PAX East 2018: Hands-on with the surprisingly solid combat of Ashes of Creation

    
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And go punch

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.

Altar-ed stateMoving 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.

Hope springs something

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.

Massively Overpowered is on the ground in Boston for PAX East 2018, bringing you expert MMO coverage on everything (and everyone!) on display at the latest Penny Arcade Expo!
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Jonny Sage

It looks pretty standard to me. Target, mash same buttons over and over till something dies.

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Jon-Enee Merriex

I’m buying a new computer for this game. So they’d better get this right…

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Speedhaak

Looking good. Excited to try it out next year :)

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Sana Tan

Although in theory I like ESO and GW2 combat, in reality I have many lag problems with it, I struggle to stay competitive simply because I live far from every server and have at least 280 ms of latency. Thus, I learnt that old, slow systems with cooldowns are better for me like SWTOR. TSW is terrible boring though.

So if Ashes is not that action heavy, that’s good news for me.

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MrNastyButler

The combat system doesn’t thrill me so far, but it sounds tolerable. Still interested in the game and hope it’s decent.

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dinwitt

I’m just glad that it sounds like they’ve done away with the QTE mess of a combat system that they had for the previous demo.

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Sorenthaz

So basically it’s Guild Wars 2 combat?

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Kevin McCaughey

I hope not.

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Sorenthaz

Well that’s the first thing I think of when it comes to ‘tries to be action combat but uses traditional WoW controls still’. Or I guess Secret World (pre-Legends) had that issue too. Both were fixable enough but yeah.

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Solaris

That dev panel was impressive. The caliber of the team they have put together is above average, to say the least. Really happy with the progress.

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Sorenthaz

Yeah it looks like they’re very much serious about making the MMO they want to make. I really hope they do get to meet their own goals and expectations because it sounds promising as heck, even if there might be some PvP involved.

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Oleg Chebeneev

Such combat would be half decent if we still were in 2004. Now its outdated crap with stupid visual effects, mechanics copypasted from everything before it, lack of any responsiveness and “hitting” feel. About same level of mediocrity and blandness as combat in RIFT.

If you want to see how combat system in modern MMO should look like, watch Lost Ark gameplay videos.

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Duey Bear

And yet combat is not necessary to the success of a game with a full suite of sandbox options, nor is cutting edge combat a predictor of success (rather it can be a detriment by keeping out older demographics who are over represented among MMO players). The development is early and combat is going to continue to be tweaked and modified from now until launch and beyond, not a serious sticking point for an MMO seeing that FFXIV, TESO and WoW are still top dogs in the West.

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Oleg Chebeneev

I think the combat is one of the most important things in MMO. And also the hardest thing to implement well.

Bad combat system can easily turn me off in the first hour of playing and I will uninstall the game without any interest to explore “good things” in it. While good combat can make me play the game for years… just for the combat alone. Like WoW for example. I played it for years just doing battlegrounds and almost nothing else. Just because I like combat system and class mechanics.

Hamblepants
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Hamblepants

It’s possible this game isn’t for you.

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Chris Abell

While I do like the combat in Lost Ark, I don’t think that this combat is bad. Depends on the mood and how spammy I am feeling.

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Greypelt

Have a quote from Intrepid’s CEO Steven Sharif’s PAX Q&A

What you see in pre-alpha, we have not honestly spent a lot of time on combat. Most of the time has been spent on core technical features for proprietary back-end solutions, collecting many players in a single zone, with 4000 npcs, establishing nodes, npc systems, cultural experience, getting good server fps, establishing a connection through our launcher – combat has not been at the forefront of development. We haven’t really had someone specifically focus on combat yet, apart from maybe Akil has been the closet to working on combat, just making skills work. We’re looking into the action side of combat right now and building systems for that. The reason we’re doing that is tab targeting has been a staple, Action combat is popular right now, we really want to delve into that right now so we can better understand how to merge them together because they have vastly different play styles and tempos. We’re spending the time now to play with those things.

TL:DR Lots of work on the combat system is incoming

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Leiloni

That’s good to hear.

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Kevin McCaughey

Not for me – I hate “action” combat.

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The Vannarch

The game isn’t full on action though, it’s a hybrid.

Hamblepants
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Hamblepants

Game is still in alpha, give us a break.

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The Vannarch

So what do you suggest? A full on button mashing action-style combat that doesn’t mesh well with the rest of the game? RIFT’s combat was fine, it was the animations and effects that needed improvement, and WoW’s combat is from 2004 onward and is completely fine. This game will allow you to mix and match your class with perks from a secondary one which means you can go for a more passive or action-oriented build. A game like FFXIV has combat that makes me cry yet it’s still massively successful and so is WoW.

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Leiloni

I agree with you that games that try to straddle tab target and action combat often have issues. Doing a proper hybrid can often work, but a clear choice needs to be made on direction. From what I know this game started out as tab target and it seems they’re adding action elements after the fact. That sort of development tends to turn out badly, so hopefully they can fix that to make it feel more smooth.

The current build requires you to hit Q in rapid succession in order to use your basic attack

But this part has me concerned. I was looking forward to this game but this would be a deal breaker for me. I get tendonitis pain in both hands/wrists if I’m not careful and that sort of rapid spamming is a surefire way for me to cause a flare up. So until they get rid of that I’ll have to steer away from this one. That’s disappointing but I’ll keep an eye on it at least.

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Duey Bear

They need a way to make Q cast automatically, otherwise that’s going to get annoying (or maybe let us bind it to a mouse key and just hold down.)
Regarding Hybrid combat systems, I don’t think they are any more problematic than fully tab-targeted or fully action, it just depends on how well the design was implemented. There is bad tab-targeting and bad action combat too.
Tera on console is basically hybrid combat (they added tab target functionality).
Skyforge, for all it’s flaws, combat is not one of them and it is hybrid.
GW2 is hybrid and is praised for it’s combat.

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Leiloni

I didn’t like Skyforge combat honestly. It’s targeting was terrible and is exactly one of the things that suffers when you try to tack on action elements to a system that’s already tab target.

As far as the basic attack thing, just get rid of it. Let people use standard keybound abilities. If they need a filler attack, make it a standard auto attack that people don’t have to do anything about. It’s bad design no matter how you look at it.

Honestly we don’t need to reinvent the wheel with combat. Tab target is ok, some action combat systems are ok, some hybrids are ok. Just make something that’s fun and doesn’t make my hands fall off and I’m happy.

If they’re afraid they can’t do something cool, just make a quality tab target system and get on with the development of other stuff. Bad combat can break a game, but other systems can always be fixed and tinkered with after the fact if they’re less than perfect.

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Ben Stone

I have yet to play a hybrid where I haven’t thought that they would have been better going fully one way or the other. Developers think they are getting both sets of customers, but end up alienating both extremes and only keeping those that don’t care that much either way.