Updated Tue, Jun 12, 2012 by Sardu
A few years ago at E3, the above statement would have applied to perhaps one or two MMOs at best. It’s been a slow transition, but we’ve finally reached a point where ‘action combat’ is becoming the norm, rather than an extreme exception to the rule like it used to be. In fact, three of this year’s biggest releases (not even counting all the shooters) feature some variant on this approach to combat.
Earlier this spring at PAX East, I noted that Neverwinter is one of the in-development titles making the above proclamation, and how the game’s combat is intended to feel more like the kind of action you’d find in something like Bayonetta than a traditional MMO. Having had a taste of lower level combat during that event, it gave me a great foundation to build upon heading into E3, where I was able to experience both single and small group play with a level 39 character.
Or, more accurately, I got to play the game with two distinctly different characters. At major industry events I purposefully seek out those titles that are worthy of checking out with any free time between appointments I may have. For this year’s E3, there were really only two clear standout titles that fit the bill, with Neverwinter being the frontrunner for my attention.
As such, I had been impressed enough following my first appointment for the game that I went back the following day for a second run at things. That let me get an even better feel for the game’s combat, and a good chunk of time in with two distinctly different classes; the Trickster Rogue and the Control Wizard.
Rather than give a bunch of cryptic descriptions about the combat system (pun fully intended) or wacky metaphors about gobbling up health points like Pacman on crack, I wanted to take a moment to drill down into some more specifics about how combat in Neverwinter differs from the other “action combat” games on the rise.
There were four core types of powers I ended up using during combat on both characters: at will, medium potency powers, daily powers, and finally utility powers. Since our group was running without a healer in the dungeon, we also had a stack of health potions that generally weren't needed unless I sprung traps or during boss fights.
Instead of auto attack, or a basic attack mapped to your number 1 key, you have your At-Will attacks on your left and right mouse buttons. These have no cooldown and require no resources to active, and can literally be used “at will”. More often than not, you’ll want to simply hold down either mouse button to use these attacks rather than needing to click for each and every sword or dagger swing, or magic missile you want to fling at enemies.
Your medium potency powers are your counters, and are bound to the Q, E, and R keys. These are the most like other MMO powers in that they function on a cooldown, and some of them also have resources or charges associated with activation. For example, on my control wizard I had a pair of awesome crowd control powers. One pushed enemies away from my character which on the surface seems like more of a defensive move. However, during my dungeon run with that character I was able to combine my utility power to shadowstep directly in front of a group of goblin archers standing along the edge of a massive chasm. This skill allowed me to neatly shove them over the edge to their doom with plenty of offensive gusto.
There’s a D20 in the middle of your power tray, located directly above your counters. As you engage in combat, you’ll see that D20 meter start to charge up more. When it becomes full you’ll be able to use your daily powers which are bound to the number 1 and 2 keys. The use of the word "daily" is just a naming convention, however, meaning you can use those skills more than once per day.
For example, during the boss fight at the end of the group dungeon we played through, I was able to use my daily powers twice while playing the control wizard, and about the same on my run through on the trickster rogue. For the wizard, one of the dailies was a huge help during different parts of the fight since it caused a powerful AoE that would wipe out the adds the boss was summoning into the fight.
The idea here is that you don’t have to hoard your daily powers like you would rocket launcher ammo in first-person-shooters, but you'll still want to time their usage to have the maximum impact during longer fights. While solo, they can also help save your skin if you aggro too many mobs or are running low on health but forgot to stock up on potions.
The last power category is the utility power category. This is bound to your shift key, and is a way for every class to handle or prevent incoming damage. The guardian fighter will hold up his shield and block the damage, the trickster rogue will dodge out of the way, and the control wizard will do a short range teleport in the direction of whichever movement key you use along with the shift key.
For the Trickster Rogue, you’ll alternatively be able to double tap any of the directional movement keys to activate this utility power. More powerful enemy attacks will regularly display some form of marking on the ground that serves as a strong visual indication that you may want to block or dodge certain attacks, or move away from a larger AoE attack.
We’re seeing this type of thing used far more often, and to be honest I tend to enjoy the more obvious visual feedback like this than having to watch for a mobs left eyeball to twitch three times, magical dust to come bellowing out of its backside, or some other arbitrary “tell” that players are supposed to be able to pick up on in other MMOs attempting to push the action combat angle. It’s also far better than the whole overplayed bullet time thing where the camera slows to a crawl to either say “hey dumbass, move out of the way” or alternatively “you should probably shoot this thing in the head now”.
If targeting rings were the hip new thing in MMOs 10 years ago, the ground markers described above that we’re currently seeing in more action oriented titles is quickly becoming a staple of the genre. In fact, three of this year’s biggest titles are using a similar system; Neverwinter of course, joined by The Secret World and Guild Wars 2.