WildStar is a busy game. In every direction, shiny baubles and fluttering flags and swirling beacons of light compete for your attention. The world of Nexus is awash with color--or, more specifically, awash with all of the colors, many of them splashed across the screen at any given time as if by an artist determined to exhaust his entire supply of paint. Developer Carbine Studios, apparently unable to choose a single art style, squeezed multiple ones together, crafting an audiovisual potpourri that's as eclectic as the game's narrative themes. A horn-heavy tune, the kind John Williams would be proud to have written, calls out during a planetside battle, evoking Star Wars and its galactic tensions. Graceful gazelles glide across the grass while the music whispers a hint of Disney's Pocahontas soundtrack, at least when it isn't mirroring chord progressions from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. Quests and regions refer to Left 4 Dead and Firefly, and your level-up notification flashes with comic-book pizzazz. In WildStar, the pop culture references flow freely down a river of science fiction and fantasy themes, each wink and nod leaping from the waters with glee.
This concoction makes for an overwrought aesthetic, and while I am occasionally struck by the gaudiness, I'm more often struck by WildStar's beauty. But even when I venture into villages swamped in kitsch, I know that I am in Nexus. The zombies and the horned snow monsters, the hoverboards and skyboats, the aloof robots and talking vegetables are all wrapped into a world that is very much its own, no matter how easy you might think it is to compare WildStar to World of Warcraft. Such a comparison is a superficial one: where Warcraft aspires to the Warhammer universe's chunky proportions and bulging architecture, WildStar details its landscapes with bright green curlicues and gray-blue bubbles to depict grass and rocks.
I beg your pardon for so quickly dissecting WildStar's looks, but my adoration of an online role-playing game is directly proportional to how much I enjoy existing in its world, and how well it encourages me to leave behind the comfort of the starting areas and set my eyes upon the more perilous regions beyond. And even when I felt the grind while chasing the game's countless missions, I still felt that tingle that came from wondering what might lie outside my current zone. Early in the game, I was enamored with the aforementioned gazelle creatures and the bucolic wilds they roamed. It was here that the Aurin race rallied around an ancient (and sentient) tree--and here that the tree fell under attack. It wasn't the locals' dialogue that made me so invested in the subsequent missions, but rather the wistful climate and the nature of great beauty spoiled by war.
Later, when I was more directly involved with the war between WildStar's two opposing player factions--the Dominion and the Exiles--I was swept away by the audiovisual barrage that did its best to veil how endless clockwork battles between non-player characters could never truly be won. But it was these grand gestures that made me aware of my purpose on Nexus, even when the commanders that poured details into my questing journal became cliche-spouting mission machines. Even at its most charming, WildStar can't always overcome monotony; I spent more time acting as a wedding planner for talking bunny rabbits than I care to reveal, and witnessing the final ceremony wasn't much reward for the tedium of searching for lost groomsmen. But even though I was immune to the allure of trinket-toting rodents, I always presumed something more intriguing would lie around the bend. And it always did.
Suffice it to say, not every activity in WildStar is stuffed with meaning, but with such a breadth of content, it's difficult not to find appealing elements, even if you prefer to chase waypoints without paying any mind to the context. In fact, the game's fascination with visual gewgaws has parallels in the gameplay that make the quest writing almost superfluous. "Collect all the litter and activate all the objects," Carbine seems to say, more concerned with keeping you busy than with making every activity feel all that important. What those objects might be depends on the path you choose when creating your character. Paths are independent of your race and class; think of them as professions that open up different ways of interacting with the world. Scientists keep themselves busy fixing robots and scanning monsters, while adventurers leap to higher ground looking for artifacts and hidden nooks.
I'm a settler. I collect resources and use them to erect various machines and miscellany--gadgets that give you health boosts, campfires for cooking, and so forth. There's appeal in feeling like I'm gathering items for the greater good, knowing that the taxi stand I build will enable fellow Exiles to travel more efficiently, or that the vendbot I summon might help a teammate empty his pockets of useless items and pad her pocketbook. Other tasks aren't all that substantial; I run about villages lighting fires on spindly tiki torches and planting flowers to brighten up the decor in addition to my more relevant community services. Profuse scatterings of collectibles and items, each object labeled with an icon that urges you to interact with it, ensure you have lots of stuff to do, but it's undeniable busywork: interaction for the sake of interaction.
To its great credit, WildStar makes the most vital elements--movement and combat--energetic and enjoyable. This isn't the first massively multiplayer online game to include a double jump, but it's the first such double jump that has felt so free and easy. I enjoy the basics of locomotion here, most often for the breezy animations and the overall sense that Nexus is a fine place to spread your allegorical wings. I occasionally found myself leaping into the most unusual places as I followed trails of settler resources, surprised that areas so unlikely to be traversed were still built with great care so that players wouldn't get stuck in crevasses. The primary obstacle to exploration is the world itself, which doesn't hew to a consistent set of physical rules; mild hills block your passage with invisible walls and steep inclines that look insurmountable pave the way to higher vantage points.
