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Are there WildStar F2P Alternatives?

I think my "Jaded Look At Recent Steam Releases" feature is beginning to catch on, just a little, and I suppose that makes sense: Steam is now pushing so many titles on a weekly basis that having someone to separate the wheat from the chaff is a useful service even if it's not the most comprehensive view.

But variety is the spice of life, and so I would also like to keep the original (rather unpopular) feature of basically expressing what happens to be on my mind, and I can only apologize if this happens to be the furthest thing from yours.

Existing MMORPGs: Where The Past Is Being Patched To The Present.

As you might have gathered, I am somewhat interested in WildStar, despite it being yet-another-World of Warcraft-derivative that embraces being a theme park so readily that it's a wonder they don't stamp your hand when you subscribe.
 "Preselling you the home of your dreams... for money!" is a refreshingly candid admission.
This is because I found that WildStar innovates just barely enough to be genuinely enticing.  It takes the action-based combat mechanic pioneered by games like TERA, Guild Wars 2, and The Secret World, and refines them to the point where the balance is just right: not so action-reliant as to be too shallow nor have troubles with Internet latency, yet just action-reliant enough for the players to feel more involved than merely spamming their hotbar abilities in the best rotations.   The presence of a hotbar at all will make WildStar look like World Of Warcraft, but this is actually a whole new ball game.

Yet, I still have some lingering doubts.  More firsthand experience would help but, following the conclusion of WildStar's open beta, I was under a somewhat incorrect belief that my time in-game was done until release.   Thus, I decided to give some older MMORPGs that have since gone "Free-To-Play" a spin and see how they hold up to my recent WildStar experiences.

Lets start with a few whose experiences are still relatively fresh in my mind:
  • The Secret World has fantastic content - there may never be a better contemporary modern supernatural themed MMORPG - but the combat is extremely kludgy.  I feel that I can not even build my character because most of the abilities feel sorely redundant and are awkward to use.  Compared to the alternatives, The Secret World feels like a prototype wrapped in an unprecedentedly good narrative.
  • TERA (long title: The Exiled Realm of Arborea) really solidified what made action MMORPGs work, and WildStar is just bringing that to the next level.  I am mostly keeping away from this game because I realized that the end game kinda sucks, and you can really tell this is a 2011 Korean cyber baang game when you look at videos of the end game.
  • Neverwinter certainly never wintered well with me.  [We shall now pause here while the groaning subsides.]  It looks gorgeous, but the character classes are weird 4th edition monstrosities, character progression is a linear march through inconsequential choices that hold out on the genuinely interesting abilities for too long, and the unique combat mechanics they introduced were more detriment than benefit.
  • Defiance is definitely an action MMORPG, but it went too far, demoting players a mere four hotbar abilities on top of rudimentary Gears Of War style gunplay.  It's really hard for me to take that seriously as a contender in this genre, but I will say that the Arkfalls are a reminder that Trion Worlds still knew how to make good dynamic content events.
  • The Elder Scrolls Online is a mess, and not a Free To Play anyway, but I will mention it because some people think it's actually pertinent competition for WildStar considering its recent release.  It's not, the details why are a bit complicated, but the short version goes like this: Zenimax didn't know what they were doing.  They tried to make an MMORPG that's half way between Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and World of Warcraft, and obviously the result was going to please neither audience.  In striving to reach this impossible goal, they released The Elder Scrolls Online in a state where it could have used another year of refinement... but this is assuming the developers knew what needed to be refined, and they don't.
 If you need more details about what's wrong with The Elder Scrolls Online, Angry Joe gives it a right and proper reaming.
So, today and yesterday, I reacquainted myself with the foremost Free-To-Play alternatives that remained:

Game #1: Rift

Rift is a 2011 game... which actually surprised me when I came face-to-face with that fact.  How time flies!  That said, it's only been three years, just how much older could the game look and play, really?

