Series: Choosing MMOs – combat

This is the third of a series of posts on criteria for choosing between MMOs, the first intro post is here. Warning this is another long post.

Combat in MMOs is usually dominant in most aspects of the game. Whether you are attacked while travelling and exploring, or you have orders to kill 10 rats or collect 10 rat tails combat remains a core activity. It’s possible to play MMOs avoiding combat for the most part but to do so you generally restrict yourself to a small fraction of the content.

So how to rate combat and thus to choose between the many different variations presented? I will avoid an over-emphasis of “active vs non-active” combat here, some may love the current trend for combat requiring movement, positioning and directional awareness. Others may prefer the more traditional combat presented by the majority of ‘action bar’ MMOs (such as Everquest, LoTRO and World of Warcraft). Personally I like both types, so how else can I judge a game’s combat system?

I think fundamentally combat needs to be interesting in MMOs, since we spend so much of our time in combat. Certainly killing things by ‘auto-attack’ is hardly interesting. One way to keep you on your toes is to have events within the combat you should react to  - to make you watch for signs that you should dodge, use an interrupt ability or click a button as a reaction. There should of course be a negative consequence if you’re not paying attention. Whether its avoiding the deadly attacks of a BAM in Tera, stopping the orc from casting a powerful self-heal in LoTRO, throwing poisoned melons to distract and weaken a mini-boss in Mists of Pandaria or any other example this kind of mechanic makes you pay at least some attention during the fight. This could easily be overdone if you’re constantly having to react to things, but in moderation I think reactives are important.

Tactical options are also present in some games. ‘Kiting’ is a perfectly valid tactic for ranged classes – you kill a creature while taking minimal damage by keeping the distance open between you and your opponent. Using ‘crowd control’ abilities to split groups of opponents into more manageable numbers can also be fun – SWTOR has lots of groups and using the Jedi ‘whirlwind’ ability to lock one out of combat could sometimes make the difference between success and failure when soloing. Back in the Burning Crusade days I remember one friend ‘kiting’ very tough creatures on his Frost-specced mage character. Such a character is very weak in close combat, but with a bit of luck and lots of practised timing he could keep enemies just out of reach long enough to kill them.

Team work should be encouraged as a part of combat. Here I know I am biased, I honestly think that games that directly support players somehow combining their skills in combat is a great idea. LoTRO’s conjunctions, EQ2′s heroic opportunities, Guild Wars 2′s combos. Each example has pros and cons but at least these games have a mechanic to bring people together at a fundamental level. Just getting a group to ‘do the dance’ during a dungeon boss fight is not the same. I’m talking about the more improvisational coordination of groups out in the wild while questing or exploring.

So here’s the scorecard for combat as the second part of the building criteria.

(1 low; 5 high)
1 2 3 4 5
Reactives Combat is entirely unreactive A few encounters have damage avoidance reactives Some encounters  have damage avoidance reactives Some encounters have a variety of reactives (damage,self-healetc) Many encounters have a variety of reactives
Tactical options No tactics are possible or needed to progress in the game Basic tactical options for some classes (e.g. crowd control) Basic tactical options for most classes (e.g. crowd control, counters) Advanced tactical options for most classes (e.g. crowd control, counters, evasion) Advanced tactical options for all classes. Tactics allow ‘undermanning’ or ‘underleveling’*
Team work / combos No combos Combos are possible but have little effect Combos are possible; they have some effect but are irrelevant later in the game Combos are encouraged; they are significant  but do not work on end-game content Combos are encouraged; they are significant and are integrated into end-game combat mechanics

*Undermanning is running instances with less than a full group. Underleveling is where tactics allow you to complete content above your character or your groups level through careful gameplay.

Reactives and tactical options are related. What I would consider an interesting combat system should have both and actually they should be related. Imagine for a moment a standard ‘tank’ character, perhaps a heavily armoured warrior with a sword and shield. If that tank character can fight a tough opponent (an elite mob) without doing anything other than swinging his sword then that’s not interesting. If they can react to strong attacks (a timed block) and special abilities (an interrupt) to prevent the worst effects and win the fight then that’s better. If they have the option to either a) stand and react as above or b) ‘kite’ the opponent using well-timed movement and crowd-control style abilities (e.g. a shield slam stun) to defeat the opponent then you have combat that is engaging and offers tactical options.

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2 Responses to Series: Choosing MMOs – combat

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