Any time you bring up The Secret World or Secret World Legends‘s bland, floaty combat, at least one person is going to chime in insisting, “Well, it seemed all right to me! What does ‘floaty’ even mean in context?” And I sympathize with these people. Usually what’s really going on here is that they wanted the game to continue and keep expanding its unique and fun story, and it kind of sucks to think that the reason that didn’t happen was people saying that the combat was bad when you considered it good enough to push through.
Obviously, Funcom does not listen to me about designing things, and thus I cannot fix that element of history. I’d like to have The Secret World back too, really. But combat was unenjoyable and floaty, and I don’t think people who are asking what it means to have “floaty” combat in the first place are doing so in bad faith. It’s kind of a vague term! So in this week’s Vague Patch Notes, let’s take a look at some of the terminology MMO players use to describe some bad combat systems, what they mean, and why they cause problems.
We all float down here
Ironically, a great example for floaty combat is Star Trek Online because it has two different combat systems. One of them is terribly floaty and inconsistent; the other is good. Space battle is not floaty despite the weirdness of the overall engine. You press a button, and a thing happens. If you want to go faster, you press a button to increase your speed, and your engines increase. If you want to use an ability, you press that button. Some things like projectiles take a moment or two to travel to a target, but when you press a button, something happens.
Then you engage in ground combat, where you press a button. A few seconds later, hopefully something sort of related to what you told the game to do happens. It’s an open question how soon and how related it’s going to be, though. You might press the button to use a grenade, and then a couple seconds later when your enemies are no longer grouped up together you throw a grenade toward absolutely nothing! The number of times I have watched both allies and enemies use a palm strike on a target that is nowhere near them any longer in that game is some absurdly high three-digit number, in other words.
“Floaty combat” describes is a combat system where actions do not correlate with impacts. Your attacks land, but they aren’t connected to appropriate animations or sounds, and while you know you’re doing things, those actions don’t really feel tightly connected to what happens on screen.
If you have a shotgun in SWL, you press the button to shoot, and the enemies… don’t even really stagger. Yes, I understand this is an MMO, and you cannot have a shotgun that turns anything it hits into a fine red paste; this isn’t DOOM. But you should feel as if the shotgun has an impact, and you definitely shouldn’t be just kind of pressing buttons as fast as you can in the hopes that eventually this battle will be over. That’s what “floaty” combat feels like, as if every impact is just batting at the water while you and your opponent drift around one another.
Letting the fight go by
Despite what you might think, you can have very samey combat with dozens of abilities and very diverse combat with just one or two. This is because number of abilities isn’t really what makes the difference here; it’s how and why you use them. The Elder Scrolls Online frequently runs into problems here, but it’s result not of the number of your abilities but of the fact that your approach never changes.
What makes combat feel “samey” is mostly about what buttons you want to press and why. If every button on your bar does the same basic thing by inflicting varying amounts of damage, and there’s never a reason to deviate from “use these abilities as they’re off cooldown,” your combat is going to feel samey because there’s only one strategy you’re ever using. Even if you have to dodge doom areas, you’re always using the same cycle of abilities.
Now, if sometimes you want to hold back on using your abilities or there are times when you can’t do as much or there are moments when you want to unleash more damage within a specific window, your combat is going to feel more varied. You have potential reasons to wait and hold on to certain abilities. Sure, you might have the same basic rotation every time, but sometimes you need to use abilities to close gaps. Sometimes you want to heal yourself or others. You have a range of different skills to reply to multiple, dynamic situations.
My usual point of comparison is Dark Souls and its derivatives. For most builds in those games, you only really have a handful of abilities to hit; indeed, your primary ability lineup comes down to Hit Thing, Hit Thing Harder, Recover Health, Defend, or Dodge. And yet because your tactics need to be different with every single enemy, you never find yourself feeling like combat becomes a rote activity. Even low-level enemies can start to inflict massive damage if you get overconfident. You need to vary your tactics, and that always feels better.
The smooth flow of Trent Reznor
Lastly, let’s discuss our good old friend jank. Janky combat can be floaty at times, but the two are distinctly different, and the key element to “janky” combat is a little bit different. Your combat can be very responsive, but if it involves suddenly changing what you’re doing or a couple seconds of pressing every button followed by several seconds of pressing nothing, you’ve got a janky combat model.
The key problem with janky combat is that what you have does not flow together smoothly. In a game like World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy XIV, you have a steady cadence of what you’re doing and a clear sense of when you’re supposed to do certain things. But both games have had rotations that felt janky, like how pre-Endwalker Summoner involved wildly changing your rotation every 30 seconds or so, or how Arcane Mage often seems like it has an odd stutter-stop pattern to what you’re expected to do.
Some entire games have janky combat. DC Universe Online also has a probably with floaty impacts, but it has a bigger problem where your power set and your weapon set do not complement one another but just sit adjacent to one another awkwardly like two kids holding each other at arm’s length during a middle school dance. Others have janky options while the combat system as a whole works well enough, like certain builds in Guild Wars 2.
Jank is probably the least of combat sins because one person’s janky flow is another person’s moment of understanding and comfort and subsequently feeling like a wizard for figuring this stuff out. But it is still a problem, and people will often call it out as a problem because it makes combat feel uncomfortable. And it is, let’s face it, something best addressed and fixed rather than just left alone.
So now you know! And knowing is half the battle. I just wanna ride my motorcycle.