Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Combat Snob: DmC Demo

Don't even get me started on Devil May Cry and Ninja Theory. *end of article* Seriously though, let's just skip that paragraph or 3 that you don't want to read almost as much as I want to write them. I should also stress that these are impressions from the recent marketplace demo, and not the full game... although seeing as I am analysing the core principles rather than the frilly specifics, I would estimate these observations holding true right into January release and beyond.

SSS- An Angel and a Devil on your Shoulder
Reflecting Dante's new status as a “Nephilim” rather than a run-of-the-mill half-blood, holding L2 applies the graceful flowing “Angel” weapons while holding R2 engages the vicious and aggressive ”Devil” weapons, handily putting the classic light/fast heavy/slow attack trade-off at the players fingertips. The upper 3 face buttons provide a melee, range and launcher attack, which as standard call upon Dante's classic core weapons, the ever reliable “Rebellion” sword along with a firearm such as his trusty pistols, Ebony and Ivory. By holding down the angel or devil back shoulders however, Dante equips another weapon and a modifier replaces the face commands with that weapons moves instead. Thus, the player has smooth on-the-fly access to three distinct weapon sets simultaneously, and can quite easily lift and drop the modifiers on and off the face commands, having three melee combo variants and three launcher combo variants to choose from in any given moment. 

The really nice thing about this arrangement is that the player has the core set to fall back to when between modifiers, so on-the-fly swapping feels like layering rather than truly changing between move and mind-sets.

SS – To Me To You
Devil May Cry 4 introduced new character “Nero”, who showed up to the party with a trick up his sleeve.. literally. Nero had a possessed “Devil Bringer” arm that could grab enemies from a distance and yank them into melee range. Such a thing is perfect for a franchise like DMC which is all about sustaining combos, as it allows the player to regain grip on an enemy for further hits after they have been catapulted away by knockback. With heavier enemies, Nero could not yank the enemy and instead yanked himself to them, which is similar to the teleport “tricks” Dante's brother Vergil had at his disposal when he was playable in DMC3 Special Edition. The new DmC expands on these mechanics using the aforementioned “Angel and Devil” modifiers. While holding either modifier, the range/firearm button becomes a grapple whip; in angel mode the player yanks themselves to the enemy, and in devil mode the player yanks the enemy to them instead. This provides the player a lot more scope in how best to continue and maneuver themselves and their combos in battle.

S – Osiris Scoop
Just a little one this; the Angel weapon showcased in the demo was an extendable Scythe named Osiris. It's aerial special essentially scrapes the area directly below the player and drags any enemies up from the ground into reach of your aerial combos. This is the first “launcher” performed from the air that I have seen in a game, unless you count the Devil Bringers grapple ability.

A – Negative Edge and Input Tricks
There a few subtle input tricks I liked in new Dante's move-set, for example when using a negative edge or “alt” combo (the player performs part of a combo string and then stops briefly before continuing, triggering an alternate end to the combo using the negative space itself as an input) the weapon will gleam just for a moment during the negative space, just to inform and encourage reluctant or less experienced players in their timing. I think this is also the first time I have seen negative edge in air combos. Performing alt-combo inputs in the air will cause Dante to perform a different attack that launches the enemy even higher into the air rather than knock them away like the final hit of the standard aerial rave. 

A final note about the alt-combos, since they all have their negative edge at the same point in their combo string (after the first two slashes) the player can remove or apply a modifier during the negative edge moment and essentially skip from the first half of one weapons combo to the alternate ending of another weapons combo, which is a nice way to buffer in the Arbiter's overly devastating alt-combo finish. One last input trick I liked! A quick slap of either melee face button immediately after a grapple move will perform a bespoke hand-to-hand attack, either an uppercut punch or a powerful kick.

Here is a guy with some skills showing off some of the best DmC has to offer. I can tell by the description that he played the original franchise. "Oreo the Wolf", we salute you.

Attention all blog passengers, we are now approaching the less positive portion of this entry. Those of a delicate or melancholic disposition may wish to alight the web page at this time. 

B – Back to Basics
I like combat systems so much because they are a microcosm of everything I love about games design and gaming; mechanics, balance, rules, technical application, reflexes, timing, challenge, talent.. and DMC was king in my eyes because every entry in the series drove the genre and design forward in ways I couldn't have predicted or pushed it myself in my wildest dreams. On-the-fly weapon swapping? The style system? Even DMC4 with the Red Queens “Exceed” mechanic, genius! And you can't tell me it's nostalgia or experience talking, because Bayonetta was still able to surprise and amaze me with the masterpiece that is dodge offset. DMC used to be top shelf top class combat design, which is why I'm so sad to see it fall back on the basics.

