When we talk about game combat, we always use words like "visceral", "satisfying", and "stylish", while rarely quantifying what those words mean. What does it mean when a game has satisfying combat? Is it visually thrilling? Is it slaking our long-repressed predatorial thirsts for blood? Does it appease our sense of accomplishment? This topic is so subjective that I am hesitant to even discuss it, because as humans vary so do our preferences, but there is something so alluring about the subject of fighting that I can't resist the urge to pontificate about it for a while, especially in the midst of all the mind-numbing high-art philosophizing that goes on about video games these days. Essentially, what I ask is, what is it that makes combat in a game "good," and can these elements be clearly identified? To avoid making this subject too broad, I plan to focus on the man-to-man/man-to-demon/man-to-robot/woman-to-man kind of battle, and only lightly brush shoot-'em-up, long-range or military kind of battle.
The Warriors, Shank 1 and 2, God of War, Devil May Cry, Dead or Alive, Dark Souls, Tactics Ogre, Uncharted, Ninja Gaiden, Sleeping Dogs, Batman: Arkham Retirement Community, Yakuza, Killzone, God Hand, and even classics like Super Double Dragon and TMNT: Turtles in Time provide me with an experience that I truly crave; gratifying and fun combat. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. You might not like some of these games, or any of them. I find that indescribably fascinating. Notice that in that list, I included a variety of genres, not just arcadey action titles. Even a few games based around shooting are included, because they have moments of enjoyable close quarter ferocity. My goal here: to enumerate formats of game combat that are distinct, but still being easy to blend with each other conceptually. (I also intend to figure out why we think each type is so damned great.)
That's enough hooplah. Let's get to the meat of it.
Dynamic combat is about keeping you on your toes. Fast dynamic combat is exemplified in stunning games like Ninja Gaiden Black, Devil May Cry 3, and Vanquish. Conversely, there is slow dynamic combat, like that of strategy-heavy games like Tactics Ogre and Valkyria Chronicles, and even Dark Souls. Aspects like varying range, number of enemies, the weapons you and your foes use, hidden dangers, or a perpetually changing battlefield make a game's combat dynamic.
I think we enjoy this kind of experience because it requires us to constantly be engaged in what's happening. Reacting to unexpected events and not knowing what is going to happen a few seconds from now is just so fucking exciting. Being successful at this kind of combat is rewarding because it tests our capacities to keep track of many factors at once, and always think ahead.
Where dynamic combat can fail is when it becomes a question of, "How can I meta-game this situation?" The moment we reduce (or are forced to reduce) a segment of gameplay to using exploits or relying on game-breaking weapons, we are experiencing game design that has failed to keep us interested in playing the way it was intended.
Delivering stylish precision at high speed is what it is all about here. Highly technical action is what we get in games like BlazBlue, Ninja Gaiden (yeah I'm gonna use Ninja Gaiden a lot), and God Hand. Perception and reflex-heavy, this kind of combat generally requires the right response at the right time, while adding your own personal flair, demanding your mastery of the game's systems and the controller.
We enjoy this kind of combat because it is truly skillful. I simply cannot watch a clip of buppa playing as Jin in BBCS without being in complete awe of his mastery. We all appreciate the effort it takes to be skilled at something, and we all love the feeling of being skilled. When you see that hard-earned S-rank pop up on the screen, ooooooh it is sweet.
Where technical combat blunders (and often does) is when we get to the point of having figured out that one move, that one technique that defeats all others or allows us to overcome a game that hasn't given us the technical options to overcome a situation. Anyone else ever spam Flying Swallow a time or two?
I chose the title "simple" only because I couldn't find a more appropriate word, so please do not misconstrue my meaning as meaning dumbed-down or empty. I find simple combat to be some of the most enjoyable combat to play. The Warriors, Metal Gear Solid (the CQC editions, of course), and Uncharted are all examples of games with simple combat styles. Confrontations are usually settled with only a handful of button presses, making them short, and when well-executed, sweet. Old side-scrolling beat-'em-ups like Battletoads are completely built around this beautiful format.
This combat type is great because it keeps our gameplay varied and well-paced, without being overly reliant on technical skill. It also often lets us appreciate our handiwork a little bit more because we can see exactly what is going on. The decisive application of your tools is the winner here, be it a swift crowbar to the back of the head during a gang brawl or a beautiful Superman punch to the face in the middle of a gunfight. While still being dynamic and technical, the recent Batman games have elements of simplicity to them as well, for example only requiring one button to manifest a river of strikes. That is not a harsh insult to the wonderful Batman games, it is a compliment. It is that simplicity that allows us to get competent very quickly.
Where simple combat fails is when it gets too simple. Call of Duty's lightsaber-knife is extremely guilty of this, as are the QTE knife fights with the bosses of Far Cry 3. Simple combat should still require the player's full commitment to the action. Killzone 3's melee knife kills in multiplayer have an exciting element of danger because you can easily be killed by somebody else while performing them. Just because I don't need a TON of options or variations doesn't mean I couldn't use a few to keep things interesting. Simple combat also runs the highest risk of becoming that dreaded adjective, repetitive.
