I quite like the combat in Age of Conan. Oh, don’t worry, Moaning Melmoth is still alive and kicking MMO game-play mechanics squarely in the hairy gooseberries, but I’m finding that combat in AoC is an interesting mix of the traditional with the experimental. Of the three MMOs that I’m currently playing on a regular basis AoC’s combat feels like a hybrid of the other two, they being Lord of the Rings Online’s traditional slower combat and Dungeons and Dragons Online’s hectic free-form positional fighting. It’s a strange juxtaposition this slow yet hectic combat, but I do think the contrast of the two styles works well in AoC in the main.

I think the hectic feeling comes from two things, which both DDO and AoC share: no auto attack swings, and a dependence on character positioning to maximise outgoing damage while decreasing incoming damage – when considering combat from a melee point of view, at least. The fact that there are no auto attacks gives a sense of urgency to the player’s actions, this is less pronounced in DDO where one can just keep their finger held down on the attack button, but in Age of Conan if the player isn’t pressing buttons then their character isn’t attacking, and so wandering off to read your RSS feed while your character auto-defeats a mob, possibly with something pinning down the numeric key of your biggest attack or self-heal such that it triggers every time it comes off of its cool-down, is not an option. I think this is what I like about AoC’s system: it’s designed to keep the player invested in the fight; you rarely find your mind wandering on to other subjects. I think it’s a testament to this that among the media-promoted adolescent male gamer population that plays these sort of games, I’ve yet to see anyone running around with a topless female character. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there are jiggles of topless females (Oh really? Well you define the collective noun for topless females then) running around in certain areas of the game, treeless open expanses of Serengeti-like grassland, where they bask in the sun and hunt around in packs for unsuspecting prey to devour, while men with cameras venture out on safari and try to capture pictures of them. On Earth we call this place Ibiza. But, at the lower levels at least, I haven’t seen a single one, and I think that this is down to the fact that they are so involved with the combat system that they simply don’t have time to sit, chin in cupped hand, while they press the number 2 button every fifteen to twenty seconds, and wonder whether there’d be more to that side-boob if they unequipped their character’s chest piece.

The second system that keeps a player invested in the combat is the combo system, which is, in a way, a bit like an inverted gambit system as used by the Warden class in LotRO, with AoC’s version being somewhat easier to cope with, which may be a good or a bad thing, depending on your point of view and capacity for memorisation. Where a player of a Warden has to remember a string of sub-moves that will produce a resulting gambit move, Age of Conan provides a number of final moves that the player activates by pressing a button on their hotbar, at which point a UI element pops up informing the player of the sequence of sub-moves that must be performed to achieve the desired final move that they activated in the first place. I like this system, and although I think there is fun and satisfaction to be had from remembering all the various moves in LotRO’s system for the Warden, there’s nothing in AoC’s system that prevents a player from memorising the moves required and thus executing them quicker than someone who has to study the display – a big advantage in a game where combat is a lot less static than more traditional MMOs such as WoW and LotRO – but at the same time the memorisationally challenged such as myself (just ask Zoso: it’s a miracle if I remember to finish a sentence half the time) are not prevented from joining in with the complexities of combat straight from the off, albeit at a slight disadvantage to those with a richer capacity for recall.

The final function that helps to keep each combat exciting and fresh is the dependence on positioning to maximise your damage while minimising that of the enemy, a system which is shared to some extent, as I mentioned earlier, with DDO. It makes for quite a comical experience when you first play such a game, though, especially if you’ve been used to the more traditional ‘stand toe-to-toe and hit each other in turns over the head until one of you collapses’ fight, which sounds as though it would be equally at home at a college fraternity initiation rite, and thus may well explain the popularity of traditional MMOs among that section of the student population. There’s a point when the full comedy (or tragedy, depending on your point of view) of the situation for someone new to this style of combat hits home: generally there’s a point where you’ve got the fingers of your left hand on the movement keys to keep you facing in such a way as to maximise the area of effect of your glancing blows; your right hand is frantically mashing left, right and side buttons while holding on to the mouse for dear life as it flies around the mat like a cat that’s just sat on a hill of fire ants; your nose is pressed across the attack buttons on the keyboard that your left hand can’t quite reach while you desperately tongue the key that you’ve bound to health potions; and it’s usually at the point where you shout profane curses to your deity of choice for not giving you eyelids with enough musculature to be able to depress the F keys that are sitting tantalisingly beneath your eyes that you realise you might not have quite got to grips with this new combat system yet.

