The Melee Combat Renaissance

A long time ago it seemed that every game
that wasn’t about jumping on things was about fighting. There was a decent amount of shooting but
I seem to remember spending a lot of my younger years either beating up punks or beating up
my punk brother, sometimes even in the same game. Mostly it was due to a console vs PC thing. My family only had consoles in the mid 90s,
and in the 16-bit era fighting seemed to work better than shooting on a 2D plane. In a side-on game, guns don’t make a lot of
sense. Guns let you shoot great distances and attack
enemies from afar, but unless you want to zoom out and make everything tiny you can’t
really reflect that distance in 2D. But in fighters at shorter ranges, the side-on
camera allows you to see exactly where your character is in relation to enemies or obstacles. You can see all of the characters, even those
to the sides and behind you, and can easily observe the distances between you. With that clear information you can fight
really well. You know the ranges of attacks based on easily
readable visual clues, allowing you to form different strategies for different situations. You can judge things like when and how to
close, to back off, to block, go aerial, or when to change targets. It’s no surprise that even modern games that
focus on melee fights still usually do it with a side-on or zoomed-out camera. But sometime after we picked up our first
PC my brother and I stopped playing those kind of games and made the switch from fisticuffs
to firefights. As time went on I found that first person
and even over the shoulder cameras let me identify with the character more. So as newer side-on brawlers came out I found
myself avoiding them in favor of more immersive experiences. First person lets you see off into the infinite
distance for those long range headshots where shooter enemies often lurk, but it doesn’t
let you see your immediate surroundings very well. It makes melee fights problematic, because
closeby enemies are often outside your field of view, and as they move around in your blind
spots tracking them becomes difficult. Unlike a side-on view, it’s hard to keep an
accurate mental model of where everyone is, reducing interesting strategic decisions and
making players more reactionary. It’s also more difficult to judge the distance
between you and those enemies, for two reasons. One, unless you look straight down, you have
no real sense of body presence – where your character’s body actually is – and two, the
false perspective of 3D images being displayed on a 2D screen. For example it’s easy in 2D to see that this
pipe can hit me at this range, but much harder in first person to make a similar judgment. But some fighters found ways to make things
work in first person or over the shoulder views. Jedi Knight 2 was a shooter but it’s lightsaber
combat is still regarded as the best in a Star Wars game to date. The first game I dabbled in was Dark Messiah
of Might and Magic, which admittedly ended up more about kicking people into things than
sword fighting. During development they realized that it was
hard to keep track of enemies given their 85 degree field of view, so they designed
around this by reducing the number of enemies that can engage the player at once using squads. “We would group the enemies in a group of
four, a squad of four maximum, and in this case then two of them would be allowed to
approach you and they can surround you, we don’t care about that. And two others would stay at a distance and
taunt you, or they would throw rocks at you, whatever they have in their tools.” They also solved the problem of judging distances
by just letting the player get away with misjudging: “The way we did that we actually had to cheat,
what we did .. we would just satisfy the intention of the player. We would enlarge the distance and make sure
… in the end you could hit at almost ten feet” Next Condemned and Zeno Clash worked well,
but it’s perhaps telling that the developers of both series have since moved on to developing
zoomed-out brawlers. Series that endure today include 2008’s Mount
& Blade and the Demon’s or Dark Soul’s series that started in 2009. They both use a behind your character perspective
that mitigates many of the problems of first person melee while still managing to equate
you with your character in a way that a more distant side-on view never could. It’s an effective halfway point between immersion
and gameplay. Dark Souls often breaks from this view for
giant bosses but I always enjoyed the smaller fights with human sized opponents the most. In this view you can see more of the environment
and enemies around you than in pure first person. Although you’ll still run into problems with
side-vision, that’s one problem at least partly solved. Newer medieval games have mostly gone back
to pure first person, in part because larger monitors and TV’s have allowed greatly increased
fields of view which allow you to see much more of your body’s limbs, your weapons and
the space around you, even in first person. Chivalry’s default field of view is a whopping
105 and competitive players usually play in excess of that. Back to this view though, seeing your character’s
body also helps with body presence, but this leaves distances still problematic, now especially
so because your hands and arms in front of you are obscured by the rest of your body,
making it difficult to judge the distance from fist to face. But these games got around it by first elevating
the camera, and by using long weapons – a solution similar to Dark Messiah’s 10 foot
sword hits but with little to no fudging of the numbers. Bigger and longer means easier to see and
judge, so it’s no surprise that these new combat games have swordplay instead of street
fighting. Having longer weapons increases the engagement
distance, meaning you can see most of your opponents body and read their movements, unlike
when they are right up in your grill. The second way these games solved the distance
problem was by giving the players other options for defence. In Dark Souls if you can’t physically avoid
attacks by reading the distance and staying out of range, you can rely on your shield,
parries or the dodge roll’s invincibility frames. They depend more on timing than on judging
distances. Mount & Blade has a similar reliance on shields
or on its revolutionary directional blocking if you’re not carrying one – which is secretly
the most fun way to play, just make sure to turn off automatic blocking in options. Dark Souls is a more readable game though
because of the exaggerated length of the attack animations, as well as the fact that you can’t
cancel them. Mount and Blade on the other hand can be a
confusing mess when looked at by new eyes. The controls are similarly confusing to new
players. While Dark Souls lets you lock-on to reduce
your dexterity load to just left stick and buttons, Mount & Blade has your left hand
on movement and your right hand on mouse performing not double but triple duty – mouse movement
controls your look direction, movement and left mouse controls attack direction, and
mouse movement and right mouse controls block direction. This triple duty causes wild camera movements
which only add to the confusion, but despite all these drawbacks it’s easily my favorite
of the two combat systems. The directional attacks and blocks make me
feel like a knight, or at least like the knight I used to imagine being while wielding sticks
and sparing with childhood friends. I love Dark Souls, but I’d even argue that
while less popular, Mount & Blade’s combat is the more influential of the two. At least four multiplayer games – Chivalry,
War of the Roses and the yet unreleased For Honor and Mordhau all feature directional
attack and block combat systems. There’s also some MMOs and the single-player
RPG Kingdom Come Deliverance in development. These two series and the games they inspired
got me back into melee fights after years of mostly being characters who looked down
the barrel of a gun. I’m back poking and prodding at a distance,
trying to bait my opponents into a whiffed attack that will leave them vulnerable. These games have started a personal melee
combat renaissance which shows no sign of slowing down.

