"Draken are bloodthirsty, brutal and ferociously aggressive. Forged in the heat and dust of their savage homeworld, the Draken see Nexus as a primeval wilderness where they can test their strength and skill in combat--and they look forward to defeating the battle-hardened Exile Free Companies that have dared to trespass on their world."
Bloodthirsty? Savage? Strength and skill? I'm in.
The quote above introduces you to WildStar's Draken race. I played the upcoming online role-playing game last week, and decided to make my home among these humorless horned person-beasts. Green hair, ivory horns, loooong tail, slinky silhouette: she was the Draken of my dreams. She was to be a spellslinger, of course; what is the use of looking fearsome if you cannot rain fire onto the land? I also had to choose a path--an attitude, if you will, that determined how I was to approach my adventure. Soldiers, scientists, and settlers have their places in a civilized land, of course, but I longed to see the world. As such, the explorer path seemed right for me.
The hours that followed were strikingly similar to the initial hours of other massively multiplayer games, but with just enough personality to keep me interested. Consider this: I was subjected to a cerebral scan within just a few seconds of starting in which I was asked questions such as "Do you sometimes find yourself craving brains?" Soon after, I met the Dominion emperor--or at least, his glowing golden hologram--who informed me that "Treason is a disease of the soul." These guys certainly meant business.
The Draken may not even be the most troublesome members of the Dominion family. In these early moments I met a Chua named Mondo Zax. The diminutive Chuas may look adorable, but the mustachioed rodentlike creature was not a charming presence, but an evil engineer who thought nothing of subjecting disloyal citizens to cruel scientific experiments. Nor did he think anything of asking me to participate in his terrible technological tests, so all I could do was give in to my dark side.
We just make stuff that we think looks cool.- Stephan Frost
Once out of the starter area, I arrived on the planet of Nexus. I made my way through the Savage Coast, using my dual pistols to take down scrab strikers (imagine if a giant scorpion and a giant lobster had a giant baby) and Megatech battlebots (tall automatons with screws where their robo-nipples would be). In time, I earned more abilities, and was soon charging up my weapons for more powerful attacks and flinging myself towards enemies so that I might briefly stun them. There was none of the tab-targeting so common to most massively multiplayer games; instead, each attack had a cone or circle of influence, and any foe within that cone was susceptible to damage. In the same way, enemies signaled their incoming attacks with similar cones and circles, allowing me to actively dodge out of the way when I knew I was in danger.
The Savage Coast reminded me of the African savannah, given its soft waves of brown grasses and dusty skies, yet there was working and nonworking technology scattered across the land. Barbed-wire fences, towering satellite dishes, and intricate structures of unknown use made it clear that Nexus is not merely a fantasy world, nor is WildStar pure science fiction. Each time I felt I had a handle on the game's art style, it would throw yet another element into the mix. For instance, comic-book-style text splashed onto the screen when I leveled up, even though WildStar didn't particularly evoke comic books for me. I asked design producer Stephan Frost about the ideas behind WildStar's overall look.
"The art director's a huge nerd in general," Frost told me. "The dude loves cartoons, comics, you name it. There are Princess Mononoke influences on occasion, with that anime look. I was talking about Don Bluth earlier, there are Don Bluth references. You can kind of see that old-school Disney look. And there are are like video games… you can see hints of other games. We just make stuff that we think looks cool. The art direction is very defined. They have a weekly meeting where they review every single asset in the game. And we go, does this fit the WildStar vibe?" That vibe is certainly an eclectic one. My explorer path took me into lush canyons and had me ogling a mechanical colossus that filled half the sky. WildStar may not always look consistent, but I'd be able to identify the game in a matter of seconds if I glimpsed it on a computer screen.
The element that most impressed me was the lush orchestral soundtrack, which beautifully meshed fantasy-style lilts with percussive elements that invoked the scientific side of the WildStar equation. The composer is Jeff Kurtenacker, who also scored Pirates of The Burning Sea among a number of other games. "He does amazing stuff," said Frost. "The thing about him that I love is that when he goes into a zone, he'll play it, and then if he's confused about anything, he'll call me, or he'll go to the art director or design director, and go like, 'Hey what's the deal with [this zone]? What's going on here?' And so we'll kind of explain what the vibe is, who's there, what factions are there, what races, that sort of thing. And he also looks at the environment itself."
Adds Frost, "He has this weird mix, and depends on the race or the faction, but some of it has a Firefly [television series] sound, that's got a little bit of country, but then there's techno futuristic-sounding beats over that, coupled with orchestrated stuff. But then on the Dominion side, there's a lot more robust-sounding, big orchestrated marches, with a lot more snare and stuff like that." Based on my time with WildStar, it's a mix I can get behind.
Tron meets neurosurgeon, only weaponized.
There's more to WildStar than I got to experience firsthand however, including the recently announced engineer and medic classes. The medic sounds intriguing based on developer Carbine Entertainment's description of the class. She's a high-tech hybrid: a healer and damage dealer all in one package. (In Carbine's recent DevSpeak video, the developer referred to it as "Tron meets neurosurgeon, only weaponized." Watching a medic in action, I was surprised at just how mobile the class is, spreading health and hurt around in equal measure. The engineer, meanwhile, is all about pets: combat pets, support pets, tanking pets, and so forth. Not to mention giant do-it-yourself tools of destruction that allow you to get up close and personal, or just lob death onto your foes from a distance.
Carbine also walked me through WildStar's housing system, which will allow players a lot of freedom in how to decorate their home as well as the plot of land surrounding it. Your housing plot isn't just a digital home, however, but a useful space for interacting with gameplay systems. For instance, if you're a chef, you can erect a grill and invite friends over to cook, and build a farm for planting seeds and growing ingredients. Meanwhile, you can change the overall visual tone of your plot, making it look like it's underwater, or filling the sky with a constant fireworks show.
The meat of the housing system is in the flexibility you have in placing items where you want them, both in and out of your house. You can move, rotate, and scale all sorts of objects--fences, columns, doors--and use them as you wish. WildStar beta testers have taken to crafting jumping puzzles out of all these pieces, and one player has gone so far as to build a dollhouse that is a perfect replica of the house itself--a house within a house. There are hundreds and hundreds of decor pieces to purchase, some of which you can buy with gold, and some of which you buy with social currency you earn by grouping with others and accomplishing tasks together.
In key ways, WildStar isn't all that wild, given its adherence to some tried-and-true genre tropes. I doubt the game will be destroying any expectations, but what I played was quite enjoyable and had a lot of personality. And sometimes, all you want to do is have some fun. And if that fun is of the twisted and evil kind the Draken revel in, then all the better.