I don’t feel much pull when I play Wildstar. When I level up and get another point to make one of my skills cool down a quarter second faster or do a half percentage point more damage, Wildstar is far more excited about it than I am. I almost feel bad for it. It proclaims it loudly and with a huge message and with a special announcement button I can press to see what new things I’ve unlocked. It’s usually just the point I can spend, but sometimes it’s cosmetic gloves or maybe a new dungeon somewhere. I usually open the window just to dismiss it.
I don’t feel much pull when I enter a new area and scoop up a bunch of quests, every single one of them like the quests that came before, involving me going somewhere to kill a bunch of creatures or to click lit-up interactive hotspots, just like I did in the last area, just like I’ll do in the next area. I don’t feel much pull as I slot new gear with slightly higher stats, or when I collect ore from an ore node, or when I turn in a quest, or when I skirt around a mob’s activation radius, or when I sell my vendor trash, or when I’m sitting waiting for a tank to join our instance because I’ve already spent an hour on this dungeon and I’m not about to give up just because the guy playing the tank ragequit and left the rest of us hanging.
After the jump, the next tank who joins us sucks, so I end up giving up anyway.
Wildstar is a procession of familiar stuff, and I’m riding rails through this well-trod territory, one cartoon presentation after the next, enduring its forced ebullience as it shows me yet again something I’ve seen many times before. Mr. Toad’s Mild Ride. Sometimes Wildstar tries to engage me with button press gimmicks or a Simon style memorization game or by making me press the T or G key to use some special inventory item I didn’t realize it had given me. Again, I almost feel bad. Really, Wildstar, you don’t have to. What do you think you’re accomplishing?
The more I play Wildstar, the more I lose patience with how slowly it progresses. I should be getting deeper and deeper into its gravity well by getting more and more invested. Instead, I’m just getting more restless. The character advancement is glacial and the resource sinks are abundant. Nothing happens quickly in Wildstar. I will not feel rich or powerful for a very long time, if ever. The combat is that same repetitive grinding away at bags of hit points, where every encounter is a done deal before it even starts, unless you accidentally aggro another creature, or maybe you fought something two levels higher than you because you weren’t really paying attention. You’ve been here before so many times. So many times. Do do that deja vu that you do so well. Wildstar is nothing if not familiar and methodical.
As an experience, Wildstar is a regimented regurgitation of the principles of MMO design. To its credit, it has adopted some of the genre’s better habits. For instance, you only ever slot eight skills (and a mostly useless ninth skill), and you can toggle readily between a couple of sets of skills. This means my DPS character is also a healer. Hold on, now I have to change my gear. You can jigger your character build with traits, here called amps. These are eventually part of the loot chase. Your gear plugs neatly enough into your character stats. Hold on, let me switch back to my earlier gear.
The combat system, which involves popping off spells into thin air and hoping the enemy is standing there, is lively at first. You’re not just watching the cooldown on the buttons on your hotkey bar. You’re also dancing around the attack “telegraphs”, watching shapes and colors drawn on the ground. It’s like some garish dance floor where all of us are circle strafing, contorting our hands to press buttons at inopportune times because how ridiculous would it be to play an action MMO with a controller? Pfft, says Wildstar. It plays its telegraph system as if it were an innovation, which it certainly is when it comes to healing. In fact, this can be uniquely gratifying for a healer. But otherwise, it’s not that unusual. I’ve been aiming attacks in Guild Wars 2 and dodging shapes on the ground in Secret World for some time now. When you’re grouping, the combat hews closely and unabashedly to the usual trinity of tanks, healers, and DPS. Not that you need to group much, which is a shame for healers. There’s very little in the open world to encourage groups. And the dungeons from the get-go are for power users only. I’ve sunk far too much time into attempting dungeons with absolutely no return. That’s hardcore. The more forgiving adventures, which are little pocket worlds with a variety of quests designed for people to play as a group, are a nifty trick that should have been the model for the game as a whole.
I appreciate what Wildstar attempts by letting players choose a “path” for a character. Each path brings with it some unique gameplay, and at first this feels like a potentially meaningful addition. You advance your level in soldier or scientist alongside your level in warrior, or thief, or wizard (not their real names). These paths interact with the world in distinct ways, such as the explorer doing jumping puzzles to find hidden areas or the settlers scooping up collectibles to dump into camps that let other players earn buffs. It’s an intriguing concept, but I’m not sold on the idea of dividing it up among the playerbase. These feel like side quests, and only letting me do one quarter of them doesn’t make much sense. Actually, I shouldn’t complain, because that’s 75% less busywork. Furthermore, these paths don’t advance your character in any meaningful way. Why am I even bothering? On many levels, Wildstar often doesn’t have an answer for that question.
Housing is as inconsequential as housing in every other MMO, but unlike other MMOs where you can ignore the housing, Wildstar makes it mandatory that you sit through the loading screen to your house before you log off (otherwise, you won’t get the bonus for rest xp). A livelier than usual crafting system reminds me of the ridiculously involved but weirdly addictive crafting in Vanguard. If I were to play Wildstar for the long-term, you’d find me clambering around merrily in these crafting tech trees and perk lists and commodities. I’d even plink away at the cooking hobby with its weird flavor matrix. Some of Wildstar’s features actually do have a bit of pull.
But these days, an MMO can’t just be a collection of features. It needs to be a place with character or a design with a sense of identity. It needs a hook that will pull me, which is the precise force that must be applied to counterbalance the pull of all the other open-ended timesinks where I could be sinking my time. The competition for Wildstar isn’t just World of Warcraft, which it most closely resembles. It’s also smartly designed experiences like Guild Wars 2, unique atmosphere like The Secret World, delightfully splashy hack-and-slash action like Diablo III, the cartoon colored marvels of Marvel Heroes, and even the action of Battlefield 4 and charm of Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare. I have so many characters and accounts I could be leveling up. This isn’t 2004, the year World of Warcraft arrived, any more. This is a world of games without end and in the end, I have to decide which worlds get my time. Wildstar, which has very little sense of identity, which has very little pull, which feels like a collection of features, which has a subscription fee, was a relic as soon as it was released. And I’m afraid one of the most trenchant facts about it is one of the worst things you could say about any MMO: it’s going to be easy to stop playing.