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