on in the remaining months of beta.

WildStar doesn’t have a high-profile licence to bring in an audience. It’s relying on attracting players who like the MMORPG for what it is, and will appreciate a considered take on the existing formula. Its message is positive: that theme parks are, ultimately, all about having fun – and that games are, at the end of the day, for playing.