27/03/2016

What's wrong with KotFE's combat?

One of the more frequent criticisms of Knights of the Fallen Empire that I've read is that its combat is tedious and boring/detracts from the story.

Now, some of this is probably just the current Zeitgeist that hotbar combat is supposedly boring and everything needs to be about action, dodging enemies and aiming your attacks. I'm not on board with that because I think that different types of combat are just about appealing to different audiences, with neither being inherently superior or inferior. Where action combat lets people test their reflexes, having several action bars full of abilities is more about choosing your fights carefully and using the right ability at the right time.

This doesn't always have to be difficult or complex either. There is joy to be found in the small victories, such as placing your AoE attack just right to hit the maximum amount of enemies, interrupting an enemy's cast just before it finishes, or using a cooldown to survive/negate a specific attack.

With that in mind, I think that the "fun factor" of SWTOR's combat has suffered somewhat since 4.0 since everything has become so much easier to kill. This is not me being an elitist and saying that levelling must be hard, but simple logic: if part of your combat system's fun lies in using a variety of different abilities, it's going to be harder to have fun when ninety percent of all enemies fall over dead before you can even hit them three times.

However, that alone doesn't explain KotFE's problem, because even now I can go questing on a lowbie alt and still have more fun killing things than I do in the various KotFE chapters. What gives?

I decided to get scientific about it, got pen and paper out, and started up chapter ten (which I remembered feeling particularly annoying in terms of combat) on one of my alts. As I played through it, I made a quick note of every single pull I had to fight, how many and what types of mobs it contained (weak or higher) and whether anything else about it was notable (for example a named gold mob having a unique ability instead of just standard attacks).

Then I loaded up my lowbie trooper on Ebon Hawk, went to Taris and started comparing.

My first theory after looking at my chapter ten notes was that maybe KotFE featured too many weak mobs - nearly ninety percent of all enemies in the chapter were weak. However, while running around the first area on Taris that theory seemed to go out the window quite quickly, because outside of the one heroic area that I entered, almost all the mobs I encountered were also weak. I didn't keep a detailed counter on that occasion but I think I met one silver droid, two or three strong scavengers and not a single elite.

Then I thought that maybe it was all the additional spawns you get in KotFE, with skytroopers frequently launching themselves into the room from above or below, but while there is definitely a lot more of that in KotFE than there used to be, the concept is also already present on lowbie planets like Taris, with extra rakghouls bursting out of the ground and such. That theory didn't quite hold up either.

However, the one thing that struck me right away was how much more free I felt on my lowbie Commando. I was travelling all around the first part of the map on my own terms, doing bonus missions, going after the local datacron etc. but even if all of it had somehow been mandatory, I could have done things in any order and approached enemies from any angle.

On my agent (who was the one I was doing KotFE chapter ten on) however, I was always confined to a narrow path that I had to follow, even as the story officially took me all over Zakuul's underworld. There was no wide and open map to explore, and no side missions to maybe go down a different path for a while. Oh, and almost every single mob pull was unavoidable. I did try to start most fights in stealth, but on many occasions I would simply be put into combat as soon as I entered the area, and some mobs would even charge all the way across the room and smack me in the face while I was in stealth. It was supremely annoying.

At the end of my little study, both my agent and my Commando had killed about 150 mobs each. But while my lowbie had pursued a wide number of objectives, including bonuses, in an open area that allowed her to pick and choose her engagements (fun!), my agent had basically been running down a tunnel, forced to mow down everything in her way, all in pursuit of a single mission objective. Remember how we used to rail against bonuses that required you to kill 40 of a local mob or something similar? Well, then it's hardly a surprise that going through three times as many mandatory kills in a single storyline is annoying as hell, especially if they are always coming at you as soon as you enter the room, giving you no choice in terms of attack vector.

My advice to Bioware to reduce this annoyance in the next couple of upcoming chapters would be as follows:

1) Keep an eye on the overall mob count. Asking people to kill 150 mobs over the course of a single chapter is just too much for that amount of story content.

2) If you want people to kill things, be honest about it and make it the actual objective. Or at least a bonus! Whatever happened to those? You're not cleverly stretching the content out by asking your players to go to the end of a long, narrow tunnel and then filling said tunnel with unavoidable mob pulls. It's just annoying.

3) While I understand that a storyline in the style of KotFE encourages a certain amount of railroading, it's OK to make the environments a little more open, allowing players to skip a pull or two if they are careful. Note how none of the chapters in the swamp are nearly as annoying in terms of combat for example.

4) Ease up on the "forced" combat, with things spawning in and aggroing on you the moment you arrive, even if you are in stealth. There is a place for defensive scenarios like that, but it shouldn't be the standard. You're just robbing your players of their opportunity to actually decide how to tackle the combat themselves.

(That said, I'm definitely also still game for getting another properly wide-open planet, with side missions and everything, but I'm not holding my breath for that right now.)

17 comments :

  1. I'm really impressed by the way you went to investigate this. As everyone else, I thought KOTFE combat is easier than usual, but you've convinced me that this is not the case. Interesting hypothesis that what makes our brain happy is ultimately variety & multitasking.

