It's difficult to think of a recent E3 reveal that went more poorly than XboxOne launch title Ryse. This wasn't like us laughing at the technical follies of Wonderbook or cringing at the awkwardness of Wii Music. This wasn't just incompetence. Ryse was offensive, a manifestation of everything we'd been dreading to see happen in mainstream gaming. It had huge, dumb set pieces, and a huge, dumb protagonist, but worst of all, it had a combat system that relied so heavily on quick time events that some described it as Simon Says in a different skin.
The now-infamous original E3 demo
Earlier this week, Design Director PJ Esteves was interviewed by Eurogamer, and the interview was cited by Destructoid in an article on Wednesday. Esteves was emphatic that the team had listened to these complaints, and had made significant changes. The previously passive enemies now aggressively attempted to surround the player; an increased focus on basic combat shifted QTEs from a combat mainstay to a form of punctuation; the visual cues were made much more subtle, trading big, blaring button prompts for thin colored outlines or, on the hardest difficulty, nothing at all.
As of this writing, the Eurogamer interview and the Destructoid article have gathered, in total, nearly 300 comments, and a quick glance at them shows that Esteves hasn't changed many minds. In fact, he seems to have had the opposite effect, with many commenters arguing that the unwanted core elements remain unchanged, and that they're furious that Crytek would try to pull the wool over their eyes like this. After all, changing some visual cues and slowing down the pace doesn't do anything to solve the problem…right?
The more recent Gamescom demo
Let's look at the tape. Every change Esteves mentions can be seen in the recent Gamescom footage--the enemies are more threatening, most of the damage is done by conventional attacks, and the quick-time cues are indeed much more subtle. In fact, the combat in this video bears more than a passing resemblance to arguably the most widely praised combat system of the previous generation--Rocksteady's Arkham games. Back when it burst onto the scene in 2009, Arkham Asylum's combat was nothing less than revolutionary. While games before it had always mapped attacks and animations to a specific string of inputs, AA's combat was highly contextual, and a single press of the melee button could give a stiff elbow to a guy 3 feet away just as easily as it could flying-punch a guy 20 feet away. You didn't direct Batman's moves as much as you conducted them, guiding Batman throughout the combat zone and letting him worry about the details.
The fundamentals of Arkham's combat have remained unchanged even in the upcoming Arkham Origins
What resulted was an entirely different flow and feel from a traditional action game. With the intricate details taken out of the player's hands, success and failure relied mostly on identifying and reacting to visual cues. Some are simple--if you see a guy punch, you know you need to counter or dodge. Some are more complex--if you see a guy with a riot shield, you know you need to dodge over his head then attack. Some are even situational--when a thug picks up a gun, you know you'd better deal with him with a quick fist or a batclaw .
So what you're really doing is scanning the battlefield for these visual cues, then reacting in response. If you identify the right cue, and react the right way, your attack succeeds, or a thug's attack misses. If you mess up, you get punished for it, either with a failed attack or a blow to the face. And when you strip everything down to this level, the system fundamentally sounds like a whole bunch of QTEs.
Now obviously, this complaint was never raised with the Arkham games, so there must be something different going on here. For one, the cues are, compared to a button prompt, are very subtle, and they're learned rather than given. You know you need to capestun that huge mutant because you figured that out in an earlier encounter, not because there's a big red circle over his head. This makes it feel like you're applying tactics you've discovered on your own rather than just following a script.
But more importantly, the cues govern combat without restricting it. Reactive moments are a critical component of an Arkham fight, but they're strung together by periods of freedom, where you can do whatever you want. If you want to bounce around between enemies, you can, as long as you dodge every time they take a swing. If you want to pound away at the big guys before chipping away at their minions, or vice versa, you have the freedom to do so. Even if success and failure often hinges on identifying and reacting to very specific cues, the big-picture tactics remain flexible enough that you can craft your own personal style.
But then, when you look at Ryse's combat as it stands now, it's hard to argue that these things aren't already in place. Most of the combat seems to demand the same core competencies that Arkham did--enemy awareness, positioning, and fight management. Most of the time, you're fighting your way…occasionally, you have to react to something, and you're rewarded or punished accordingly. The maligned quick time events, if anything, seem to be an extension of Arkham's takedowns, a move used to finish an enemy only after they've been broken down by more traditional means. If the game is pulling the strings, it's never enough to take control out of the player's hands.
Arkham's combat system succeeded because it married the unique, badass moves that only scripting can create with the sense of risk and reward of a more traditional combat system. While Ryse's first demo may have focused on the former to the detriment of the latter, recent changes have brought the system back into balance. It'll still be a few months before we know if Ryse is a good game--the Arkham games, after all, were good for dozens of reasons beyond their combat--but I think we have enough evidence now to say that the fights are no longer the train wreck they once were. Ripping Ryse apart merely because of its association with the three most hated letters in gaming isn't just foolish--it's the kind of counterproductive argument that makes developers' lives hell.
We often complain that games should be judged on their execution and their merits rather than their back of the box features. At least when it comes to Ryse, we need to start listening to our own advice.