I am a tiny, rabbity, dog-like rat. I bounce around the world gleefully, with a wry smile and a sense of adventure. I am one of the most evil, feared and murderous creatures in the galaxy. And I’ve been imprisoned within a theme park for my crimes.
It’s a new theme park, covered in brightly coloured fresh coats of paint and filled to the brim with activities demanding my attention. There’s a war raging on throughout the planet Nexus, but I keep forgetting that I’m not on holiday.
WildStar has charm oozing out of every orifice, case in point my adorable, mustacheod avatar. But beneath that it relies on a long list of genre conventions. It is simultaneously disappointing and impressive that Carbine has managed to so deftly create the epitome of the theme park MMO.
Taking it out of the context of this era, WildStar could be considered a revelation. Its bright colours, stunning vistas of cartoon plains, sherbet glaciers and candy floss clouds are eye-wateringly gorgeous. The combat is fast-paced, filled with skill-shots that draw one’s attention away from the hot key bashing. And every inch of the game is filled with diversions.
It takes the foundations laid down by World of Warcraft almost 10 years ago — a game that the founding members of Carbine helped build — and throws in a bit of the skill-based combat that modern MMOs have started to favour. The result is a refined game that epitomises the model that started with WoW.
Players are dragged from one side of the map to the next by loosely connected quests that rarely involve more complicated objectives than kill something or click on another thing. Larger than life characters, Pavlovian trickery and a stunning setting draw attention from the fairly mundane route that all players follow.
The smokescreen of charm and comedy hides the fact that few quests in WildStar deviate from a format that was becoming exhausting and trite years ago.
It’s what happens outside of the stuff you have to do that maybe makes WildStar a little bit special. The ancillary systems and myriad diversions. There are paths, for instance, which are like mini-classes with objectives that break up the deluge of slaughter. An explorer is tasked with climbing the tallest peaks and plumbing the deepest depths, scientists are sent all over the world to build a compendium of knowledge and learn everything they can about Nexus, soldiers have to kill people. Okay, so the soldier path is a bit dull, but it’s just one of many options.
I love paths. I became an explorer on the character I progressed the most with, and it was the highlight of the game. I spent countless hours just wandering the various, vibrant areas, hunting for places to climb, areas to plant my flag, and vast cave networks to delve into. The experience is still a guided one; still limited by the rules of the theme park. But their optional nature makes it feel like you’re exploring outside of the confines of the linear narrative. It’s far from a sandbox experience, yet it’s still an escape and a chance to set your own pace or, admittedly superficially, set your own goals.
Nexus is completely under the control of Carbine. It’s amusing watching the Exiles and the Dominion fighting over a world that could never be theirs. From the moment your character is unfrozen, Carbine curates the experience, directing your actions and pulling you along by the nose. Even the adventures that exist off the beaten track like dungeons or path goals are thrust upon players, who are constantly reminded they could do this, or that, and of course this other thing.
Players experience the game on the developers’ terms, not their own. It’s a guided tour of a — impressive, to be sure — virtual world. That makes it all the more difficult to connect with it.
Theme parks are, by their very nature, limited and controlling. Once you’ve gone through one, you know what it’s all about, and even if there are some rides you missed, they’re unlikely to offer you a new experience. Similarly, WildStar is built on the familiar, and it doesn’t take long for every activity to become a mindless repetition of something you’ve done dozens of times.
There was more for me to see in WildStar. I’d only started customising my house and diving into dungeons — but I’m done. Just like hacking away at the same monster, the theme park MMO has diminishing returns. 10 years ago, WildStar would have been a mighty MMO that others wanted to topple. Today, it’s just another in a long line of amusing distractions. It might become the best at what it does, but what it does is not longer very exciting.