Column: Press WHY To Counter – The Problem With Counter-Based Combat

In pretty much every video game ever, the two types of combat you’ll see are turn based, or real time. Both of these can be broken down even further (for example, turn based can work on either a ‘timeline’ system, where abilities may alter the order, or they may work on a very simple player one, then player two, so on and so forth). For real time combat, a trend in modern gaming is to give the player one button for attack, another for dodge, and another for counter. This new ‘counter-based’ combat is flashy, but from a gameplay standpoint, it leaves much to be desired.

The first game to use this counter-based method of combat was arguably Assassin’s Creed, released in 2007. In Assassin’s Creed, when using the hidden blade, it was possible (but difficult) to counter and instantly counter-kill an attacking enemy. The window for this was small; you had to press the button as the enemy’s attack was about to connect, and this was only possible when using the Assassins’ signature weapon, the hidden blade. By the time Batman: Arkham Asylum was released in 2009, this combat system had been refined into what is still being used today: a group of enemies surround the player character, attacking one-by-one, and a large indicator flashes when they are about to attack, and the button press any time from when this indicator appears to when the attack connects will cause a perfect counter.

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Clockwise from top left: Assassin’s Creed 3, Batman: Arkham City, Spider-man 2 and Sleeping Dogs.

(It is worth noting that the early Spider-man games, perhaps most notably Spider-man 2 had similar ‘flashes’ when enemies were about to attack. This makes more sense in regards to Spider-man compared to Batman; Spider-man has a canonical ‘Spider sense’ which translates well to an early warning indicator in a video game. The other major difference is that in Spider-man’s case, the indicator appears over the top of Spider-man himself, whereas the popular method has the warning over the enemy. The system as it is used now was popularised in the early Assassin’s Creed and Batman: Arkham games.)

Since the Batman: Arkham games set the standards, games such as Sleeping Dogs, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor and Mad Max have all used similar, if not identical, combat mechanics. Players will have four options, and will be able to mix and match between these four: attack, counter, dodge and stun. There are slight variations between the games, but every game features at least a single button for attack, and a single button for counter. In some of these games, once a certain hit-streak was achieved, the character would enter into a special state (“focus” for both Batman and Shadow of Mordor, a “Face” mode for Sleeping Dogs and “rage” for Mad Max) wherein attacks would hit for more damage. Similarly, in the majority of these games, special contextual attacks were possible when standing near to certain items in the overworld. Most of these games, too, allowed for picking up enemy/loose weapons and using them for either extra damage, or special attacks.

While all of this is flashy, and certainly feels good to take down a large mob, it does not lend itself to any other situations, particularly not 1-on-1 fights. This became a real issue for the games in the Batman: Arkham series, with only a handful of bosses from the four complete games even warranting a mention. In Sleeping Dogs and Shadow of Mordor, difficulty was often substituted for simply giving the enemy combatants a huge amount of health. This attempt at cinematic combat situations, rather than more practical encounters, meant that fights quickly became either repetitive or tedious.

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The upgrades available in each game also crossed over. An upgrade to break the limbs of your enemies was awarded in Batman, Sleeping Dogs and Mad Max. Very similar stabbing animations were used in both Mad Max (with the shiv executions) and Shadow of Mordor. The same dodge mechanic — jumping over your enemies to land behind them — was in both Batman: Arkham and Shadow of Mordor. A stunning maneuver was used in Assassin’s Creed, Batman: Arkham, Shadow of Mordor and Mad Max (the latter in the form of a heavy attack). The overlap in content is not necessarily an issue in itself, but it would be nothing but a bad thing for third-person combat to become stagnant.

To stop this mechanic from becoming stagnant, there are a few changes that could be made. The first, and perhaps most obvious, is to make the counters more like blocks; they would negate damage on you, but at the same time do no damage to the enemies. This would have several effects, the foremost of which would cause the player to decide between keeping their combo alive, or attempting to dodge instead. Another quick fix could be to have a much more severe penalty for missing/mistiming a counter attempt. Were Batman, for example, to attempt to block a punch when one was not thrown, he should ideally be leaving himself open for an attack from his other sides. If the floating buttons, seen below, were to be removed, players would be forced to watch enemy animations, rather than simply waiting for the prompt to appear. Obviously, any fixes relating to watching enemies would require clean and crisp animations, which sometimes are simply not possible in the circumstances. From a more technical standpoint, improved AI is another option, but that is another situation that may require time more than anything else.

Overall, the ‘press Y to counter’ style combat is pleasing to look at, and generally effective in making the player feel like a complete badass. But it has not evolved since 2009, and until it makes some meaningful advances in its mechanics, there will be no room for any personal experiences. Cinematic experiences are fine, to a point, but if I wanted to watch Batman doing the same moves over and over, with no meaningful impact behind his attacks, I’d just go watch The Dark Knight Rises again.

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