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To Counter, Or Not To Counter

The limitations of combat systems often stand in the way of the player's enjoyment. I see Batman's combat system as the first real move, in modern times, toward a combat system that might one day be limitless.

Christopher Enderle, Blogger

October 18, 2009

7 Min Read

Batman: Arkham Asylum, to me, was the first serious shot in what will hopefully be a revolution of a new standard of combat mechanics and design. Every combat system is has its limits, but I saw Batman as very intentionally and mostly successfully eliminating those limits players most often run up against, and otherwise hiding remaining deficiencies under mounds of good design. It was a bold and successful statement on eliminating frustration, without dumbing things down, but by changing the nature of combat.

Gone are the pages of combos relying on complex timing and button input, replaced by a pure and unfettered allowance to focus on the battlefield. Batman makes no qualms about not being anything like your regular VS fighting game, but it’s not some simple button mashing arcade brawler. Batman takes the best aspects of both those genre of fighting game, added its own innovations, and has given the player what they’ve always wanted: A game that does what the player wanted it to do when they gave a thusly intentioned command (how many times in past games have you made a move you didn’t want to do and subsequently got your ass kicked?).

Put that way, it seems so simple. A game where the player fights multiple enemies with combat designed specifically to deal with multiple enemies. I found it very similar to a combat system I was attempting to flesh out when dreaming up my own ideal “ultimate” system. A combat system that would automatically string possible combos for you, an AI director for the player’s moves basically. I figured, “When I want to hit a guy I just want to hit them, I don’t care if I use move A, B, or C as long as they hit him and keep him from hitting me!” I was quickly conceptually stone walled, though.

What the AI determines to be the most effective move at one moment might not be the most effective move on the whole. How could the AI, without becoming too autonomous relative to the actual player, perform in a non frustrating manner when it’s focused on winning battles (single enemies) but not the war (the surrounding group of enemies all with their own AI running and trying to make decisions to counter the player’s combat AI).

The combat in Batman generally does a fine job of creating combos for you, mixing long range attacks with short range, forward attacks, back attacks (at least once you have your combo meter going, you start out impotently punching the air just as in any other fighting game)… if there’s someone to attack, no matter where they are, Batman will have a move to attack them with. But it didn’t exactly solve my problem of always being able to execute the “best” move for any given situation.

In fact it’s one of the few frustrating aspects of the combat. Batman might be targeting a thug on the ground, one posing no threat, while another thug is running up for a punch. Ideally, when the player tries to attack, they would attack the approaching thug, the greatest threat, but instead they finish off the grounded thug and get whacked in the back of the head.

The game, as in all other games to date, requires the player to recognize the limitations of its combat system and conform to its order of operations. In this example the player has to first counter the approaching thug and then get back to offense (unless the previously grounded thug has gotten up by now and is also winding up an attack, in which case you’ll still be stuck in counter land for a while). It’s never fun to have your hand slapped when hitting some arbitrary point at which you're “reaching too far.”

How can this system be refined further? What is the endgame of such a system? Once taken to its logical, perhaps extreme, conclusion what will the combat experience be like? One solution could be simply putting in more moves. It’s an expensive solution, though, requring more design, more animation, and more programming. It’s not really a viable solution. Perhaps as procedural animation advances, as processors continue to become faster and better able to simulate physics we might someday have a completely dynamically generated combat system.

Hoping for some cure all bit of code doesn’t help any of us in the present, though, and is just lazy. Creating moves that cover every situation, every array of baddies in various states (neutral, attacking, stunned, etc) would be impossible, and thus the design of combat situations would either have to be limited or the player will hit the limits of the combat system and face frustration.

Another solution is to simply design in such a way that the player is encouraged to avoid situations where they will encounter the combat’s limitations. While you can get through most fights in Batman by simply punching, using the full array of combo moves rewards you with more points for that particular combo string. It actively rewards (not just punishes) the player for using counters, dodges, and gadgets along with punches. Still, even this is only a superficial solution, and often times the player will find that they want to punch a thug in a situation that will get them hit unless they choose another move.

One last possible solution would be creating a system that allows the player to more easily do what they want to do. I’d imagine such a system would have to severely limit the player’s options and simplify combat overall to make sure all combat options are just a button press, and perhaps a directional input, away from being enacted. While none of these solutions perfectly address the problem, Batman shows that a combat system doesn’t have to be perfect to still be really, really fun.

My fascination, love, and interest in combat began with perhaps an unlikely game, Ico. It’s one button simple combo system could not have been more basic, but it worked, it did everything it needed to do, it was expressive (as all animations in the game were) and it was never frustrating. It also focused largely on offense and practically not at all on defense. To me, nothing is more frustrating than having to block, having to turtle, hold back and wait patiently for an open frame where I can finally say ‘My turn.” Heavenly Sword wooed me with its excellent counter system, turning defense into an effective (if not the game’s most effective) offensive option.

With an interest in combat, in how combat can be better interwoven into the player’s experience, I looked back to slightly older games. I sought to educate myself on what many consider pinnacle fighting games, like God of War, Ninja Gaiden, Devil May Cry, and (ok, maybe not as widely considered a pinnacle of fighting games) God Hand. In God of War and Ninja Gaiden, both games suffer from requiring extensive blocking (Ninja Gaiden especially) and both have anemic counter systems (Ninja Gaiden at least balances it’s requirement of extensive blocking with a slightly more powerful counter system). Devil May Cry and God Hand don’t emphasis blocking per se, but put the same emphasis on dodging. All these games have weak (if any) (auto)targeting systems, making it a chore sometimes to just point in the right direction, let alone go from one target to the next.

In the end, what makes combat feel best to me is the establishing of a concrete flow. Batman is all about flow. I feel games with stronger counter systems and well broadcasted (Viewtiful Joe still reigns king in this arena to me) attacks allow for better flow. To me, blocking is anathema to the feeling of flow. It’s like the period of a sentence. Games that rely on a great deal of blocking feel like reading through a lot of “…” text in a JRPG. It feels silly and dumb and your mind is trying to think of what would have been better said.

All the other games I’ve played have had spectacular arrays of moves, but they never made it any easier to land a punch when all I want to do is land a punch! Honestly, after Batman, if my character doesn’t automatically attack in the right direction when I hit attack (and just whiffs air), it feels incredibly archaic. I hope to see game reviewers call out future fighting games on that point if they insist on sticking to the same old tired formula. Such combat systems feel as tired to me now as tank controls.

Here’s looking forward to Bayonetta and its take on combat (the video showing off it’s “super easy” mode really impressed me).

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