I’ll have to clarify first – I’m a sucker for RPGs with turn-based combat. I started my gaming life back in the days of 80386 and DOS, and my first game was QBASIC Gorilla which was about the only game that brought my entire family together. Not that I had a broken family, but it was one of those games you played in the past not alone but with a bunch of people, and end up having fun despite the simplistic gameplay and basic graphics.
But that’s not the point of this entry. I went on from Gorilla to Gods (a platformer), to other DOS games too numerous to recount (One must fall, Traffic Department 2192, X-Wing series, Aces over Europe, Wolf3D, Prince of Persia, Another World, Dune 2, Doom, Doom 2, Quake, Duke Nukem 3D, etc), and then eventually found my true love in RPGs (although Starcraft, Quake 3 Arena and Half Life are the usual exceptions) starting with Darksun: Shattered Lands.
There are only 2 RPGs that stood out in my memory: Darksun and Fallout 2, for its combat system. While I played games like Might & Magic, Wizardry and so forth, for some reasons the combat system in Darksun and Fallout 2 actually made it FUN to get into fights.
Darksun starts out by throwing you into the arena and have you fight for your life. After every fight, if you so wished, you could continue fighting, and the game will throw in random monster parties for your entertainment (although in the game you’re supposed to be fighting for theirs). Years after playing that game the second game that gave me that impression was Fallout.
It’s kind of hard to sum it into words. In Darksun you controlled a party, and in the game you consistently get the chance to fight difficult monsters. I could still remember stumbling into Vrocks in an abandoned temple, and got my ass handed to me for not having +3 magical weapons. That was when I was winning every single fight, including those against Mountain Stalkers.
Games nowadays often turn you immortal in the late stages of the game, where your high level plus powerful loot allows you to steamroll over most enemies save for the toughest boss. Final Fantasy games are often guilty of these.
I believe that games should challenge the player. There is no challenge in fighting war of attritions against monsters which are hard to kill just by the merit of having shitloads of HP. It is far better to present players with battles containing genuine opportunities for actual tactical play. The final battle in Darksun is but one of the best examples in this case: You had to fight through 3 waves of enemies, and no matter how strong your characters were it was still a damned difficult fight. Had you waded into it unprepared (e.g. no allies, no genie, poor spell choices, etc), you would have been slaughtered by the second wave.
The final battle of Darksun enforced one thing – resource conservation. The tactical focus in that scenario was simple – how do you ration your ammunition so that you could pull through all three battles, each of which contains enough adversaries to warrant an all-out approach on your side?
Moving on to Fallout 2: I hated the trash mobs (GOD I FUCKING HATE THE TEMPLE OF TRIALS!), but at the same time the combat was fun. Yes, it was easily abused, but that somehow made it fun. Why? Heck, I don’t know, maybe I just enjoyed seeing torsos blown to bits by high-velocity 2mm EC shells? But honestly, there were two fights that really stood out in the game: clearing the raider hideout and starting a city-wide gunfight in New Reno.
The former was interesting because at that point I only had Sulik and Cassidy in my team, and only moderately powerful equipments (I was carrying an assault rifle, Cassidy has a combat shotgun, and Sulik had… I don’t remember him doing anything in that battle though. :S ). To make things worse, in my first attempt I approached from the heavily mined entrance, with nobody having enough lockpick skill to open that door. Not to mention the mines.
Suffice to say that I got my ass handed to me within minutes. The second time I tried the ladder, and fighting from close quarters with lots of cover I managed to clear the hideout (not without a few reloads though).
That was it: plan it badly, and you get your ass handed to you. Do it the right way, and you are rewarded with not only a completed quest but a whole variety of superior gear and ammunition as loot.
The New Reno fight on the other hand, while having little tactical significance, was memorable for the sheer chaos that ensued. Junkies were running like Olympian marathoners and some even got into fights with bouncers; at one point a hooker was torn to shreds for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. It was also a case where you tackle on the enemy thinking the odds are well balanced, only to realize that some of those people in the streets were jumping in the fight too. It was unpredictable and if not for the long waiting time between turns, it would have been my favorite activity in the game.
