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Old 06-27-2010, 06:18 PM   #1
Zarmaka
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Please Rate this Article: Melee Combat in the Current Gen

Over the course of my gaming career, I've always been fascinated by games featuring primarily melee combat, especially games that revolved around the sword-and-shield combo. I've played most of the popular action, action-rpg, and action-adventure games that have influenced melee combat in the past ten years, and I've begun to see which innovations have made good combat, and where the genre is beginning to stagnate.

If someone who had played shooters all their life and wanted to expand into the Action genre asked me, “What melee game should I play?” I would name two games, Batman: Arkham Asylum, and Demon’s Souls. These two games are the best because the controls feel good, smooth and reactive, and when a player dies, they rarely feel that their character didn’t do what they told him to do. If you die in either of these games, it’s your fault, not the games.

Batman’s combat can best be experienced in the Shock and Awe combat challenge, which pits Batman against wave after wave of bad guys in a small arena. Initially, you have only two buttons that you need to press, attack and counter. When you attack, Batman strikes one enemy at a time, although you can switch between targets at any time. Even though you can’t block, or maybe because you can’t block, countering feels good, and the player gets a sense of skill from pressing the attack button to bash one enemy, then suddenly reacting to another enemy’s attack with a quick counter. Just like in the main game, as the challenge goes on, new types of enemies show up, some armed with knives and others with stun batons. Before you attack them, the knife wielding enemies have to be stunned with a swing of your cape, and you can only fight the stun baton enemies by jumping over them and facing them from behind.
You end up using four abilities: attack, counter, stun, and jump, and the end result is very satisfying, as you’ll need to vary your tactic depending on the enemy, all while keeping a look out for the red glow that signals you need to counter an attack. Each button press feels good, and the combat feels fast paced while retaining a tight sense of control and a lack of clutter.

Demon’s Souls’ combat is the best I’ve ever played in a real time RPG. Enemies block your attacks, and if you strike their shield, you recoil and are vulnerable to attack. The same can be said for you blocking their attacks. When you attack, you are vulnerable after you attack for the perfect amount of time. Long enough so you feel risk, but short enough that the combat doesn’t feel clunky or unresponsive. With its excellent lock-on system, you are able to focus on one enemy and circle-strafe around him, blocking, evading, and striking at just the right moment from just the right position. Furthermore, when an enemy hits you, you take a significant amount of damage, so each fight feels dangerous and real. Demon’s Souls features a stamina bar, which rewards smart, efficient use of your abilities and makes the player feel smart for winning a battle. There is a heavy and light attack, and there are combos, but none of them are over-the-top. In summary, Demon’s Soul’s combat puts players in dangerous situations and gives them the perfect tools to overcome them.

You'll notice I haven't mentioned God of War, by far the most popular melee combat game franchise. I only ever played the first one, mostly because I didn't want my family to see me playing a game with so much pointless nudity, but that's a topic for another time.

What I don't like about God of War, and games like it (Force Unleashed, Ninety-Nine Nights, Dynasty Warriors) that follow the format of light attack + heavy attack = long series of combos is that for the most part, they don't reward strategy the way Demon's Souls does, and although it rewards quick reflexes, I never get a good feeling from the decision to block or evade an attack because the roll and dodge mechanics feel imprecise, unlike in Batman, in which you know exactly what will happen when you press the counter button. Assuming you timed it correctly, you never ask "I hope this counter lands". The blocking/dodging in God of War doesn't feel good, and I can do them forever which takes some of the thrill away.
More important than the fact that you have infinite block that can only be taken away by certain special attacks, is the fact that blocking doesn't really do anything. It's not a clash of sword vs shield that leaves the attacker staggering backwards, it's just a temporary invincibility stance.
Another thing that bothers me about God of War-style games is that there's no lock-on mechanic. You generally don't need one for the hordes of smaller enemies, but in certain situations, like when the enemies are near death and you can grab them, half of the time, Kratos would reach out at the wrong thing. Also, a lock-on would make a lot of the fights against stronger enemies and bosses a lot less frustrating. Force Unleashed has a lock-on mechanic, but half of the time it doesn't work because you can also lock on to inanimate objects, and the game gets confused way too easily.

The last thing that bothers me about these combo-based games is the nature of the combos themselves. The combos themselves are made to look good, but not to feel good. When you swing your weapon, you hit as many enemies as are near you on-screen, regardless of whether or not any of them are blocking, and you can continue attacking for as long as you don't take damage. It doesn't feel like a fight because it doesn't feel like actions are followed by natural reactions.
Furthermore, with the exception of the armor-breaking combo, all the moves are the same. They look different, get longer, and some do more damage, but you'll never come across a situation in which X-X-Y is preferable to X-Y-X. For the most part (the exception being the armor break), one combo will always be better than the other, which makes me feel like I'm not being rewarded for strategy, unless you count "finding out which combo does the most damage" as strategy. You could play through most of these games by button mashing.
This is a symptom of a greater disease that drives some developers; these games get their enjoyment from how many enemies you kill and how gruesome their deaths are, whereas Demon's Souls gives the player enjoyment from the strategy it takes to kill each enemy. You string together series' of combos in Batman also, but the fact that you can only hit one enemy at a time makes the whole experience feel like your decisions matter, and you know you're being rewarded for not button mashing.
The problem with making the "fun" part of your game based around numbers and gore is that it gets old, and the ability to button mash kind of makes me feel dumb.
This is not to say that all combo-based systems are bad. Ninja Gaiden has amazingly fluid combat and is also based on a light attack + heavy attack formula, but there's a subtle difference between Ninja Gaiden and God of War. In Ninja Gaiden, the camera is zoomed in much closer to your character, and your attacks generally hit only one enemy at a time. Furthermore, there's kind of an invisible, automatic lock-on system that causes Ryu to automatically swing towards the nearest enemy that he's facing when you press the attack button. The result of these three things is a much more precise, engaging experience. Bayonetta is also very fun. Its camera is also zoomed in, not as low to the ground as Ninja Gaiden's, which makes the action easier to keep track of.

The whole point of this article is not for me to rant about how good Batman and Demon's Souls are, and how much God of War frustrates me. The conclusion I suggest to you the reader is that designers and players need to step away from the accepted norm that chaining light and strong attacks into 50-hit combos is an engaging way to implement melee combat. This style has been been the standard for way too long, and the fact that you can describe any game as "like God of War, but..." is proof of some developer's fear of moving on. Batman and Demon's Souls took huge risks by having combat systems that were unique, and I encourage gamers everywhere to try their engaging, immersive combat and realize that just because you can kill ten men in one attack, does not mean that the combat in a game is good. I think Batman and Demon's Souls can be used as blueprints for how to design fun combat against multiple enemies that truly makes the player feel like they are in a fight where their choices and reflexes matter.

I have much more to say, especially about specific games, but for now thanks for reading, and feel free to give your own opinion and argue with my points.

P.S. If you recognize my style of speech and bolding, its because I post in the comments as "Jonathan"

Last edited by Zarmaka; 07-04-2010 at 12:40 AM. Reason: streamline, made the point clearer, better
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