Aztez – A Game of Conquest and Brutality

Meaningful And Elegant Defense

If attack mechanics are the yin of combat then defense mechanics are the yang; at least whenever you're engaged to things that can attack you back. The coolest thing about defense mechanics is that there are so many ways to handle the "problem" of enemy attacks but the crappiest thing about them is that they're so easy to render meaningless. In more games than I'd like to admit, you're given defensive maneuvers that you simply don't use (for any number of reasons) or you try to but they don't help you. A good defense mechanic looks good and feels good, but must ultimately be functional. Enemies are going to attack no matter what and in the interest of elegance, there should be as few ways as possible to deal with this. Having too many is confusing, having too few is frustrating, and having any at all that are meaningless are buttons wasted. Furthermore, the usefulness of the given defense mechanics are going to directly and heavily influence the difficulty level of the game.

Now let's take a look at a couple choice examples of defense mechanic usage:

Ninja Gaiden - Holding the Left Trigger/L2 button snaps the character into a defensive pose that prevents them from taking damage when struck. To be honest, I picked Ninja Gaiden somewhat arbitrarily; most modern beat 'em ups use this exact defense mechanic. The debilitating truth about blocking is that while it's just not exciting to sit there and hold a button while you get slapped with repeated enemy attacks, it works so it continues to get employed. There are certainly games which have pushed this idea a little bit in an interesting direction, but most of these instances suffer from poor execution and fail to evolve the mechanic. Now in the defense of the block mechanic, it is surprisingly difficult to break, but this doesn't make it any less disruptive. Sometimes this is intentional, as is the case with Ninja Gaiden. You cannot cancel attacks by blocking, making you very carefully consider when it's time to commit to a full fledged combo attack. The result is a highly tactical combat experience, but in addition to being very difficult, it compromises the highly kinetic combat experience that a lot of us play beat 'em ups for in the first place.

God Of War - Pushing the right analog stick in any direction quickly rolls the player character in the direction of the push. Furthermore, it cancels anything the player might be doing: attacking, moving, blocking, etc. And this applies to any attack in any combo, provided it's on the ground. This is actually one of the many reasons God Of War feels so responsive. You can react to the enemy character's carefully designed visual tells without cutting off your aggressive attack flow. The game also provides the player with a block, but not only is the block primarily designed to facilitate a completely separate mechanic, but both block and parrying (the facilitated mechanic) aren't necessary. You can play through the entire game without ever utilizing either of them. So God Of War almost wins the award for most elegant defense with its amazing rolling mechanic, but drops the ball with the perfectly good input real estate that is wasted on the block/parry. In all fairness, it would have been easy to make the block/parry meaningful by creating an enemy type that enforces it, but at that point you're contriving the simplicity of the combat.

Bayonetta - Pushing the Right Trigger/R2 Button makes the player character quickly dodge into the space just outside of the engagement zone. Like the roll mechanic in God Of War, it can and will cancel anything you're doing and immediately execute. Without directional input she slides directly backwards but otherwise she dodges in whatever direction you choose. It's exciting because it allows you to maintain your aggression in the same way the God Of War dodge does. But where Bayonetta takes it to the next level is that not only can the dodge be done in the air, but it can be performed in such a way that it will not interrupt your place in the combat flow! This is called the "dodge offset" system and when done correctly, the combo resumes exactly where it left off the second the dodge is complete. It's incredibly graceful but is also dependent on some well designed under-the-hood features; the game knows to slide the character right back into the face of the enemy when the player does this. In any case, the mechanic is brilliant and elegant and super fun and most importantly, it allows the player to continue beating the crap out of enemies until their fingers disintegrate.