54 thoughts on “The Melee Combat Renaissance

  1. Great stuff as usual, I love your personal insights and clear perspective. Your approach makes topics that I don't have much of a stake in (I haven't played any of the recent melee combat titles, although I do want to) interesting and the angle you come from is always well explained, something I really want to work on in my own writing.
    Keep up the good work!

  2. Very interesting video! I wonder what influence VR headsets are going to have on fighting games, as aiming and looking are no longer bound to the same control. What do you think about this?

  3. Great video! I'm in the middle of developing a platformer centred around punching and fists, and was looking for a discussion of melee combat. Glad I found this

  4. Dark Souls isn't as influential yet because it's derivative already, it took most of it's combat mechanics from Monster Hunter with a bit of Castlevania style enemy design.

    I'd say in terms of influence on the 3D combat genre the hack and slash's like Devil May Cry probably had even more influence on current games, everything from Batman to GTAV uses their soft auto lock-on and their old school beat em up, button mashing & counters style combat

  5. I think that to help the immersion and realism, instead of increasing FoV beyond human capacity, devs should use sound to help the players understand their surroundings (although of course this would require more work and be more expensive).

    Also, check out the Riddick games if you haven't, they proved you don't need third person camera for covers in shooters, I wish Eidos Montreal would've used them as a reference for the new Deus Ex games…

  6. If you haven't played it before, try digging up Die By The Sword. It hasn't aged well at all but landing decapitations after flailing wildly can be pretty satisfying

  7. I genuinely wish you would rename your channel. Its nothing against the name itself. Its simply that I have hundreds of subs, and its difficult to remember which one the undescriptive name "Mr Wendal" is.

    You may say the title is enough, but its not. I have half a dozen game breakdown channels and double that many history based channels. its very hard to tell what this is gonna be.

    And this is coming from a subscriber. Imagine how much harder it must be for people who arent even subscribers and are just seeing this in their suggestions.

    You have GREAT quality. But your branding is terrible. Just come up with some channel name that in even the smallest way refers to what you do.

  8. Great video ! 1st person melee combat games are my favorites and it's sad to see that not many studios dare make that kind of games, even Techland doesn't seem too interested in finshing their game Hellraid which I was so excited about. I'd definitely recommend Dark Messiah (even it's predecessor Arx Fatalis) and Zeno Clash to any fans of the genre.

  9. Weeell, this is for a very specific kind of melee combat.

    I find Platinum Games and Team Ninja's melee combat a little more satisfying myself, and is full of strategic decisions, zoning and much more. It just has little link to reality, and takes more inspiration from anime.

    There is one series you missed out on though (for the specific combat you cover), the Way of the Samurai series, which has actually reinvented its combat system with nearly every iteration. Granted, their influence is quite minimal as niche titles, but they are interesting if a little janky.

    Keep an eye on Yakuza 6 for very 'weighty' combat. The games before it had a pretty decent combat system that's an evolution of Shenmue's to some degree (but then added a lot of its own very good depth), but 6 is exactly in the style you seem to prefer based on this video.

  10. Interesting video once again! By the way are you interested in philosophy in games? Games like The Talos Principle, Soma and The Swapper have philosophical themes in them. I'd be interested in a video about that kind of thing! Anyways thank you for making this content, I will support you for sure!

  11. chivalry was released BEFORE m&b and both chivalry has totally different combat to m&b and dmom&m which use same combat as TES starting from 1st

  12. Another thing i think contributing to the melee renaissance, is one of the papers released in the trail of the first Assassin's creed, finding that getting up close to enemies is simply a less impassionate experience. Our monkey brains conserves the biggest adrenaline rush for when it perceives us to be in the most danger, which is when the treat is up close.

  13. Have you played God Hand? That has one of the best melee systems ever. It's a great shame that it hasn't been repeated since.

