The Subtleties: Group Combat

A Dredge Mole

Guild Wars 2 Combat

Let’s Get Together

This will be a discussion about how group combat works and what merit it may hold for high level content. My first post on combat was about combat in general, but explained through a single perspective. I didn’t touch on the removal of the holy trinity, the lack of a global cooldown and the removal of the need to target players. I know these elements confuse people and should be discussed.

Also, any discussion of group combat in regards to Guild Wars 2 must first explain that all the elements discussed here do not require you and another player to be in a group together. As explained in the first combat discussion, spells and skills behave in a open-friendly manner. Any friendly target can interact with a skill you use that has an interactive feature with no grouping required. Mainly, this interaction has to do with Cross Profession Combo fields, but bouncing skills follow the same rules.

So, we’re all grouped and all together.

No Holy Trinity? Soft Trinity? New Trinity? Free For All!? Mass chaos!?!?

The holy trinity consists of the tank, the healer and the dps. Sometimes you get a sacred 3.5 with the addition of a support and control class. In WOW, this support class would mean supplying CC or Crowd Control to an encounter in order to limit the incoming damage. For a game like Rift, support normally means supplying damage, buffing and healing all at once, with the damage and healing being less than you would get from a specialized damage dealer or healer.

ArenaNet describes the roles in their combat as control, support and damage, and that combat involves each player flowing in and out of those roles within an encounter. So to go forward in explaining this, I will try to nail down what a tank, healer or dps is, and then explain what control, support and damage means in Guild Wars 2. If you’re thinking that DPS and damage are pretty much the same thing then you’re right, but much like everything else in Guild Wars 2, the experience between the old and the new is all the difference.

The Way Things Used To Be

The first thing I would tell a longtime MMO tank player about Guild Wars 2 is that there is no such thing as a meat shield to be found within the combat. Historically, tanking in MMOs or even something like Diablo 3 is based on passive stats that supply a constant benefit to your ability to absorb or mitigate incoming damage. Tanks normally have high armor value, shields to block with and stats and traits that offer universal damage reductions. All of these boosts to defense allows a tank to stand in front of a big old dragon an take its claw swipes to the face.

There is a certain  pride in being able to go toe-to-toe with giant beasts or a mass of enemies. When I leveled my Paladin in WOW, I found Protection to be the most fun leveling spec. I could gather a bunch of mobs, prop holy shield and reflection talents, and watch those hapless Murlocs punch themselves to death. In Rift, the Riftstalker rogue spec was fun for me to play due to its teleporting tank mode. I could hop around a rift encounter, applying aggro on each teleport, creating rift disturbances that grabbed mobs off other players, picking up elites and mobs as I bamfed around, all while never getting close to dying. A riftstalker is often capable of soloing many Rifts. The more I upped my block, dodge or defense stats, the more unstoppable I felt. The tank is defined by its ability to take many hits, hard hits and attract aggro quickly and continously.

A healer has more than heal skills, but is a character that puts all of its stats and talents towards boosting those heals and being able to maintain resources for constant healing. The healer and the tank are symbiotic in that RPG bosses are designed to hit so hard that a tank can’t simply stand their ground against them without help. The help often comes from the healer, who replenishes the health of the tank for each major hit they take. Healers often have damage mitigation spells they can put on others, such as shields or bubbles. So not only does the healer replenish health, the healer also helps the mitigation efforts of the tank.

In many games, the healing is done through the party interface. In the same way that a player must target an enemy to attack it, the healer must target a player to heal them. Certain heal spells are ground targeted, but the great majority require a player to be targeted. Group interface bars make this process easier by listing names and healthbars of your group close together, allowing the player to click on who needs help via a list rather than trying to find their body on the playfield. TERA is different in regards, requiring active target healing that means that the importance of the ability to see the player you are healing matters. Otherwise, healing becomes what has been coined “wack-a-mole” of watching bars go up and down, and clicking on the bars going down to cast your heal spell.

I will make DPS short and sweet. DPS focuses entirely on killing. The prime DPS is a matter of optimization of skills, something sometimes called your “ideal rotation”. This is a matter of firing off your attack skills in the order that maximizes your damage output. At times, DPS provides crowd control as well.

That Dragon Doesn’t Seem to Matter to Me

What needs to be understood is that design approach dictates encounter approach. The reason the holy trinity work is due to how mob AI and encounter design work. The bosses and mobs of dungeons are designed to be attracted to a single player through aggro, so that DPS can work unhindered and healers can work unhindered. An encounter may add randomly spawning and straying attacks that will cause the non-tanks to move, but not be in constant movement. Holy Trinity design often becomes a sort of dance routine, and once you learn the dance routine, all difficulty lies in a stat measurement. In fact, when your stats get high enough, you outgear content and even the dance routine doesn’t matter much anymore.

For the tank, the boss matters a lot. You are the one moving that big fella around and taking its hits, and popping a cooldown on its big, nasty attacks. That boss doesn’t seem too smart though, because the truth is that you’re hardly hurting the beast. The DPS are doing all the damage. If the boss was smart, they’d take out the healers and DPS, for there’s its whole problem. Its the DPS that’s hurting the boss without ever having to fight the boss, and trouble of the boss lies in the healers keeping all its dragonly fire-farts from ending this epic shenanigan.

