Let’s talk melee combat here for a second. There is little in this blue world of ours as visceral and entertaining as that of physically overpowering an enemy in close quarters combat. It’s a human instinct as primal as they come and one of the most common forms of conflict in video games. As conventional as it may be though, it is quite possibly one of the most intricate series of interweaved mechanics that could plague a game. Few do it proper justice. To achieve truly great combat, a delicate mix of both well thought out animations and responsive controls must be delivered all in pursuit of awarding the player positive feedback.
In pursuit of a better understanding of melee combat, I have broken down the Hacker attack from Ninja Theory’s DMC: Devil May cry. The game’s combat is damn near flawless, albeit a different pace from its predecessors. My goal – break down the basics of an attack to discern the mechanics from a high level as well as develop a consistent vocabulary .
Listen here. Good. Animations. Are. Vital.
Proper and interesting animations are a must to making combat exciting. They must be well thought out to maximize the feeling of each strike as well as consistent enough for a player to recognize the current state of combat and properly react. For now, we will focus on just the player attack animation. To simplify it, imagine there are three key poses, or silhouettes, in an attack animation that are blended together to create a fluid and satisfying attack. These are the Anticipation, Attack/Connection, and Follow Through phases.
The buildup just before the actual attack. The main pose of this animation segment need be both memorable and unique enough for the player to instantly recognize their intended attack. Due to Dante’s quick fighting style, there is less emphasis on this attack’s Anticipation as it inflicts minimal damage. It, however, still maintains a brief hang above his head to form the memorable silhouette.
The animation length of this phase can vary depending on the magnitude of the attack. The stronger the attack, the longer the anticipation animation needs to be held. Quickly imagine Captain Falcon’s Falcon Punch. When you initiate, it feels like the Cap’n holds that charge pose for years. The build up here is what makes the actual hit so incredibly satisfying. Another analogy for the less Smash Bro’s inclined – imagine you are starving. You jump in your car to head to your favorite fast food guilty pleasure, but wait, there is a bunch of traffic. It takes your forever to get there. Your stomach gurgles and you are pretty close to committing murder on the grandest of scales, but then… the burger is in your hands and you take that first bite… and you are pretty sure you must be dead and in heaven for is the best damn burger you have ever had. Ok, so yeah. Imagine the Anticipation phase of an attack animation is this trip to the burger joint. Alright. Cool.
The pose in which one’s attack connects. What’s important here is to properly translate a connection or attempted connection. Dante’s body reads well in this frame as he is extended out. There is no mistaking he has swung his sword. Additional support from the sword swish VFX, an enemy’s reaction animation and exciting sound FX supplement the selling of this attack even more.
The Follow Through demonstrates how much power just went into the last attack. The harder a sword swing, the longer it should take to recover from it. This pose should be held as long as possible to create that memorable visual in the player’s head. Dante’s quick fighting style limits the amount of time spent on Anticipation frames, and instead cleverly puts it into the Follow Throughs.
Bonus Round – Return to Idle
In the off chance the player doesn’t move or continue attacking, a small animation is needed to simply transition the character from an attack stance to an idle stance. Imagine this as flavor animation, purely for visual appeal. Ninja Theory nailed it by creating this very cool yet nonchalant animation of Dante simply putting his sword back on his back. It sells how calm and collected he is.
So you now have this really sweet animation. The Anticipation is mouth watering, the Hit exquisite, the Follow Through, satisfying. Shit gets so much more complicated from here on out. There is an intricate set of timed action windows that must be integrated well at this point in order to create a responsive combat system. The following GIF breaks down these action windows for just the first attack in the Hacker combo.
For a combat system to feel truly great, the player must never (or rarely) feel that their death was anything but their own fault. If the player feels cheated, something went wrong on the design side of things. Anticipation/Buildup animations of enemies are crucial to telegraphing their attacks to players. If the player knew the attack was coming, but failed to dodge or block, it is their fault.
Therefore, possibly the most important mechanic of a combo system is the ability to cancel out of an attack through either dodging or blocking. It instantly creates tight, responsive controls. DMC has no block, but does utilize a dodge and movement cancel. There are two ways to handle a cancel.
- Partial Cancel
The player can cancel out of an attack only in a particular window(s) during the attack animation. Usually this is pre or post-hit frame.
- Complete Cancel
The player can cancel out of an attack animation at any time.
DMC’s Dodge Cancel falls under the Complete Cancel branch. The ability to dodge at any time cleverly urges the player to play more aggressively, due to such an ease of movement. If ever an enemy attack connects, it should now be due to the player inability to notice an enemies Anticipation animation and dodge accordingly and not because the enemy got a cheap shot in.
