Once, we dreamed of worlds where we could be anyone, do anything. That day may yet come, but in 2011 the grand fantasy of a sandbox MMO is one that is served only by boutique or elder games which determinedly reward the eternal ardour of their existing fans but struggle to add that surface level of gloss and accessibility necessary to draw a gigantic crowd.
There is a reason that World of Warcraft is so successful. There is a reason that BioWare has made large elements of Star Wars: The Old Republic look and play a certain way. There is, similarly, a reason your first reaction to screenshots of WildStar, the major new MMO from NCsoft's Californian studio Carbine, will not be without familiarity. It wants people to come to it, and it seemingly knows some of the ways to make this happen.
Once they're there, though: then it wants to give them something else. It wants to let them play how they want to play - to be a bold middleground between that promise of true freedom and the more treadmill-like reality of traditional MMOs.
WildStar is a game about controlling a fantasy character (though actually, the troubled world of Nexus is one of both magic and high technology, its former rulers the Eldan having departed in mysterious circumstances) from a third-person perspective in an online world full of other players, fighting angry monsters in the hope of experience points and loot, and pressing number keys to activate special attacks.
Yep, tropes are tropes. It's also a game that offers you a theoretically profoundly different experience and even a different vision of itself, depending if you gravitate towards fighting, exploring, collecting or socialising.
You pick one of these four play styles in addition to picking a race - humans, fey, bunny-eared Aurin or towering, glowering mercenaries the Granok - and a class. Maybe you're a blade-wielding Warrior, maybe you're the weapon-enchanting gunman known as a Spellsinger, maybe you're one of the psychic support class called Espers, maybe you're one of the archetypes we don't know about yet. While hopefully these classes will all offer a crazy torrent of monster-bashing in their own right, they're not really why the game hopes to stand apart from its many peers. The play styles are the point.
If you're the kind of MMO player who couldn't give a hoot for world lore, nosing around distant caves or building communities, WildStar reckons you'll want to tread the path of Combat. Pick this one and your character, no matter their race or class, will be able to activate Horde Holdouts scattered across the world.
Basically, doing this provokes an on-the-spot public quest involving swarms of monsters eventually escalating to a boss fight. This means experience, loot and bloodshed, and none of that namby-pamby readin' or boring searchin' stuff. FIGHTFIGHTFIGHT. None of that grind either, in theory, but instead a series of intense battles activated at your behest.
If you're the kind of player who finds beast-bothering plays second fiddle to seeing more of the world and seeking out its hidden places, Carbine have you pegged as an Explorer. Using your Locator, you'll make your way to bits of Nexus that other play styles don't know about and in many cases can't even see. Rewards stem from reaching strange places, such as finding a spatial anomaly which grants you temporary power-jumping or activating a node on an un-climbable rock spire which shows you a secret path up its side.
Challenges like this mean a steady stream of experience points and sometimes even loot, as a true alternative to stabbing monsters. Playing the early levels (3-6) of the game, this stuff was relatively well signposted on my Explorer character's mini-map, but hopefully in the later stages it won't show up until I've genuinely roamed far off the beaten track.
The other two paths weren't yet on show, but Collector is designed to appeal to completists, comprising folk who want to know every last scrap of WildStar's lore and those who can't rest easy unless they've tracked down every last gotta-chat-'em-all achievement the game has to offer. Builder, meanwhile, is the path most in need of demonstration. It promises the expansion of in-game game settlements and of their communities, with characters taking on that play style able to embark on "social quests" and introducing extra buildings and NPCs to towns.
On top of all this is the somewhat opaque concept of Momentum, which means you're bagging bonuses for how much you take on at once and how effectively you deal with it. It's designed to reward players who want to ramp up the challenge - for instance, by tagging multiple foes at once - but leave those who want a more tranquil experience free to do things at their own pace. Like so much of what Carbine has put on show so far, the proof of this will be in the long-term pudding.
"WildStar is the product of an awful lot of research into how and why people play MMOs, and it shows."
And on top of that are pop-up, context-sensitive challenges in theory tailored to what you're doing and how well. Take down a passing monster, such as one of the loping, goblinoid Skeeches, especially speedily and the game will ask you if you reckon you can do better still. How about knocking out five more in less than five minutes? There's a reward in it if you can... Again, this hopes to take the grind out of grinding - so even if you are inclined to spend your time in WildStar harassing every monster you can find instead of following quest lines or the other challenges, the game will offer you a personal sense of purpose, escalating difficulty and the promise of tasty, tasty loot and experience for taking up its gauntlets.
WildStar is the product of an awful lot of research into how and why people play MMOs, and it shows. This is a game that's spurting rewards and mini-challenges all over the place and near-constantly, and even in the hour or so I've played, its torrent of gifts and dares seemed a far cry from the stop-start trudging and kill-ten-rats mentality that so many other MMO's starting zones fall prey to. All this is built on top of something that will inevitably draw a ton of World of Warcraft comparisons: this is NCsoft's most concerted effort by far to look Blizzard square in the eye.
What I'm most curious to see is how its play styles combine and entwine on a large-scale basis: how an Explorer can involve Fighters, Collectors and Builders in their remote adventures, how Builders can create a better world, what happens when a Collector is busy scouring a zone for datacubes while his mates fend off any lurking horrors. There's a lot to prove still, given how many promises Carbine are making about this being the "deepest" MMO ever.
WildStar certainly talks the talk, and already it's demonstrated that its got at least some walk to back it up. Let's see what else is under that swagger.