The answer: surprisingly old. The very first thing I did was log in to Sanctum, the main city of my existing character's old faction, and I was floored at how the simple textures and polygons seemed so very minimalist.  I seem to recall that there were even complaints in beta about this, but I dismissed them as being Crysis-obsessed graphics snobs at the time.  "Surely, MMORPGs need to prioritize playability over appearance!", I would bluster.  Now, I think they might have had a point: this game feels old before its time.

Chances are good that better visuals can be found in Rift's late-2012 expansion, Storm Legion, but there is a problem there: I can't get to it because I don't have the necessary level 50+ character needed to access the new world, a significantly larger continent to the southeast.   Given how a well-established MMORPG will have most of its active players at higher levels, it's probable that the bulk of the playerbase is off that other continent, having fun, and I'm not invited until I grind to level 50.
Well, nevermind how Rift looks, the important thing is how it plays, right?  Compared to WildStar, I think there are two key points to be had here.

First, the flexible Soul system in Rift offers a great deal more diversity and depth than the WildStar classes I have seen.  In Rift, each choice of the four extremely basic classes (Warrior, Thief, Mage, Cleric) is actually just a determination of which batch of "souls" you have access to, nine souls per class.  Each individual soul in Rift can do as much as a character class in many other MMORPGs... yet, you slot three of these souls at all times and can switch your level allocation between all nine souls freely outside of combat.  Now that's some quality depth!

This was a bit of a speed bump for an old player getting back into the game, because my existing ability setup was considered moot and needed to be reallocated: I was defenseless and not intimately familiar with how to best setup my character.  Fortunately, it was always free to change your soul allocation, and there are now prefabs of popular builds you can choose between that set you up immediately.  However, it does not handle the automatic hotbar allocation very well.
The second key point I noticed about the gameplay is that Rift is actually not an action MMORPG at all.  Surprisingly, I encountered no telegraphs (red polygons to avoid that represent areas that attacks are effecting) in my short reintroduction with Rift.  I would have sworn there was some in this game, but then, there's no dodging allocation either, so maybe not.  That means this game runs on old-fashioned MMORPG 101 mechanics: players stand and slug it out with the mobs.

Thus reacquainted, I quietly uninstalled Rift on the same day I re-downloaded it.  I do not want to think that Rift, the MMORPG that has done more to advance the state of dynamic events in MMORPG than any other I know about, has actually become passe.  It's unthinkable.  And yet, were it not for the flexibility of its soul system, I would have to say that Rift actually plays obsolete versus what I experienced in WildStar.

Game #2: Guild Wars 2

Guild Wars 2 is a whole year newer than Rift, and its makers (ArenaNet) are notoriously forward-thinking.  In fact, the original Guild Wars was a quasi-MMORPG hybrid that seamlessly distributed its content, using dynamic peer-to-peer file sharing, while the players were actively playing it!  Are these developers as ahead of their time now as they were then?

Graphically, Guild Wars 2 held up better than Rift did.  Most of the polygons are still pretty rudimentary, but there is a sense of overwhelming stylization to everything, to the point where it may not be possible Guild Wars 2 can become dated; even if games became photorealistic, Guild Wars 2 would always have an identifiably art house quality.  Also, it has the absolute best stereographic support of any PC game I've ever seen.  Aside from that, I suppose WildStar does beat out Guild Wars 2 in terms of the sheer AAA graphical firepower.
http://visual.ly/guild-wars-2-which-profession
That's pretty vague...

As far as the gameplay was concerned, Guild Wars 2 did alright here as well.  Compared to WildStar, there are considerably less telegraphs going on in typical combat encounters, but telegraphs are still common, and the two dodge move allocation is here just as it was in The Secret World.   Funny enough, most attacks you can dodge are not telegraphed at all: if you see a projectile coming at you, move, and you will usually avoid it.  That was virtually unheard of in MMORPGs before Guild Wars 2, where projectiles would actually curve to hit you because the server had already decided you were hit before you even saw it coming.

Guild Wars 2 looks and plays fine, and I still have no idea why I don't play more of it... but I think my rampant inability to settle on a single character is probably the foremost factor.  I am terrible in situations in which there is no right or wrong choice, and Guild Wars 2 makes my choice of character harder than ever!