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    1. I'm still open for alternative theories, especially as the comparison wasn't entirely fair (I probably should have done the entire class story on Taris in one go to make it more like-for-like... but considering I only had to kill something like 3 mobs for it in the first area, I felt confident that even in its entirety it wouldn't add up to 100+ mob kills like the KotFE chapter).

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  2. THIS! Add in some of the really long fights, like with the Scion dude, and it's just a recipe for boredom.

    Also, I enjoy avoiding mobs, even on characters without stealth. Its not something I always do, by any means, but the challenge of trying to get through an area without getting into agro radius of stuff can be fun. With KotFE's corridors of mobs, as you note, that's just off the table.

    And the tunnels of doom really don't help with how railroaded KotFE feels.

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    1. The Heskal fight falls into the same category as the Revan solo encounter on Yavin for me - a misguided attempt at making things both easy and epic, which means that you spend a lot of time getting stunned but never end up in any danger... bad gameplay, bad!

      This experiment has certainly made me re-think the role of mob groups that you can skip. In flashpoints I tend to get annoyed with people who try too hard to circumvent as many trash pulls as possible, but merely being able to do so does add something to the game.

      While questing on Taris I also thought of that underground tunnel area full of rakghouls that you have to go to towards the end of the main storyline and how much I never liked going in there - I always make sure that I have all the right side quests already so I that I won't have to go back a second time. It's striking how much the KotFE chapters feel like that tunnel when it comes to their combat.

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  3. The automatic destealthing is really annoying. Why do I even keep that skill on my bars anymore?

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    1. To me those occasions felt like "cinematic vision" gone bad. "Just as she enters the room, the Outlander gets charged by a Knight! Exciting!" Except that my character is not just a prop and has class features that are explicitly supposed to prevent that kind of thing. Go and think of some other way of making this bit interesting! I don't mind if they want to give some mobs super stealth detection, but the charge is just silly.

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  4. An excellent analysis, I agree with the points you make - especially the stealth-breaking. My Shadow tank character has been consistently nerfed since doing this new content!

    The corridor feeling is pretty strong, especially in the Zakuul underground areas - I like the design of them aesthetically but they're very linear and are being reused too much. I'm starting to get the feeling that the plot is being bent to give more excuses to go back there to avoid desiging some new zones...

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  5. EQ II has a hotbar combat based mini-game in their crafting system. Crafting each item would take 45 seconds. Just like in other crafting systems, the way to level up is to crank out a ton of low level items.

    Grinding levels in that crafting system was the most brain numbing activity I've ever experienced. At first I couldn't figure out why. Then it hit me: When I'm questing out in the world I'm doing a lot of things that aren't combat. I'm moving through the environment, picking resources, gauging mob distance and aggro, and figuring out which order to quest in.

    When I was crafting, hitting buttons was all I was doing. As soon as I crafted one item, it was time to launch into the next item. Hour after hour of endless hotbar combat, broken up with more hotbar combat, until I took a break to do EVEN. MORE. HOTBAR. COMBAT.

    So, I guess my point is we need more variety in our KOTFE questing. I also stand by my earlier comment that fights like Revan and Heskel would be more interesting if we could interrupt those annoying abilities.

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    1. That crafting does sound pretty mind-numbing.

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  6. Ch.X was a low point, and I think Ch.XI got better about it; though there were still plenty of short line railroads; the overall "trash mob" combats were lower.

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    1. Oh, I agree that Chapter ten was particularly bad and eleven was much better. Still, it does highlight the problem of too much combat in linear story content quite well.

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    2. Ch.XI's finale was definitely a step up, though, with the puzzle beforehand.

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    3. Yeah, I enjoyed that too! Though it initially threw me for a loop because I didn't expect it. Puzzles in SWTOR are rare enough that I always have to pause for a moment to realise: "Oh, it's a puzzle!"

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  7. The whole "expansion" has been corridor fights and it's really turned me off of the game as a whole.

    SPOILER:


    The 45 minute treasure hunt ON TOP of corridor fights didn't help in the last one.

    I wasn't even excited to log in on Tuesday and run it considering how 10 and 11 went, including all the bugs and the Nico fiasco, but I was hoping... I haven't bothered to log in since. I have no interest in running that again on an alt. No interest in running 2-4 year old Ops. Or FPs. And I'm tapped out on running H2s as well.

    And I can't be the only one. I haven't seen more than 1 or 2 guildies on whenever I've been on in the last month.

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    1. I don't know, I enjoyed the last chapter. At least there was less combat. The treasure hunt may or may not be your personal cup of tea, but at least it was something different.

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  8. I had a bit of an epiphany about the "corridor fights" aspect of KotFE, and I think it was intended as a QoL improvement that they didn't really think through.

    KotFE is designed to be equivalent to the old "class" stories. One thing about those class stories - once you pass the instance door of the mission, they're all (or almost all) corridor fights. With KotFE, the designers decided to cut out the "extraneous" world traversal from quest giver to mission site. So all you're left with is the corridor fights.

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    1. Absolutely. To be honest, I'm not sure I would have been able to predict the resulting tedium of that plan myself. Turns out a bit of "downtime" between story steps is actually good for you.

      That said, even all the corridors of a planetary class story chained together don't enforce as much combat as some of the KotFE chapters though.

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