Gosh, Arkham Asylum is awesome, isn’t it? Arkham City on the way, and it’s going to sell a ton. Because the original was so, SO good. They did everything right in that game… the pacing was right, the way it mixed different gameplay elements worked well, the whole thing polished to a shine. Great! I think it’s fair to say that the one thing that really got people, that really felt absolutely great, was the combat. Absolutely brilliant. Lots of people talk about how it made you feel like Batman, you really could take down a whole room of guys. It was great. But let’s get specific.
For those who haven’t played it, combat is relatively simplistic. Essentially you can use normal attacks, a stun/confuse move, counter attacks, or dodges, and you do those by pushing a direction and hitting a button. That’s it; no special attacks, no combos to remember, no strange button combinations. But it doesn’t feel that way, because the animation guys did an *incredible* job… and not just a visual one. Your attacks flow from one to another in a very natural feeling way. Batman doesn’t just jump to the start of the animation whenever he starts an attack, and neither does his spin strangely on the spot to face an enemy. If he wants to hit an enemy behind him, then he’ll thrust an elbow back, or kick out with a leg and spin in the process. Make an attack at an enemy that’s further away? He’ll do a quick dash or jump towards them, with a custom animation at the end. Your body position at the end of an attack is taken into account for the next, so there’s never an awkward break in motion. It’s friggin’ *brilliant*.
We know it looks cool, but there’s a reason it feels cool too. A lot of 3D brawler games gives you lots of different attacks and combos and special moves, good for different situations, but completely inflexible. Hands up anybody who *hasn’t*, in a recent 3D melee-centered game, been attacking an enemy with their standard 5-hit “mash the x button” combo, had the first hit connect, but then watched your character wander off past the enemy hitting the air ineffectually, before having an agonizingly-long quarter-second break while the final animation finishes and you can spin round? Anyone? No, of course not. The player has the responsibility of tracking everything they can do, and using those abilities appropriately. It can be very fun and enjoyable, but it can also be absurd; you wind up running round in a circle to get at the right distance and orientation for your attack to hit. To me, this breaks the narrative of the game… it doesn’t make sense that my character would keep hitting the air like that, but the game has 3 attacks queued up and it’s going to make them, dammit!
It’s a contrast; most games of this type give you a large number of set attacks, activated in a defined manner, for defined circumstances, with the responsibility on the player. Batman throws all that away by having a large pool of moves for every circumstance, and having the game do what’s right contextual, depending on what animation came last, which enemies are nearby, and what’s going on. It’s a brilliant idea. It works very well. It’s revolutionary.
Half Life 2 did it first.
I think it was episode 1, but it may have been episode 2. If I could be bothered, I’d check the in-game commentaries to confirm. They key is Alyx Vance. See, in the episodes she was going to be much more active. She’d be at the player’s side a lot of the time, fighting alongside them, but they didn’t want to just have a standard bot alongside you, they wanted her to have personality, even in combat. So she doesn’t just stand a bit behind you stiffly shooting her gun… she reacts intelligently. She’ll kick zombies back if they’re too close, or hold a headcrab with her foot while she blasts it. Enemies that get too close might start grappling her. What really makes this is there’s no animation jumps, enemies don’t magically teleport onto her back when they get in range or anything. Neither do they act artificially, taking strange routes in order to get in position.
The way the tech works is not to get characters in the right position to run the animation, but to work from the other end; keep a number of animations for different positions, and then check when the characters are in a position where one is valid. It was a new idea at the time. The games industry certainly had nice animations for characters running and jumping and shooting, but it all happened in isolation; if character one did their generic knife-slash attack, character two would do their generic stagger-back-in-pain animation in response, but it was still two separate animations running for their own reasons with no consideration of each other. Have multiple characters interacting with a proper combined animation, not as a cutscene or a scripted sequence but during live gameplay, taking into account a variety of contextual cues, was a great idea.
You can probably see the link; Valve brought to the masses a technology (and arguably the concept) of having a game programmed with a variety of animations for circumstances involving multiple characters, and choosing the right one based on relative positions, such that the effect is seamless. Arkham Asylum, as a core part of its appeal, featured a simple but fun, fluid, great-looking combat system that chose attacks to use based on the context they were used, chiefly the positions of the combatants. Do I know that the game couldn’t have had exactly the same thing, and been just as awesome, in a world where Valve weren’t the ones who brought the idea to the gaming public? Of course not.
I just know it didn’t.