"Cool story, Gaffney." So Wildstar lead Jeremy Gaffney, co-creator of Turbine and now heading up NCSoft's MMO dev supergroup Carbine Studios, repeatedly mock-chastises himself when unveiling their first game to the media. He's making promises we've heard so many times, about so many massively multiplayer games that ultimately didn't live up to their wild hype: this is “the deepest, richest MMO ever,” it "lets players play how they want to play", "this is something new." You know how that song goes. Cool story, Gaffney. This guy though, right here and now, aims to back up his grandiose claims, right here and now. Carbine are finally ready to show off fantasy/sci-fi hybrid MMO Wildstar. It goes a little something like this.
There's probably much you'll recognise when you first clap eyes on Wildstar. The colourful, overtly fantastical world; the exaggerated characters and animations, the middle-bottom icon row; the rooted-to-the-spot NPCs proffering quests and sales... By Carbine's own admission, Wildstar embraces most of the well-known MMO tropes (though apparently tweaked and improved) in addition to adding its own new ideas. They might be hoping to reinvent the wheel to some extent, but they clearly reckon it still needs to be something that's round and spins if it's to draw a crowd.
It might look a little WoW-like, and even play WoW-like on a basic level, but there's a ton of thoughtful and genuinely bold stuff built on top of that familiar foundation. It's perhaps tempting to linger on the fusion of fantasy, sci-fi and steampunk, rendered as something of a high-detail 'toonland, but that theme and aesthetic really isn't the major force at play here. Why we should play attention to Wildstar is its concept of playstyles, aka Paths - an additional layer of specialism on top of race, class, haircut and all that, and one that's designed to shape the game as a whole depending on what kind of MMO gamer you are.
Combat, Collecting, Building and Exploring: pick one when you create your character, and that's going to play a big part in how you gain experience, find loot and level up. Rather than simply doing the quest or killing fields treadmill, in theory you're making your own path. If you're a Combat guy, certain points and objects enable you to incite, essentially, a public quest: a wave of angry monsters to chop/shoot/magic to pieces, building in numbers and ferocity and eventually to big-arse boss fights. (You can apparently tackle at least some of these solo, by the way). Concentrate on this and scrolling impatiently quest text will essentially be a thing of the past for you, because instead you're setting up your own fights and resultant rewards.
The game will also offer you the option of on-the-spot challenges - kill a monster particularly speedily and a message asks if you fancy taking out, say, five more of them within five minutes for a bonus package of XP and loot. In other words: a reason to hang around pestering mobs, and hopefully making what is, in other games, called grinding feel a whole lot more dynamic and purposeful. It's the game throwing down a gauntlet to you specifically. Will you accept?
I've been hands on with the earliest levels of Wildstar, and certainly these on-the-spot challenges always managed to divert my interest, had me focus doggedly on beating them in preference to pursuing whatever quest I was otherwise on. Hard to say how well this will hold up over time - it'll likely depend on how tough the challenges are. Five in five minutes ain't too taxing, but ramp that up to where it's only borderline possible for me to pull it off and the ol' itch to triumph against adversity is likely to grab me hard.
Combat generally, by the way (as shared by all playstyles, regardless of how much they want to engage with monster-bothering), is along familiar MMO lines, but a touch more dynamic and reactive. Rather than snoresome auto-attack, players are in there blow-by-blow, and able to dodge looming special attacks with a bit of timely double-tapping of the backwards key. Time your evade right and your enemy will be tired out by its futile assault, rendering it temporarily more vulnerable. On top of this momentum, a bonus state achieved by efficient and rapid fighting. Essentially, if you fight better the game will make you a better fighter - which means it pays to fully involve yourself in combat rather than grind through with memorised button patterns and half an eye on Twitter.
The other playstyle on show was Exploring, which I'll describe momentarily. As Gaffney observes, most of us are likely to fall primarily into one of the four camps they've identified. Of the two still unseen, Collecting is going deep into the game's lore and/or achievement whoring via finding reams of hidden data stashes, reading every last piece of quest and ancillary text and the like. Building has you both contributing to the growth of settlements (don't know yet if this is in a permanent, major, UO or Galaxies-like way or something more transitory - I'm meeting Carbine tomorrow and will inquire) and fostering good relations with other players and assorted NPCs - it's the social element of MMOs, in other words, with a for-now still fairly cryptic construction element there too.
Exploring, meanwhile, is totally my 'type' - wandering the land over, striving to reach inaccessible places, obsessively scouring every last cavern, getting to somewhere with an epic view just for the pure pleasure of it. In Wildstar, wanderlust has tangible rewards. A Locator device, available only to characters with that playstyle, gives hints of nearby secret areas and objects, and making your way to them will result in xp, cash and/or gear.
