NCsoft Announces PC MMO Wildstar
Developer Carbine Studios is banking on a "layered" approach to MMO design to differentiate its sci-fi/fantasy MMORPG from the pack -- which it's going to need, since it looks and plays just like a Blizzard game you may have heard of.
Wildstar employs a cartoony art style to sell its unusual combination of Flash Gordon-style science fiction and lighthearted fantasy elements. The game sticks close to established MMO combat and interface conventions, from enemy cast bars to radial cooldown timers and icon-based tabbed inventory management. Sound familiar? It should: I could have written that exact same paragraph in reference to World of Warcraft (since Burning Crusade's introduction of space goats, anyway).
Carbine hopes two things will make me look foolish for hammering on the WoW comparison. The first is what the developers refer to as a layered approach to content development. The idea here is to allow casual players to attack the content like peeling an onion, engaging with one layer at a time, while progressively more advanced players can tear through several layers at once. Hardcore players will advance faster and remain interested in their efforts to juggle more balls in the air and maximize their efficiency. Carbine says that it already sees playtesters taking on the content at their own pace and giving positive feedback on the concept.
One example Carbine gave is a typical "kill a bunch of space tigers" quest. As you work through the quest, a variety of related objectives might show up. Killing a number of tigers next to a huntress so that she sees your good deeds and reports them to the village fulfills two objectives at once at the cost of paying more attention to your positioning. Likewise, an ancient blood temple might reward you with infernal gifts for slaughtering a certain number of tigers near it within a certain period of time. Many of these objectives can be tackled at your leisure, but since they can be done in parallel an advanced player can plow through more quickly.
This layered implementation sounds neat in theory, but the hour of hands-on time I had with the game didn't show it off very well. I got a few simple "challenge" objectives that rewarded me with bonus XP for killing mobs I was slaughtering for a quest within a time limit, but they were trivial to complete. It was the first hour of gameplay in a pre-release MMO, so I'm not about to throw the whole concept under the bus, but Carbine's so-called layering gets an incomplete grade from me so far.
The second key difference is in what Carbine calls "player paths." At character creation, Wildstar players pick one of four paths: soldier, builder, explorer, or scientist. This choice determines a number of secondary objectives and gameplay mechanics that will pop up throughout your career. An explorer, for instance, has gameplay surrounding getting to the top of seemingly unscalable mountains and seeking out hidden caves. A soldier, on the other hand, can trigger big public quests that spawn waves of enemies that assault allied positions. The scientist can scan items in the world to gain insight about Wildstar's backstory and lore. Builders can affect the development of towns, encouraging unique vendors to set up shop and engaging in social gameplay to unlock new buildings and the like.
This sounds neat in theory, but the two paths on display at the event at which NCsoft announced the game added little to the game. Other games would give out an achievement or a title to someone who went out of their way to climb a tough mountain rather than restrict it to the quarter of the players who chose "explorer" at character creation. Why not let everyone spawn cooperative horde defense quests if the mood strikes them? I don't follow the reasoning. Carbine hasn't shown the scientist or builder paths, so it's entirely possible that those contain unique gameplay that truly sets Wildstar apart, but I remain unconvinced so far based on what I've seen.
Wildstar doesn't look bad by any means. But a game that is so traditional in much of its design, in a genre so saturated, has to do more than Wildstar's reveal event did to get me pumped up for it.