  14. I saw the title and really hoped you would go into mount and blade. The series is one of my favorites(with warband being the best) and I've always wanted someone to explore how it influenced a lot of these new melee combat games. This video was really well done and i wish that such intelligent analysis of games wasn't wasted on the kind of shit that gets released today.

  15. Mordhau is having its Kickstarter right now:

    Check it out, definitely seems like my jam.

  16. First I found souls… Then I found Chivalry… Mount and blade wasn't far behind that… Mordhau will become my new home soon

  17. Never had much problem with meele distance in FPS games, neither with being overrun by enemies, you develop awareness with time as you play. I find it actually harder to judge the safe distance of a sword slash from a over-the-shoulder perspective than when I see it coming trough the character's eyes, and I'll never get why people play games like Mount & Blade in third-person when first-person is available.

    Anyway the main issue there is that earlier FPS titles lacked a parry or block mechanic, so taking a few steps back was the only way to avoid a meele hit, but that's about to change with modern games having improved meele mechanics. M&B has laid the groundwork for more "realistic" sword fighting, though it's combat was a bit clunky and exploitable, while Chivalry brought us what is by far the most fun and skill-based meele gameplay in the history of gaming. And now Mordhau is coming to improve upon what Chivalry did and fix all it's problems (reverse overheads, ballerinas etc). I do hope that other franchises learn with these games, specially The Elder Scrolls and Dark Souls.

    Great channel btw!

  18. You should look into Shadow Tower Abyss. It was a sort of precursor to dark souls with multidirectional melee combat. You could chop off enemy body parts and shit.

  19. I'm really hyped for Mordhau and Kingdom Come, I always felt that there was something very good in first person medieval games, but Chivalry just fails at delivering a nice game experience. Mordhau is supposed to be a better Chivalry and Kingdom Come an even greater one, so I just can't wait to get my hands on them

  20. Lovely video. I like the way you tell a story. Keep it up!

    Mandatory Mordhau shilling: Mordhau will set the new bar for engaging melee combat. Kingdom Come is great with its realistic iteration of combat, but it is by no means engaging and intuitive. Mordhau's going for the most intuitive melee combat experience while trying to keep it "believable". This manifests in smooth animations and the control you get over your attacks, defence and footwork.

  21. Awesome video. I have been coaching and training Mixed Martial Arts since 2004 and am a certified instructor at Straight Blast Gym. I've also been obsessed with melee combat games since… probably Die By The Sword came out in 1998. It always surprises me that seemingly nobody has heard of War of the Roses or War of the Vikings, 2 incredible games that draw heavily from the Mount & Blade mechanics. I think the majority of people interested in the genre were playing Chivalry at the time which I find unfortunate because I believe that WotR had a higher skill ceiling. There was an incredible player named [KoV] Baman who put out some INCREDIBLE footage doing really creative techniques like putting his shield on his back and blocking with it in the middle of a fight. One cool thing about WotR was the "perks" which gave you certain advantages such as "hamstring" which would trip an opponent if you hit the back of their legs. Baman used this to great effect and was able to deceive players using angles and movement to set up his trips.

    Anyways, once again, great video, subbed!

  22. This was a very well done video. Most videos like this I'd usually here someone say something really stupid. Good job sir.

  23. There is a first person option in mount and blade, I actually prefer it for melee fighting. I think it's actually easier to judge distance from that perspective

  24. I love the M&B combat system, even though, yes, it is floaty and weird looking. IMO it feels like it was inspired by Punch-Out. There was also a game series that played with all kinds of melee systems, including ones that were probably the forefathers of these games, called Hero's Quest/Quest for Glory. In addition to Chivalry, War of the Roses, Mordhau, and For Honor, M&B also probably inspired the upcoming Kingdom Come: Deliverance.

    I also loved Dark Messiah, but found the collision to be too weird (ironically, even though they worked on body presence). Enemies would regularly hit me from distances just as exaggerated as my own range, and there was fairly little variation in the combat. You basically had to be a slugger to get anywhere, and, as you said, depend on environmentals. It was almost like a brawler/beat em up.

  25. Don't get me wrong this is an interesting video, but why is Vermintide 1 not in there? It is in my opinion by far the single best FPS melee game in existence, with perfect balancing, adaptable FOV, and most importantly a fantastic sound design that gives very good situational awareness. The immersion in this game is second to none.

  26. Dude, I really enjoyed this video. Having combat feel realistic with some true weight makes all the difference in the world. Having never played any of the Soul Series games before Bloodborne was the first game I played where I felt the combat was truly satisfying. Since then I have played Dark souls 3, Nioh and my new personal favorite Dragons Dogma Dark Arisen. If you haven't tried Dragons Dogma it is really fun.

    There are some new games coming out which should prove interesting in the Melee genre to see if they have improved on the physics and feel of the fights: Sekiro Shadows Die Twice, Nioh 2 and Ghost of Tsushima.

    I also enjoyed your other video about realistic movement in video games. Was a big fan of Flashback on the Genesis and wondered why more games didn't follow suit. One quick note MGS V is a masterpiece when it comes to movement.

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