The great feature of this more fluid and dynamic flow of combat is that it adds another level of tactical decision making to the fight: as well as picking the right ability based on health bars, number and power level of combatants, and such, you also need to consider how to best position yourself to deal maximum damage while at the same time taking as little as possible, which in turn feeds back into the decision making process as to which ability you might want to use. Sure, fundamentally it’s still MMO combat, so Sun Tzu need hardly plan his undead comeback tour, but it definitely keeps the player more focussed on the task at hand, rather than flicking over to YouTube to watch a video of someone else performing the same fight but in their underwear. No, it isn’t the player’s character in their underwear.

AoC differs from DDO slightly in the fact that, where DDO just needs you to keep the left mouse button held down for your character to begin flailing away, AoC uses the 1, 2 and 3 keys to perform a basic ‘white damage’ swing to the left, centre or right of the target respectively, and while I admire the additional idea of trying to get characters to target a specific location on an enemy it does lead to slightly jarring combat animations where you mash one key in between performing a special move until the enemy switches their shield to that area, at which point you spam away at a different location, it ends up making your character look like a slightly over-exuberant dance or exercise instructor “And lunge. And lunge. And lunge. And lunge. And lunge. And parry. And thrust. And hack their arm off at the shoulder. And relax.” The animations don’t flow entirely naturally when you’re executing them so quickly in succession either, such as when you’re just going for white damage spam (note to search engines – not a bukkake reference) to finish off an enemy, and so it can lead to a little bit of a disconnect at that point, but it’s more comedic in nature than anything.

Where AoC differs greatly from DDO and is more akin to LotRO is in the slowness of combat. When I say slowness I’m talking not about the speed with which you perform actions in combat, but the average amount of time combat takes. I think here AoC marches more in step with the traditional toe-to-toe-head-beating frat party MMOs, where you have time during combat to think about things, to make mistakes and correct for them and to generally get a sense of the thing before it is all over. In DDO you can one-shot and be one-shot, or if not then very close to such, on quite a regular basis. So where AoC keeps the player on their toes by having them make lots of decisions quickly throughout the duration of a long combat, DDO makes players think quickly because otherwise they will either be dead, or the mob they are trying to attack will have been killed so hard that they travelled back in space and time and became their own father.

I think AoC’s combat is a step in the right direction, but they perhaps went a little overboard on the ideas front without perhaps considering the limitations of the human beings who will be trying to perform seventy five different actions at once, whilst at the same time coordinating their efforts with five other players who are all trying to do the same. MMOs are well known for their extensive keyboard layouts for all the various functions of the game, and I’m sure it’s partly to blame for why we haven’t seen many successful MMOs on the console yet:

“Everyone, this is Geoff. Geoff’s job is going to be to fit aaaaaallllll the functionality of our MMO’s UI keybinds onto a controller with six buttons and no alphanumeric input whatsoever.”

<Raucous laughter>

<Geoff sneaks off while nobody is looking, never to return>

and I worry that by extending this theme of “if you design it, they will bind it” to fast-paced combat we’re heading towards a place where N52s will become a requirement for entry into some areas of the MMO genre. The funny thing is, similarities aside, LotRO’s version of the combo combat system is actually perfectly suited to a gamepad, as unwize rightly pointed out a while back in response to my previous thoughts on the gambit system.

In the meantime, however, it’s back to my combaterobics.

“And one. And two. And lift. And stretch. And dismember. And teabag. And rest.”

Posted by Melmoth at 3:13 pm