Brutal (visceral?) combat is when we start to get truly subjective. Base, ugly, savage, all of these things describe the kind of violence we see in games like God of War, The Warriors, and Sleeping Dogs. Heads cracked open, bones broken, guts spilling, et cetera. I think it's pretty clear what I mean when I say brutal combat. Brutality is becoming more and more of a gameplay feature these days, to the point where it actually affects the combat instead of merely being eye-candy. Some play systems are based around how brutal you can be. Manhunt is a perfect example of a game where more brutality is the end goal.
Brutality can be many things; cathartic, horrifying, hilarious, I could go on. Context and the emotional investment of the player can really be the key when we talk about brutality. Killzone and Gears of War are games that deliver brutality in a way that feels good. I enjoy being stab-you-in-the-eye-socket brutal to the Helghast because they just deserve it so fucking badly. Hotline Miami's unique brand of mind-shattering violence is immediately enthralling, yet subtly leads us on a path to insight about the nature of barbarism in games. The Warriors is gorgeously brutal. I can't think of any games that let you smash a man's head through every piece of furniture in the house, bludgeon him to the ground, bludgeon him ON the ground until he's done, and then give him the ten-boot-salute with your boys until he pukes blood and stops moving. The delivery of the violence is so gritty (ugh, sorry) and believable that it still rocks me to this day. The bloody gang violence context works, and it works PHENOMENALLY. No other game has come close to duplicating that level of terrible reality, and it came out in 2005!
All that said, a game that is mindlessly brutal for the hell of it can come across as trite or pandering. I couldn't really tell you what happens to the monsters I kill in Ninja Gaiden games, because you take them apart so fast that it's over before you have time to even see what you've done. All you get are a hundred thousand flashing milliseconds of ultraviolence. I remember the first thing I thought when I saw the blood-soaked screenshots of Ninja Gaiden 2... "Nice marketing." God of War, while pushing an actual narrative, still stretches out the gore so much in every game that it has almost become slapstick, a la Itchy and Scratchy. (In spite of that, the utter atrocities you commit against your foes in the God of War: Ascension multiplayer are so very satisfying.)
Another side of it is that a game that isn't brutal enough can also feel just a little bit off. How many people do you ruthlessly slaughter in Uncharted games, without a drop of blood spilled? It sometimes comes across as a developer trying to play it safe, afraid to take that step, add that edge to their game.
I think this aspect is the one most people will disagree with me on. This is what I mean about the subjectivity of brutality. Some people don't need or want it at all, but some people crave it. For example, when I look at 2012 Metal Gear Rising footage and compare it to the 2010 footage of Metal Gear Solid: Rising, all I can think is how much cooler the game would be if you were cutting through men, not beating up cyborgs with a sword. The electrifying power of melting effortlessly through your enemies... that contextual brutality would truly have imparted a feeling of what it's like to be a cybernetic war god like Raiden, but again, that's subjective.
This kind of combat was the most difficult to find a one-word descriptor for. What I mean by this is combat that has awesome impact. Fighting that has a certain wallop, with ballistic hits, great sound, cool animation, realistic movement, reactive enemies, and interactive environments. This kind of design is rarely done perfectly, but even if certain aspects of it are nailed it lends so much credibility to the action. Batman: Arkham Whatever games absolutely smash this. Sleeping Dogs, Shank, Yakuza, and even retro games like Super Double Dragon do too. In my opinion, this is something that Dead or Alive games do better than every other fighter.
This kind of combat is so exciting because it can make us feel like we're really doing it. As human beings, we like having an "effect on target," and we love the feeling of acknowledgement we get when our environment is changed because of us. It adds a level of engagement when you can put yourself in the game a little and get some feedback for what you do, instead of just feeling like you're pressing buttons to make a digital construct move. It doesn't have to be realistic, either. Yakuza games are fantastic at pushing the boundary slightly past realism, allowing you to enjoy all these fantastic Tony Jaa feats, while still keeping it moderately grounded. Aside from the whole tiger-punching thing. Don't even bring it up.
Failures occur when we have NO tangible connection to what's happening in the game. Tales games are prime culprits of a lack of tangibility in battles. You have little to no discernible effect on the enemy other than that they fall over after you hit them with enough splashes of colour. This lack of impact on players keeps us from getting invested in what is happening because we can't feel any of it. It stops the game from being an experience, and the experience is really what it's all about when we want action. Other games like Dynasty Warriors often suffer from this lack of tangibility in a different way. By letting us easily hew through endless rows of indistinct, mildly-hostile soldiers that offer little resistance, we are constantly reminded that we are a collection of polygons riding through an empty box swinging polygons at other polygons.
I'd like to wrap it up there. Somehow, I spent the most time talking about the subjects that were the most difficult for me to define. I apologize beforehand for my clumsy writing. Thank you for reading, especially if you read the whole thing. What types of game combat do you prefer? Think of every category as a slider bar that can be moved to high, medium, low, none. Most modern games fit into at least two categories at the same time, and to varying degrees. Please comment with your ideas and thoughtful meanderings.