Friday, March 21, 2014

Wildstar vs. The Elder Scrolls Online

Thanks to both of the NDAs being lifted on each of these games (Wildstar's first, to no one's surprise) I wanted to give a run-down of what you can expect from these if you choose to pick one or both up.

I played a few beta weekends for Wildstar, and a couple for TESO. Wildstar is very fun and innovative, with fresh twists on established MMO mechanics, and TESO, well, isn't.

I half-considered ending this piece there, but I suspect most of you will want more details, so here goes...

Wildstar is just plain fun. I've been following its development for a couple of years, (and watching the dev team's awesome Devspeak videos) so was familiar with the tone and setting of the game, and whilst there's not a great deal terribly original (other than Paths, which I'll touch on), the game is extremely polished, looks and runs amazing, and is just generally very fun to play. It's your usual MMO fare, so pick a faction, pick a race, pick a class, and uniquely for Wildstar you also have to pick a Path. Paths essentially let you play the game the way you want, and tailor to different playstyles; there are four available: Soldier, Explorer, Scientist, and Settler. The Soldier receives special combat quests, the Explorer receives jumping and cartography quests, the Scientist gets quests to find and identify new objects and species, and finally the Settler constructs new outposts and waystations that give anyone that uses them various buffs and protections. This is one of Wildstar's best features, and really sets it apart from any other MMO. I personally played an Explorer, and some of the jumping puzzles were quite devious in their own way.

Wildstar's "telegraph" system is something that's been seen in other MMOs, but not quite to this quality or scale. Essentially, every mob (and even your own abilities) will place down patterns on the ground to show where they are about to strike, and it's up to you to move out of the way before the attack completes and hits you. Different mobs have different telegraphs, and if you let some of them connect they can outright kill you in one hit, so it's best to try and avoid them when possible. This adds a bit more interactivity to MMO combat than I've seen before, and puts the onus firmly on the player to survive, instead of being able to blame the RNG for an unlucky hit. Essentially, if you die it's because you suck at avoiding being hit.

Questing is fun, if not terribly original. In addition to receiving quests from the zone you will also receive quests based on whichever Path you selected. There are group quests, which often require needing to kill a large raid-type boss with a group, or several groups if they're strong. Housing becomes available at level 14, and PvP is also something you can do, although I haven't yet. Carbine also have a lot planned for endgame (for max level characters), including 40-man raids (as well as easier 20-man raids), instanced areas, dungeons, and open PvP. Hamidon, this is not. Ok, I've talked up Wildstar enough, and it's time to turn to the elephant in the room.

So...The Elder Scrolls Online...well, it's not enjoyable, or at least it wasn't for me, nor for around five people I know who all tried it, none of whom particularly liked it. Essentially, when I was playing TESO (admittedly this was about 2 - 3 months ago; I'm sure some things have likely changed since then) it felt like I was playing an early alpha of a game that was being made five years ago. The graphics were...functional, I guess, but nothing amazing to look at. Combat was again, functional, but really not memorable in any special way. The devs have commented that their AI is "groundbreaking", but I can't say that I personally noticed much in that direction.

Beginning at the start though, the warning bells for TESO were ringing even in the tutorial. First off, the game is fully-voiced (unlike Wildstar) and the voice actors themselves are pretty stellar, including Michael Gambon (Albertus Dumbledore from most of the Harry Potter films), John Cleese (Monty Python, A Fish Called Wanda), Jennifer Hale (Femshep from the Mass Effect series) and Kate Beckinsale (from most of the Underworld films), amongst others. So yes, the voice acting is great. Sadly, it's downhill from there. Half way through the tutorial I found a rack where you could see various weapons, and needed to choose one for your character to start with. I clicked one, tried it out, and then tried to click another, only to find that you get to choose one and that's it. In pretty much every tutorial I've played you get to mess around with whatever weapons and abilities you want before making a final selection; not so in TESO, and this put a bad taste in my mouth right from the get-go. You can switch between first and third-person at will, which is a nice touch, but finding interesting things to do is a laborious exercise. Unfortunately, much of the game world is simply empty, marked by rocks, or trees, but not much else, not even random mobs on which to grind experience. TESO's world doesn't actually feel like one, but instead feels like a group of staging areas set one after the other.

TESO's UI's is also clunky, and was clearly designed for fans of the Elder Scrolls series. You don't get a minimap, just a compass at the top of your screen which gives you the general heading for certain quest locations. I am very anti-compass and pro-minimap, so this was particularly aggravating for me, needing to open the full map constantly to properly see where I was actually going. Some quests were interesting, but the totality of the problems were just making me not particularly enjoy the experience, and after a few hours I quit and did not look back. So, full disclosure: maybe the game gets tons better down the line (I think I was 5 - 6 when I stopped), but I kinda doubt it. It's my belief that Wildstar is going to blow TESO out of the water for sheer enjoyment. The only saving grace for TESO may be the number of Elder Scrolls fans out there, because if you loved Morrowind and Skyrim then you're probably going to like TESO a lot more than the average person, such as myself. Still though, I don't think there are enough Elder Scrolls fans in the universe to be able to keep this subscription-only game going; at this point I think Zenimax are attempting to recoup as much of their development expenses through box sales and subscriptions as they can, before converting the game to free-to-play down the line. I will be stunned if there has been no free-to-play announcement for TESO within a year of its release.

This will be the World of Warcraft vs. EverQuest Star Trek Online vs. Star Wars: The Old Republic Guild Wars 2 vs. The Secret World of our time. Two big MMOs enter, but who will be left standing at the end? It's my sincere belief that Wildstar is the superior game, and the one worthy of spending your hard-earned money on. The release dates are right around the corner (4th April for TESO, 3rd June for Wildstar) so it won't be a guessing game for much longer. Go Wildstar!