Reach for the stars.
With respect to the MMO genre, as the name might imply, WildStar is a series of untamed dreams set in space. Carbine Studios, with the backing of publisher NCSOFT, has poured almost a decade's worth of effort into developing an ambitious title that executive producer Jeremy Gaffney has described as "anything but WoW," in a Reddit AMA. Despite that intention, many have compared and will continue to compare WildStar to World of Warcraft as a likewise "theme-park" MMO with exaggerated, cartoonish graphics and a familiar quest system. Whether that's flattery or a lazy comparison is in the eye of the beholder, but either way, WildStar is a worthy contender that may be rough around the corners but slings in more than enough challenging content to seduce the hardcore MMO community.
Apart from the vivid, saturated color scheme, first impressions aren't WildStar's strong suit, as any one of its aesthetic bullet points might turn you off. The whimsical, exaggerated, Ratchet & Clank-esque art style runs counter to the more realistic modeling of recent MMOs like Guild Wars 2, The Elder Scrolls Online, and Star Wars: The Old Republic. Some might expect much better textures and graphical detail given the game's minimum and recommended spec requirements. Some might not like its sci-fi universe as much as pure fantasy, the more traditional setting for an MMO. And some might not like the lack of voice-acting or the narrator who pokes fun at you every time you perish and respawn.
On top of that, the character creation can be somewhat limiting. Divided between the Dominion and the Exiles for the dominance of the planet Nexus, certain races from the available eight have class restrictions befitting their stature. The savage, clawed Draken can't be an Engineer, Esper, or Medic; the psychotic, pint-sized Chua don't have the musculature to be a Warrior or Stalker; and the stone-giant Granok don't fare well as the Esper, Stalker, or Spellslinger. This restriction is tempered by the versatility of the six classes, which contrary to their names, can fill two of the "holy trinity" roles: DPS (melee or ranged), healer, and tank. Taken one way, the race-based class restriction makes sense in the overall lore and makes each role more defined, but WildStar will be disappointing for those who enjoy experimenting with more out-of-the-box builds.
But don't let the cartoony character models and environments fool you. WildStar doesn't hold any prisoners when it comes to its action-packed combat system. Nearly every ability, assigned to the hotbar, needs to be aimed properly. Sure, it starts off slow as you send poor animal critters into the grave and it pokes you with easy-peasy telegraphs that give you plenty of time to evade and counter-attack. As you delve deeper into the various PvE zones, though, the telegraphs become more complex, coming in circles, lines, and cascading patterns, all of which need to be avoided. By the time you're ready for Dungeons and Adventures, boss fights become a choreographed dance of evasion, bobbing and weaving between safe zones and nailing the enemy with all your abilities. One mistake and you might be out for the entire round.
Playing as a Mechari medic named Paean after the Greek Gods (here he is when he was Level 16) instead of a swifter DPS class, I could scrape by fighting against three enemies at my level using the class's assault abilities so long as I circle-strafed and evaded telegraphs appropriately. As long as I managed my skills by putting them in a careful sequence on the hotbar and selected the right tier and amp upgrades, I was greeted in battle with "Triple Kill!" streaks likely announced by the same voice actor from Halo. In case I needed to perform the medic role in a team, I could flip between different hotbar settings instantly. Bolstered by the usual lack of lag interruption, the fluidity of the movement and locomotion in WildStar is surprisingly fantastic.
For the most part, WildStar remains stable and hasn't experienced the same amount of glitches that other MMO launches have. That doesn't mean it's been perfect: I've had several memory leak crashes, sudden disconnections, and a few instances of serious lag. Without a lot of cut-scenes and voicework, and text boxes that sometimes fade too quickly, the world lore is only average. The numerous interfaces can be puzzling to figure out and can easily overwhelm you with too much information. It's also irritating when challenges start automatically instead of giving you a prompt.
