PAX 2011: Massively's hands-on with WildStar

Look at how big her ... ears are!
I'll confess, I didn't want to like WildStar. I was interested to hear that NCsoft and Carbine Studios would be unveiling a new MMO at Gamescom, so I took a look at the trailer as soon as it was released to see what it was all about.

At my look of the wasp-waisted, big-eyed bunny girl with the crazy long tail, I rolled my eyes and dismissed the game as silly. For about 10 seconds. By the time I got to the end of the trailer, the self-deprecating sense of humor and quirky style had sucked me right in. I watched pretty carefully for more information and was eager to get a firsthand look at WildStar at this year's PAX Follow along after the jump to see what I found out.

Let me start by being up-front: WildStar isn't bringing any mind-blowing new concepts to the table, but that's OK and it's not a bad thing because that's not really the goal here. What Carbine does want to do is create a quality game that offers plenty of fun to its players regardless of their various playstyles. During one demo event, a developer explained that a lot of games have gameplay with a high fun factor and gameplay with a high reward factor, but not always at the same time. "We want to reward players for having fun," he said.

That's the point of the Bartle-inspired pathing sytem as well as plenty of other parts of WildStar -- to offer fun and rewards based on an ongoing basis during gameplay. It's a very basic concept but one that's proven to be tricky to get right in the past, so I was very anxious to see whether Carbine is on the right path.

I had two path choices, Explorer or Soldier, and a choice of three pre-selected race/class combinations. Character creation was pretty limited at this point, but since the game has barely been announced, I'm certainly not going to complain. I chose an Aurin (bunny) race, Esper class, and the Explorer path, then set off into the world.

The animations and world design was the first order of business -- I wanted to look around and get a feel for things. This art style isn't usually my cup of tea, but in this case it seems to fit nicely with what the developers are trying to create. Rather than feeling cartoonish, rushed, or cheap, it comes across as lighthearted and fun without being childish.

WildStar screenshot
After looking around a bit I headed into my first quest and battle. This was a very limited demo showing a small section of the world in the level 3-6 range, so my character only had four skills. The Esper focuses on magical attacks with a mental focus, very slightly reminiscent of the Guild Wars Mesmer. Since she was so low-level, my character only had four skills: two attacks that built up combo points, one defensive skill, and a finishing attack that became available with five combo points.

The first task was a standard "save five injured soldiers and kill four yetis," familiar MMO fare that the developers put in deliberately. It's treated as a tool to help you get used to the controls, one of the few remaining legitimate functions of the kill-10-rats trope. Saving the collapsed soldiers taught me how to interact with things, and taking on a few yetis gave me a feel for battle.

The dodge mechanic interested me: Enemies telegraph incoming AoE attacks with a red glow on the ground in the soon-to-be affected area, and you can dodge out of the way by double-tapping in any direction. If you successfully make the dodge, your enemy becomes vulnerable for a short period of time and you can really unload on him and do some damage. Of course, if you don't make the dodge, the reverse is true: You're knocked down and the enemy gets a little extra time to smack you around.

It took me a little time to get used to it, but once I was dodging consistently, I found that if I made enough consecutive successful dodges, I was rewarded with an "Artful Dodger" bonus. I don't actually know what it does because the bonus section of my UI wasn't clickable at the time and asking a nearby developer didn't get me a specific answer, but it fit nicely with Carbine's stated desire to reward players for the fun stuff, even basic game mechanics.

There was a downside to this, this was one of the few things in the demo that did feel awkward to me. You can't move while attacking, so dodging an impending AoE attack interrupts whatever current attack you're using, and you can't begin again until you're back on your feet. It's just a split second, of course, but having your current attack interrupted is a real irritant. The game is very, very early in development and everything is subject to change at this point. I hope this is one of those things.

