WIHILA Elder Scrolls Online Part III (Combat)

Welcome to Part III of a four-parter about the elements I hope I like in two big upcoming MMORPGs: Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn, and Elder Scrolls Online. Part I introduced my overall expectations, perspective, and the topics I wanted to discuss, while Part II delved into Character Customisation.

If you’re paying attention, you might notice that FF14 has disappeared from the heading (and if you’ve just come from the FF14 half of this post, skip on down to the next section). For this topic, my expectations of the two games diverge enough that they deserve their own posts. Pop over to the FF14 version of this section if that’s your prefered game (or after you’re done here). Moving swiftly along, Part III is about the Combat of these games and games like them.

Combat is often the most heavily emphasised mechanical aspect of digital role-playing games: when the player is actually doing stuff in the game, the ‘doing’ is usually combat. Of course, you can also spend hours upon hours dressing up a character (balancing combat stats with looks), hammering away at a crafting system (using materials earned in combat), or chatting with the locals about what you should be doing next (usually running off to fight something). I hope you see the common thread, and thus the importance of a good combat system.

‘Good’ can mean many things though, so let’s get more specific.

Lights, Camera, Action

While games in the Elder Scrolls series are generally praised for their setting, scope and non-linearity, they also have something else firmly in common: action. The Action RPG genre has a long history, having strong influences dating back to the first Legend of Zelda title. There have been many great titles in the interim (from Secret of Mana, Kingdom Hearts and The Last Story to Deus Ex and the mighty Skyrim itself), but I find a quick comparison of gameplay between Skyrim and that original Legend of Zelda title to be a solid way to set expectations.

In the action of Skyrim, you assign a piece of equipment or spell to either hand (whether it be, for example, sword, shield or ball of fire). Then you have one button for using your left hand, and one button for using the right. In The Legend of Zelda, you have a sword on one button, and your choice of equipment on another. This relatively simple core sets the stage for compelling gameplay thanks to other components inherent to an action game, as well as the slight additions you can see in the formula over the years.

Simply being an action game means that there are other things going on at the same time as hitting button A or button B. Between deciding when to activate A or B, managing where you are (in relation to an enemy or the terrain), and pointing in the right direction (it can be surprisingly complicated to aim a sword while in motion), the player has quite a lot of room to make a difference. When the game includes any kind of interesting AI (lines of sight, for example), then there is a whole new dimension involved in moving around in the space and interacting with foes.

Moreover, you can do a lot more with A and B than just ‘use’ them. Having a few secondary actions (such as bashing with a shield rather than blocking, a different kind of attack with your weapon, or charging a spell for added effect) noticeably increases the choices afforded the player, and that’s not even counting the ability to swap to other weapons, spells or items in the heat of battle.

A tool of some kind in each hand (or on each button); a small number of different actions with each tool; an interesting space within which to move; engaging AI with which to interact. These are the core resources that the developers of ESO are likely dealing with in order to make combat interesting and, ultimately, fun.

Before I go into more detail, I wanted to note that there is certainly room for variance within this formula. For example, some games trade in the main actions for a first-person shooter framework (think Borderlands or Deus Ex), while others lean more heavily on menu-based backgrounds within the action framework (like Kingdom Hearts). The Tales series of games even manages to fit action combat within an otherwise completely non-action-oriented RPG framework.

Jigsaw Game Design

So what can we learn from distilling the gameplay down to these basic elements? What makes a good or bad game with this type of gameplay? I think it largely comes down to how each of these major elements is handled on a case by case basis.

Skyrim, probably the best model we have for what ESO will look like, does a great job of having a set of easily accessible actions. As mentioned above, the left and right hand are simply a button press each, and secondary actions are usually on a different button. This could otherwise have been much less manageable (and therefore less smooth and enjoyable) if there had been many key inputs which involved pressing multiple buttons at the same time, double-tapping buttons or fighting-game-style directional input plus button combinations.