For the DPS, the boss is merely a big target. As mean as that dragon looks, you’re not really fighting the dragon. Instead, you’re fighting latency, global cooldowns and long cooldowns, and watching the stock market of the DPS charts, vying for that top spot.

Meanwhile, the boss barely even exists for the healer. Their battle is one of charts and bars, making for a pattern recognition puzzle to solve within the interface. The dragon matters not to them. Everyone just stay out of the muck and remember the dance steps, and the healer will never see that ugly beast’s face.

An Oakheart Boss roams around

This red and angry tree boss will require teamwork.

So what’s this new freestyle flow?

Every player in Guild Wars 2 may need to learn a little bit of all the elements that used to be sectioned off in the holy trinity, for support, control and damage are leaned away variants of the old trinity.

Control might involve getting in the face of a foe, but it’s not tanking. In general, mobs in Guild Wars 2 aggro towards the nearest target hitting them, though ANet says they have mobs with different aggro rules and patters as well. I can only speak for the early level mobs, which probably have the least complex behaviors to be found. So, for control, perhaps you attract the attention of the mob by getting in its face, but then you cripple the mob and having it slowly kite towards you. Control also means seeing a mob attacking a friendly and placing down a Guardian’s magical wall between them. You may have your friend call out on vent that they’re out of stamina and can no longer dodge, so you apply a stun to the mob and get between your friend and the foe. In this way, control is about limiting a target’s movement, directing its movement and imparing its abilities.

Support is about supporting and helping another player in defense or in offense. You may have a ranger with you while fighting a veteran oakheart. You’re an elementalist and throw down an icy aoe spell. The ranger shoots through the aoe and gains an added effect to their arrows. These arrows now chill the foe, slowing down the rate at which they can fire off skills. Then you throw down a Healing Rain as the Oakheart turns towards you. You stand in the rain and support yourself with its heal, but the ranger’s arrows hit the Oakheart through the rain and heal you as well, providing support twice through the combined effect. But then this isn’t enough, and the Oakheart wacks you hard when you thought you were safe. You go into downed state, but the ranger uses its search and rescue skill to have his pet heal you up from downed state.

Damage is damage. It’s the arrows firing and the ice chill aoes hitting.

But look again at my hypothetical situations. The Ranger shooting icy arrows at the Oakheart is also offering control by applying the chill condition to the target. The Guardian laying down the magical wall is also presenting a combo field that supports attacks from behind it. A Mesmer Chaos Storm can be control, support and damage all at once. In fact, the devil is in the details of the Guild Wars 2 skills. You shouldn’t just be  looking at the damage applied, but the secondary and third parts of the skill. The player in Guild Wars 2 flows in and out of roles due to how varied each skill is in its benefits.

A Sampler Tray of Love and Poison

Of course, since all of these interactions are meant to work in dynamic events, they do not rely on group interfaces. This makes all help in the form of control or support less direct. The Guild Wars 2 teamwork system works like someone presenting a sample tray to the friendly public and if they that are the public need something from the tray, they can freely take from the tray. The public can also add to the tray if they so wish. A quick example: You can lay down a Necromancer mark that weakens foes who travel across it, but your ally gains no benefit from that if they don’t lead the monster chasing them across that mark in the ground.Perhaps they are smart enough to take advantage of the necromancer’s mark, but then lay a crippling trap right before it as well. Now the area is twice as poisonous to foes and twice as useful to the public.

I mentioned earlier how design approach dictates encounter approach. In regards to Guild Wars 2, the combat must work on the large scale of dynamic events. Due to this, the combat roles cannot become isolated into small partnerships with private communication lines. One of the early issues that beta testers have had with the game is the huge pyrotechnics on display during combat. The reason there is so much color and explosion blasting onto your screen is due to the combat needing to be able to explain itself without Deadly Boss Mods and everyone on the same voice chat. This is why combat is visual, and why group play relies on being individual and cooperative at the same time. At first, everything is murder and cacophony until you are able to sparse through the jumble and read the important elements. It’s like skimming an encyclopedia for the important dates. Perhaps you just skimmed through this long blog post and found yourself attracted to the bolded descriptions of the holy trinity roles. Consider group combat in Guild Wars 2 to be a bit of RPG combat skimming and high level play to be a matter of raising your reading level.

And finally, Speed.

You can quickly recognize a diku-clone,slash wow-clone by the visual of hotbars and the the visual reset of the global cooldown. The GCD limits a player from firing off a ton of skills together. Guild Wars 2 doesn’t really have a GCD due to its combat needing to be fast enough to read and react. In fact, a Mesmer’s Mantras can be fired off in the midst of the animation of another skill activating. If the Elementalist casting the healing rain realizes the Oakheart is coming towards them too fast, they can cancel out of the cast with a dodge or go right into an invulnerability skill. Again, the large scale, cooperative combat design dictates the move away from the hard trinity, which dictates that defense must be proactive or reactive, which dictates that the slowing down of combat from GCDs cannot be had within the game.

And there’s likely more

All of what I’ve said is based on encounters in PVP and PVE of a beta of a game that has 80 levels, many zones and dungeons, and of which I’ve seen all of one zone and 18 levels and maybe 8 hours of PvP.

The Moletariat P A T I E N T L Y waits for that next BWE.

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