I’ve always been a sucker for MMOs. World of Warcraft consumed more years of my life than I care to admit; I still have so many fond memories of raiding with my guild, the Excellent Hoobadoobies, the nuttiest bunch of online companions one could possibly hope for. Wrath of the Lich King was our golden age – from the grotesque necromantic halls of Naxxramas (where we danced The Safety Dance like true heroes) to the deadly summit of Icecrown Citadel, we toppled many a mighty foe while engaged in the absurd and foul-mouthed banter one generally reserves for the such gatherings.
Yes. Verily, they were the best of times.
As the years rolled on, however, many of us migrated to other games. I began to feel a grinding sense of drudgery with WoW, and halfway through the Cataclysm expansion I went cold turkey, logging off for the last time and vowing never to renew my subscription. Blizzard still sends me emails from time to time, trying to coax me back into its tired embrace, but for me there’s no going back. I’d feel, if anything, an overwhelming sense of defeat if I ever returned.
Guild Wars 2 was in its beta stages at the time I left, and was already proving itself to be a beast of a very different nature. I wrote an editorial piece for IGN that heralded the game as a rush of blood to the withered arteries of the MMO genre, with a fresh and boldly experimental approach that eschewed all traditional gameplay elements (grinding, factions, tank/heal/DPS roles, etc.) and paid subscription models. GW2 scratched a terrible itch I’d been experiencing ever since leaving WoW, and little more than a year later, it’s still steadily evolving, with new content and features added monthly.
But as of late, even that dazzling gem has lost some of its lustre. There’s no grind to speak of this time, no relentless sense of repetition. The problem is a social one – there just aren’t that many people I know playing GW2 anymore, and there simply isn’t enough endgame content for us to work towards. I feel no overarching goal when I play, no collective achievement to strive for. A sense of community, for me, is vital. Playing an MMO is about being part of a thriving world, something dynamic and alive; it’s only as fun as the people you’re adventuring with.
And so, for the past few months, I’ve found myself adrift in the void between online worlds. The itch, a subtle tingling at the back of my gamer’s cortex, has returned. All work and life commitments aside, I’m ready for a new MMO. And, as of the last few days, I think I may have found one.
And it has hamsters with guns.
The game is called Wildstar, and it’s the first major undertaking by Carbine Studios, a development team formed in 2005 by a group of ex-Blizzard employees looking to start a fresh project. I was directed to the game’s website by an IGN article detailing its various mechanics, races and classes, and what I saw there left me terrifically impressed. There’s something quite distinct about Wildstar, a sense of humour and character that seems remarkably different to most other MMOs on the market right now. Carbine may be descended from gaming royalty, but they’re clearly making every attempt to distinguish themselves from Blizzard and World of Warcraft, carefully sidestepping the pitfalls of their predecessors with redesigned game mechanics and a noticeably different art style.
I’ve already signed up to participate in the beta once it begins next month, but in the meantime, rather than ramble at great length about everything I’ve discovered (most of which is articulated in far more entertaining fashion on the website), here are five quick reasons why I’m excited about Wildstar so far.
1. It has hamsters with guns.
Did I mention that already? The Chua, psychopathic rodentia with a penchant for constructing unstable weaponry, are just one of the eight entirely wacky races that you have to choose from in Wildstar. Also in the mix: Aurin, sexy rabbit people that will drive furries and cosplayers wild, Mechari, sentient killbots created by a mysterious ancient race, Granok, dimwitted alcoholic rock golems who make excellent mercenaries, and Mordesh, rotting space zombies obsessed with all things alchemical.
There are also the bull-horned, demonic Draken, and of course humans, for those of you with absolutely no imagination whatsoever.
2. It’s magical and mechanical. “Magichanical”, if you will.
The world of Wildstar is a perfect marriage of arcane spellcraft and advanced spacefaring and military technology. This gives Carbine a lot of scope for imagination, which is particularly evident in the game’s six classes (four of which have been revealed so far), each a fun, fresh take on an archetypal role.
The Warrior, for example, wields a fusion-charged broadsword in one hand and an arm-mounted cannon on the other, capable of projecting laser beams, forcefields and electrical harpoons. The Spellslinger is an acrobatic, dimension-hopping cowboy who dual-wields magically infused pistols while teleporting all over the battlefield. And the Esper is a powerful mental duelist who hurls telekinetic blades, assaults his enemies with hideous nightmares and psionically bolsters his allies.
Having a relatively small selection of classes in the game at launch is a brilliant move on Carbine’s part; it allows the developer to give them greater attention, and make each more distinct in its play style.
3. Its combat mechanics require actual skill.
Very few abilities in this game will simply allow you to select an enemy and press the button. That’s a good thing, because one of WoW’s greatest agonies (particularly as a ranged damage dealer) is simply standing at a distance and hammering a couple of keys, occasionally stepping out of whatever corrosive puddle the boss might drop beneath your feet. Combat should never be static; every fight should keep you on your toes, and so Carbine have developed a system of ‘telegraphs’, coloured indicators that show the trajectory of an attack (the enemy’s or your own).
Want to cast that telepathic nightmare fish into the minds of your opponents over there? Of course you do! Who wouldn’t? But you’re going to have to manually aim that sucker with your cursor and time your button-pressing correctly – otherwise he’s just going to swim insidiously into the brick wall behind them. But line up your shot skilfully and you’ll be rewarded when he collides with all three of those goons, infecting their brains with piscine visions of aquatic horror.
4. It looks like a cartoon.
Whether it’s a delightful Mario platformer or a blood-drenched, organ-splattered apocalyptic tale of planetary war, one should generally aim for a look that’s fluffy and huggable in pastel colours. That’s the secret. I firmly believe that Call of Duty would be significantly more enjoyable were it rendered in the style of Super Monkey Ball, but then, I don’t get paid to make those kinds of decisions.
Carbine, thankfully, understands this fundamental rule of video game design. They’ve opted for an overtly comical and exaggerated visual style; the environments are vibrant and diverse, the characters bursting with life, and the weapon and spell animations shamelessly silly and over-the-top. Which perhaps leads us to reason five…
5. It’s a little bit funny.
Wildstar’s game mechanics might be srs bsns, but its premise is farcical and self-referential. The game takes place on the planet Nexus, once the home world of an ancient and powerful race called the Eldan. Nexus has been hidden for a millennia, but once it’s rediscovered, two warring factions stake their claim – the Dominion, a villainous galactic empire bent on taking whatever the hell they want, and the Exiles, a ragtag collection of alien races displaced from their own worlds by Dominion invasion. Hilarity ensues.
There’ll no doubt be a lot of additional lore and exposition in the game – I haven’t played it yet, remember? But the developer is clearly aiming for a more immediate sense of fun rather than an avalanche of backstory. This plot is a collection of tropes and clichés, and Carbine knows it; they’re evidently going to play up the melodrama, revel in the absurdity of their characters and really enjoy themselves.
But don’t just take my word for it. Here are a couple of humourous introductory videos for both factions.
Wildstar’s open beta should begin in December. You can sign up on the website here – I’ll certainly be posting some hands-on impressions once my hands are… y’know, on it.