The Witcher 3 And Why Most Action RPGs Have Bad Combat

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I’ve been wanting to talk about action RPG combat for a little while now since all the criticism about The Witcher 3’s combat came up after people got it in their hands. This also comes relatively soon after many hours of engaging in Skyrim’s infamous combat system. We also have people’s concerns brewing over Bethesda’s plans for Fallout 4’s combat.

In January I devoted a few paragraphs to issues with combat in action RPGs, particularly the ones being advertised on a mass scale for consoles from developers like BioWare, Bethesda, and CDProjekt. From what I can tell very few people seem to like the combat in these games. People call them either boring (just click until the enemy dies), horribly unbalanced, or both. At the same time Dragon’s Dogma and the Souls games are praised in this area.

Simply put, most of these games are being made by RPG developers who are trying to make action games (that are also still RPGs) because action games are more popular in the mainstream console industry. Bethesda and CDProjekt simply don’t have the experience making twitch action games that Capcom or Platinum Games has.

The system in Skyrim in particular shows that inexperience. You pretty much just left click and maybe block. Maybe sometimes you’ll fire an arrow while in the crouch position. From what I can tell Skyrim generally doesn’t take the length of animations into account when balancing melee combat for instance. It also doesn’t control very responsibly. Meanwhile the Souls games have a more precise system where you have to consider invincibility frames during dodges, weapon reach, parries, and a deeper stamina system.

The real issue is Bethesda has decided to mostly base its combat on stats while still wanting it to look like action game combat. Publishers think action game combat is what most console gamers want (and they might be right), so RPG developers try to make that compromise and mostly get limited results. Fallout 3 has clumsy first person shooter combat augmented by the VATS system, which is basically an attempt to work more traditionally RPG-like turn-based combat into the game. Fallout 3 isn’t really an FPS, it’s an RPG trying to look like an FPS to attract some more customers who often end up being disappointed when comparing it to a real FPS. The same happens when Skyrim is compared to traditional hack n’ slash action games.

That brings me to Bethesda’s attempt to make Fallout 4 look and feel even more like an FPS. Bethesda wants a good enough FPS feeling, but it will still base a lot of the game on dice rolls. Maybe Fallout 4 will feel like a better balance between RPG and FPS, but I feel like it’s still going to leave a lot of people on each side of the fence unsatisfied.

After a few hours with Witcher 3 (I started on the “Blood and Broken Bones” difficulty) I actually think it’s one of the better western attempts at a melee combat system in recent times. It’s not spectacular, it has some semi-glaring issues, but I sense in it a system that manages to be mentally engaging beyond mashing buttons.

There’s clearly an optimal timing you have to recognize when anticipating and dodging or parrying enemy attacks. I like how it puts emphasis on finding an opening to attack and making sure not to over-commit. It has also maintained the one thing I felt was always really good about combat in The Witcher — the franchise’s focus on preparation and knowing each enemy’s weakness. There’s something about finding ingredients for the right kind of bomb or oil before an important fight that feels very procedural.

The main issue I have with Witcher 3’s combat is its animations. Attacks are a bit more responsive than in Witcher 2 but it’s still a bit troublesome when a so-called “fast attack” results in an elaborate flipping startup animation that leaves me vulnerable and throws off my anticipation of what the enemy is going to do. That actually throws a bit of spacing into the mix since if you want to avoid that animation you need to stay at close or medium range from your target. It’s something at least.

The cause of issues like this is developers trying to make character animations fluid and realistic, when at a certain point that get’s in the way of control responsiveness and adds input lag. CDProjekt itself learned this when it had to patch in an “alternative movement mode” for Witcher 3  because players didn’t like its default realistic turning angle. Unnecessary input lag due to character animation is a huge issue I’ve had with Rockstar’s games in the past.

One interesting upcoming case of ARPG combat we’re seeing this week at Gamescom is Scalebound. The gameplay demo indicates it’s going to be an ARPG with a basic combat loop not too structurally dissimilar from The Witcher. The difference of course is that this is Hideki Kamiya we’re talking about here — the man responsible for the first Devil May CryViewtiful Joe, and Bayonetta. Just the prospect of seeing Platinum Games step into this action RPG space is interesting enough.

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