E3 2014 Impressions of The Strain Content Update
"The new content showcases the same dynamism and variety on display in the existing game, and is built from the ground up to organically introduce solo players to small group adventuring and beyond."

One of the first games we got a peek at during this year's E3 was Carbine's WildStar. While our MMORPG expert Brian Tomlinson is hard at work on a full review of the recently-released title, we got a firsthand glimpse at the game's first major post-release content update, The Strain. The titular strain is a corrupting virus whose impact is felt both in the story and aesthetics of the new content in the update, which starts with two large new zones. Alongside those new playgrounds to bounce through, the developers are adding a host of new costumes, housing elements, mounts, items, and emotes (including a delightful Alien-style chestburster expression).

The new content showcases the same dynamism and variety on display in the existing game, and is built from the ground up to organically introduce solo players to small group adventuring and beyond. The high-level gameplay featured lots of dodging, jumping, and an emphasis on reflexes and think-on-your-feet-style strategizing. In addition, the team is hard at work on injecting a multitude of different kinds of activities, including a particularly impressive bit in which large globs of what looked like corrupted water had formed spheres throughout the environment. Jumping into the globs caused the player to swim through them, which was visually unique and allowed for a "pass through the rings" minigame.

We also saw a dungeon area, cited for being closer to the original EverQuest in the sense that rather than being strictly instances, different player groups would be able to see and interact with one another. This dungeon featured a number of different tiers, each tied to a primal element or concept. Completing these tiers stripped abilities from the end boss, a corrupted member of the game's Elder race (making an impactful first appearance after a lengthy disappearance from the galaxy, for those that have been following the game's lore thus far).

Another impressive diversion was a fully-wrought tower defense scenario in which teams of players worked together to defend the Tree of Hope from corrupted monsters (some of which towered stories over the player character). A number of defensive structures were available, including attacking, slowing, and for the particularly skilled and/or suicidal, ones with no defensive benefit but a chance to produce additional loot. In a fun bit of role reversal, should players fail to defend the tree, they were ejected by a burst of corrupted energy and tasked with taking the offensive, marching past the fortified enemy in an attempt to purge the Strain from the area. To shake things up, little colored mutants ran about the battlefield and served as power-ups: one in particular made the player run at a super speed, and we're told there are a number of others as well. This tower defense content was located right inside the main zone area, and players can take part in an organic fashion; we're told a full run could run from 20-30 minutes for a 20-person coterie.

What I saw of WildStar's content showcased the developers' desire to constantly throw new and interesting activities at their players, and had me wanting to play it more than ever. The Strain update is the first of many monthly content patches to come, and if what I've seen is any indication, players have a lot to look forward to.

Beta Preview
"WildStar doesn't allow any room for being lackadaisical if you want to win, which is certainly one of the highlights of my experience thus far."

I love getting beta invites, especially for games I can't wait to get my hands on in the first place. It creates a feeling of excitement and exclusiveness I can't otherwise achieve. I've done dozens of these bad boys, some excellent and some not too great, but there's one constant: the first time I drop into a world developers have created for me go questing in/destroy/wander, I feel as though I'm walking into unfinished territory. You ask, "Isn't that the point of a beta?" Well, normally yes, it would be. Enter Carbine Studio's science fiction epic MMORPG, WildStar. Those who read RPGFan's Most Anticipated Games of 2014 may recall reading about my eagerness to play WildStar. While the MMO market is flooded with a dozen formulaic copycats trying to throw different gimmicks at you while simultaneously striving to be unique and desirable, WildStar makes no allusions that it stands upon the shoulders of giants. Rather, it seeks to provide players with a familiar and watertight experience that anyone can delve right into. With seventeen former core staff members of the (in)famous World of Warcraft franchise, the bar is already set high.

The Creation. Keeping in mind that this was the beta, I had to make sure I wasn't expecting too much right from the get-go. I've never been one to breeze through character creation, as I might spend an ungodly amount of time with the character I make. You want to get this right on the first try, even though as far as most MMO betas go, your character is wiped before release. Right away it was apparent that Carbine intended to keep up the tradition of including the go-to character classes. Consider the Stalker, a stealth-based melee character that can dish out huge amounts of damage. Or the Medic, no stranger to RPGs, can be a party's healer (always gotta have one of those!) while the Warrior manages dual roles as both a hard-hitting, damage-dealing monstrosity and a life-saving, aggro-holding tank. What really ignited my curiosity were some of the other classes available at creation: the Spellslinger and the Esper. The Spellslinger is your typical casting class, but the execution of these abilities with the use of "mag pistols" makes the class unique. The Esper is an interesting class; while experimenting with it I quickly realized the point was to be a "jack of all trades, master of none." Essentially boiling down to a crowd controlling, high-damage dealing, running and gunning healer hybrid, the Esper is built to fill whatever gap may be in your party. Character creation really takes off with the inclusion of a mechanic unique to WildStar called the "Path System."  We all have those things we seek out in a game. I like to kill a lot of things, so I want to boost combat experience and access to kill contracts, so I chose "The Soldier" path. But players who are more aligned with uncovering each and every hidden secret on Nexus may want to choose "The Explorer," which functions as a cartographer of sorts. Dark Cloud fans rejoice; there's also a city and house building mechanic for those who choose "The Settler." Lastly, those who are hell-bent on absolute completion of monster logs and data-points throughout the game may want to lean towards "The Scientist." While character customization options are limited, I'm sure that by the time WildStar is released this will be expanded twice-over.

