Saturday, March 15, 2014

Inside the Beta - Wildstar

Wildstar is a new MMORPG scheduled to launch on June 3, 2014 in which I have been an active beta tester for about two months now.

Although they are just about to get wiped out, I currently have a level fifteen character that I've been playing for eighteen hours, a level eleven character that I've been playing for nine hours, and then a whole host of other characters that have been deleted over time -- bringing my total time with this game up to about fifty hours.

This past week the NDA dropped and now I've decided to do a video to talk about my impressions of my time in the beta.

What is Wildstar?

To begin, Wildstar is a brand new IP that has been in development at Carbine Studios since 2005. Carbine was founded by a bunch of ex-Blizzard employees. The game is being published by NC Soft -- home of, among other IPs, Guild Wars 2.

This game revolves around the story of two warring factions that have descended upon a newly discovered planet called Nexus -- one faction that makes no bones about it's malicious hegemony and another that inflicts it's conquest in a more gentle and civilized manner.

You are a member of one of these two invading factions -- thawed out of your deep-space cryo-sleep and brought to the planet's surface to do the bidding of your clan.

In this game, there is a vast array of options to customize your character. You get to choose one of the two playable factions, six classes, seven races, and four so-called paths (which are sub-classifications that dictate your side quests and help you to customize the game based on whether you like to explore or crack skulls or whatever).

Every game starts on a tutorial spaceship and then moves to the planet proper. Like most MMOs, you must take the quests linearly and moving too far ahead will get you out-leveled in a hurry. But if you behave yourself, there are plenty of side quests to do and the NPCs you meet give you a nice cohesive and engaging storyline that keeps you coming back for more.

In addition to playing the game myself, I have been actively monitoring the YouTube videos that have been posted of end game content, raids, PvP matches, and dungeons. In addition, I am an avid listener of Cosmotronic and most of the other Wildstar podcasts and they have helped me to learn almost everything there is to know about this game.

So, let's talk about my beta experiences. When I evaluate an MMO, I have four criteria. They are: lore, interaction, combat, and exploration.

Lore

First off, the lore in this game is staggering. The vast amount of content that you get to read and experience is amazing. There is little voice acting, so you're going to be reading a lot and many YouTubers have complained openly the fact that the audio cues that play when you get into dialog don't match the dialog you're reading -- which can be jarring to some people.

As you move about the world, you will find literally hundreds of full-page descriptions of the history of the planet Nexus, the activities of your people and your enemies, as well as the pointless ramblings of the Skeech. The planet, the ships, the uniforms, the NPCs, and the rest of the components that make up the setting of this game are top notch.

But, there's a problem.

In a game where the developers have spent thousands of hours building one of the most in-depth environments to play in, your character has literally zero story. In fact, the game is essentially a pinball machine where you as the ball are bounced around from one NPC to the next as a de facto mercenary who will do anything for anyone without opinion.

Now, you can (for the most part) ignore those quests you find objectionable, but there are no alternative options to bring you wealth or experience -- so you do so at your own peril.

You are an empty shirt that could be filled by any of a thousand empty shirts -- as evidenced by the opening cutscene where you are literally yanked from a company of hundreds of cryogenically-frozen bodies completely at random. And the game is always reminding you that Faction is King and you are a surf.

Interaction

In terms of interaction, I would highly recommended meeting with and then partying up with as many other players as is possible. I have played this game alone on Tuesday afternoons when the servers first come up and I have played on Saturday during a full-on beta stress test and I would advise you to always have other people on hand.

This game is achingly slow when you have no one else to back you up. In addition, because of certain technical limitations which come about as the result of online desync, you'll need the other people in your immediate area to cover you when the game decides to hit you with combat damage that you didn't see coming.

In addition, your character is constantly being pigeonholed. You can't change weapons, you can't mine if you're not a miner, you can't cut down a tree if you're not a tree guy, and your leveling is tied to your class so not every character can be buffed to run faster -- which sucks... hard.

And since we're on leveling up, whenever you happen to level you'll get this crazy animation celebrating your achievement -- even if you're in the middle of combat -- filling your screen with pop-ups and Guitar-Hero inspired graphics to drive you insane.

Then you have to quick clear it so you can save yourself from grim death, but you forget about it and then three levels later you realize that you have all these points to spend.

The level up process also introduces you to a plethora of new unlocks -- sometimes as many as a dozen at a pop -- almost all of which have to be activated at a robo-station that's nowhere near you.

The whole process needs a re-think.

But just to end on a positive note, I must take the time to rave about is the crafting system -- which is one of the most interesting and unpredictable that I've ever seen in an MMO. Assuming you have bought and or crafted the resources you need, you combine them as you might expect using recipes to create new products. But there's a catch!

Sometimes the same recipe that you just used seconds ago will fail you the second time around due to the unpredictable nature of the crafting system. You also can experiment with some of the recipes you have to unlock bigger better recipes.

All told, it's one of my favorite parts of the game. I always look forward to the crafting station.