You needn't travel by foot. My current ride of choice is a hoverboard, though your first vehicle will be one tamed creature or another--no boring horses here. Whether you stay on foot or not, however, your travels inevitably lead you into battle. In the most basic sense, WildStar is built on the foundation that countless games have laid before it: you earn new skills as you level up, and equip those skills to a hotbar, tapping your number keys to fire off spells or bullets, or to slash away at an attacking creature's grotesque face with a set of claws.
Profuse scatterings of collectibles and items, each object labeled with an icon that urges you to interact with it, ensure you have lots of stuff to do, but it's undeniable busywork: interaction for the sake of interaction.
If the sight of a hotbar inspires within you eye-rolling assumptions that WildStar must be the same old tap-and-wait experience, take delight in knowing that this specific brand of MMOG combat is built to keep you mobile. You couldn't confuse WildStar with an action game--there's no sense that each key press results in an immediate, weighty onscreen action--but cooldowns are quick, and most skills are assigned an area of effect rather than being limited to a single target. My primary character is a spellslinger who uses her dual pistols to inflict as much damage as possible, though spellslingers aren't necessarily concerned just with cutting down the enemy; they can also act as healers. Skills typically emanate in arcs, cones, circles, and rectangles, affecting the players and creatures unlucky enough (or lucky enough) to stand within range of your fury.
Enemies telegraph their strongest attacks with similar tells, the most powerful of them requiring you to roll and leap around to avoid the red patches that designate dangerous areas. Out in the rolling hills and snow-covered meadows of Nexus, this makes for fun adventuring, whether you're on your own or tagging along with other players. You're likely to run into a few idiosyncrasies as you traverse Nexus, many of them to be found within snowy Whitevale, where bizarre enemy leash ranges can make some open-world skirmishes a hassle. (In this region, some creatures can move only a foot or two from the location to which they are leashed before the game replenishes their health bars and they hop a few steps back to their original spot.) WildStar is generally stable and feature-complete, however, and such easily fixed foibles are momentary distractions and not signals of deeper troubles.
In the game's dungeons and adventure scenarios, tensions rise substantially. One dungeon boss proved problematic for my five-player party, which struggled to collect incoming green orbs before they could reach--and buff--the hulk demanding our heads. It wasn't the creature's main attacks that proved most problematic, however, but the treacherous spheroids that sometimes radiated from the beast, temporarily turning WildStar into a bullet-hell shooter. We ultimately succeeded, though only two of us were standing when the ogre finally fell.
Such battles require you to keep a close eye on enemy behavior, but the chaos is rarely overpowering, making such challenges welcome outliers in a genre rarely singled out for requiring skillful play. Cooperative levels called adventures are the most rewarding places to prove your mettle, given their creative use of ideas not often associated with MMOGs. The War of the Wilds adventure, for instance, appropriates elements of competitive arena games like League of Legends, unleashing waves of AI grunts that complicate your goal of capturing more flags than your computer-controlled rivals. You dodge out of range of a bearded abominable snowman and into a healer's green arc of healing, all while setting fire to the rampaging hordes. Adventures are fun--and more vitally, they are fun to return to again and again.
Player-versus-player battlegrounds are subject to the whims of human players, making them even more frantic than adventures and dungeons--sometimes too frantic, actually; some battles require all of your senses just to make sense of the hodgepodge of red and green arcs players paint onto the ground while attacking. These capture-the-flag and assault-and-defend variants are fortunately exciting even when the undisciplined visuals threaten anarchy, at least, and opening the caches of goodies you reap as rewards for victory often comes with the possibility of receiving some house decor for your troubles.
You will likely collect such decor even before you reach level 15, the level at which you may unlock access to your very own plot of land. Player housing is a welcome offering, a once-standard feature now often relegated to a post-release patch, if it is ever added at all. Delightfully, your home in WildStar is not just a house, but an entire floating island upon which your abode is but one element. You can plant gardens, set up healing stations, place crafting tables, and even erect a dungeon upon your island in the sky, thus making your home a useful destination and not just a virtual status symbol. Some players have used the items they purchase and collect (beds, trees, empty toilet tissue rolls, wall art, and so forth) to craft jumping puzzles upon their plots. I've approached my home as a dollhouse, taking great care to maximize its attractiveness, rotating and resizing tables and chairs as if I might be preparing a fancy tea party.
Alas, the only drink I'm serving right now is the moonshine I created by jumping up and down in a giant vat of fermented fruit. Oh WildStar, how charming and brassy you are, how loud and brazen and often irresistible you are. Your charisma has dulled over time, I'm afraid; I'm less beguiled by your thematic mishmash than I was when I started, yet there are still crannies I have yet to peek into, and I'm itching to discover what might be crammed into them. More than likely, I'll find more things to collect, more quests to take, and more outposts promising refuge. WildStar inspires compulsion, laying down trails of tasty candies that lead to even more candy trails, and in doing so, makes the case that "fun" can be a fine cornerstone around which to construct a massive adventure.