The biggest bets in gaming are MMOs. They're games and persistent online services all in one, and they take longer, and cost more, than any other game to make. And then they're expected to grow and improve after launch. They're serious undertakings.
"NOW FOR YOU, INSECTS! BOLDLY, YOU SOUGHT THE POWER OF RAGNAROS. NOW YOU SHALL SEE IT FIRSTHAND!"
Deradune is a good place to fight crabs. It has endless supplies of them, actually, so for a good half hour, fighting crabs is what I chose to do. Down by a silty shoreline running alongside a tidy curve of ocean, I found a gleaming radar dish that summoned crate after crate of crab-monsters for me to slice through. I was playing as a Mechari, a robot race defined by a penchant for skull-shaped face-plates, so I was pleasantly tankish, yet blessed with a couple of nimble sword attacks and - best of all - an arrogant little flourish when I stowed weapons after a kill. Class-wise, I was a stalker, a stealthy set-up which sees your offensive powers boosted if you get the knife in when your foe's facing away from you. The crabs didn't really have a chance.
Fighting things in WildStar is pretty entertaining, which turns out to be a good thing as this MMO presents an awful lot of opportunities for fighting things. Alongside better-than-average combat animations and a lovely moment where you hoover up loot afterwards, the team's made a real effort to bring something distinct to its futuristic brawls. Don't think of it as a reinvention, think of it as a rebalancing: each class still has a candystore tray for hot key actions and their attendant cool-downs, but WildStar also wants you to look up from the UI at the bottom of the screen while you work, too. It's taken the area-of-effect telegraphing templates you often see in other games, and it's built them deep into the moment-to-moment skirmishes that erupt with even the smallest of enemies. Your aggressor broadcasts their next move in a bold red circle or triangle of potential damage, you dodge out of the way and then lay down your own bright blue template in return. Movement counts, positioning counts, and crabs, it turns out, are terrible at grasping this sort of nuance. Sure, the whole thing adds another layer of abstraction onto MMO scraps - I'm gonna triangle that guy up good and proper, and then circle him into oblivion - but it's not the bloodless geometry exercise you might expect.
Focusing in on this sort of combat is one of a handful of genuinely pinchable ideas that WildStar has added to the standard MMO design, in fact. That's how this sub-set of games often seems to evolve: you get new fiction, new lore, and new heroes each time, but what really matters are the little quirks. Nobody really dares deviate from the Warcraft template too much unless they're planning something really drastic or niche, so games become defined by the neat touches and clever embellishments. A stronger emphasis on telegraphing templates to add an extra spatial zing to battles? That sounds smart, and it turns out to be a good idea. Elsewhere, now that WildStar's lurching towards a 2013 release, we're starting to see other tweaks, too. Alongside the introduction of 'paths', a system that sees you picking a playstyle as well as a class and race and faction - focusing on exploration, say, or social stuff - PvPers can look forward to something called Warplots, which brings other games' housing systems into the mix in huge shared battlegrounds where groups can really put their stamp on their surroundings. That sounds pretty smart too, as does the plan to provide regular - monthly, hopefully - story content updates for end-gamers who have hit the level cap.
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.