Perfect Ten: The circles of MMORPG combat hell
And so it was as I traveled across the many spheres and realms of MMOs, I came to realize one simple truth: War is hell. But it is a hell of many sorts, and as MMOs almost always include some form of combat, it can be said that little forms of this hell approach as you descend through levels. Combat becomes difficult to follow, unclear, perhaps even oblique. The game stops caring what you’re doing.
So it became clear to me that these different circles of combat hell should be documented. For while there are games where fighting things may be taken as a joy (and this will vary for each person, yes), there are also many games where combat is a tedious chore you have to get through, not because the combat is difficult or not to your taste because it actually doesn’t work. And so you may use this guide to determine which circle you are trapped within rather than just saying combat is “bad.”
1. Limbo, the virtuous sinners
In this first circle lie the games whose combat is functional but bland. It is very easy for one to mistake inhabitants of this circle for combat that is good but not to the player’s taste, as the problems with these games are frequently subtle; usually, you can mark exactly what game the designers were trying to copy without understanding why it worked.
There is nothing wrong with these systems, but they wind up feeling bad or unengaging simply because they lack anything to keep you entertained. Thus, you hurry through each combat, hoping against hope that it will end faster. These are the games that feel like World of Warcraft combat stripped down even further, with no real problems but nothing to encourage or reward mastery.
2. Lust, where mastery arrives too quickly
We all may wish for skill, but skill takes time to cultivate. These games “solve” the problem by quickly removing any sort of skill involved; your requirements are simplified to the point that one may achieve mastery with minimal effort. Yet it is a shallow mastery, one where you know that you had to accomplish nothing to receive such accolades.
There is no choice before or after combat that really affects anything, and even making the smallest wrong choice is of negligible impact. Thus, you don’t feel a sense of accomplishment, you feel mocked.
3. Gluttony, where too much is piled on
By contrast, this circle is full of systems that may in fact be good but require you to do too much in a short span of time. A half-second delay results in a huge loss to your damage. Everything requires absolutely perfect timing, and this is just for content where you are playing casually, much less progression content.
These systems reward mastery, but they strongly punish anything less than mastery. The result is that you feel unmotivated to play not because you feel that your mistakes don’t matter but because you feel that anything less than perfect play will be worthless. All of your abilities are demanded and there can be no joy.
4. Greed, where too many systems vie for attention
While the previous circle is punishing, this is a different sort of punishment. Combat in this circle is cumbersome, demanding you fulfill the needs of things requiring exactly the opposite things. If you’ve ever tried to make a build with wildly incompatible souls in RIFT, you’ve likely created this for yourself, with mechanics asking you to have maximum health alongside ones that require you to sacrifice your health.
Greedy systems like this are awkward in play simply because there is too much demanding too many different resources, too many different balls in the air you must catch using incongruous poses.
5. Wrath, where calm strategy is denied
Here, the combat becomes not especially difficult but simply frantic. There is too much happening at any given time for you to react or think; your only real option is to smash on a button over and over until something is dead or you are. You don’t know what’s happening, and you can’t make intelligent decisions about it.
Games like Path of Exile feature very frenetic fights, but the game is also built to reward this and not make you spend combat trying to dodge precisely or carefully time interrupts. You make decisions about your build ahead of time. Wrathful games, on the other hand, ask you to make these decisions in the heat of battle, but at the same time give you no space to do so.
6. Heresy, denial of impact and choice
Herein lies the dreaded “floaty” combat. Your actions do not seem to have much effect upon your target; you do things and have a difficult time noticing that you have changed anything around you. Similarly, it’s hard to tell that your enemies are hurting you until you’re dying. Things seem to just drift against one another.
Similarly, these can be combat systems that boast a great deal of different options but realistically are best played using two of those options at all time. You have a choice, but there are choices so overwhelmingly better than others that anything but the best looks downright foolish.
7. Violence, enacting arbitrary cruelty
Of course, all MMO combat is violent. But this sort of cruelty is worse, the sort of combat where it is easy – even likely – to find yourself suddenly unable to act or react to things in a meaningful way. It’s the age-old equivalent of having to choose between a fire spell or an ice spell where only one of them will let you get through a dungeon, and you have no way of knowing which one until you’ve made the unalterable choice and can no longer change.
These systems feel arbitrary, and they can also include systems where your ability to win or lose a fight comes down almost completely to random chance. Even a normal encounter is about whether your RNG luck is with you or not. Combat thus feels cruel and sudden, detached from any and all choices you might make.
8. Fraud, presenting options where none exist
Having a wide-open field of different options for a character can feel liberating and fun. Less fun is when you find out after the fact that you do not, in fact, have a wide-open field of different options; you have three options, and very little space to customize within those options. Combat systems like this allow you to build your character as you wish, but then later make you realize that you actually have just one option after dying repeatedly.
This is different from games where you have many build options and some work while others don’t; this is a game that makes combat a matter of building what you want when most of those choices just do not work. There’s so many pieces that are functionally mandatory that you quickly realize those “choices” are irrelevant from the start. You can only follow someone else’s build and hope you can play it correctly.
9. Treachery, the severance of trust
Herein we find games that present combat systems not functioning as advertised. Whether due to bugs or simple oversight, the things you believe you can do in no way reflect what you actually do. As a result, combat becomes an experience of shadow-boxing, trying to guess at what is actually going to happen when you enter battle.
Enemies teleport hither and yon so you can’t hit them. There are unpatched evade bugs. Stats don’t work as advertised. Inputs for abilities are inconsistent and unreliable. It may not be entirely unplayable, but it is certainly not fun to play, that much is certain.
10. The Center
And what dread lies at the very heart? What, after all of these circles, could be even worse than any of the above, something to stifle anyone’s desire to engage in combat at any point?
When combat is decided almost or entirely absent of your input. Where you just start combat and sit back and watch, doing nothing or almost nothing as the game compares two numbers and then just shows you who wins. At that point, it isn’t even combat; it’s basic math.
And that’s the worst part: not that it’s a buggy mess but that it betrays your trust by making it clear that you, the player, aren’t really a necessary part of this equation.