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MMORPG | Genre:Sci-Fi | Status:Beta Testing  (est.rel 06/03/14)  | Pub:NCSoft
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WildStar Column: Layer Cake

By Gareth Harmer on January 23, 2014

Way back in 2011, shortly after WildStar’s Gamescom reveal, Jeremy Gaffney described how he makes games. As Executive Producer at Carbine Studios his hand is on the rudder, trying to steer a cruise-ship sized development team to MMO nirvana. One of the ways he hoped to do that was through something called “layered content.”

Back then, it seemed as though Gaffney’s plan was as simple as making sure the various game mechanics played nice with each other. But, after clocking up the hours in WildStar’s Winter Beta, it’s clear there’s much more to it. From a combat system that works on many different levels, to gameplay choices that scale with the players involved, I’m not sure if the game was designed or built harmoniously on an orchestral score.

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But has it worked, or are there elements that still crunch together like a broken gearbox? And just what is this wooly game designer concept anyway? With WildStar’s beta becoming les beta-y with each patch, it’s time to grab a fork and tuck in to Carbine’s Layer Cake.

The Gameplay Foundation

Possibly the biggest challenge when creating a game is making the core mechanic compelling. A first-person shooter needs to have satisfying gunplay, while a soccer sim has to make kicking the ball feel instinctive and natural. Even the iPad game Curiosity made the simple act of tapping a touchscreen compulsive and entertaining. It’s what elevates a game from a mundane procrastination to something we actually enjoy. Get it wrong, and the rest of the game will feel flat, bland and awkward in the player’s hands.

It’s why Carbine has sunk a significant amount of time into adjusting, updating and refining that core combat system. Movement was the starting point, with dodge, double-jump and sprint working together to make the character feel more alive and responsive underneath my fingertips. But it’s when you add aiming that the fun really starts.

I’ve already written at length about how good WildStar’s combat system is, both in PvE and battleground PvP. Rather than dumbing down, the telegraph system actually makes combat more intuitive and instinctive.  Instead of staring at nameplates and standing still, I spend more time looking at the field of play and moving around. I feel more involved in both attacking and avoiding, no matter what class I play. And it all works because the two systems are tuned to work well together, creating something that feels unique from moment to moment.

I’ve even seen the telegraph system make watching PvP even more enjoyable, particularly with duals and arena matches. During the Stalker livestream last weekend, it was easy to see just how Design Producer Stephan Frost managed to run rings around Lead Narrative Designer Chad Moore. When combat got stepped up to include 3 on each side, following the action was simple and straightforward.

Layered on top of the satisfying combat are kill streak bonuses. Taking down mobs one at a time could get repetitive but, if I’m clever, I can group up two or three and take them down together. In other MMOs this efficiency isn’t rewarded, but WildStar throws bonus XP and temporary buffs at you. Those buffs, by the way, encourage you to keep up the carnage, giving combat an innate momentum. The better you are at avoiding incoming damage and patching yourself up, the longer you can keep going. Even crowd control – typically an area that halts combat like a brick to the face – now uses breakout gameplay to keep my attention.

The environment itself is another layer on top of combat, with stationary hazards and even other creatures providing either a help or a hindrance. One of my earliest experiences in WildStar was dragging a scorpion into a minefield to kill it quickly, and it’s something that’s been mirrored as I continued to level up. Then there’re the Draken Huntresses in Deradune that grant additional reputation if I perform a suitably impressive kill near them.

Wrapped With A Bow

WildStar’s combat is great, but I’m no Solidier – I need motivation to go out and butcher the local wildlife instead of just randomly exploring. And this, I feel, is the layer of WildStar that’s a bit of a let-down. Questing has deliberately designed to be as unobtrusive as possible – find an NPC, get a smattering of words in quest text, and move on. I can even hand in a quest remotely most of the time. It means that the pacing fees strange – click click, kill kill, click. With the heavy emphasis on kill quests of one form or another, it’s easy to overlook the story and humor.

And yet, even this is being layered up. At first, I grinned as I started to master combat. Later, I laughed at the hard-nosed grouch from the vending-machine style training kiosks. And now, in the Winter Beta, I’ve been groaning at the one-liners from the New York cabbie-style flight taxis, cheering at the new level-up animation, and giggling at the new bounty boards. With the groundwork now firmly in place WildStar’s personality is now being added, and Nexus sure does sound good.

Besides, it’s not as if questing is the only thing to do on Nexus. Eldan datacubes loaded with disturbing secrets, lost journals by reckless adventurers, and Tales from Beyond the Fringe – they’re all waiting to be discovered and collected. Path objectives also help to break up questing, as long as I avoided that blinkered tunnel vision that makes me fixate on clearing out my quest log.

But is it enough? Combat – and everything around it – is strong and solid. Endgame content is promised  - raiding, arenas, warplots, dungeons and solo content are all in the works (although currently unseen). With this hefty work at both the micro and macro level, could we be left with an empty middle ground? You can stuff a theme park with clowns but, if all you have are the same few rides repeated again and again, it’s going to be a pretty boring experience once the novelty wears off. And although some of us believe that the most important part of an MMO is endgame, I think that the journey is just as crucial.

So far we’ve poured through that starting experience – right up to level 15, and haven’t found any false layers or significant gaps in Carbine’s Layer Cake. Yes, I’d like more variation in questing – some highlights in Deradune not withstanding (mind controlling rhinos and investigating memories are particularly fond moments) – and I’m hoping that, as I dig my fork in further, that I find more delicious content to feast on. If Carbine manages this, WildStar could end up being a relative rarity: a solid, well rounded MMO.

Gareth Harmer / Gareth Harmer has been blasting and fireballing his way through MMOs for over ten years. When he's not exploring an online world, he can usually be found enthusiastically dissecting and debating them. Follow him on Twitter at @Gazimoff.

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