Splintered Core’s Combat
The examples mentioned above highlight a common factor in entertaining combat. They require the player to plan ahead, to treat that battle with a level of respect not present in modern RPGs where it is entirely possible to steamroll through every encounter, even bosses. This has nothing to do with the actual combat mechanic. As a contrast, the turn-based fight in the Oil Rig against evil Optimus Prime (forgive me for forgetting his name. Was it Frank? Damn. Too lazy to Google) paled in comparison to the fight against the demi-lich (Kangaxx or something) in BG2, and the latter was in real-time.
While mechanics have a great influence on the kind of tactics that are available in the game, and also governs the level of control possible over the flow of events, the most important thing is to actually provide enough tactical options to the player.
So what kind of options should we provide then? First of all, there must be multiple ways for the player to wrestle control of the battlefield. Having multiple status ailment spells to disable/convert/distract/debuff enemies are good examples; having multiple versions of Fireball of different temperatures are not.
In modern firefights, position and subsequently, zone control are perhaps the most important success factors. Flanking is made that much more important in a battlefield when we understand the typical human’s incapability of dealing with simultaneous threats from multiple angles. And by that, we arrive at the issue of area denials.
Ideally, you want to pin down your enemies, keep them in an exposed area and spray them with fire until they either give up or die. If they move, reposition so that you can force them back into the “killzone” by either overwhelming firepower or area denial devices like grenades and mines. In short, you will want to maximize your own people’s mobility while denying the enemy’s.
To achieve this, we need to have a suppression system in the game. Automatic weapons can be set to suppress a specific zone, firing and discouraging any movement across it. Breaching charges and destructible environment should be explored to provide players (and enemies) with more tactical options. And finally, damage should be lethal and NOT tied to experience levels. It is pretty pointless to have an option to overwatch an area only to have enemies moonwalk through them and back just because they’re wearing some Modern Warfare 2 Juggernaut armor (read my lips: I fuckin’ hate those abominations).
Here’s the kind of battle story that I would love to be able to simulate in Splintered Core:
You are about to launch an assault at an enemy camp with your party, which consist of one heavy weapons guy backed by two riflemen with automatic weapons, a grenadier, two melee specialists and a medic. Creeping up on the enemy, you send the medic (who doubles as a scout too) forward to gain line-of-sight at the enemies, and after observing them for a while (NPCs have schedules and timetables – they don’t stand around doing nothing), you realize that the best time to launch the assault is in the evening where most, if not all of the enemies would be gathered in the courtyard for the daily flag lowering ceremony.
You evaluate the map, and send your heavy weapons guy paired with the grenadier to the west of the camp, and the other two riflemen to the main entrance. The medic follows the riflemen, while the two melee specialists are moved to the east of the camp, ready to sneak in and do some serious damage.
After ensuring that everybody has gotten into positions, you sneak the two melee artists into the camp, and hide them in two buildings that you expect the enemy to pass through in their attempts to counter-flank your positions.
The idea is this: your heavy weapons guy open fire at the courtyard, which would send the enemies scrambling. Once they recover they will return fire, and attempt to flank your position, which they can only do so by sending people out through the main entrance. If they do so, they will be caught by your riflemen and your medic who doubles as a grenadier. After sustaining a couple of injuries they will get the idea that their only option is to go east, which if they do they would risk spreading themselves too thin, allowing you to move your heavy weapons team forward INTO the base to utilize the base’s defenses against the enemy. Your melee artists would help in the advance, by hitting the base defenses from both ends. At this point your riflemen can reposition themselves to deal with the enemies exiting from the east of the camp, and if everything works properly you would be able to funnel them BACK into the camp where your heavy weapons team would be waiting to cut ‘em down.
If all works out well, you would have successfully pinned the western side of the camp down with suppressive fire, denied the front entrance with the two riflemen (which the enemy would naturally assume that you have ANOTHER heavy weapons setup on that front) and subsequently forcing them to split their forces. That would then significantly improve the survival odds of your melee artists, which you then spring to mow down the base defenders, which contributes to your eventual success in isolating the second enemy group attempting to flank your riflemen.
Of course, to achieve this would need a fair bit of realistic enemy AI, but still the argument here is to provide the actual game mechanics to make this possible.
That’s it for now – I’ve written more than I should, and this is possibly the longest post in my blog so far. I’m archiving this post to remind myself of the kind of combat I want to deliver to my players.