The first time I stood at the panel, I had a pretty clear picture of what I wanted to try out. Rather than play around with Draken or Mechari, I rolled up a Cassian Spellslinger Soldier, not a combination I've seen before now in any abundance from preview videos.
Character cutomization options were a bit anemic outside of fine-tuning face customization, but they were definitely functional, and we were told that both the options and the facial customization interface are still in development. What was there was functional without being outstanding. I asked about including options for players to alter their character's physical builds, but I was told that the main focus is on creating a distinct silhouette for each race, especially given the nature of the game's existing IP.
An elf or dwarf offers an obvious set of visual cues. A mechanical man or a sentient woman made out of rock offer slightly fewer. So you're not going to have fine control over your physical build. That having been said, the models animated very fluidly. My Cassian woman was stylized, but she animated without flounce, and her movements were economical and reasonable for the game's style.
I had a quest marker that flagged me down right away, and I managed to thoroughly misread the quest text a couple of times before I was helpfully told what to do. Once I had accomplished that I got thrown into my first combat, which I was told would run like World of Warcraft's basic combat engine.
That was not true. If anything, it's somewhere between Star Wars: The Old Republic and Guild Wars 2, with the clean response and system of the former married to the kinetic motion of the latter.
For starters, there's no auto-attack. As a level 6 Spellslinger, I had a quintet of abilities, one of which occupied the same role of an auto-attack in Star Wars: The Old Republic -- building resources and filling the space when I had nothing else to do. The ability had a short channel time that was cut short by movement and a small conal effect in front of me. Beyond that I had a more powerful channeled burst of gunfire that I could maintain through dodges and the like, a lunging forward stun, a snare ability, and a small self-buff that powered up my next attack.
I also had the innate ability of all Spellslingers. As I shot things, I built up charges. Activating my innate ability gave me a short self-buff that affected all of my abilities. My snare turned into a root, my stun became more powerful, my basic and movable ranged attack both gained extra range... all useful stuff.
This was, without a doubt, the most complex and frantic combat I've seen at level 6 within memory. I say "frantic" because this really did require pretty much constant input from me, but despite that it never felt overly busy or awkward. Fighting melee targets was a matter of juggling snares, stuns, and firepower; fighting ranged enemies meant ignoring the snare in favor of more straight ranged effects.
I had to learn what the battle telegraphs meant, too, because they weren't all the same. Sometimes I could bypass the effect with a well-timed stun, sometimes I needed to dodge quickly, and occasionally I could just step out and resume attacking. Some required immediate action to avoid damage; others had a noteworthy delay. Dodging is similar to dodging in Guild Wars 2; it empties a meter that begins immediately refilling, and you have two dodges at full charge before you have to wait for a recharge, but because the combat is more active, it felt as if the cooldown was far shorter. You also don't have any invulnerability during a dodge, so you have to actually avoid attacks. There's also a small sprinting meter with a similar goal, offering you another way to dart out of harm's way for certain attacks.
This was a blast. It was all the fun of active combat without a healthy dose of frustration that frequently accompanies these systems. Lining up my abilities was a matter of moving and then firing, and the fact that I selected my targets in advance meant that I could pull off some fun and impressive tricks in short order. I had a great moment using my dashing stun to bypass an enemy, followed by spinning around and opening fire on my stunned opponent on a dime. It was, in brief, immensely satisfying.
It meant that being a soldier was a good deal as well. My first soldier-specific content spawned as I headed off on another quest, at which point I ignored the quest and opened up a crate of new and experimental weaponry. My mission was to take these high-yield grenades and test them on the nearby wildlife, which worked out quite well as I was already hoping to kill a large percentage of the local wildlife anyway.
A special key was bound to my "prototype" weapon, which felt appropriately satisfying and also satisfyingly dangerous, as dropping a live grenade at my feet produced the expected results -- namely, I blew myself up. It also tied in nicely with what I was already half-heartedly doing for quests, and it delivered more combat opportunities. Exactly what you'd expect for soldiers, in other words.
I was close to another ping of soldier content afterward, so I headed over to a holdout mission that caught my eye. This was a bit too challenging for me in an unfamiliar game with new mechanics, and I didn't quite clear the multi-wave onslaught of repeated enemies. It was still a near thing, however, and it was exciting to see enemies come rushing at me, first at a trickle, then a steady rush. The holdout was also timed in a satisfying fashion, giving me a short span of time to kill one wave before the next spawned, and as in any similar event, the goal was getting one wave killed before the next came out.
I died just before the end, but it was still fun, and it felt like a challenge that I could clear with a bit more practice. It was good stuff, in other words, and the sort of thing that encourages players to do what they like as Soldiers.
But how much did it actually matter? The only way to know was to try out a different character. This time I put together a Mechari Warrior Explorer, looking for a different take of combat as well. And while the initial quest was the same, the approach to combat and content was different.
A Warrior doesn't have to stay in one place to do damage; even the big AoE ability for the class allowed for movement. I could unleash a standard sword swing, apply a bleed, spin around for area damage, kick enemies back, and leap to an opponent while knocking down the target. The result was a class with a different approach altogether. I had to dodge, kick enemies back, leap to them, and keep swinging to keep up the pressure. The setup also offered a couple of ways to disorient and stop enemies in the midst of a larger attack, a very satisfying experience.
The different path also gave me a different set of objectives. Instead of seeing small combat encounters and new weapons, I had a small counter indicating how much of the overall zone I had explored. I also had to place a number of orbital beacons, with arrows directing me to the nearest point... one that initially made me stare and wonder how do I get up there? Once I found the path, it turned into something closer to Guild Wars 2's jumping puzzles, tasking me with carefully ascertaining how to get from one point to the next without falling.
It didn't completely turn the game into something else, but it added a real sense of different content and progression. I had something different to do, new challenges to seek, and an urge to hit the boundaries of the map in ways that my Soldier didn't need to worry about.
All told, I had about an hour of playtime with the game, but I could have easily spent another half-dozen just tooling around in the early area. The gameplay is polished and fun, and the different paths each add another topping to the game. Think of them as pizza toppings -- the core elements of the game are the same, but changing your path produces a real sense of differentiation.
When I start following a game, I always worry that it won't live up to my expectations. WildStar already has.
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