Playing Wayfinder marks the first time in my games writing career that my impression of a game has involved quite so much of my staring at the screen and shrugging.
For those of you who follow my work specifically, this probably makes sense on its own, but it feels relevant to lay down my bona fides. I have been working as an MMO journalist for 14 years now and also working specifically as a reviewer for four. The idea of getting my hands on a product with a short turnaround time and a limited scope of engagement is pretty second nature to me. Indeed, I’ve said to people before that reviewing is about being able to establish a decent idea about a game quickly and then seeing how the game either does or does not live up to that first impression.
So when I say that Wayfinder is a game that is oddly difficult to actually talk about, that is in and of itself unique. Normally, I have no problem laying down over a thousand words about what parts of a game work, don’t work, might work in the future, or make me want to love the game forever so long as the designers fix the attitude problem they’ve developed in presentations. (Spoiler warning: They did not.) So to walk away from my early access preview of Wayfinder without a strong throughline is… odd.
Now, I want to cut a fine line here because I suspect some of the problem here is due to how the preview period ahead of today’s early access launch was actually structured. Rather than starting with the positives up-front and moving into the parts that don’t work, then, I want to talk by explaining the setup for this preview and how that affected my first impressions. To wit, I was given access to what amounted to the entirety of the game with most everything unlocked, no main story whatsoever to follow, and instructions to mostly go out, enjoy sidequests and the like, and just explore the game’s feel.
This is not in and of itself unusual; most preview events do not allow you to make your character to start (not that Wayfinder has character creation anyway), as the developers want to put their best foot forward. I do think this is a defensible structure and way to put forth a preview.
It is, however, a format that I do not particularly like. Unless I know your game inside and out and need no further introduction, plunging me into high-level gameplay without so much as a cheat sheet is a bit like giving me a backhoe and a big open area to just do whatever. I don’t even know what most of these buttons do. My first chunk of time will be spent trying to get a handle on that, and that’s not conducive to really developing a picture of what the game feels like.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Wayfinder’s immediate virtues require fairly little introduction. The game looks gorgeous, with a distinct soft-edge neon approach that is hard not to love. The various characters each have a bespoke kit of abilities but can equip what appears to be a very broad variety of weapons, so there’s the option to marry the weapon of your choice to the game mechanics that you favor, and each character does boast a breadth of fine customization options. Just as solidly, the game’s combat does feel responsive and fluid, reminding me of nothing so much as TERA’s combat at its best moments (which is praiseworthy).
However, some of those virtues are also weaknesses – in the tragic hero sense. While its approach is gorgeous, the way this preview threw me into the deep end left me also cognizant of how noisy it all was. I’m sure that if I had been going through and talking to vendors and been told where things were, it would all look clear, but there’s a certain detail level where your eye just breaks down. You’re being fed so much visual information that your brain fails to register all of it. It’s like Michael Bay as a city planner.
Similarly, it’s nice that each individual character offers a lot of options, but this makes me not one whit happier that characters themselves are functionally classes. I do not like this decision. I don’t like it in other games, and I don’t like it here, and the main saving grace here is that Wayfinder does not claim to be an pure and true traditional MMORPG like other games that follow a similar formula. But its not-quite-an-MMORPG elements still get in the way here. There is housing, so I can have my own space, but… I can’t have my own character? I can just make my character look the way I want? Within a narrow vector? It’s kind of wonky.
I have not forgotten the number of former WildStar developers who have claimed that this game is the spiritual successor to their title. That just says… so much about how those developers viewed their game, but none of what it says is flattering.
But the biggest problem is that this divorces me from the emotional connection. And for me, that’s something that I kind of need in order to want to keep playing.
Again, you’ve probably heard me say this before, but emotional connection matters a lot in any game that isn’t wholly concerned with immediate mechanical satiation. If your design involves substantially more down time than just “go right and stomp on that goomba, fool,” you need me to care at least the slightest bit about what’s happening.
Yes, the format of this preview did not help. I cannot speak to how the story plays out or feels when it’s presented to you correctly, as it will be today (the launch is literally the same time this preview goes live). Perhaps a proper linear playthrough will correct many of my issues with the press preview build. But as it was, I found myself in a gorgeous world that was overly noisy and also had given me no reason to care beyond “well, this looks very cool.”
If your game looks really cool and gives me no reason to care, I’m not inclined to log back in. Add to that occasional weird display issues like my ability overlay vanishing when switching maps (I couldn’t tell whether it was supposed to do that or not) and no clear explanation of how the controls worked, and I just ambled around a bit. I didn’t dislike the game. But it had given me no reason to care, and I feel as if I need to just play it again on a clean account today to develop my impression beyond “well, the mechanics seem solid enough, I think, though I don’t know what any of these things that I’m collecting do.”
The charitable reading here is that this was just a mismatch for me. It was a preview offered in a style that was not properly for me, and quite frankly I would love for that to be the case even if I play the full release and don’t like it any more. But my first impression was an oddly lukewarm one: It’s a game that was perfectly acceptable as I played it and then made me feel absolutely no desire to play it again the second I logged out. I played, I saw a bit, I left, and I felt nothing beyond a vague sense of “at least that was pretty.”
For me, that is an unusual reaction. Hopefully I’ve made “fine I guess” entertaining to read in the process, though. Now that the launch is here – with a day-one patch, no less – we can tackle it fresh and see whether that holds up with a normal playthrough – or performs even better.