DmC utilises a lot of rock/paper/scissors advantage/disadvantage design; certain enemies only react to certain weapons or attacks, some of them have shields that most be removed or broken to make them vulnerable to your other moves.. some enemies enter a glowing “super-armour” state to stop the player interrupting them when they are charging their attacks. This is Combat 101 stuff, guys. Arcade hack and slash fare. Sure, it works, but such base approaches to combat design should be below a series as veteran as Devil May Cry. I have implemented all three of these combat mechanics into Lego games in the past year.

C – It's Ridiculously Forgiving
There is no doubt in any combat snobs mind that DmC has been streamlined for accessibility to newer or weaker players. It's these sort of acute imbalances that scream bloody murder to a seasoned fan yet whisper sweet nothings in the virgin ears of a more casual player. The negative edge combos I mentioned earlier only function because the input windows are open for business for what seems like days, and overall the player has a much longer time to input follow-up or extension commands to their attacks, which in turn keeps them trapped in those moves a lot longer and creates a more sluggish uncommitted Dante with less flow than his white-haired ancestor. This may well be a necessity of the lower frames-per-second DmC runs at compared to previous games, but let's leave the lid on that can of flesh-eating worms.

The air time on each move is truly excessive, allowing the player to stay airborne for incredible periods of time (and thus isolate enemies from groups as a safety measure) and the dodge dives have a hilarious number of invincible frames, while both the grapple yanks don't merely help fix-up after an overzealous knock back, but can slap a handy bandage on pretty much any mistake or miss that the player suffers while trying to cobble together a chain.

Worst of all, none of this will be punished because this DmC style bar is so laid back it's passed out in the corner, happy to judge almost any player step or roll as reason to keep the bar afloat, and ignores even the most obvious  and embarrassing player miscalculations. It's never looking when you all but trip and drop your sword and simply rush to cover it up with a grapple yank or two, and while it doles out gradual praise for versatile combo chains and juggles, it will lose it's absolute shit if you simply manage to hit more than one enemy with any of the Devil axe's area of effect attacks. "Arbiter axe alt-combo? Oo-er! SSS, 5 stars for you my friend." Go home style bar, you're drunk. Fact is, DmC is a whore of a game, it's input windows are gaping and open for abuse, and it won't even judge you afterwards.

D - No Hard Lock
My kingdom for hard lock. Immediately the game feels looser and messier than it's predecessors, and while it's annoying that the auto soft lock is as twitchy and unreliable as I'd assumed it would be (especially when trying to prioritize the bothersome aerial enemies over nearby ground enemies) the real loss is the modifier effect it provided. Holding lock-on used to lock the player into a faux 2D plane with the enemy, allowing directional inputs to be combined with the face buttons to perform the key DMC attacks like Hightime and Stinger. With the removal of this lock-on state, these attacks have now been displaced to new inputs; Hightime finds itself on a new dedicated launcher button (a bit like in Marvel Versus Capcom 3) while Stinger is ousted on to the hideous input command of forward forward melee on the analogue stick. I know right? Threw up in my mouth a little bit just then. Pressing jump during lock-on used to do a combat roll that formed the players core evasive tactic, so with that modifier gone a dedicated dodge button has been added., which took some getting used to Well, two dodge buttons actually.

Although holding down the Angel or Devil modifier adds new tactical abilities to the dodge skill, the two separate dodge buttons themselves seem identical save for the fact one takes the player left and the other sends them right. This would make sense as a strafing mechanic, but ironically without a lock-on to provide a center point to dodge around Dante simply dives long and far in a relatively random direction and takes the camera with him. The fact a shoulder button is wasted on an extra unnecessary dodge command makes the decision to cut hard lock even more maddening. I can see no reason to remove it save a) to be different for the sake of being different or b) because at some point during development hard lock was decided to be not casual friendly. But this seems ridiculous, since the most complex application of the lock-on is the modifier it provides, and the whole game is based around two modifiers anyway.

Worst of all though, his hair is the wrong colour. Jokes. 


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Although I am a game designer employed within the game industry, all of the opinions I express in this Blog are my own opinions, given in a personal capacity, and do not represent the opinions of my employer