It’s a bold studio that launches a subscription-based MMO these days. Some might even say that launching one without a readily addressable audience is a bit mad. Yet this is exactly what Carbine Studios has done with WildStar, a new kid on the pay-to-play scene. Madness? Well, it’s early days yet, but the (mostly) sure-footed way in which this well thought-out game has come out of the starting blocks might just indicate that if the folks over there are a bit crazy, perhaps it’s crazy like a fox.

WildStar sees two long-opposing forces, The Dominion and the Exiles (evil empire and plucky rebels, respectively) clash over the recently discovered planet of Nexus, a mysterious planet that’s been used as some kind of giant science experiment/secret project by one of your classic sci-fi “ancient, powerful and vanished” races, in this instance called the Eldan. Both the Dominion and The Exiles are keen to uncover exactly what it was the Eldan were up to and use that advantage to tip the balance in their ongoing war, so it’s up to players to pick a side and join the battle for ultimate control of Nexus and its bag o’ knowledge-goodies.

Boot up and to the strains of the game’s seriously rousing horn-heavy theme music, you’ll choose from four different races on each side, ranging from your standard humans to the likes of the long-eared, treehugging Aurin and on to the Chua, who are best described as the evil mad scientist version of Pikachu. Once a side and race has been picked, the next decision is one of six classes, which are roughly sci-fi analogues of traditional fantasy RPG classes. Some classes are restricted by race; if you want to play the stealthy Stalker class, for example, playing as a 7-foot Granok rock-man is not going to cut it. You’ll also need to pick one of four paths - Explorer, Solider, Settler or Scientist – which are side-professions for your character, and each add different gameplay elements and quests. Character customised to one’s liking, it’s off to Nexus.

It’s a colourful place. The art style of WildStar does immediately recall World of Warcraft, but look closer and there’s a real panache, and difference, to be found in the floating rocks, verdant fields and barren moons of the game’s world, teeming with interesting creatures and weird geography – an alien planet as designed by Willy Wonka. Above all, Nexus is vivid. The polychromatic world is often gorgeous to look at, and is certainly a visually refreshing change from the past decade of metallic and earth-tone games.

WildStar review
WildStar review
WildStar review

Some of the colours are worth paying particular attention to – red zones on the ground, indicating just where an attack is about to land. WildStar promised more dynamic MMO combat, and here it’s certainly delivered. Not only are players armed with a double jump and a dive roll, but aiming and evasion have been brought into the combat equation. Fire off an attack or effect, and as it’s charging up, a cone, circle or square on the ground will illustrate just what the area of effect will be – manually adjust your aim, or strafe to line up a shot, and you can hit three monsters with your attack instead of one, or slip up with a crucial heal for a group mate that ends up healing nobody.

Likewise, attack zone information constantly emanates from enemies you’re fighting, just ahead of each attack itself - make a well timed dive roll out of the danger zone and you can avoid damage entirely. These aiming and dodging skills frequently mean the difference between life and death. It’s a simple mechanic, but it livens combat up your standard MMO combat no end, especially for healers and DPS classes, who are forced to manoeuvre around the battlefield like never before for maximum effectiveness. Levelling up brings new attack skills to master aiming with, although you’ll need to do some homework if you want to know where you should be putting your skill points, as the game doesn’t make any effort to hold hands as you peruse the wide range of skills and trees available to you. You’ll have plenty of chances to experiment, though, as WildStar keeps you busy. In fact, it puts so much on your plate that is can be hard to know what to try next.

Main quest lines progress the player through the story that starts with their arrival on Nexus. One neat feature here is that the world always tailors its appearance to your own personal progress in major events - shut down the weather tower that’s causing a snow storm in the zone, and blue skies appear permanently over that part of the world; destroy the giant, threatening killbot that’s been a prominent landmark for hours of play time, and it stays good and blown up. This cause-and-effect trick of perspective manages to make the player feel like kind of a world-saving big deal.

WildStar review
WildStar review
WildStar review
WildStar review

Away from major quests, the NPCs of Nexus (like NPCs seemingly everywhere) have plenty of problems in the classic “giant rats have overrun my wine cellar!” department, and WildStar thematically links many of these together in mini-regions, so that you start off dealing with the practical problems plaguing a town and end up dealing with the big baddie that’s the root of the whole problem. When you tire of needy villagers, you can always go off to tackle some of your path quests. Each Path has several different types of mission that crop up – for example, Explorers are tasked with finding viewpoints for mapping, setting up surveillance, and thoroughly exploring the world (among other things). You can also spend time gathering resources to assist you in your chosen crafting/trade skills. Bored of that? Spend some time on total customisation of your outfit, or (from level 15) building your own house (and garden, and outbuildings) and filling it with furniture. Enough domesticity? Find challenges around the world and earn rewards by making a certain number of kills or climbing a tricky path under the time limit.

And then there’s group play. Dungeons await looting by groups of 5 from around level 20, (and 20 and 40 player raids await the hardcore at higher levels), shiphand missions jet you offworld to tackle mini episodes in outer space with difficulty scaled to your party numbers, and a handy sign-up queue feature makes it easy to jump in line for Adventures - distinct story chapters in special areas, with a player-voting pick-a-path variations that make them highly replayable. There’s also an insane number of PvP modes which can also be joined through the matchmaking system. In WildStar, one simply does not run out of things to do. And while none of it’s all that innovative, and it times it feels a bit like busywork, the action combat and excellent execution make it all plenty of fun.

That’s helped along by the game's tongue-in-cheek tone, which takes a humorous approach and isn’t the least bit self-conscious about dropping goofy lines and pop culture references or mixing up the sci-fi with tropes from westerns, fantasy, and horror. The game and its lore mostly wears a big corny grin on its face, but the world is so meticulously crafted and well realised that it can also pull off trotting out some more serious themes and ideas touched on by the “eternal war” setting on occasion as well.

WildStar review
WildStar review
WildStar review

Technically the game seems to be largely free of the glitches that have marred the early days of many MMOs, but there is a currently a major caveat to that for New Zealand players – something seems to have gone a bit pear-shaped with the regionalisation of servers, which means that every time a new patch drops, no matter how small, some areas of the world experience an issue whereby the game won’t run, and New Zealand happens to be one of them. Suggested fixes from support only seem to last until the next patch, and it seems that in order to reliably run the game, many New Zealand players are forced to run it through a VPN every time they want to play. Needless to say, this is a major frustration, and it’s hard to recommend that Kiwi players buy the game (and pay for a subscription) until the issue gets sorted out more permanently.

There’s some doubt too over how the game’s much-touted CREDD system, which allows players to pay for their subscription with in-game currency, will pan out. Players with cash to burn can buy CREDD (play time) and sell it for in-game gold, and vice-versa. Carbine posits this as an excellent way for time-rich, cash-poor players to be able to continue to play without forking our real-world dough every month, but the amount of game-gold required on the CREDD exchange at time of writing is large enough that it’s certainly not a viable payment option for any low-level player – but then perhaps this is by design. It seems likely that prices are only likely to rise as more of the player base hits the level cap.

WildStar isn’t offering anything radically new to experienced MMO players at launch, but its suite of familiar offerings is huge, varied, and impressively complete out of the gate. It’s all those old ideas done absolutely right – sort of like ordering a hamburger for dinner and receiving the best-looking, most delicious hamburger one has ever eaten. Server glitches aside, it’s good to see a studio actually learning the lessons of its MMO predecessors.