Due to player pressure, MMORPG developers are generally forced to balance the game so each player class is equally viable, so a person who wants to pick the "right," class already has an uphill battle ahead of them, usually starting at deciding what they want to do in a party and going from there.  However, Guild Wars 2 goes further than that: the professions (classes) can all perform the traditional roles of tanking, doing damage, or healing, so the role cannot be used as a frame of reference for the player to decide.  Guild Wars 2's introduction of additional races just muddled matters all the more because each race has unique skills which are not completely useless but, like the profession, mostly a thematic choice. 

Thus, choosing a character in Guild Wars 2 comes down to far fuzzier distinctions: how they play and how they look.  As this reddit contributor observes, there is a general difference in where you will be standing, how thick your armor is, and how hard the character is to play.  Yet, all of these factors are really quite fuzzy to me.  I simply can't decide on a profession, even before considering the matter of selecting the character's race!

Game #3: Star Wars: The Old Republic

WildStar could learn a lot from Star Wars: The Old Republic, because they are both cutting edge Sci-Fi MMORPGs that released at full box price plus subscription at release.  Yet, even with incredible brand recognition backing up Star Wars: The Old Republic, they eventually had to go Free To Play because there were simply not enough players interested in paying a subscription price for an MMORPG considering the available alternatives... didn't it?
Welcome back to the game but, before we let you in, let me remind you what a second class citizen you are for not subscribing!
Not exactly.  The first thing I was greeted with upon being reacquainted with Star Wars: The Old Republic was a lovely screen informing me that, as a "preferred" subscriber (because I had paid for something in the past) I was generally quite limited, including a 350,000 credit limit per character, only two character slots (a typo: it's six) and actual inability to wear high level equipment.   If you look at the feature breakdown list, this popup screen is not even half of the restrictions put on free to play model, nearly everything has been itemized now.

One particularly rude thing that happened was that I walked up to a resource node to try to recover it, and discovered I was being forced to forget to a "crew skill" (used for trade skills) because, at some point, they decided free to play characters need to pay to get access to all 3 crew skill slots.  Now, the actual fee is under $5 for a permanent unlock for that character, and that's not so bad, but it's the principle of the thing: I worked to level up those crew skills before they even made this change, and now I was being forced to either lose all my progress in one of those skills or not use any of them at all!  Wow!  This kind of heavy-handed nickle-and-diming is more likely to drive away Free-To-Play players than attract them.

As soon as I pried my 33rd level Scoundrel out of the carbonite he had been frozen in due to a free to play character slot limit, I entered the game and was immediately blown away by how smooth the frame rate was.  This is a late-2011 game, processor speeds have not been doubling like they used to, and so I was surprised to have such a well-optimized engine!  I jacked the game up to its maximum, "Ultra" setting, on a 1920x1080 borderless window, and I was still pulling an steady 40-60 FPS on my relatively-budget GeForce 660 Ti Boost card.
Alderaan looks lovely enough... as long as you don't look past where the engine stops rendering the grass.
Do the graphics suffer for the performance? Not particularly.  Compared to something like Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim everything in Star Wars: The Old Republic looks very clean.   Some of the terrain textures look a bit blocky, but that's alright: I was expecting a computer game, not photo-realism.   To some extent, Star Wars itself has sort of a low-tech look, so it could be argued that the rudimentary methods used for many of the special effects is actually thematically correct.

Lest we forget, Star Wars: The Old Republic made headlines by being completely voice-acted.  If an NPC has a conversation of you, somebody will have read the lines.  Some people really like this feature.  Personally, I'm mostly interested in the story.  In many ways, this is like the third game in the Knights Of The Old Republic series, which makes even more sense when you realize it was made by the same developers of the first game in that series.

When it came down to the gameplay, I noticed the much same thing I did with Rift. The game mechanic has some nice nuances and depth to it - not quite to Rift depth, but depth nonetheless.  However, it is definitely not an action MMORPG: once again, your character is expected to stand there and soak damage like traditional MMORPGs before it; like Rift, most of the Star Wars: The Old Republic gameplay experience you have already seen in World of Warcraft.  Perhaps the most innovative thing going on here is the Scoundrel and Imperial Agent classes have the capability to take cover... that, and the constant assistance of your companion NPC.