The Combat. Combat can kill or save an MMORPG. It's one of the best tools to make players keep their subscriptions alive. Terrible combat will undoubtedly ruin a traditional RPG, so when it comes to creating a game that's goal is keep players locked in for 100+ hours (at minimum) it's an absolute necessity to make it as thrilling and fun-filled as possible. One my biggest gripes and a constant irritation within the MMO genre is that a majority of the games available subject you to combat that can be played almost entirely stationary. You simply point and click while hoping you deal more damage than the other guy. WildStar has already seemingly succeeded in trying to eradicate that concept. By introducing a telegraphed combat system in which most abilities' areas of effect are marked in red on the ground, WildStar forces players to keep mobile for the entirety of each encounter. It's simple — if you want to live you have to dodge. I found myself not getting bored with combat at all throughout my time spent on Nexus. WildStar doesn't allow any room for being lackadaisical if you want to win, which is certainly one of the highlights of my experience thus far. All of these features add an excellent dynamic to PvP, in which there has always been a pang of "x class is better than y class." Combat success boils down to skill, which can be (in most situations) more important than gear and class, something the majority of MMOs lack in this day and age. PvP is always one of my favorite features of an MMO, and it's obvious that this was a focus during development.

The setting.  Now I know, I know. All this is well and good, but what about the world? Well, unfortunately something feels off with Nexus. While equal parts beautiful and cartoony, I find it hard to look past all the blatant and cringe-worthy science fiction tropes staring at players and begging them, "Please pretend this is original." Ancient alien race gone missing? Check. Science combined with magic used in weaponry? WildStar has you covered. War involving all-powerful group who is currently hunting another group made up of smaller groups because the all-powerful group has driven them from their home world? Check. Now while this is somewhat of a turn-off, the execution of each trope is masterfully done. Both player factions are fully realized as participants in a world-wide campaign with an expertly written story intertwined. I should also mention that one can never, I repeat never complain about gaining access to a hover board as a mount. Getting all of that out of the way, it does the game a disservice if I don't highlight how beautiful Nexus looks. With brightly colored environments and sharp models at every turn, there's no shortage of eye candy while traversing Nexus. Each area is original and consistent with the lore that Carbine has crafted. Even when there are radical changes in setting, such as walking through a desert and seeing a winter wonderland less than a football field away, the areas are a sight to behold.

My thoughts on WildStar thus far are mixed as I've been finding myself cutting them more and more slack with each session I jump into. It's become easier to look past the things that I find slightly unnerving, realizing that most of them just aren't a big deal in the grand scheme of things. The foundation for a great MMO is set upon excellent combat, interesting areas, a loot system that encourages players to continue forward, and classes that the player will actually want to play. The path system encourages players to go forth and play the game the way they want to play, which is one of the strongest mechanics in the game. The focus on end-game content is another strong feature that will keep players invested in WildStar, as far too many times people simply "run out of things to do" in an MMO. The team at Carbine seems not to have lost focus with battling the classic "WoW-killer" dilemma, and instead has sought to provide the gaming community with a not necessarily original, but expertly crafted experience that will provide many hours of entertainment. I look forward to playing the full game when it comes out and seeing exactly how far it has come. If it plays and looks this good in beta, I can only have high hopes for the future. WildStar is available for pre-order on March 19th, and has a tentative world-wide release date of June 3rd, 2014, with a monthly subscription fee of $14.99.

E3 2013: Media Event
"WildStar's design intent seems to be to appeal to as wide an audience as possible."

Jeremy Gaffney of Carbine Studios can't be accused of setting his sights low.

"We've been working on our own proprietary engine, tools, an original IP, really all with the 100% goal of making the MMO that is going to take the industry to the next level."

Mr. Gaffney was not but a few minutes into his NCSoft presser for gathered media at E3 2013 before uttering these very words.

