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What Makes Video Game Combat Feel So Good

Illustration for article titled What Makes Video Game Combat Feel So Good

The first time you dove into a gang of thugs in Batman: Arkham Asylum or lobbed a few grenades then switched to a Needler against the Covenant in Halo: Combat Evolved, you knew. You knew that something about the fighting mechanics of the game felt so good that you were hooked. But what exactly was the secret formula that made the combat feel so satisfying, you wondered?

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Illustration for article titled What Makes Video Game Combat Feel So Good

Designer Sébastien Lambottin—who works at Ubisoft's Montreal studio—asked himself the same thing and the answers he came up with went into a great article about the design of combat systems that's up on Gamasutra:

The main objective we have in mind when we design the gameplay mechanics of a combat system is to push the player to make clever choices and use the right ability at the right time. We want the player to be able to anticipate the next action he'll perform and also to develop a tactical plan during the combat.

There are many ways to reach this result, but here are two very important characteristics which help to design the player's abilities for a combat system:

• Each ability has a unique function: hit a specific area, stun an enemy…
• Each ability is balanced with the reward vs. the risk of using it.

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Lambottin hits on something when discussing the trial-and-error method which many players use to feel out just what they can do:

Illustration for article titled What Makes Video Game Combat Feel So Good

As mentioned earlier, when we design a combat system, we are really aiming to challenge the cleverness of the player, and the tactics he'll be able to apply during the battle. So basically we want a system with multiple choices, but in which the player has to evaluate and choose the best option for each situation.

He also offers some illuminating slides about how balance work, too. The next time I really enjoy the combat systems in a video game, Lambottin's article will be knocking around in the back of my mind.

The Fundamental Pillars of a Combat System [Gamasutra]

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DISCUSSION

"The first time you dove into a gang of thugs in Batman: Arkham Asylum or lobbed a few grenades then switched to a Needler against the Covenant in Halo: Combat Evolved, you knew. You knew that something about the fighting mechanics of the game felt so good that you were hooked. "

I feel like I'm the only one capable of looking behind the curtain and seeing how awful AA/AC's combat is. It's one giant QTE wearing the mask of an action game. It's less skill based combat and more reactionary prompts that tell you what to do. Something pops up above an enemy's head and you press the button accordingly. Which I guess comes as no surprise given it's roots as a rhythm game of all things, but they didn't do a good job at distancing itself from said roots. The combat plays more like DDR than an action/fighting game and it drives me absolutely crazy. There's no thought in "press the right button when prompted", and the only sense of player control is the direction/enemy I wish to take on at a given moment. That's not enough for me. And I can't for the life of me understand how QTEs are so often criticized in this medium, yet AA/AC's combat is praised as some of the best in the industry when it is just one giant, dynamic QTE.

I understand that counter-attacks have to be reactionary by their very nature, but it can be done without centering the combat around it in such a fashion that all you're left doing is reacting to on-screen enemy prompts. See DMC3's Royal Guard stance as an example of how to do it right. Maybe another layer or more depth would serve the series better, but as it stands, I've never once felt challenged in AA/AC; Every time I have to engage a group of enemies in either game, it feels like a chore where I'm just going through the motions to take the group down. 'Cause God knows it's not requiring any thought or skill on my end beyond "press what the game tells you" like I am some insipid child. Based on game difficulty this generation though, I guess wanting to use one's brain and be engaged while playing a game makes me a minority.

(As an addendum however, I'd like to say that I think AA/AC are pretty enjoyable games. Playing with all of Batman's gadgets, exploring the locations, and stealthing around are all fantastic elements. It's only when it comes to the brawling combat that I find the game to be incredibly lackluster and not worthy of even a fraction of the praise it receives outside of it's fluid and dynamic animations.)