WildStar screenshot
I'm very interested in how smoothly pathed content will flow in a group setting, but in this demo there was simply no opportunity to find out, so I settled for heading off to explore on my own. My explorer task was to venture up a mountain while dodging an ongoing avalanche, another task that took some getting used to. There are several methods of doing so, be they running to the side to get out of the way or simply jumping over it. Double-tapping the space bar gives you an extra-high jump with a snazzy little flip in the middle, so you can use that to jump over the oncoming snow. Unfortunately, I didn't get to proceed much beyond the avalanche thanks to a bug that crashed the entire computer. The game is in pre-alpha and that sort of thing is to be expected, so it wasn't a huge deal. (I heard the following day that Carbine had tracked down the problem and was working on eliminating it.) I saw enough to give me an idea of how things worked, and for the most part I liked what I saw.

I managed to get back the next day to snag a second hands-on and check out a new race, path, and class. This time I chose a Human character with the Spellslinger profession and Soldier path. I would have loved to try the Scientist path, but it and the Settler were locked for this demo. The Soldier path really gave me a chance to try out some more fast-paced gameplay by setting up a holdout beacon. The beacon brings waves of creatures -- Yetis in this case -- that swarm you, and you've got to take them out as fast as possible. Eventually a big guy spawns and you've got a boss fight on your hands.

This part of the game was fun and challenging because the enemies, particularly the boss at the end, were throwing down a lot of AoE. I needed to pay close attention to playing both defensively and offensively, dodging around a lot as I tried to keep out of incoming AoE and fend off swarms of enemies at the same time. It was a fairly brief challenge and not ridiculously difficult, but I assume the challenge and strategy will increase as players gain levels. For those players who love a good knock-down-drag-out, I can see this path being a blast, pardon the pun.

Thanks to a lack of bugs, I was able to proceed further with the Human than I did the Aurin, so I took on several more tasks. While the underpinnings were the same as before -- kill some of these, find some of those, rescue a few of them -- the circumstances were pretty enjoyable, and I found more fun mechanics and systems in place. I needed to find some ice crystals in one task, and you could gain them one of two ways. They were floating here and there in the area, and you could get them by jumping up to them Mario-style. Alternatively, you could kill some of the ice creatures wandering around and they'd drop the crystals.

There were a few other players in the area as well, and I wasn't having much luck beating them to the crystals. It got me to thinking and I paused to ask a nearby developer how the team planned on handling that sort of situation when the game was live. She explained that things would scale as needed, an answer that made me extremely happy. I dislike bickering over resources in a game genre that encourages you to play together.

I proceeded to a cave in another quest to rescue some trapped NPCs and stumbled across another pretty fun aspect of WildStar: There were plenty of hostile little creatures running around, and in the distance there lurked a huge boss. Another player had already engaged the big guy, so I ran over to see what was up and get in on the action. The other player and I took out the boss, and we were rewarded with the news that we'd intimidated all the other creatures in the cave and they'd leave us alone from here on out.

Of course, there were a few caveats. They'd hit back if we attacked them first, and if we freed a prisoner with them nearby, they'd get annoyed and attack. Overall, though, the cause-and-effect reward of frightening them into submission by taking out their master was a mechanic that I really liked. I asked the developer whether that was something we'd see more of, and she hesitated a bit before replying, "I can say that we really love that. I mean, we like it a lot."

My demo time was up by this point, so I reluctantly stepped aside for the next person in line, but I felt like I had a good feel for the game. There's still a lot of work to be done; we were only shown a very small portion of the world and the characters, but it was more than enough to introduce us to the world.

If you're after a hardcore world with heavy realism and an epic feel, WildStar is probably not your game. Carbine's not out to compeltely revolutionize the industry. The company is, however, out to create a game that's going to be a lot of fun for as many people as possible. For something that's not even reached the beta stage yet, WildStar is looking pretty good and has a ton of promise. I look forward to seeing more.

Massively's on the ground in Seattle during the weekend of August 26-28, bringing you all the best news from PAX Prime 2011. Whether you're dying to know more about SWTOR, Guild Wars 2, City of Heroes, or any MMO in between, you can bet we'll have it covered!

This article was originally published on Massively.