When asked about their preference regarding combat in MMORPGs many players reply by naming one of the generally agreed upon main categories: A) Hotbar/Tab Targeting, B) Action Combat or C) a mix of both.
I can’t really do that because I’ve played games of all categories where I liked the combat very much, and also some where I didn’t.
My current main game is Black Desert Online. I enjoy its combat a lot, but it’s hard to compare it to most others I’ve played because it’s not really designed to be challenging at all other than excecuting your skills and combos properly. It plays more like a beat ’em up, really. Also, there are no roles to speak of, basically everyone’s a damage dealer. Hence I’ll leave it out of this discussion.
One combat system I had a lot of fun with is The Secret World’s. Interestingly (and unfortunately) though that system was almost universally reviled by the broader MMO playerbase and the most stated reason by folks for why they couldn’t bring themselves to give the game another shot at any point. On the other side of the spectrum many players seem to be pretty happy with Final Fantasy XIV’s combat, which I don’t like at all.
This made me try to understand what exactly I need from an MMO’s combat for it to be enjoyable. If it’s not the fundamental design, and not if it’s smooth and well animated either (which FFXIV is and TSW, admittedly, is not), then what is it?
I narrowed it down by thinking about which role I like to play the most, which is tanking. During the last 10+ years I’ve tanked in every MMO I played (if it had such roles), and usually it’s been my main character. As a tank nothing is more important to me than being able to react swiftly and effectively to anything the game might throw at me and my group. I want to be in control. And I like to have at least some measure of freedom in how I go at it.
These, I realized, are the two key aspects for me: control and freedom.
I’ll stay with TSW and FFXIV to elaborate on this.
In FFXIV I mostly played the Warrior. It’s a hard hitting tank class wielding a huge axe.
Looks and sounds right up my alley, but while leveling him up to 63 and doing every kind of content it never was as fun or felt as good as I’d have liked.
My biggest gripe is the awfully long global cooldown (GCD). It makes the fights feel so. slow. you. guys. Or rather, I feel slow. What’s worse, I feel neither free nor in control because I have to wait too goddamn long after I’ve used an ability before I can do anything else.
This is exacerbated by the fact that the Warrior relies heavily on ability chains, like a lot of classes in the game do. So I’ve just used a combo of three’s second attack when a group member pulls some adds? Too bad, because now I need to decide between finishing my chain (which, again, feels like an eternity due to the long GCD) and interrupting it to react to the new threat, losing a lot of extra damage and refreshing of buffs.
This kind of design is just not fun to me. I think of myself as a pretty good tank player, but the game actively prevents me from utilizing my strengths by forcing its – in my opinion – too tight design corset on me.
In contrast, The Secret World’s much maligned combat system enabled me to be exactly the tank I wanted to be, reliable and very fast reacting if things went south.
I took pride in the fact that I tanked most of the game’s harder dungeon bosses like Machine Tyrant or both encounters with Doctor Klein pretty well on nightmare difficulty. When tanking those a single error would cause you to die most of the time, which almost always resulted in a wipe. That this rarely happened to me made me feel good about myself, and also made those fights all the more fun for me.
So what exactly did TSW’s combat system give me that FFXIV’s didn’t (enough)?
One: freedom of movement while fighting. When tanking in TSW I often felt more like performing a choreographed dance than battling an enemy, and with all the stuff modern MMO’s bosses throw at you to dodge, evade or interrupt I really want to be able to do it like that. To me the most helpful tools in that regard were 360 degree AoE attacks so I could run sideways or even away from a boss and still hit it (not very realistic, but I don’t care), and generally being always able to move. No requirement to stand still while casting or channeling stuff, no animation locks.
Two: rotations with some leeway. As in every MMO ever TSW players of course developed perfect rotations to squeeze every possible bit of damage out of their characters. Because of how the system was designed though, revolving around resource building abilities, consumers to spend those resources and resource-independent special abilities, there was always room for improvisation without fucking up the rotation completely.
Three: a huge toolkit to choose from. A boss has lots of nasty attacks that should be interrupted? No problem, I’ll slot three stuns and rotate through them. Need to constantly dodge huge AoEs? I’ll bring a couple more movement abilities like dashes then. Our healer can’t heal at times due to boss mechanics? Let me prepare some defensive cooldowns or self-heals to stay alive.
I do realize that I’m comparing a class-based game with a pretty flexible skill-based one here, but I don’t think that the former has to be inherently inferior to the latter in this regard. I feel more flexible in how I play my characters in Everquest II than I felt in ArcheAge, for example. While at first glance you seem to have enormously more freedom in AA you actually don’t because 90% of those 120 possible sub-class combinations are crap, and you pretty much have to skill and play the viable 10% just the right way to have any chance at success.
All of the above doesn’t only apply to playing the tank role of course. Especially the ability to move while casting or channeling is a godsend for healers and DPS players. Having to stand still all the time admittedly doesn’t bother me that much when playing my Warlock in Everquest II – despite cast times of up to five seconds – since that game doesn’t harass players as much with bad stuff to move out of as more recent titles.
As a healer in FFXIV though you’re forced to choose between two ills all the fricking time: either finish casting your healing spell and get hit by an AoE because of it or move out of the ground target in time and maybe let someone die. To me that isn’t fun, it’s just stressful.
To summarize, combat is a main feature of most MMOs, and I’m fine with that because it can be tremendously fun. Action combat or tab targeting, I don’t care. What the game shouldn’t do is force me into a too tight design corset dictating the exact ‘right’ way to play. Give me some freedom in how I play my chosen class or build and enable me to feel that I’m in control of the situation rather than the game controlling me. Then I’m a happy camper.