If you take the esthetics of Ratchet & Clank, World of Warcraft's content and Guild Wars 2's active combat system and throw them in a pot and serve the resulting brew for dinner, then you have Carbine Studios' new sci-fi MMORPG on the menu: Wildstar.
Carbine consists of a bunch of ex-Blizzard developers, and the inspiration from World of Warcraft is plain as the day is long. The graphics style is soft, environments and characters sketched with pastels, with many features intentionally exaggerated in much the same vein as WoW. Wildstar does make this stylistic choice its own though, and in many respects is more reminiscent of Ratchet & Clank than its own older brother.
It's not just on the visual side of things that Carbine takes ideas from Blizzard. Where Guild Wars 2 distanced itself from the traditional questing system of the MMO genre, Wildstar embraces it. This means that running about on Nexus feels curiously similar to exploring Azeroth. You build up a shopping list of quests, which you in turn complete before you return to the quest givers for a reward. The science fiction setting does, however, open for the possibility to hand in quests via radio, so that you can complete chains of quests without having to constantly return to the quest giver between each step.
I wouldn't mind too much about this traditional questing system had the solo quests themselves not been so, to be frank, boring and uninspired. They follow the age old recipe of killing x enemies, collect x items, escort this person and so on. Once in a while you do find the occasional gem, but sadly these drown in the pool of mediocrity that is the solo content of Wildstar. The way in which the story is presented is not very appealing either, with little voice acting and many walls of text. I find this particularly disappointing, because the story and setting are, in their own right. very appealing indeed.
To be fair, Carbine does introduce what they call a path system, which does bring something new to the MMO-table. When you create your character, you choose whether that character is an explorer, a soldier, a scientist or a settler.
This system is separate from the class system, and helps define what type of content you will be presented with. As an explorer, for instance, you will be tasked with climbing the highest peaks or delve into the deepest caverns. As a settler, however, you get to build improvements to the map that everyone playing get to reap the benefits of, giving you bonuses for each person using them. This makes the shopping list of quests a bit more customized to your play style, but don't get me wrong, it's still a shopping list.
In the end it's the map design that saves the solo portion of Wildstar from being nothing but a drag. Carbine are refreshingly creative in how they lay out their maps, and use this to revitalize the otherwise dry and tedious journey around Nexus. Already early on in the game I encountered items in the environment that allowed me to jump sky high, and gave me a wonderful sense of freedom of movement unlike anything I've experienced in other MMOs. Where others try to make a believable world, Carbine give you free reign to make the world your playground. Just getting from point A to point B can be a joy.
Additionally, the combat system helps to strengthen the experience as a whole. The area of impact of enemy and friendly attacks are shown to the player via visual icons, and active dodging and positioning is vital for succeeding in combat.
Many attacks can also be used while you are on the move, with the stalker class especially made with the idea of out-positioning the enemy in mind. It's fun and engaging to fight in Wildstar, something which especially is true of boss fights and larger group fights. If I were to criticize something about the combat system it would be the sense of impact is lacking. The attacks don't feel like they have much weight behind them, due to average animation quality coupled with high movability. This said, the combat system in its entirety is rock solid.
The conclusion about the solo content of Wildstar is, as a whole, disappointing nonetheless. Carbine sticks too much to safe conventions we've seen in this genre the last decade. The path system, the creative map design and the active combat system certainly help, but they are not enough to save this part of the game.
This said, you would be able to rightfully point out that Wildstar's strength is not in its solo content, but rather in the group content. There are three types of group missions in the game: adventures, dungeons and raids.
Adventures are set in relatively open areas in which groups of five players complete a series of tasks that take them all around the map, with a boss fight to round things off. This content has a very low bar of entry, and is a great way for inexperienced MMO players to get a feel of how the group content of the game plays. The difficulty is sufficiently high for you to stumble and fall, but low enough for you to be able to get up and try again.
Adventures are a fine mix of pre-programed sequences and open areas in which you are free to choose your angle of approach. For example, in my first adventure the entire team dropped from a transport ship down to a field below, but soon got to choose one of several tasks to deal with. This increases the replayability of the adventures, not to mention that each adventure comes with two difficulty levels.
Dungeons are, like the adventures, for five players, and they also come in a normal and a veteran mode. This type of content is mostly a linear progression of groups of enemies and boss fights. The more structured nature of this content demanded more cooperation within the group to succeed, and there was more room for tactical decision-making. This said, there's little revolutionary about dungeons in Wildstar - they are more or less just what we've come to expect from the genre.
Lastly we have raids, which are for either 20 or 40 player teams respectively. I haven't had the opportunity to try out this content, but suffice to say they are fairly standard as far as MMO raids go, but do offer the most hardcore of players an end game goal to push towards.
The group aspects of Wildstar are solid, even if it's not revolutionary. Carbine Studios has taken very few risks to change up existing conventions in this area, and the result is a group content that feels familiar. If you are tired of, or otherwise dislike this traditional model of group content in MMOs, I think it's safe to say Wildstar isn't the game for you. For others, though, this will be right up their alley.
Lastly, Wildstar has several modes of PvP to offer. You can duel 1v1 anywhere or 2v2, 3v3 or 5v5 in an arena mode. Here, nothing but the number of kills decides the victor. In battlegrounds, two teams of ten players fight over various objectives. On the two maps that are currently in the game, you either fight to collect a set number of masks before the time runs out or take turns attacking or defending control points. Of these modes I certainly prefer the latter, as the objectives make the fight more interesting than simply who manages to kill more of the opposing team. With the somewhat boring solo content in mind, the PvP is refreshing, especially considering the fact that you can level up while PvPing.
You also have one last PvP-mode that unlocks at top level, namely warplots. Here, two teams of 40 players fight to take an enemy fort, which is customized and partially built by each team before the start of the fight. I haven't had the opportunity to try out this mode either, but it serves an important role in keeping players busy after they finish other parts of the game and wait for new content.
Due to the active combat system I found the PvP-content particularly challenging, with a very high skill ceiling. Many attacks will simply miss because both you and your opponent are constantly on the move. This said, again I do hunger for some more creativity from Carbine Studios, and for them to take some more risks an deviating from existing formulae.
With a rock solid group portion of the game, even though that lacks innovation, Wildstar manages to establish its niche in the MMO space. The active combat system improves the experience of every area of the game, but I wish Carbine had done more to make the content as refreshing. Especially the solo portions of the game feel like a massive shopping trip, and I had more than my fill of this very early on. If you can manage to plow through this, and appreciate a challenging - if familiar - end game, Wildstar may in fact be a worthwhile purchase.