26 Sep 2013

WildStar: The Combat Special Sauce

How do you make a combat sandwich? For Carbine, you start off with some freshly baked Movement bread, add a couple of slices of Aiming meat and some delicious Crowd Control cheese. But a signature dish isn’t complete without special sauce, and in WildStar that’s Ability Mechanics.

Although it’s still an MMO sandwich, it’s vital that it tastes different to a Warcraft, or Rift one. The simple reason comes down to what makes games fun to play from a purely mechanical point of view.

How many times have you sat down to play a new game and felt like it was too similar to another you played previously? What about when you bought a heavily anticipated sequel to a game you loved, only for it to feel more like an expansion pack? That feeling comes down to mechanics, and particularly how games can feel identical from moment to moment.

MMOs previously went with hotkey-based combat and tab targeting because of network limitations. In an era of dialup modems, intermittent broadband and with the server hardware available, hotkey combat was the most reliable way of ensuring that a player was performing an action on another entity.

Those restrictions haven’t been in place for a number of years now, but we’re only just starting to see it creep into MMOs. It’s partly because these games take so long to develop – WildStar’s been in the works for between five and seven years – but also because it takes time to do it right. After playing it myself a few times at events like Arkship EU, I can honestly say that the change is incredibly welcome.

Why? Because learning a new combat system is fun. Adapting to it is challenging, especially if you’re trained as a DPS player to stand still and spam buttons. Being able to move while casting is incredibly liberating, but it’s just the start of WildStar’s mechanics.

Channelling a spell, but being able to stop early and deal some damage. Stunning someone then being able to go on a rampage with a quick burst of button mashing. It means that your fingers aren’t building up rhythmic muscle memory. Instead, you have more options on how to adapt to a changing situation, from dropping out of a warrior whirlwind, to choosing when to unleash your big hitting abilities.

All of this is possible because of the way Carbine went with free-form combat, incorporating telegraphs and aiming in a way that goes even further than the groundwork laid by Guild Wars 2. Importantly, the Trinity of roles is still in place, although each class will be able to hop between two of those depending on the abilities they choose. No more pure-class DPS!

Like all sandwiches though, there’s the optional stuff: lettuce, pickles and so on. When I’ve played previous MMOs like Warcraft, Rift and SWTOR, they’ve all been about cramming as many fillings in that bread as possible, resulting in a mass of abilities that prepare you for every single situation, but leave you feeling a little bloated. As with Guild Wars 2, WildStar encourages you to prune things back a little with the Limited Action Set.

I actually like the feel of a limited action set, partly because it encourages more situational builds. With GW2, I could hop between a direct damage or AoE focus just by swapping weapons. According to a couple of recent interviews, Carbine are aiming for something similar, though it probably won’t be mid-combat. That said, I do like the sound of being able to swap in crowd-control or AoE effects, rather than coping with a general purpose build.

I think that my only plea is for Carbine to start teasing what the hard stuff looks like. The DevSpeak videos do a fantastic job of making combat look clean and elegant, but it can also seem a little simple. GameSpot managed to get a look at one 5-man dungeon in this video, demonstrating how complex that action can become. Please show us more of this!

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