It’s not a necessity to remain completely simplistic, but if a game gets more value out of its most basic functions, then the player can focus more attention on whatever skills the game is trying to reinforce (besides getting the character to actually respond in the intended manner). Bethesda clearly went through great lengths to allow the player to do what they want, when they want, as simply as possible. Even navigating the menus and shortcutting equipment swaps are easy (and this is speaking from a console perspective, without the need for PC macros).

Tales series games (especially the recent Tales of Graces) show off how an individual action can have many facets, ultimately adding depth to every attack the player makes. Each attack in the player’s arsenal represents more than just a damage number and a slightly different animation. The attacks can have a different range (not just long or short), associated movement, different speed or timing involved in the strikes, different attack ‘types’ which are better against the appropriate enemy (but not so advantageous so as to overshadow all other options), and extra effects (such as improving a stat temporarily). That’s a lot of depth for every single attack, and can take time to really learn and master, but it’s worth it when compared to ‘Attack or Power Attack’.

Jumping to another recent Action RPG, Last Story shows excellent attention to the environment and its role in combat. There is the sheer variety: curves and corners, ups and downs, narrow and wide spaces, environmental hazards and destructible terrain. Moreover, the game makes effective use of positive and negative zones of magical effect, which can be created and dispelled by allies and enemies during combat, thus giving the battlefield an additional layer of depth.

Last Story also pays attention to navigating the environment. The player can get into and out of cover, climb around and over obstacles, and even run up walls for a neat dive attack. This kind of movement is rarely seen outside of heavily shooting-oriented games, and really helped to highlight the combat terrain.

Monster Hunter (MH3 Ultimate, if you care to know which version) spices up combat through the use of interesting and varied enemies. While admittedly a game about hunting monsters can afford to spend some time developing said creatures, it is still remarkable how much variety is packed into each big challenge the player can face. Even the earliest of notable monsters has at least three different attacks, a few different paces (which it changes between over the course of the battle, often forcing the player to adapt), tells, slight changes in behaviour, and different areas of vulnerability (which might be better or worse depending on the weapon the player has chosen).

Now for these earlier monsters, the consequences for ignoring this depth are rarely grave – mostly the player is contending with becoming comfortable with the controls. However, it is clearly one of the joys of the game to learn the intricacies of each monster (and there are plenty) and adapt your actions accordingly. In this way the game produces a high variety of gameplay without requiring many different player actions or abilities. And these are just the benefits without considering the added immersion from feeling like you are fighting a real living creature, but that’s a topic for a different post.

Being realistic, each of these elements individually takes a considerable amount of development time and resources (hence rarely seeing a game that throws them all in together quite well). Many of the games mentioned here manage to be high on my list of enjoyed games with only one or two of the action combat elements mentioned. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t be aware of the contributing factors individually, as well as the techniques and standards set by other games as reference.

Bringing the focus back to ESO for a moment, I mentioned that it is most likely to resemble Skyrim. This means, at the very least, easily controllable actions, with a variety of choice going into those actions, within the diverse setting trademark to the Elder Scrolls name, of course. If we get equally diverse terrains and enemy behaviours, so much the better.

Even if the combat is not the most mechanically groundbreaking thing ever, it will be nice to see if ESO can implement the ‘there is always another way’ philosophy common to most Elder Scrolls games (such as sneaking around something). This would allow the player to have a bit more control over how often they get in a scuffle, but might be difficult to engineer in an MMO environment.

All I Want for Christmas… is Everything

Maybe someday, all of these elements will be so fleshed out and explored that they will be standard. I know I can’t wait to play the game that meshes accessible controls, meaningful options, diverse terrain, and interesting enemy behaviour in one great package (especially in an Action RPG – compared with an action game like DmC where you can tell the developers are really trying to hit all those notes on some level).

In the meantime, though, what are your thoughts? Did I miss anything? Do you have other examples? Throw your comments into the ring, and look forward to Part IV of this series, where I talk about the pacing of FF14 and ESO (or head over to Part III: FF14 Edition if you’ve not read it already).

-Dustin

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