Aliens Versus Predator - Traditional beat 'em ups solved the problem of defense by not actually having defense mechanics! You were responsible for positioning your character in such a way that they simply wouldn't get struck. It's ultimately the most straightforward way of protecting yourself, provided there isn't poorly designed enemy AI breaking this completely. But when done correctly, the "don't get hit" mechanic is the cleanest way of keeping the player safe because they've already taught themselves how to move. The next logical step is to develop the skill to move in creative yet cautious ways. Where Aliens Versus Predator shines is in the highly mobile attack mechanics that give the player all they need to get out of a bind or even avoid it completely in fun and attractive ways. Now in all fairness, this style of defense was made realistic by traditional beat 'em ups because they were 2d and that kind of tactical positioning was reasonable. Once the genre migrated to 3d it all changed. Not because it's any more difficult to track enemy positions in 3d games (provided you've got a camera that's doing its job), but because of a cosmetic change that occured in the move to 3d; enemy characters in 2d games could afford to simply attack to the left or right as you shuffled about. In 3d they look utterly ridiculous if they're not attacking directly at you, and having a group of enemy characters all attacking directly at you breaks the careful positioning game of yore.

As always, you should do what you think best serves the combat experience you're cultivating. :)

  • Kevin Henke

    One of the things that you mention here is that mobility is key to combat flow. That got me thinking, why not exercise defensive mobility? In God of War and Bayonetta, it seems that they use evasive mobility as a defense. I’m talking about moving while taking hits, maybe coupled with evading hits…come to think of it, I don’t really know what it means, but I know what it could mean: the player could switch between stances, where a more offensive stance would create longer combos that could be interrupted by an attack and a more defensive stance with short combos while taking reduced non-interrupting damage; or how about using defense as a resource that the player could toggle on and off to maintain mobility through a juggernaut of attacks; or maybe an auto-counter kind of like Soul Calibur where the player can pull the enemy into being attacked.
    I love the thought of maintaining mobility while both attacking and defending. I think Smash Bros. does this pretty well, because you can dodge or roll through attacks in a given direction. Although the focus in SSB is much less combo-oriented and more stringing together individual attacks after moving toward and away from the opponent.
    If I remember correctly, either the Olmec or the Aztec culture played a grueling game called tlatchtli. The game could go on for days and involved lots of violent beatings with a hard-rubber ball. Wouldn’t it stand to reason that the warrior would have insane physical endurance? Clearly they’re no Minotaurs, but still, maybe they could take a few arrows?

  • Hey Kevin! Thanks for the idea jelly to spread on top of our mind bread. Haha!

    So here are my primary concerns with both of those ideas. Generally speaking, stances create the same problem for me as blocking mechanics do; they interrupt the combat flow. It’s like having to pause the game while you switch weapons/mechanics to match the situation (something most action games were guilty of up until the last couple years). Now in all fairness, some games have tried to make the idea of stances much more fluid. Specifically, Devil May Cry 4. DMC4 took the stance feature introduced in DMC3 and streamlined it by applying the 4 stances right to the d-pad so you can instantly switch between them whenever you want. Unfortunately, it’s still disruptive…at least for me! That’s a huge gear shift regardless and I end up sticking to the one stance that I’m compatible with. As far as I know that’s what most players do as well. The worst case scenario here is that I simply can’t handle that complex a system but the way I see it, if I can’t do it then MOST gamers can’t (I’m not going to pretend here that I’m not fairly skilled with these types of game systems) and I’m not going to enforce that on my players, especially when I’m trying to make something somewhat accessible to people outside the hardcore action game ilk.

    Now the idea of a defense as a resource is really interesting but I’m concerned about the challenge inherent in that. Absorbing and buffering does sound fun but it seems to render the enemy attacks near meaningless. Now I personally love the idea of redefining the meaning of something “tried and true” but scraping around in the middleground between inventive and challenging in a combat game about the Aztecs sounds really inappropriate. Haha! Although I’m definitely intrigued with the idea of an auto-counter-attack system. That actually reminds me of the defense system in Heavenly Sword on PS3; without input the character will automatically block attacks for you. Unfortunately, it isn’t particularly reliable and feels terrible when it works. It’s totally demotivating. Would it be a good system if tuned to perfection, I wonder?

