PAX East 2018: Hands-on with the surprisingly solid combat of Ashes of Creation
This year’s PAX East featured a lot of games early in their testing phase, but Ashes of Creation was one that had splurged for a very large booth toward the center of the show floor. And let’s be fair here; the game sure looked like it was ready for prime time. Between the animations on display and the general look of playing the game for onlookers, this is the sort of game that, at a glance, certainly did not look like something in pre-alpha. All of its graphical polish was being shown off to great effect.
Of course, looking good is one thing. The real question was how it played. But that was why the game also had demo stations set up, so that players could see what the game looked like in its current state of development and get a feel for the game from the PvE side and the PvP side.
I took a tour of a brief PvE dungeon with a GM assisting our party and three other people, which served as my chance to get a handle on what the game was offering. Of course, this was also a very early test build, so there’s no doubt a lot that’s going to be changing over time. But it did, at least, feel like a good fundamental base for combat.
The first thing to note is that this particular build was focused on showing off the combat engine and how combat works in the game, full stop. There was no opportunity to focus on, say, the game’s rather innovative node system or character customization or anything like that. Indeed, the characters we were using all looked identical aside from gear, as did the NPCs. They weren’t bad models, of course, they were just… placeholders. As a result, there are some things that I saw that simply have to be taken on faith because testing them wasn’t in the cards. There’s your bit of salt to munch on.
Starting out, our party headed out of the town along a reasonably clear path, getting beset by bandits along the way. The current build requires you to hit Q in rapid succession in order to use your basic attack, with other abilities having targeting areas or simply skillshot-style set areas. Unfortunately, the control scheme was set up so this never felt entirely comfortable; there was no real way to tell the difference between “this will hit my target” and “this will hit a set area.”
You also had “focus” skills, with focus being generated by hitting things with your basic attacks. The skills lacked much in the way of indicators, but I was promised that would be changing in later builds, with the current UI being built as a placeholder.
I must admit that these little quirks made combat less fun to me, not more. The fact that you didn’t have a mouse-bound camera meant that the game felt like its more traditional tab-targeting mechanics were fighting it out with a more action-based setup, like throwing The Elder Scrolls Online and World of Warcraft combat to be stitched together. Neither one is bad, but straddling the line is a problem.
Moving on down the road, we came to a point when it was unclear what to do next. Here we got a bit of design that I thought was clever, if a bit heavy-handed, wherein it was the Ranger’s job to use a basic class ability to figure out where to go. While this is a bit blunt-force, I rather like the idea that every single class has its own “innate” ability that provides utility to a party, and not in the usual sense of buffs and the like. Having a Ranger means you find paths, having a Cleric means bypassing certain environmental penalties, and so forth.
Once in the dungeon proper, we had a few packs of trash to clean up, followed by the first of two boss encounters. The boss in question had a number of “dodge or die” attacks without much in the way of indicators, although I suspect that to be more about tuning and early test nature rather than an intentional design flaw.
By this point, combat had started to settle into a pretty straightforward groove, and we made our way through to the final boss with no particular problems. Ranger and mage AoEs proved quite useful against the packs leading up to the boss, and the boss itself wasn’t anything of particular note aside from summoning a trio of adds to heal it. Those were, again, dispatched in short order and summarily forgotten.
The state that kept coming back to mind was “solid.” I wasn’t tremendously inspired to leave the demo station and then come right back to play again (something that has happened in the past, for the record); at the same time, I found myself impressed at the fact that an MMORPG this early in the test process had found the path to a solid and playable combat engine, which can be one of the more ornate issues to sort out.
A bit more talk about the game’s ongoing development brought out the promise that the current set of classes (which are rather one-trick) will be augmented by allowed players more augmentation, including the pick of a second “support” class to improve abilities and gameplay. So you might play a tank character with a mage secondary, allowing you to stop running up to enemies and simply teleport to them for immediate impact.
This is also when I was reassured that a number of the more bothersome UI issues would be fixed as the game’s testing schedule ran onward; what we were playing was, in fact, an early test build. And for an early test build it both hit and exceeded all of the notes you’d expect. The game was responsive, animated well, and featured nothing obviously hinky like animations not lining up, abilities not working, and so forth. Again, solid.
There’s some question to be had, of course, about how much of that solidness is to be expected for a show-floor demo and how much of it was about cordoning off different areas. I did get a brief peek at some of the other nodes on the game map, though, seeing how the ones at different stages of development can look and how they can be different from place to place.
There’s definitely a lot of neat stuff on display here, and at no point did I get the feeling that this is a game without anything to offer for the future. I wasn’t astonished, but neither was I disappointed; it was a solid offering with good design and reliable combat, which is exactly what it was hoping to be. I’m not sure if I’d pay some of the much higher prices to get in on the early testing at this point, but it certainly is doing a good job with what’s there so far and is worth looking forward to.