Yes, a fairly unique thing about Star Wars: The Old Republic is everyone is playing a pet class.  Your companions are ever-present, you meet through class-specific story routes, and you can freely choose any one of these companions to support your character in the field.   Eventually, you accrue companions that serve in any of the usual party roles of tank, healer, or damage doer, with some pulling hybrid balances in between.  Of course, specialized player characters do a better job than specialized companions, since we can't have players feeling obsolete.
The companion mechanic puts a somewhat antisocial spin on things.  It makes Star Wars: The Old Republic a game you primarily play alone with an NPC companion to back you up because there is that much less pressure to seek out other players to help you.  However, many encounters are balanced to be difficult enough to require other players (marked [SQUAD] on your quest log), and many of the best activities, such as "Flashpoints," must be done with the assistance of other players.

Good thing you don't need other players for most things, because Star Wars: The Old Republic certainly seems barren from an individual player perspective.  I did not play during prime time, but the Republic Fleet location that serves as a central meeting hub only had 134 players and only one instance.  Alderaan (a mid-level zone) had 22 players in the entire huge zone.   It does not help the game's low population appearance that NPC count is actually surprisingly low, as most tracts of Alderaan I traveled across were simply barren terrain!

I think the population of Star Wars: The Old Republic is stable, but I am guessing that most of the players are sitting around at maximum level, engaged in PvP, as that would seem to be the primary end game activity of this game, and the major focus of the last big expansion, Galactic Starfighter

Overall, I would say Star Wars: The Old Republic is a great game for Star Wars fans, probably the best there ever will be, but as for everybody else... WildStar really has nothing to fear here, as this is not even an action MMORPG (unless you count the arcade mini-games, which are something else entirely).  Besides, the micro-transaction gouging is so pronounced that I sort of feel like this game is not a viable Free To Play alternative.

MMORPGs would seem to be evolving, after all.

Considering nearly everyone seems to want to make a World Of Warcraft (2004) theme park, I was not expecting a whole lot to have changed since the days of Lord Of The Ring Online, a 2007 game which is pretty much on the same level as Star Wars: The Old Republic (2011) or Rift (2011) in terms of core MMORPG gameplay mechanic, even though each game innovated in other important ways.  Seven years is a long time to be running in place, can you blame me for thinking MMORPGs were going nowhere fast?
And yet, I now realize that actually there is a generation ahead of those games to be found in the action MMORPG genre that includes contenders such as The Secret World (2012), TERA (2011 Korea, 2012 everywhere else), Guild Wars 2 (2012), Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn (2013, not Free To Play, and only partially an action MMORPG),  Neverwinter (2013), The Elder Scrolls Online (2014, not Free To Play), and now WildStar (which will not be Free To Play at release).

The core difference is advancements in Internet bandwidth technology that have permitted quasi-action based mechanics which introduce new possibilities of player involvement beyond what goes on their hotbar.  This newer generation has just been evolving the idea further along, with WildStar being the current pinnacle of this idea that I am currently aware of, due to near constant use of telegraphing (both by players and monsters) and actual environmental telegraphs.  Importantly, WildStar does not skimp on introducing a wide variety of end game activities, as well as a reasonable number of side-activities prior to the end game.  The result is the literal state of the art of theme park MMORPGs... even if a theme park is a tough sell these days.

Regarding finding a Free To Play alternative to WildStar, it seems the best compromise is currently Guild Wars 2, which makes considerably less use of telegraphing but is overall a pretty solid implementation of the action combat mechanic.  TERA is a decent choice as well, so long as you can tolerate a lackluster endgame.  That said, it seems WildStar is largely in a class of its own, as neither choice does the combat mechanic quite as well as it does.  Time will tell how well EverQuest Next (not to be confused with Landmark) and ArcheAge compare.

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