DMC’s Movement Canceling is only partial, but for good reason. Imagine playing and you run up to an enemy and just go HAM on it. You then spot the second enemy and want to rush it before it attacks. Without Movement Canceling, you would have to sit through that long, albeit gorgeous, Follow Through and Return to Idle animations. Fear not though, for the Movement Cancel comes into play. At any point during this action window, simply moving the analog stick will cancel out of an animation. This allows the player to skip the Follow Through animation and get right in the enemy’s face.
So why is the dodge a complete cancel while the Movement Cancel only partial? DMC allows the player to continue moving and directing subsequent attacks during a combo. Therefore, outside of the Movement Cancel window, the player can still move only in small amounts during an attack. If the Movement Cancel was a Complete Cancel, players would constantly cancel attacks by mere accident as well as lose the ability to direct attacks.
The Next Attack Listen and Activate Next Attack Windows work in conjunction to continue a players combo in as fluid a manner as possible. These two windows sound fairly self explanatory, but a few unique things are operating in the Next Attack Listen window in the ways of Input Buffering and Input Buffer Canceling.
Input Buffering occurs when a system stores input data to execute at a later and more appropriate time. To put it simply, if the player hits the attack button before the animation is ready to transition into the next attack, the game will store the information and wait to execute it in the Activate Next Attack window as if the player had timed the attack perfectly. This simplifies the game and opens it up to the less experienced players.
Something else that DMC employs well is Input Buffer Canceling – in which I mean if a player presses the wrong attack button in this buffer zone (Next Attack Listen), they can quickly rectify their mistake by pressing the correct button. The system forgets the previous input and replaces it with the new one. The Hacker combo is Y-Y-Y-Y. Imagine the player started the combo with Y, but in the buffer zone hit the X button instead of the Y for the second attack. If they quickly press Y before leaving the buffer, the game forgets X was ever pressed and continues along in the combo as if Y was the only button pressed.
This allows the player to rectify any mistakes they made during a chaotic fight where accidental button mashing may occur due to intense enemy pressure. It’s not completely cheating as the player realized their mistake and fixed it themselves, which in turn creates an additional sense of accomplishment in the player. Win – Win.
DMC offers an additional window titled the Alternate Attack Listen window during particular attacks. Above is the second attack in the Hacker combo. It offers a moment to branch the standard Hacker combo into the Death Coil combo with the use of a well timed button press. Essentially, if the player waits to hit Y in the Alternate Attack Listen Window, they will get a completely different combo. It adds variety, depth, and difficulty to the combo in a very elegant, but simple way.
Players less experienced with brawlers can have trouble getting this timing right, but Ninja Theory added two distinct feedback mechanisms to ensure as easy a learning curve as possible.
- Weapon Glow
During the Alternate Attack Listen, a glow rises up the weapon towards the tip to convey the timing in a visual manner.
- Controller Rumble
Perhaps even more important than the visual feedback of the weapon glow is the PHYSICAL feedback of the controller rumbling to signal it time to press the correct button.
Translation, or movement, is vital to giving combat a feeling of momentum. No one swings a sword with any power without moving a step or two. There are several ways in which most games handle translation in combat.
The plant is the most “realistic” method in which the character simply plants his/her feet and moves forward with each attack. Can easily feel unresponsive and often times looks bland or unappealing.
The character magically slides forward. Usually covers large distances. Rather unrealistic, but often cool and satisfying.
A mixture of the above two. So realistic moving animations but sliding further then one would naturally move.
DMC actually sticks to the plant method to great success. In this case, the plant method works incredibly well. Each translation during an attack is a bit larger in each subsequent combo attack, successfully pushing the player forward, toward more enemies.
Hit Box Active
Fairly self explanatory. This is the moment in which the attack does damage to any enemy in contact with the weapon radius, but why limit the Hit Box to a timed window instead of being constantly on? It’s a matter of design. By activating the Hit Box at particular times, the designer creates a rhythm to the combos. Notice how each Active Hit Box in the Hacker combo takes place a bit further away in each attack combo. This rhythm becomes memorable and allows the player to more accurately predict the flow of attacks and adjust their plan. Example – Enemy is in their Anticipation Attack phase. The player has to make the choice to either dodge safely out of the way or attempt to attack the enemy quickly enough to stop the attack. If the rhythm of attacks are consistent enough, an acute player should be able to accurately make this choice, thus gaining another sense of satisfaction from their combat prowess.
Hopefully you can walk away from this post with an understanding of how intricate a melee system can become along with a decent vocabulary for discussing it. This was just one attack and I feel I only scraped the surface of all of its complexity.