Calcaneus. The heel. That terminating projection of bone behind the articulation of the lower leg. A major structure of the foot; a critical design flaw, and cause for recall, of the Achilles model of Greek hero; and the primary reason why action combat doesn’t work in MMOs.

The KiaSA Guide to MMOs has this to say on the subject of action combat: It’s an awful lot of jumping around, without really taking into consideration the power of the heel.

The KiaSA Guide to MMOs has this to say on the subject of the heel: Provides a simple yet highly effective method of being able to pivot on the spot, thus ruining most forms of action combat found in MMOs today. Also: combined with a baby parsnip and a doll’s wig, can present a passing fair representation of Prime Minister David Cameron.

‘Dodge! Dodge!’ cry the developers; thus I fling my character around the screen like a freshly landed sea bass flopping its way across the deck of a boat, trying—in utmost futility—to escape its tormentors. In the meantime, my enemy stands on the spot and spins around slowly, punching me all the while.

“Can’t you see I’m dodging here?”

“Yes, yes [smack] you’re doing a tremendous job. [thwack] Stirling effort and all that [thock]. I really am quite in awe [spang] of your mobility and [biff] energy, leaping all over the place [poon] as you are [bosh]. I mean, you’re really making my job [funt] modestly more difficult [dorf] than it need be, maybe more [bum].”

“‘Bum’?”

“Sorry, I was aiming higher, but you, well—moved.”

“I’m not going to be able to sit down for weeks, you know.”

“Look I’m sorry, it would have happened if you’d just stand still, instead of all this…”

“This?”

“This flopping around.”

“I am NOT flopping.”

“Here we go…”

“This is active dodging!”

“Uh huh.”

“I was trained by a Grand Master, I’ll have you know!”

“Mmm.”

“Spent punishing years in Tibet.”

“Right.”

“Forged my mind and body into the singular living embodiment of the art of ‘getting the frack out of the way’.”

“But aren’t you just, uh, running around in a circle and jumping a bit?”

“Oh, that is IT. The minute I’m able to stop dodging I’m going to fwap you *so* hard. Are you… are you tiring at all yet?”

“Not really.”

“Ah.”

“I could probably go on like this for hours. I mean, it’s not like I’m having to break a sweat or anything; I just keep spinning on my heel and carry on punching. How about you?”

“I’m getting quite tired actually.”

“Perhaps you should have a little lie down.”

“I couldn’t possibl—”

“Here, let me help: [FUNCH]“

Oh sure, I can dodge the preposterously telegraphed attacks, where the enemy spends more time winding-up their strike than I used to spend trying to eke out an extra bit of speed from the Evel Knievel Deluxe Dare Devil Stunt bike. That damnable bike, where I’d quickly wind the handle to close to the theoretical maximum speed, then spend the next half an hour oscillating between fractionally faster and fractionally slower speeds as my body alternately lost and regained its coordination, before ultimately tiring to the point where I slipped, mistimed the release, the bike flopping pathetically over onto its side two centimetres away from the ramp, and I knocked myself unconscious on the launch ramp as I fell. Good times.

That form of one-button active dodge is just a quick time event in disguise. Certainly the ‘dodge event’ serves to break up the monotony of traditional rock ‘em, sock ‘em MMO combat, but it’s not really a step-change in the evolution of combat, more a small step in the right direction.

Tera solves the ‘heel pivot’ issue by having the mobs be continuously dumbfounded when your character dodges. Whenever you leap behind a mob, they will stand there in a comic ‘Durrr, where’d she go?’ sort of way, before slowly turning around and—after a merry ‘Boh! There she is!’—continue on with the fight, allowing you to get a few free hits in without retaliation in the interim. Still, Tera was one of the few MMOs where I actively sought combat, rather than trying to avoid it all costs unless directed to do so by a quest.

DDO solved the problem by making casters ludicrously more powerful than melee, and seemingly giving every boss a massive unavoidable AoE knockdown in order to punish anyone daring to get into melee range. The fact that casters need to chain-chug mana pots purchased from the Turbine store in order to maintain their level of power? Coincidence. But that’s the danger of having the power-gaming community rule a game: it’s terribly easy in such a case for the developer to exploit the need for maximum optimisation, primarily through in-store incentives.

“Oh, you don’t *need* to buy this from the store. Not at all. The content can be done just fine without Store Consumable X. I mean, gosh, of course you’ll probably run it about thirty seven seconds slower than if yo—”

[Store Consumable X has sold out]

MMOs, for now, are combat. Even in TSW, which at least tries to mix things up a little, I’m beginning to tire of the number of problems in the world that can only be solved by going out and slaughtering a *precise* number of tightly clustered creatures. Yet for all their insistence on combat being the Ultimate Solution to all problems…

“MMO Mother, I can’t do up my shoes!”

“Kill five pairs of them!”

“MMO Mother, I’m having trouble with my homework.”

“Kill your homework!”

“MMO Mother, I can’t open this packet of crisps.”

“Kill the packet and all the crisps inside. And then kill nine more packets to teach them a lesson!”

“MMO Mother, there’s a wasp!”

“Right, what you need to do is travel halfway across the world and ask Uncle Geoff whether we can borrow his wasp catcher. You’ll probably find that he’s happy for you to do that, but that his wasp catcher is broken, as it often is. Thus, you’ll need to travel to seven locations across the globe, collecting the rare parts which can only be found in these out of the way places, and bring them back to Uncle Geoff. He’ll then repair the wasp catcher for you, but only if you can perform the Ritual of the Wasp. To learn the Ritual of the Wasp, you’ll need to speak to the Fifteen Sages of Waspdom, who are spread out—far, far, far, far out—across the world. They’re slightly eccentric folk, though, so I expect each of them will require you to quest for an insignificant item of no consequence before they divulge their secrets. Good luck!”

“Can’t I just kill it?”

“What sort of crazy talk is that?! Kill it… I never heard such— aye, what sort of child says such things? I blame your father.”

…it seems strange that when seasoning their combat, the MMO chefs decided to leave variety in the spice rack. The current format of standing still and playing a game of Farmville on fast-forward (press buttons, in order, based on time-limited resources, eventually win) clearly doesn’t lend itself terribly well to a more dynamic form. It’s almost as though MMO combat is stuck somewhere between the more cerebral experience found in tactical RPGs, and the more dynamic action found in beat ‘em ups and FPS games, and can’t really decide to which audience it ought to cater. That’s not to say that MMO combat doesn’t have its own style, its own niche differentiation, it’s just that the fundamental design is nowhere near compelling enough to be used so persistently, without it quickly becoming impossibly dull.

Posted by Melmoth at 10:21 am