Friday, May 23, 2014

Wildstar Weekend: a review

This is one of those posts that I write so that I can remember what I thought and felt about a particular experience months later.  This is neither a legitimate game review nor an unbiased perspective on the game.

This past weekend, I participated in the open beta for Wildstar.  Like all games at this stage of development, the beta is actually an invitation to preview the game in hopes of attracting more subscribers, an approach that I feel is entirely legitimate.  I welcomed the opportunity to see what Wildstar looked like, because the reality is that I probably wouldn’t have looked beyond the promotional trailer otherwise.

Wildstar aspires to be a serious, long-term, triple-A, massively multiplayer roleplaying game.  You can see it in the light and dark factions, the built-in PvP, the raiding endgame, cosmetic and stat-based gear, players housing…  The list goes on and on, every box checked.  You can especially see it in the buy-in price and ongoing subscription model that they fervently hope succeeds.   

Why is that important?  Because the one thing that Wildstar absolutely does not want to be is a whimsical cartoony pastime that people turn to as a self-conscious indulgence while waiting for something new to be released on their primary game.  And this is exactly the game that they have put together.

Space Oddity

For me, the game was at odds with itself.  There were three images it wants to project:  the edgy, bouncy, flamboyant exterior that was featured in the early advertising, the serious storytelling that it aspires to more recently, and the “hardcore” endgame that it promises in order to attract what it considers the heart of the mmo player.

Almost in direct contrast to their big aspirations was a series of odd choices that were meant to distance themselves from the pack but ended up simply making my whole experience into an oddity.   
An odd choice in art style.  The designers have consciously selected a very obvious stylized appearance for the artwork of the game, noticed most pronouncedly in the rendering of the characters.  We’re playing in a colorful, whimsical cartoon.  Not just animated but distorted.

The visuals in Wildstar were a little too intense for me.  There was so much placed in the environment that I found my visual field overloaded.  At the same time, each object was distorted in odd ways, so that I couldn’t instinctively resolve its shape.  I had to stare at it for a few seconds to identify it as a chair, or a communicator.  It was as if everything was in extremely sharp focus at all visual distances at the same time, and yet I couldn’t quite recognize it.  It reminded me of Bloodmyst Isle, one of the Draenai starting areas, where there was so much red that you had to look away from the screen occasionally or your eyes would begin to bleed.  I got exactly that feeling here as well.

Wildstar also has an odd combination of races: humanoid, furry, brutal and cyborg in two varieties.  There doesn’t seem to be any internal consistency across the race choices, just that they are very different, and also strikingly unusual.  There’s no particular reason why they all should be occupying the same universe.  From a story perspective, there isn’t a narrative to the game that makes these race options meaningful.  Just an eclectic mix for the players to choose from.

In a way, the race choice seems to parallel the choices in ncsoft sibling Guild Wars 2.  Humaniods are parallels of course, but also the Charr vs the Drakken (savage beasts), the Aurin and the Sylvari (peaceful, nature-oriented, environmentalists), the Chua and the Asuran (diminutive, hyperintelligent inventors), maybe even the Granok and the Norn (large and brutal).

I guess the whole point of that comparison is to suggest that the narratively barren landscape of GW 2 hasn’t improved with having it transposed to Wildstar.  The major flaw of GW2 was that there was no compelling, overarching story to provide a backdrop to the day to day activities of the characters.  While that isn’t exactly the case in Wildstar, some of the lessons of relating the characters to the world haven’t been learned. 

In the first 10 levels, I was not presented with the outer fringes of a deep and compelling story that pulled me on and invited me to look closer.  I’m not saying that every game needs to do this.  Only that in my specific case, this would have been something that would have motivated me to stay.  The Secret World is an example where that worked beautifully.  The same thing is true of Star Wars: The Old Republic.  In both cases, in the first 4 hours I was engaged by the narrative of my character or the area I was exploring.

I played a mordesh and I loved the idea of this undead creation, possibly augmented with technology to keep it alive.  What I didn’t love was the impossibly thin neck and legs, and the flopping, flouncing gait of their run animation.  Again, everything seemed exaggerated to the point of oddity.

I enjoyed the storytelling.  But the interface that delivers the story takes some getting used to.  The screen was commonly full of quest boxes, chat bubbles, text in the chat box, and someone speaking to me verbally, often at the same time.  These things often overlapped each other on the screen, making them hard to read.  And often these boxes would just close on their own, without waiting for me to get to them.  Sometimes the voice-overs were copied in the chat box, though not always, and sometimes the text didn’t match the spoken dialogue exactly.

I see what they are trying to do; they want to constantly engage the player and continue moving the dialogue.   They definitely don’t want the questing experience to be boring.  But sometimes it was hard to follow each of the narrative elements being presented.  I couldn’t settle back and enjoy the story.  The game wanted to keep me on my toes.

I chose the scientist path and enjoyed the additional scanning tasks, and reading the enhanced narrative that the bonus quests provided.  If I were to play the game more, I think these paths would be a huge draw to me. 

But coupled with the subscription price and once again the inordinate emphasis on competitive 40-player raiding at endgame makes me turn away from this opportunity.  I’m actually hopeful that the interface will be massaged a little and over the course of the next year I’ll find that the rough edges have been knocked off.

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