Massively Overthinking: The best combat systems in MMORPGs

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One of the big problems in the MMORPG genre as I see it is game studios’ inclination to prioritize combat above all else, turning what once was a genre stuffed with virtual worlds and multi-faceted gameplay activities into single-minded murder simulations. So you’d think they’d be really freakin’ good at combat, right?

Yeah, maybe not so much.

So today’s Massively Overthinking question comes from Das Tal — sorry, The Exiled — developer Alexander Zacherl, who asks:

“Which MMO has (had?) the best combat system? Consider abilities, targeting, movement, and so on!”

I posed his questions to the team. Onward, and bring your sword of trollslaying!

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): This is tough, since on the one hand, I absolutely love action combat. On the other, I’ve found that too much action combat makes voice chat a requirement, and voice chat really takes away from MMO immersion to me. It can be great for socialization in game, but can create other issues, especially if you’re talking to someone in game when there are people around you in meat space.

That being said, I’m going to vote for TERA. The game did use action combat, and it was hard to type, but the pace wasn’t quite as demanding at release as some newer action-based games have been while still packing a decent punch, kick, stab, or fireball. Targeting was easy enough for those of us who like action combat, but not as floaty as Guild Wars 2 at release. Movement had good weight but also felt fair, and while you could sometimes get a tad overwhelmed with your combat options, it wasn’t as bad as a lot of the tab-target based MMO systems.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I think MMORPGs are best served when they remember they are RPGs first. Combat can be a highlight of the RPG, but that combat should be predicated on the roleplaying components of the game — the character building that we spend so much time doing. MMORPGs that devolve into twitch gameplay and obsesses over “action combat” usually provide good combat… for any game that isn’t an MMORPG. Ironically, turn-based combat (think Wakfu) would probably be best-suited for the genre that sprung up from MUDs and D&D, but that idea is surely alien to most actual MMORPG players. That makes the best working version of combat in MMORPGs a solid, middle-of-the-road, action-bar-centric, tab-targeting style that’s neither tediously boring nor infuriatingly twitch.

And to date, no one’s done that more crisply and fluidly than World of Warcraft.

Sure, there are games whose combat I found more fun personally — field commanding heroes in classic Guild Wars, aerial fighting in City of Heroes — but WoW set a high bar in terms of getting it right every time.


Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): Getting combat right is surprisingly tricky. You not only have to factor in the classes, skills, and raw numbers, but also latency, hit boxes, sound effects, animations, positioning, spell effects, telegraphs, buffs, debuffs, and a hundred other factors on the field. For me, I enjoy combat when it’s tuned to have almost a physical, visceral feel when attacks are synced with strong sounds and fights don’t overstay their welcome (15 seconds or so for an average encounter is a good goal). I do like fights that change up and offer challenges to overcome with my skill toolbox, although developers can sometimes get overzealous and make encounters frustrating (crowd control! running away!) or too grindy.

I’ll single out Guild Wars 2 for particular praise in this arena because I thought the team did an excellent job (although WildStar and World of Warcraft are also up there). The sound design — if you listen for it — is spot-on and gives weapons that added ooomph. The telegraphs aren’t the best, but they are there and can add some strategic choices during a fight. The game also feels like it has a good balance between traditional MMO combat and action MMO combat, either pleasing or aggravating fans of either camp (I like it).

Larry Everett (@Shaddoe, blog): I think that a combat system has to fit the game that it’s playing. For instance, I don’t think that an action combat system would work in a game that is supposed to be a thoughtful RPG. However, there are combat systems that I personally like a lot. Action combat systems are my favorite. I like Guild Wars 2’s combat, but I’m not a fan of the shallow group roles. I really like DC Universe’s combat system. Characters have a well-defined role and the action combos are a lot of fun. However, the linear class progression of DCUO gets me a little. Pre-2014, DCUO would have got my vote, but then came Elder Scrolls Online with an action combat system that allowed for an extreme variety of ability combinations and many of the abilities are skill-based, meaning that you gain skills as you use abilities. If you use a two-handed weapon with heavy armor, you gain two-handed and heavy armor XP. It’s marvelous!

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): Since I really don’t care much about combat in games, I wouldn’t normally call any combat good, bad, or otherwise; I am usually pretty indifferent. However, I have found that I am actually really enjoying combat in Black Desert. The movement system inside and outside of combat is just plain fun. It is smooth, varied, and — as silly as it sounds when talking about pixels — feels like it has weight. The movement, the sounds, and everything else combine to give that illusion of making impact with the kicks and sword swishes. Basically, the game has me loving a melee class, which is pretty unheard of. Also, it’s pretty great that you can get by with a simple understanding, but there is also a deeper complexity for those who like that.

If we just want to talk about abilities, I’d have to say combat in Vanguard is pretty spiffy too. The various mixes of abilities in those classes are great!

Your turn!