Post Script

Smooth­ing out the skill curve: in praise of sim­ple com­bat sys­tems


Back in 2013, Wolfire Games made a pro­to­type for the 7-Day FPS Chal­lenge called Re­ceiver in which you had to man­u­ally load your hand­gun be­fore you could fire it. You needed to un­hol­ster the mag­a­zine, re­move the clip and load bul­lets into it one by one, then rein­sert it, turn off the safety, re­lease the slide lock and pull back the ham­mer. Only then could you think about point­ing and shoot­ing, which tends to be the limit of what most gun games ask of us.

Re­ceiver was unique in its genre. Yet when it comes to combo-heavy melee com­bat, most games are like Re­ceiver. Yes, sure, you can run up to the bad­dies and just mash but­tons hope­fully, just as you could prob­a­bly get pretty far in a mod­ern-day FPS cam­paign by hit­ting ev­ery­thing with the butt of your gun. But to re­ally suc­ceed in a third­per­son brawler or fight­ing game, you have to dis­as­sem­ble, then re­assem­ble, its com­bat sys­tem step by step. You have to work out which moves can be strung to­gether, then fi­nesse them into the fastest, most dam­ag­ing com­bi­na­tion. Al­ter­na­tively, you could just spam light and heavy at­tacks at ran­dom un­til the cred­its have rolled, shrug your shoul­ders and walk away, won­der­ing what all the fuss was about.

The sky-high skill ceil­ing of one of videogam­ing’s old­est gen­res is in part a mat­ter of ne­ces­sity. The days when Dou­ble Dragon or Tur­tles In Time was king of the ar­cade, or when Streets Of Rage was the Mega Drive’s must-have, are long gone, and the brawler is now largely a niche pur­suit. Skilled play­ers want a com­bat sys­tem of depth and tremen­dous com­plex­ity, and a game that will test them to the limit, so de­vel­op­ers oblige. OK KO! Let’s Play He­roes doesn’t quite turn back the clock to 1990s lev­els of ac­ces­si­bil­ity. But it does show how a bal­ance can be struck, bring­ing flashy com­bos within reach of novice play­ers, while still mak­ing them work for it.

It’s telling that Marvel Vs Cap­com 3 is such an ap­par­ent in­flu­ence on the game, since Cap­com’s cross­over fight­ing se­ries is ac­tu­ally a good deal eas­ier to play than you might think. Yes, combo counts can eas­ily reach triple fig­ures in high-level play. But its con­trols are sim­ple, ar­guably bet­ter suited to a gamepad than an ar­cade stick. It does not have tim­ing win­dows; it has tim­ing chasms, the game happy to read your in­tent rather than in­sist upon per­fect ex­e­cu­tion. Its com­plex­ity comes from its team-build­ing, its speed, and the dif­fi­culty of pars­ing what mat­ters on a screen full of ex­plo­sive chaos.

Let’s Play He­roes seeks to do the same, but slows the ac­tion down, cleans the screen right up and does away en­tirely with the stress of team build­ing. While you can only choose be­tween two Powie Zowie moves at a time, you can cy­cle through all the avail­able op­tions dur­ing a fight with the shoul­der but­tons. And by bind­ing them to cooldown timers that can be ac­cel­er­ated, rather than su­per meter that must be man­u­ally ac­crued, Capy elim­i­nates the fear of wast­ing a com­bat sys­tem’s most valu­able re­source.

And away from the Zowie com­po­nent, KO’s nor­mal at­tacks are few, cer­tainly, but also flex­i­ble enough to prac­ti­cally demand ex­per­i­men­ta­tion. They’re un­locked grad­u­ally, in sug­ges­tive or­der. Once you’ve got to grips with the ba­sics of knock­ing an op­po­nent into the air then jump­ing up to carry on with the as­sault, you ac­quire an air dash. Could you…? Yes, you could, and you will.

The re­sult is a brawler with sta­bilis­ers on, yes, but ev­ery­one has to start some­where, and this is a game that proves the ben­e­fits of a fresh pair of eyes. A stu­dio with no genre experience (at least in its back cat­a­logue: clearly there are some fight­ing-game fans over there) has de­liv­ered an in­tri­cate, com­plex com­bat sys­tem that is easy to un­der­stand, and ex­per­i­ment with, and get bet­ter at. It’s some­thing from which the brawler, one of the most im­pen­e­tra­ble gen­res in games, could learn a sur­pris­ing amount.

OK, we’ll admit to over-us­ing Rad’s Powie Zowie. It’s far from all-pow­er­ful, since you can only fire on the di­ag­o­nals

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