"Carbine Studios was founded originally by about 20 senior members of the World of Warcraft team," Gaffney said. "Since then our company has had a mission: we want to go make the biggest MMO out there.

"Lots of people have this goal, so we'll see, but we really love our game. We're in closed beta right now with a couple thousand people having a great time, and we're going to make that bigger and bigger and better."

What Wildstar is attempting to do is extremely ambitious. The sci-fi but cartoony MMO has an art style reminiscent of not just World of Warcraft, but certain Pixar and Dreamworks films. The combat system has the player running around in an environment where both space and time matter. The environments themselves are sometimes out to kill you, with hot zones appearing where the player is standing indicating that a meteor or a stray laser is about to strike. It's all fast paced, whimsical, and undeniably visually appealing.

"What we're trying to do is something big," Gaffney said. "We're trying to combine the accessibility and action of console combat into a deep rich world of an MMO."

These are words we've heard from MMO developers before. But there are actual design decisions and systems that suggest Carbine at least has a different approach to reach that elusive goal.

One of those systems is the path system. Gaffney spent a great deal of time explaining the design philosophy behind this system: in addition to a traditional class, the player chooses a "path" that has to do with the style of game they like to play.

"Your path is all about how you love to play games," Gaffney elaborated. The paths include the Scientist, Explorer, Settler, and Soldier, with different quest options being available based on one's path. Scientists, for example, get points for studying different creatures and fauna. Explorers are encouraged to, er, explore. Soldiers get extra fighting goals.

"People are very strongly opinionated about something in a system they've never seen before in a game," Gaffney said, talking about the path system. "When you do that kind of thing, it means you've tapped into something fundamental that has not been met by the market. It's those kind of things that excite us the most."

The Settler was particularly unique and interesting, and Gaffney spent a good portion of his time talking about and demonstrating the Settler. "Our engine allows us to modify the terrain at runtime, and settlers actually get to do that — they actually get to build up the towns in the games themselves." Settlers can build vendors, quest givers, and other helpful things for other players.

"We love settlers as fans," said Gaffney. "Why? Because they are socializers. Everything they do helps everybody else in the area. They get rewards by helping other players. The more settlers in an area, the more they can build up a town and get higher tiers of things to add."

You don't have to be a settler, though, to take advantage of the runtime terrain modification. The housing system is clearly an area where Wildstar is looking to distinguish itself. "We provide housing for everybody so you get your own piece of the world to modify," Gaffney explained. "Those things devs have to change terrain — we let you do that in your house.

"You can decorate the outside of your house, you can put things on the house, on the ground. And inside, you can place things wherever you want. In your house, you can add your own style of wallpaper, floors, the trim — place whatever types of things you want here."

It's not just cosmetic either. "The better you decorate, the more XP you get in the game," Gaffney added. "Decorating is fun, but it's even more fun when it's part of the progression of your character. It's not just what's inside, it's what's outside. You can modify the terrain, you can have a mine, a farm — we really want you to have a piece of the world.

"This is the deepest housing system we can make. We're trying to integrate as many systems as possible all tying it together."

Gaffney went on to explain that decorating doesn't give you actual experience points, but rather affects rest XP, something MMO players are certainly familiar with and have been a staple of more "casual" MMOs.

Carbine was unable to provide a release date or even an open beta date, mentioning that they had targeted a small closed beta where they expected to get about 20,000 signups but have ended up with close to half a million so far.

The light-hearted nature of the game is certainly evident in the media they've provided so far. The trailer they showed at the start of the press conference went so far as to blow up the actual world the game is supposed to take place in, leading to some confused questions about what planet the demo was taking place on from some and chuckles from the rest.

But at its heart, Wildstar's design intent seems to be to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, which is notable in that it is almost the exact opposite approach of most MMO designs that have managed to be profitable in the US and aren't named World of Warcraft.

"What we're trying to do is make a game that lets you play the way you want to play. If you're excited about exploring, a bunch of the game is about exploring for you. If you're excited about combat, great, you're a soldier; now a bunch of the game is about combat for you.

"Guild Wars in particular did great action combat. Tera did very good feeling, strong hitting action combat. What we want to do is take the lessons learned from how to do good action combat and socialize it. How do you do this in a group? How do you do this for PvP? When you're in a raid, it turns out that when you can see what everybody in your raids is doing, strategy erupts out of it.

"It's about letting people play together in a different way."

With no release date and no financial model yet announced, we'll need to wait and see whether Carbine's inclusive vision pays off — for players, and for NCSoft.

© 2013 NCSoft, Carbine. All rights reserved.

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