    Now I mostly agree with you about Smash Brothers, my only retort is that in the really great engagements I’ve had in that game, I’ve had to use the block mechanic as much as I have the movement mechanics. Granted, their block feels decent and is actually kind of saucy in that it lets you dash-cancel out of it but then we’re up against the issue of elegance. There SHOULD be a way around such a mechanic entirely, no?

    Anyway, thanks dude! You rule and I’m glad someone else is thinking about this shit. I really believe we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to defense mechanics.

  • Hey Ben,

    First of all, love the blog. It’s great to see someone posting public information that goes into depth into the kinds of things considered when making a modern combat action game.

    Just wanted to let you know that in Conan we had the same dodge-to-string-combos feature that you mentioned in Bayonetta. You could do the classic light-light-heavy combo and throw a dodge right in the middle, like light-light-dodge-heavy. Dodging didn’t reset your combo and we allowed dodge to interrupt almost any attack if I remember correctly. I don’t think it was a feature that was discovered by many players but a few of us in the office loved it and used it constantly.

    Bayonetta did it better in that their dodge was on a button instead of the right analogue stick. That way your fingers were already in position to continue the combo, unlike Conan which controls more like God of War. Our dodge was on the right analogue stick which required you to move your thumb from the face buttons to the right analogue stick and back which is a little bit more difficult to pull off.

    Mark (lead gameplay programmer and designer on Conan)

    • Hey Mark! It’s great to meet you and thanks for dropping a line. I actually really enjoyed Conan! I appreciated the variety of the mechanics and in general, it feels pretty good. Truthfully though, I did not know you could do that. If I recall, the game doesn’t tell you can do this and sadly, it didn’t occur to me to try. I say “sadly” because there aren’t many beat ’em ups these days that integrate discoverable techniques so unless it’s a VERY Japanese game I rarely bother to experiment. Good to know and thanks for implementing that, regardless of the fact that it sounds a little difficult to do. Haha! Seriously though, thanks for saying hey. :)

      • You’re right, there was no tutorial for that mechanic. In fact, if I remember correctly, it was actually started as a player control state transition bug that we liked so much we left in. :)

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  • Magus KilIer

    Looking back, some of the best defense mechanics i’ve used are movement based

    While playing Hard Corps Uprising the other day, i launched a charged flamethrower blast downwards while jumping over an enemy, this is a pretty normal occurrence in that game, but later i realized that the game’s movement system is so great that it’s all the defense you need, the same holds true for later Castlevania games

    Order of Ecclessia has IMO one of the coolest defense mechanics that i’ve used(that doubles as one of the best uses of the touch screen)
    The alternate playable character Albus can teleport to anywhere you touch on the screen, and it’s really fucking fast, you can teleport behind an enemy and instantly turn around and start shooting him
    Apart from that, his backdash has some I-frames, and you can use it in many cool ways, you can face away from a projectile, and backdash through it for example
    He also has a flying kick with full invul that resembles a Dragon Punch, it lasts until you hit the ground, so the ground version is slow as shit, and really unsafe if you don’t space it right, the air version is really fast, and can be used to dodge smaller attacks, or attack flying enemies

    As a last example, Tales of Vesperia(an rpg with a surprisingly deep combat system later on) has a character with a skilled called escape jump, this skill lets you cancel your block by jumping, and gives the jump some i-frames
    The i-frames carry on to other actions, so she can airdash towards an enemy, and turn any air-enabled move into a reversal
    My favorite example is a 360 sweep that knocks down, it’s slow on the ground, but instant in the air(although it has a really big recovery if you miss the cancel frames), she can escape jump, airdash into a group of enemies, and knock them all down with that move
    Escape jump is very dynamic, you can also use it to airdash behind an enemy and punish them while they recover from an attack