In general, WildStar takes the slow-burn approach, like, "an earthworm carrying a match towards a fuse for fireworks a mile away" slow-burn approach. Unless you're in a group that can power-level your character to the maximum level of 50 in a matter of 48 hours, you'll be stuck slogging away in the first few zones for weeks, earning small amounts of experience through quests and challenges that rely mainly on slaughtering a whole lot of one particular enemy type or gathering a whole lot of a certain item. This can go on for days depending on your free time, doing mindless busywork and going through rather meaningless kill quests ad nauseum, which is unfortunate because the vastly superior content is level-locked.
The same applies to the game's C.R.E.D.D. system, a compromise between the free-to-play and pay-to-play model. Players who don't have a lot of time to play the game and have extra C.R.E.D.D., which can be redeemed for additional game time, can sell it to other players for heaps of gold. It's an interesting system that allows dedicated hardcore players to continue playing without having to pay the subscription fee. The trouble, though, is that this doesn't cater to low-level players, who won't be in an area with enemies and quests that offer enough gold in the first place. As such, they'll likely be stuck with the subscription model no matter what.
It's only when you reach the capital of Illium (Dominion) or Thayd (Exiles) at around Level 14 that WildStar starts to show its true colors. By then, you'll have access to a wide assortment of vendors for dyes, clothes, guilds, weapons, equipment, crafting, and mounts (orbitron for the win). I could go into detail about all of these parts, but suffice it to say, the breadth of content has everything you need in order to spend hours on any one of those aspects. On top of that, you can level your chosen "path"—Settler, Scientist, Warrior, or Explorer—by performing the appropriate tasks in PvE. As a Settler, I gathered resources and provided stat boosts for every player in the area, in my server of course, because I'm a helpful ninja like that.
Adventures and Dungeons are but a hop away using the Group Finder, and at Level 14, housing begins by giving you a plot of land and the ability to customize the house and area around it. (And yes, Penny Arcade calling this Animal Crossing is correct.) While you can connect with your friends' houses by being neighbors, the main feature here is being able to design houses down to the scale and rotation of a table, and placing crafting areas and widgets around it. Remaining at the house in between play sessions will give you a rested XP bonus, and you'll receive teleports to your faction's main capital and home for easier access, in case the standard transmat pads and taxi stations peppered around the world aren't speedy enough or available for you.
The coordination required to clear even the simplest team-based event is a nail-biting, keyboard-smashing affair in the best way possible. Bosses in Dungeons and Adventures are challenging enough, requiring a multi-step strategy and careful attention to telegraphed moves, ensuring that the tank, DPS, and healers are working in tandem. Even for a medic, my class of choice, you can't just sit back and spam healing spells; you need to watch your focus and avoid telegraphs all the same. But if you're looking for an even greater challenge, the bosses and levels for 40-man raids are almost impossible without solid coordination. The possible rewards alone are worth the effort, inching closer and closer to defeating them with each attempt, but it's the thrill of finally ending that jackass that's the main source of determination.
This need for strong organization extends to the various PvP options including 10v10 Battlegrounds, tight-knit Arenas, and the gigantic 40v40 Warplots. Mainly pitting Dominion versus Exile players (it can be same-faction battles too), these PvP modes involve intense skirmishes, firestorms of spell-slinging and power-flinging. Specifically, the maps for the endgame Warplots require solid management and a dedication to crafting or purchasing nodes for customization by the leader. If you want, you can simply level through PvP and earn enough Prestige to purchase the items you need. Here, your precision with the dodging and aiming mechanics will be tested to their limit, so if you are mainly looking for a less intensive experience, you will want to avoid (but respect) PvP altogether.
Carbine Studios plans on delivering additional content like The Strain, which has already arrived, bringing alterations and updates to the existing solo content. With multiple paths for Adventures and updates on bosses, raiding guilds and explorers will have their hands full for as long as WildStar continues to evolve.
As it is with most MMOs, even an extensive review like this can't encompass all that WildStar has to offer. There are numerous reasons not to be enamored with its style, lackadaisical storytelling, lumbering content curve, and emphasis on difficulty, but I give my hearty recommendation to those seeking a challenging MMO that's built on achievements that must be earned. With a steady stream of content planned, a solid framework for housing, and a commitment to hardcore seriousness and silly humor, WildStar is more than the sum of its parts, and every MMO player should at least give a fair shake.