WildStar hands-on preview

A few years ago, a preview for a new MMO was essentially comprised of a bullet point list of the three or four new ideas that the game was plugging into the World of Warcraft template. After years of failures, companies are finally starting to realize that aping WoW is never going to work. These days, MMOs are rebuilding the entire framework from the ground up. WildStar might be the perfect example of this renewed MMO ideology.

Developed by a team of MMO veterans with a hand in practically every major MMO of the past ten years, the new team at Carbine is obviously pretty tired of the old paradigm and is looking to create something brand new.

The best example of this is the fact that WildStar won’t require players to return to a quest giver once the quest is completed. It takes place in the future so they can simply communicate with their wrist computer. Now, maybe that sounds like an obvious thing to exclude if you’re trying to improve the MMO genre, but it’s actually a fairly bold choice. A successful MMO depends on occupying a ton of player time. If players can complete an MMO in two months then the company probably won’t retain that player, so most MMOs try to monopolize the player’s time to build a sense of investment.

With WildStar, Carbine is intentionally tossing out a feature that will significantly shorten their game. It’s a gamble, but it’s one they’re doing for the sake of their players. “If it’s not fun, f*** it,” the lead content designer on WildStar, Michael Donatelli, told us when we asked him about this feature. We got the feeling that one sentence summed up the entire philosophy of the game.

But WildStar isn’t just about a new philosophy for MMO design – it’s also got a ton of really awesome ideas. Our favorite was the new “play styles” that Carbine is layering on top of their game. A play style is sort of an attribute that you choose for your character based on how you like to play. If you like to wander the world and take in the sights, you’ll want to pick the Explorer play style. If you love hacking things to bits, pick the soldier. The scientist and the settler weren’t playable in our demo, but we’re told the scientist will focus on gathering knowledge (e.g. from the anatomy of a fallen enemy) while the settler can actually build things (although we weren’t privy to how that will actually work.)

These play styles won’t significantly alter the game experience, but they give you a tailored path through the game, letting you focus more on the content you like in an MMO. It will mostly take the form of additional quests, but the styles can be important during big quests. An example of this would be that the explorer might be able to find a secret entrance into an enemy base that no one else can discover.

One of the more interesting features the developers spoke to us about was a type of ecology that exists in the world of WildStar. The example they used was a savannah with a group of predators you need to kill for a quest (they’re eating all the prey in the area.) In order to find where the predators will be you’ll want to track down the prey, as that will lead you to the predator. Additionally, in this example there were poachers spawning in the area, killing the predators. It would be tough to kill enough predators to finish the quest while you’re sharing them with the poachers, so it will help to take out the poachers in advance to increase the spawn count of the predators.

Keeping the innovation coming, WildStar is also implementing some new ideas in MMO combat. It’s much more dynamic and fast-paced in this game than practically any other MMO we’ve seen. There’s still a lot of the auto-attacks and spells that you’d normally find, but now bigger enemies have critical abilities that can hit for massive damage.

When they’re charging up a red spot appears on the ground and you’ve got a few moments to dive out of the way (literally dive, WildStar has some great quick movement abilities) or else you’ll get knocked back and dealt a lot of damage. But if you successfully dodge, you’ll have a few moments to deal lots of damage while the enemy is stunned. They’re aiming to create an MMO combat system where you watch the middle of the screen (your character) not your UI and spell cooldowns.

WildStar has a ton of great new ideas about how to handle the MMO genre, and amazing visuals we’re not used to seeing in the genre. With the team’s level of experience we’ve got a lot of faith that the final product will be pretty high quality. Unfortunately, even though the game has been in development for several years and Carbine is fairly well along, they say they’re nowhere near finished.

As part of a new class of great MMOs that includes The Secret World and Guild Wars 2 (NCsoft’s other MMO) we’re really looking forward to games like Wildstar leading the charge in the next generation of MMOs.

Sep 5, 2011

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