In any list of MMOs worth getting excited about in 2014, Wildstar is likely to make the cut. Carbine Studios and NC Soft have crafted an intriguing mix of cartoony visuals, deep questing, and action-oriented combat that should appeal to a broad selection of players looking for a new sci-fi MMO world to play in. I dug into the recently released beta for several days of exploration, fighting, and leveling, and found a number of features that help to distinguish Wildstar from the pack, and where it draws inspiration from established ideas.

The first thing I notice about Wildstar is its art style. Take the exaggerated characters of World of Warcraft, and move it several notches in the direction of Ratchet & Clank, and you have a good idea what to expect from this new title. The art style reflects a zany humor and irreverence that is inherent to virtually every element of Wildstar, but it doesn’t cross the threshold into being childish.

Getting Started 

Character creation offers an expected choice between two competing factions. The hegemonic Dominion is an empire that seeks to dominate everything in its path, while the Exiles are a group of militant rebels that have broken off from the monolithic government. Both groups seek to capture, colonize, and exploit the planet of Nexus – which holds the secrets of an ancient and forgotten civilization called the Eldan. 

Each faction includes four races, and they don’t break down along established lines of the “pretty” faction and the “monster” faction. Instead, both groups have a human variant, and then several other options of more otherworldly styles, including everything from a mechanical race of killing machines (the Dominion’s Mechari) to a space-zombie like species of aliens on a quest for a cure to their degenerative disease (the Exiles’ Mordesh).

The engineer I create has some fun customization options. While her body shape and clothing are preset, Wildstar offers a broad array of options and sliders for facial structure, hair, colorations, and accessories. Each class is distinguished by the weapon they wield, and I choose the engineer (the final class to be revealed to the public) because of the giant launcher she hefts as she charges into battle. The class is built for a combination of damage dealing and tanking, and her combat mechanic is all about building up “volatility” with certain launcher abilities in order to trigger other more powerful shots from the weapon. 

Coming To Nexus

Both factions begin the game in a starter zone off-world from Nexus. For my Exile, the ship carrying all the colonists is under attack from the Dominion when my character is pulled out of cryo, and we get right into the action. 

Mission giving and objectives don’t break the mold; I’m quickly shuffled towards an initial quest giver, and while they speak some voice-acted flavor, the bulk of the conversation with them is handled via text, eschewing the full voiceover work we’ve seen in some other recent MMOs. 

I like the way my character moves around, including a limited-time sprint that comes from holding down the shift button, as well as a double jump mechanic that calls to mind the 3D platformers that so clearly helped inspire the look of the game. 

It’s not long before I have my first glimpse of combat, which is where Wildstar really shines. Almost every action that you and your enemy takes telegraphs a clear outline of area-of-effect onto the ground of the battlefield, and a double tap of any direction dodges you away from harmful effects. Many abilities still charge up or channel even as you move around the field.  Very much like in Guild Wars 2, battles feel more action-oriented and focused on constant movement, but the fundamentals are still rooted in hotbar ability selection. 

New ability slots unlock gradually over the course of play, and several hours in I was still limited to five or six major combat abilities at a time. However, at the same time you’re acquiring a far larger number of abilities than can fit into that hotbar, demanding that players think carefully about the set they’ll slot at any given time. These different abilities also tier up over time, increasing their potency as you move deeper into the game. These various sets of abilities are designed to be changed out at regular intervals as you level up, or even as you move from one role to another, helping to assure that you don’t get trapped into a leveled build that you’re not happy with. 

The various tutorial missions aboard the Exile ship eventually result in a crash landing down on Nexus, and that’s where the real exploration begins. 

Digging In

Wildstar really gets going once you are planetside, and you’re able to begin adventuring in the large open zones you find there. All the standard features of a good UI and MMO gameplay are present, but I appreciate a number of little touches. Mission objectives are all numbered, and track automatically onto the game map to show you where to find your next piece of the action. Your character screen includes an option to edit and set up a costume from amid all your available equipment, and have that visual presentation be different from the gear you’re wearing for its stats. I also like the game’s internal codex, which offers a good way to clarify things about the world and lore for players who care for such things.  

One of the big features that sets Wildstar apart is the game system of paths, and I start to really explore my path once I’m wandering around Nexus. Players choose a path at character creation, alongside their class. If class dictates the style of combat you’re enthusiastic about, then path is a more direct descriptor of the kind of player you are, and the content you’re excited about engaging with. Being a soldier gives you additional combat challenges, explorers are all about finding high peaks and hidden caves, settlers focus on player-built housing and supporting other players, and scientists are targeted towards true lore enthusiasts, who want to really go in depth on the game world. Paths level up just like your class, and you get new abilities as you play with them and complete quests. I chose the explorer, and started having a blast with some of the side missions it provided. One explorer quest sent me clambering to the top of a high mountain. Another had me claiming territory for the Exiles across a large map, and a third sent me in search of a hidden grotto with a host of monsters and treasure inside.

The world of Nexus is great fun to explore, mixing a western frontier vibe into the expected science fiction trappings. The zones I explore are filled with compelling monsters with varied combat techniques, and I appreciate some of the unique facets of the game world I discover along the way; one location focuses on loftite farming, a gravity-defying substance that lets my character jump dozens of feet into the air when near a major vein of the stuff. Thanks to the easy flow of missions and fast-paced combat, it’s a breeze to make my way up to level ten. 

As I close out my initial exploration of Wildsar, level ten opens up a host of new features I’ll have to explore in the future. Tradeskills are classic MMO professions like mining and relic hunting, allowing for additional activities to engage with. Hobbies like cooking and farming also become available. But, from a pure coolness factor, nothing beats level ten’s ability to ride a hoverboard – Wildstar’s answer to the mount. Before I log out of the beta, I take a quick spin around the zone on my new ride. 

Wildstar has all the hallmarks of a top-notch MMO, and I’m more than ready to continue my explorations beyond level ten. Those first few hours didn’t give me much of a chance to check out group content, and most of the combat I witnessed was fairly simple. But even in those early hours, I can sense the challenge ahead in mastering the highly skill-based battle system, and I’m a big fan of the science fiction universe that Carbine has crafted here. I’m extremely hopeful about the game’s potential. If you’re looking for a new MMO to hang your hopes on, Wildstar isn’t a bad bet.