Continuing my thoughts on my play experience at WildStar’s 2013 Arkship, I also want to discuss the thing that is most core to most MMO’s: combat. The most prevalent MMO combat style is the stand-and-deliver style found in World of Warcraft et al. The other extreme is something along the lines of Vindictus, with button-mashing, arcade-style combat. WildStar is neither of those, but it takes elements from both. Like its content design it appears to place itself comfortably in a middle.
From a high level view, the easiest thing to discuss in WildStar’s combat system are combat telegraphs. In WildStar’s system enemies have normal, attrition-ish attacks, and they have the big attacks that should be avoided. When an enemy winds up a big attack the ground becomes shaded where the attack would affect players. Honestly I was skeptical at how much the “don’t stand in the poop”-mechanic could really make combat interesting.
Surprisingly it was. Here’s the critical point. In many MMOs, creature developers take a lot of work to make enemies different throughout the game. Most of the time, I simply don’t care. It’s rarely going to change anything I do. The problem is that in these MMO’s the differences between creatures are simply not noticeable to the degree that would require me to react. Even well telegraphed animations in some games kind of border on unnoticeable or just don’t overcome the laziness of knowing I will win.
WildStar’s ground shading psychologically forces a reaction. There’s too much of a conditioning factor to want to ignore a big red shape on the ground which a player knows to get out of. Yet, at the same time it is intuitive to understand.
WildStar has an ingrained learning experience for each creature. One monster’s rectangular ground shading might be a beam attack while another’s might be a charge. That first time or two facing a particular monster, I started to make associations with the ground shading. In the area I was playing there were plenty of variations of patterns to avoid for different creatures. Perhaps it was a huge arc which required me to get behind the enemy, or perhaps it was a random variation of circles on the ground. I am just amazed at how such a simple shape display affects some deep part of my reptilian gamer brain.
I would be remiss to not compare it to The Secret World. Both feel very similar. WildStar’s combat was much smoother, and with the art style it felt like the ground patterns belonged. The Secret World’s ground patterns feel like harsh overlays trying to convey information in a particular way without breaking too much “immersion”. WildStar is like, naw, let’s make it as bold as the surroundings. It felt more incorporated in to the heart of the game. Small changes in visual feel have a big impact on presentation.
The telegraphs extend to just about everything. There were spike plants in the field that acted like mines. If I tripped a spike plant there was about a 2-second wait as I was shown a circular telegraph around the spike plant. If I was fighting creatures near a spike plant it became a mini-game to see if I could trip a spike plant making sure the creature was inside the circle (and not me) when the mine went off. This was also a good way to get dissimilar creatures to fight one another. If I overaggroed a herd of deer and some predator at the same time, I could strafe to get the deer into a predator’s telegraphed attack knowing the deer would then ignore me to fight the predator. I’d kill them all, of course.
Most of the player skills were telegraphed too. If I rolled the mouse of a skill, the arc or line or other shape of the skill would pop up. I could make sure that my first attack would hit every target I intended to hit, or keep those I didn’t want aggroed out of the shape. WildStar devs mentioned that they were seeing very skilled players that could position themselves for maximum efficiency, which was not often an easy thing to do. Still that added another layer because I was constantly thinking about the shape of my attacks and how the battlefield fit inside those shapes.
I don’t feel the ground shapes telegraphs are a revolutionary mechanic that every MMO should instantly snatch up for their own. However, they work perfectly for WildStar. It makes the game a tad more game-y. It fits with the evocative art style. It synergizes perfectly with the very responsive combat system found in WildStar. It is possibly the most integral part of combat. And it’s still going to feel familiar.
I think this is going to wrap up my Arkship articles before I toe the line where NCSoft forces brave Californian lawyers to enter a frigid Mid-West. I do want to end with the point that WildStar is not going to be revolutionary in any sense with regard to these mechanics I’ve explained in the Arkship articles (though WildStar might be elsewhere). MMO veterans picking up the game will instantly feel familiarity with combat and content design. Yet, even in this alpha-ish build I can already see systems working very well together. That combination is what is going to make WildStar. We’ll see where Carbine takes it from here.