Again, it’s a chance to go off-piste, to do your own thing rather than stick slavishly to the quest run. Nosing at it, following leads, I stumbled into bonus quests such as a chasing a floating spatial anomaly, which granted me mega-jump powers that enabled me to reach the top of towering spire. For doing this, the game gifted me some gloves and experience. I hadn’t had to kill 10 rats to do this. I’d instead wandered away from the mobs, to the edges of the map, and I’d found things to do. Another asked me to plant a locator beacon on the top of a high pile of boulders – inaccessible, of course. But Explorers can see/activate paths that other playstyles can’t – tracking my way to a subtly-marked point on my minimap, I found the requisite hotspot, right-clicked and a series of platforms appeared on the side of rocky tower. Up ‘em I went, and my beacon was safely planted. Ding! Gifts for me. Again, you'll see and be able to interact with routes and challenges as an explorer that the other playstyles won't. The game will be different for you. Tailored for you.
I’m in two minds about this. Exploring’s what I most want to do in an MMO – my best times in WoW were simply seeing how much of the world I could get to without being killed or hunting for secret spots such as the airport near Ironforge – and the idea of actually getting tangible rewards for being nosy and random is incredibly appealing. On the other hand, having it to some extent be signposted, the game gently coaxing me to certain places rather than stumbling across them from a haphazard mix of investigation and unfocused meandering, could take some of the thrill out of it. Again, it depends how it plays out across the length of the game, and in its later stages. Will I be joining throngs of other explorers placing identical beacons in identical places, or hauling myself to wind-swept ledges in the middle of nowhere, not a soul in sight? Will I be chasing predetermined map points or uncovering new territory? It’s too hard to call it for now. I’m completely onboard with the ethos behind it – let me play how I want to play, not tie my progress solely to how many monsters I kill - but I need to see how it works outside of the starting zones, once I’m free to wander Wildstar’s wider world.
And what is that wider world? Perhaps I should have led with that, but I'm convinced it's Wildstar's systems and mechanics that are its major talking point. Maybe that's because I'm an Explorer, not a lore-hungry Collector. The game is set on the planet of Nexus, formerly the home of the known universe's most technologically advanced race the Eldan. (Note: my long-abused word processor's custom dictionary is determined to correct that to 'Eldar') These chaps, masters of both science and magic, have disappeared mysteriously, leaving a planet full of techno and eldritch riches ripe for plunder/exploration/nurture by a triumvirate of playable races - but with the lurking threat of whatever did for the Eldan potentially returning. Humans, the rabbit-eared, impossi-chested Aurin and the hulking, golem-esque Granok are your choices (at least as revealed so far), and beyond that you'll have your pick of fairly familiar tank/rogue/support/etc classes - only a few of which have been revealed so far, and they are warrior, spellslinger (magic pistoleer) and esper (telepathic/kinetic sorts). Beyond that comes the aforementioned playstyle choice, which hopefully is dramatically more meaningful than what kind of fighter you are.
"We layer our world, build layer of layer of content on it. This is how we build the world to make sure we pull off the promises. There’s content everywhere and it’s content that you can play in the way you want to." That's the key to all of this. That you're in a familiar MMO structure, but you're not forced down a rote path of progression. The world is full of stuff for you to dig up and glean and endless stream of brief rewards from in the manner that you sit fit. While obviously you'll be locked out of, say, the fighter playstyle's horde-summoning abilities if you're an explorer, you can get to share in another's Alamo moment, in the same way fighters playing with you-as-explorer might get access to hidden paths you've uncovered.
This, in long-term practice, will perhaps be Wildstar's making or unmaking - how every player's pursuit of their own indulgences and hunger for reward will stitch together to create a game universe better, bolder and deeper for all its sentient denizens on a collective rather than individual level. I don't believe for a second that they haven't thought about this (which is perhaps why the Building playstyle isn't on show yet).
So: cool story, Gaffney. And hey, looks like it's not just a story. They're onto something here: the populist MMO I can choose how to play. Let's just hope it's not too coldly mathematical about the four key psychologies Carbine have settled on. The socialiser, the explorer, the aggressor, the collector: these are classical ideas (paging Dr Bartle), but writ larger and more determinedly than I think we've ever seen before. Wildstar has much to prove still, much it'll need to do to break down the scar tissue so many of us have built up after years of this sub-industry's inflated promises and deflating mediocrity. Already though, Carbine have certainly proven that Wildstar should be taken entirely seriously, seen as a promise of something better. They're trying to make this game for us, in response to our long years of complaining, theorising and wishing. Pay close attention.