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Bring the Skills

Gareth Harmer Posted:
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In almost all MMOs, there’s a balance to be found. Between recognizing true skill, and conferring powerful rewards. Between cliff-face difficulty, and trivial snooze-fests. Between an impossible choice, and the illusion of one. Somewhere in the middle rests WildStar’s elder game, an ellipse in a multi-dimensional gameplay chart.

Part of me pictures a group of bearded MMO veterans, clutching their exotic peripherals as they leap from one universe to another, Time Bandits-style. And in a way that’s what we are, seeking out the best experiences that online gaming has to offer. It’s why Carbine Studios has sunk a significant chunk of time into developing WildStar’s elder game, including the recently detailed Warplots. But features alone aren’t enough to keep people interested: it’s how they mesh into a true challenge that keeps ups playing week after week.

It’s why, in this week’s column, I’m taking a closer look at all these pivot points in WildStar’s elder game, in order to gauge just how tough life will be at level cap.

The Non-Trivial Problem

It might be a favorite saying of executive producer Jeremy Gaffney’s, but WildStar’s various game systems are designed with complexity in mind. Not in the “five thousand page manual” way that makes bored skeletons out of college professors, but in the “small change, big impact” way that makes WildStar’s combat even more engrossing.

Take the famous Limited Action Set as an example. Each class has eight slottable abilities from a choice of 30 – that’s ten each of utility, assault and support  (either tanking or healing). Some abilities have a clear benefit in PvP or PvE, while others hover in the middle. They’re “situational”, which would normally mean they’re canned from being used, but that’s not the case in WildStar. Because the LAS can be changed any time you’re not in combat, it means they can be refined for each encounter. If you’re working through a dungeon or adventure, you can now pick your toolkit as you go. The challenge switches from knowing how to use a small number of abilities, to having a good understanding of all thirty.

The AMP (Ability Modification Points) system layers on top of this. Each class has nearly 90 AMPs available, broken into six categories (Assault, Support, Utility, plus hybrids between each). These aren’t as flexible, requiring hard choices that focus into a particular role (either DPS, or tanking/healing depending on class). Even so, each character has at least two action sets available to support those that like to dual spec. But it also presents a more complex problem: spend your AMP points too tightly and you lose flexibility. Spread them thinly and you might become less viable in your core role. At least, if core performance is the only thing that matters.

The third complication is in gearing, and Runecrafting in particular. We all like getting sweet loot but, in order to really customize it, we’ll need to cram them full of freshly made runes. These normally add bonuses to base stats but, at endgame, they’re also where we’ll get our set bonuses from. Each class has a couple of role-specific rune sets, while there’re also a number of generic sets that can be used to fill any gaps that remain. During the PAX Panel, Carbine also revealed that endgame gear drops could have a random number of rune slots, offering marginal differences that make things even more interesting. Combine that with the number of rune types available (Earth, Air and Fire being just three of 7 different categories), and you’ve got a whole lot of theorycrafting to chew through.

That said, I’m going to suggest you put the spreadsheets away. Why? Because, if Carbine plays its cards right, skill is going to grant a bigger bonus than any shiny new bauble you find.

Making Skill Matter

From the very earliest levels, WildStar trains you in a whole new combat system. Things start gently – dodge a cone here, move out of a circle there. If you’ve raided at any level in the past five years, all this will feel familiar, except now you have tools that work with it. Double-tap, double-jump and cast-while-moving are music to the ears of any ranged player, but you’ll need to master them as you climb to level cap. From my own experiences in both PvE and mid-game dungeons, this is not the same stand-pivot-spell rotation that we’re used to.

While I watched the raid footage from the DataScape – WildStar’s 40-player raid – on the PAX East Livestream, my jaw dropped at the complexity of the telegraphs those raid bosses were throwing around. Add a few more mechanics, like Experiment X-89’s platform-exploding bombs, and it becomes even more complex. But unlike other MMOs, being forced to move doesn’t mean ceasing all other activity. Because you can cast while moving, WildStar will probably make sure you’re forced to. Learn to dance, or die trying.

It also means that choices are likely to be about what works for you, rather than the theoretical maximum DPS output of a spherical spellslinger in a vacuum. Rather than have the illusion of choice (an optimal spec, gear load-out and rune selection for each class), I think we’ll have a complex one that ultimately doesn’t matter as long as minimum standards are met. For the first time in a very long time, I’m hoping that what you’re wearing doesn’t matter as much as how good you are behind the keyboard.

It’s why I think PvP will be a great training ground for PvE, as it’ll force players to react quickly to changing situations and – more importantly – move while casting. From looking at other raid livestreams, a group’s skill at executing a strategy is vital, as it simply won’t be possible to burn through some of the more lethal mechanics I saw. Likewise, I think the best players in battlegrounds and arenas will be the genuinely good, rather than those who’ve sunk in the hours to collect the best gear. After all, you can’t kill what you can’t catch.

All in all, WildStar seems to be arriving with a high skillcap, for those interested in pursuing it. For everyone else, regular content updates will offer a continuing storyline, veteran mode dungeons and more. But, if you want to defeat the hardest challenges Carbine is putting together, you’ll need to bring the skills.

Gareth Harmer / Gareth “Gazimoff” 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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Gareth Harmer

Gareth Harmer / Gareth “Gazimoff” 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.