Combat

I touched on combat a little earlier, but I'd like to talk about it a little more deeply. First of all, the combat works on a ten-box hot-bar system combined with a visual telegraphing system that paints the enemy attacks on the ground with red fields to show you where their attacks are going to hit (sort of) and then fields of green to indicate your damage zones.

This is great for slow enemies because you can move out of the way or leap to the side to save yourself, but is less informative as the enemies grow in power and speed. In fact, most of your time in this game will be spent looking at the ground trying to counter your opponent's next strike, which is weird at first but you'll get used to it.

This mechanic can also be found in the PvP, raids, and dungeons.

Some enemies burrow underground and then pop up under you, so you wonder around surrounded by a big red circle trying to find safety while they flawlessly track your every movement from beneath your feet.

Your character has access to dozens of different types of attacks -- most of which come from their class and a few come from their path. They each offer unique benefits and drawbacks and all of the ones I unlocked were enjoyable.

But Wildstar's telegraph system isn't perfect.

Desyncronization is a problem for every MMO, but in my opinion is particularly problematic for Wildstar. When the signal running from your computer to the server and then back again begins to lag for some reason, your copy of the game will misrepresent where you actually are in the world. This results in you taking damage even though visually your screen is telling you that you're in a safe place.

When desync occurs, the telegraphs you clearly have avoided sometimes nab you and some of the telegraphs you send out miss their mark. This makes combat a problem for people with Internet issues and could limit the total number of people who will subscribe to the game.

But if you have a consistently great signal to your computer, just happen to live right next to the server farm, or are willing to turn off the telegraphs and play it the old fashioned way, then I think you'll enjoy the combat immensely.

Exploration

Finally, exploration is one of my favorite parts of any MMO and this world is chock full of things to see and do. You can boost this experience by choosing the explorer path (my personal favorite) -- thereby giving yourself tons of extra things to find while you're skirting the edges of the map.

Since you're going to be out there anyway, I would highly recommend combining the explorer path with the gathering and mining trades to turn exploration into a high-paying career and choosing the stalker class so you can explore heavily-guarded areas at will by entering into stealth will make you rich in no time.

You can climb to mountain peaks to set up spy cameras, plant your flag to claim territory for your faction, crawl down into valleys and scale jumping puzzles to find hidden treasure chests, and even discover caves and missions that other players can't even see and then invite them along to share the loot.

My love of exploration in Wildstar is limited by only two things. First, is that it's incredibly touchy. There are times when you're walking down a hill and then all of a sudden -- even though you haven't really changed speed -- you'll lose a thousand hit points because the game registered that you tripped over a rock while walking downhill.

The second is that moving around is heavily reliant on mounts. In the beta, the other testers and I were granted access to the highly-acclaimed hoverboard at level ten, but that mount won't be available in the final version of the game until much, much later.

And walking everywhere for the first fifteen levels sucks -- bad. In fact, these are some of the slowest characters that I have played with in any game in the history of my life. Compared to The Elder Scrolls Online, your badass Wildstar army brat sprints with the effectiveness of a four-pack-a-day smoker.

You'll actually find yourself memorizing the locations of all the speed-boost stations so you you can give yourself 38 minute respites from life as a turtle.

But if you can get past those two things -- which again, may change in beta -- if you're into exploration then this game is a must own.

$60 Box, $15/month

So that concludes my thoughts on the game based on my time in the beta, however I have one more concern and it is this: the price. This game is currently $60 to buy PLUS $15 a month after the first 30 days.

Everyone I've talked to about this has said the same thing -- well, that's standard for the industry. And they're right. It is.

SWTOR, WoW, and Elder Scrolls all have the same revenue system. But they're all established IPs. Elder Scrolls is marking it's 20-year-anniversary with it's launch, Star Wars has been around since the 1970s, and WoW launched a decade ago on the 10th anniversary of it's first game.

Each of these games launched with millions of fans brought in from a successful franchise.

Wildstar? Wildstar is brand new. There are a lot of people bragging about the lore and as well they should be. It's great. And if you love beautiful worlds, fun combat, and exploration then this game should be on your radar.

But MMORPG is two things -- it's an RPG... and it's an MMO. Carbine has brought the RPG in spades and I'm rooting for them 100% because I think they did a phenomenal job.

But they also have to bring the MMO. They have to get people on the servers -- by the hundreds of thousands. And I'm worried that $60 up front (a total of $90 for the first three months of gameplay, mind you) is going to scare people from buying into a game they've never seen or heard of before.

I posed the question to the guys and gals of the Wildstar podcast Cosmotronic and I think Mizpah said it best: in effect, if you divide the cost of playing by the number of hours of fun you'll have, MMOs in general are one of the best values you can buy. But not everyone gets that.

This game must have people. When no one else is around, this place is a ghost town and combat is a chore. If YouTuber support and fan-boy hype isn't enough to populate the servers the way they need to be populated, I worry about the fate of this title.

Will the game that prides itself on re-inventing the industry standards survive being sold at the industry standard? We'll see.

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