Alternative combat models: do they exist?

Do you find combat in MMOs boring and repetitive? As players we are so used to the genre’s conventions we don’t even notice them.

Spells or attack abilities are mapped to certain keys. Call it the 1,2,3 spam.

Combat in most MMOs is based around your avatar selecting a single mob and buring them down with a combination of attacks – either melee or ranged. Developers understand this and will throw spell effects into the mix to enhance the experience.

The Death Grip of Warcraft’s Death Knight – i.e. pulling a target to the player from a distance with a cool purple beam – is a great example. It’s basically a taunt with some gee-wiz effects. The wide range of melee attacks a Death Knight weilds are variations on the same theme: hitting one object really hard with another. The rune system mixes it up a little as well. Instead of hitting 1,2,3 with a Death Knight you hit 1,2,3,4,5,6… in otherwords, more spells with shorter cool downs.

However there are some interesting examples of alternative combat models out there. One of them can be found in Atlantica Online.

Atlantica Online: turn based strategy

Atlantica Online (AO) is  a free-to-play (F2P), real-money-transaciton (RMT) MMO developed by Ndoors. Yes, it’s an Asian F2P RMT MMO. But it’s not that bad – in fact it’s pretty solid.

Doing it Anime style

Doing it Anime style

F2P and RMT games have moved from being the industries red-headed-step-child to being cited as the future of MMOs. The reivews are becoming far more positive these days, so being the metaverse tourist I am I’d thought I’d check some of them out.

I downloaded the client for Atalantica, registered, created a few characters and started playing. I was up and running within half an hour. I can see why this is such a growing segment of the market. Games like AO are free and very easy to get into.

RMT seems to be for vanity items, extra bag slots and consumables. The content itself – dungeons, zones, PvE and PvP content - is all freely accessible.

Atlantica Online: steampunk, alternative history setting.

If your haunted by images of Hello Kitty! then don’t panic, AO isn’t that bad.

But it clearly has an “Asian” aesthetic. The male avatars are rather androgynous and the female ones doe-eyed, busty and have short school girl skirts. Combat animations look and feel like Street Fighter. The graphics themselves are pretty solid, though the UI is a little clunky.

What I do enjoy about the game is the steam punk aesthetics: 19th Century alternative history meets robots, swords and sorcery. It makes a bit of a change from generic fantasy land. Virtual versions of Asian countires and cities are well represented – obviously. You can also visit cities such as Rome and New York. It’s history on drugs: unicorns and steamboats.

Something to really appreciate: there are no elves. Yes! That’s at least one MMO sterotype not in the game.

/fist pump

It should also be noted there is only one faction: human. Classes are based around the typle of weapon you weild: so you can be a Sword, Axe, Cannon, Bow and – wait for it – guitar. Yes, you can weild a deadly guitar. Awesome.

\m/

Rock on dude!

Hire your mercenaries and go to war!

What differs significantly is the combat and your ability to hire mercenaries. Yep, you can create your own personal army. For those of us who enjoy both MMOs and strategy games this is a nice blend.

Combat itself  is instanced and turn based. As you travel the world of Atlantica  you will encounter the usual variety of sprites, wildlife, monsters and demon-hell-spawn to kill. However AO differs from most MMOs in two key ways:

  • Mobs don’t seem to aggro. That’s right, I can walk right up to any mob and it won’t attack. As the player, you select when combat begins.
  • Single mobs will morph into a small army of the same creature in instanced combat.You don’t see your mercenaries until you enter combat either.
Arumy of Dear: prepare to die!

Army of Deer: prepare to die!

For me, this is what makes AO intriguing.

Combat is turn based, which may sound boring and static, but is actually far more challenging and interesting than simply walking up to a mob and spamming 1,2,3.

You select a target and set your troops to attack, cycling through each of their attack abilities during your phase of combat. Some spells attack multiple targets and act as a kind of AoE. Others stun, while others deal additional damage. Attack Points are needed to launch attacks, so sometimes one of your soldiers has to sit out a turn.

Enemy mobs have their own turns and their own deal special attacks. You can interupt these, as special abilities take more than one turn to be launched.

Die! Die! Die!

Die! Die! Die!

The combat animations are cinematic, the camera swooping and moving in accordance to the type of attack.

It’s a bit of a challenge to learn at first, but with practice you get used to cycling through your mercenaries and utilising their different attack styles to good effect. Some of your “mercs” are tanks, while others deal melee and ranged DPS.

You can hire and fire them at will with the Mercenary NPC. They also level, and you can upgrade armour and weapons. In fact, it reminds me of Diablo II, where you could hire mercenaries and equip them. If you felt comfortable with that mechanic, then managing AO’s mercenary units shouldn’t be too much of a challenge.

I’d also note the transition between instanced combat and normal game mode is smooth.

For me its the combat mechanics that make AO interesting: your choices in combat are important. Do you concentrate all your fire on one mob, or stun one and DPS the others? When the mob starts to wind up their special attacks you must focus fire on them. Choices become much more critical – and involve more skill.

Tactics matter

Combat in AO is far more tactical, and requires a more thinking than your average player-vs-mob fight. Combat also takes longer, usually a few minutes to burn down an army of sprites, dears or demon things (unlike WoW where you can count the fights in seconds). It should be noted that different mobs have different abilities. Therefore fights will vary.

Indeed, every fight is like a mini-boss fight.

Verdict: interesting variation on a theme

I’ve only explored the first few zones of AO, but enought to say it’s an interesting concept.

I’ll play around with it for a few more weeks, though I don’t imagine my time in AO will be prolonged. Not because it’s a bad game – it’s actually surprising good for F2P – but because I’ve barely enough time for one MMO, let alone the three I’m dabbling with.

Final verdict?

Check it out, if only for the interesting combat mechanics.