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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Building A Better Fight Scene For The Games We Love

With their recent showcasing of the “Combo Lab” mechanic for their upcoming sci-fi action adventure game Remember Me, developer Dontnod Entertainment is hoping to break new ground in delivering a cinematic fighting experience to players thanks to the ability to create custom combos by picking and choosing from a variety of different attacks. But while this new “Combo Lab” system is certainly a big step towards giving players a fighting system that is both organic as well as cinematic, it is still held back by the limited conventions of fighting in video games.

 Now, I’m certainly not trying to fault Dontnod or any other developer that includes hand to hand combat in their game, but I do feel that systems such as Remember Me’s Combo Lab are something I should have been seeing a lot more of during the past few years. I remember way back in the day playing an old action/adventure PS2 game called Godhand. While its story and characters were mostly generic and forgettable, Godhand’s approach to combat, allowing players to purchase new fighting moves from a variety of different martial arts styles and custom tailor the main character’s moveset, kept me engrossed for hours on end.

Other games such as Yu Suzuki’s epic masterpiece Shenmue and its sequel Shenmue II and even older games such as Deadly Arts, a fighting game for the Nintendo 64, also allowed the player to create a custom-fit fighting style for the playable character. As I mentioned earlier, I feel it is important for developers to deliver a fighting experience that feels both organic and cinematic and letting players custom tailor their character’s fighting style is definitely a step in the right direction. However, it is also the first of many more steps that have to be taken.

 Giving a character a bunch of cool looking moves and letting the player pick and choose which ones they want to use is all well and good, but another pitfall that developers need to avoid is crossing from repetition into staleness. If you think about your favorite action movies from the past few years, you probably don’t remember the characters using the same moves over and over and over when fighting. Why? Because that would make for one heck of a boring fight scene! Giving players customizable moves is all well and good, but giving them *a lot* of customizable moves is even better.

One prominent example of a well-done video game fighting system was the “freeflow” system found in Rocksteady’s recent Arkham Asylum and its mind-blowing sequel Arkham City. What at first seemed like a simplistic setup actually contained an amazing amount of depth thanks to the sheer breadth of different moves at Batman’s disposal. Many of these moves were situational, meaning the player really didn’t have to manually execute them; they were just performed organically with the simple push of a button. The exact move that Batman performed was based on several factors such as his position in relation to his foe, the distance between them, and (for counters) the way in which his opponent was attacking him.

Even without the ability to fully custom-tailor Batman’s style, the “freeflow” system worked thanks to Batman’s large repertoire of moves and the seamless and organic manner in which they were executed. Thanks to Arkham’s combat system, no two fights ever played out the same way and players always had a large variety of different ways through which to prevail. The inclusion of Catwoman, Robin, and Nightwing as playable characters in Arkham City further demonstrated the amazing capabilities of the freeflow system.   

Naturally the success of Arkham’s freeflow system quickly spawned imitators including the fighting system found in the recent Hong Kong crime drama Sleeping Dogs by United Front Games. While Sleeping Dogs did manage to deliver a satisfying and entertaining hand to hand experience, protagonist Wei Shen’s small arsenal of martial arts moves combined with his reliance on environmental attacks didn’t quite manage to reach the same lofty heights of cinematic entertainment as the Arkham games.

While both games utilized very similar fighting systems, the limited scope of Shen’s moveset when compared to Batman’s meant that fight scenes in Sleeping Dogs had Shen using the same basic four-hit combo over and over with the occasional special move or environmental takedown sprinkled in. While the fighting never fully crossed over into tedium, having to transition from the freeflow combat of Arkham City into Sleeping Dogs’ system felt jarring and unintuitive which is a shame considering how great a game Sleeping Dogs is.

Now I’m not saying every game that comes out should try and replicate either the freeflow system from Arkham or the Combo Lab from Remember Me, however building upon what these games have put forth could certainly open up a whole new set of doors for developers who are hoping to wow gamers with their fight scenes. As we slowly begin to enter into a new generation of games and consoles, it only makes sense that the ability to give players an amazing cinematic fighting experience with the push of a button should follow suit.

Follow me on Twitter at @NateHohl and check out my other work at vgutopia.com and rantgaming.com


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