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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The Subtlety:Combat in Guild Wars 2

A Dredge Mole

Guild Wars 2 Combat

Tab Target or Don’t. Who cares.

Part of my research for these blog entries is based on playtime with the game and based on collective feedback from browsing multiple forums. (About seven forums in total.) I mentioned in a previous post the confusion upon quest structure in the game, but there is a second issue which reappears with regards to the game and people’s play experience with it. People are sometimes loving the combat, sometimes finding it to be “not different”.

I think it’s fair to say that ArenaNet wanted a more active, actiony feel to combat in Guild Wars 2. I feel they have done that, but there are similarities to the established hotbar combat system. One, there is a hotbar, and two, you can tab target and then simply press hotbar keys. Of course, I think it’s fair to say most PC games are overly reliant on UI and menus to present their gameplay, but that doesn’t dismiss the presence of the hotbar and it’s impact on how people will approach the game. The issue is bringing to light the various little differences that makes Guild Wars 2 not feel at all like previous MMOs.

Swing away sucker.

When you target an enemy in Guild Wars 2, the game doesn’t make much effort to let you know if that target is within range. The numbers below your hotbars will change from red to yellow if the target is in range, but they won’t prevent you from using your skill on an out of range target. This makes knowing the reach of your melee skills very important. By reach, I am including the hitbox swing of your melee actions in the definition of reach. Many sword skills can hit multiple targets if they are within the swing arc of the animation of your attack. Normally in MMOs, a game will say if a skill can hit multiple targets and if it doesn’t say so then it’s assumed it is a single target attack. Guild Wars 2 doesn’t bother with that and takes the logical step of saying, “Well, if you’re swinging a sword from right to left then shouldn’t you naturally hit anything along the way?” From watching PVP videos, I’ve seen Warrior players miss their target by spamming their main attack on a target that is kiting around them. Never assume that just because you can fire off a skill that the skill will hit.

The second part of this free-swinging system is that though the skill will go off if your target is out of range, it will still hit any target in its range. So while you can tab target, you can also just run up to something within range but not targeted, hit your sword attack and hit the unselected target. This is part of the action game objective of ANet’s system. Further along this line, projectiles work with the same collision detection system, so that if you fire an arrow at a target and there is a moa bird between you and the target, there is a chance you may hit the Moa Bird. Certain weapons can be traited to pierce targets, adding directional functionality, making it so that your bullets or arrows will not be stopped by the first target they hit and instead pierce through any target along its line of sight.

Movement and Free Form Partying

When I first heard ANet speak of movement being more important, I disregarded the importance as anything slightly more than what previously existed in their first game. In a PVP sense, movement was important in the sense of kiting and positioning in the battlefield. In PVE, movement meant body blocking off mobs and kiting loose mobs as a caster. The previously mentioned differences in hitboxes and targeting make movement much more important. There is an aspect of the homing missile in regards to projectiles fired at a target, but this doesn’t mean that every projectile will hit its target when there are other targets and obstructions along the way. Furthermore, I know that at least in regards to Mesmer Shatters, you can outrun the range of a spell cast. You can also strafe to avoid arrows, though that feature was present in the first Guild Wars as well.

Movement also plays into the game’s free form partying system. If you and another player are friendly then any spell either of you cast the other can interact with regardless of being in a group or not. If an Elementalist casts Healing Rain, you can run into the rain and gain the healing effect. If you shoot arrows through the rain, then your arrows will gain the water bonus of adding a heal to friendlies attacking your target. It doesn’t matter if the Elemantalist is in your party or even knows you’re there. The spell itself is the language you must understand. If you know something is a combo field and you have a combo finisher, then you can use it to your advantage. Even spells that are not a part of the combo system react to other targets. A Mesmer’s Winds of Chaos will bounce its boon effect to any friendly target along its path.

Shadow Behemoth

Somewhere in this mess is a chaos storm applying boons to friendlies without me even targeting them.

Combo Wha..?

The Guild Wars 2 combo system is made up of the interplay between skills that either establish a combo field or a combo finisher. Some combo fields are AOEs like Healing Rain or Chaos Storm, while other Combo Fields are magical lines drawn in the ground. There are four types of Combo Finishers that when applied to the Combo Field create a secondary effect. Each finisher applies a type of effect that would make sense for the four types of actions.

The most common combo finisher is a projectile and projectiles shot through a combo field take on the property of the field. An arrow flying through friendly fire becomes a burning arrow. An arrow flying through an ice shard becomes a chilling arrow. Another common finishing attack is the Leap, and leaps generally add similar corresponding elements to the attack, but are more specific to the body of the character leaping into the field. A light field will add blindness to a leap attack, but a smoke field will cloak the attacker using leap. Blast finishers are your Hulk SMASH sort of moves that work a lot like Leap finishers, but generally have a wider radius to their effect. So while a Leap move into a Smoke Field will cloak yourself, a Blast finisher into that same smoke field will cloak all nearby friendly targets. The fourth and final finishing type is the whirl, and it functions sort of how you would expect a whirling fan might function in a magical field. Whirl finishers generally spin and spit the associated element around. A whirling axe finisher in a fire field will cause fire to spin out in all directions from the character spinning those axes around.

Finally, there’s the combo field element types which I will include in the proceeding list.

Combo Types

  • Field
  • Finisher – Blast, Leap, Projectile, Whirl

Combo Elements

  • Light, Dark, Ethereal, Fire, Water, Poison, Smoke, Ice, and Lightning.

What this means is that if you’re running through fire that doesn’t hurt you then it’s fire that can help you. Leap within the fire and gain fire armor to deal with attacking foes. Need a heal? Use a water field. The magic of the battlefield can be manipulated in Guild Wars 2, so use it when you can.

Read this wiki for further depth on the system (as it is known now): http://wiki.guildwars2.com/wiki/Cross-profession_combo

Reactive and Proactive Defense

There are two ways to be defensive and protective in Guild Wars 2, the reactive way where you see an attack coming and dodge out of the way or then kite away, and the more forceful, proactive approach.

You can see an archer firing on you and put up a magic wall, use a reflect skill or shield skill, and absorb or reflect the projectile back. You can simply just hit dodge and dodge the arrows. These behaviors are all based on a foe attacking and you the player doing something to deal with it. Strafing away from arrows is another part of reactive defensive play. These sort of skills are important because enemies in Guild Wars 2 can hit very hard. Bosses will take a giant foot stomp on your face if you get close to them and don’t see it coming.

Proactive defense is probably the part of the game that gets overlooked at first. It does take some time for players to adjust to having a dodge roll ability, but once you get used to having it then its a matter of reading your foe and using your dodge wisely. (Dodge uses up the endurance bar.)  Still, there are abilities and tactics you can use to disable an attack before it even starts. The blind condition will cause an enemy to miss their next attack. If your endurance bar is low and you see a hammer swing coming your way, a quick blind may save you from receiving the damage. Boons like Aegis will allow you to block and mitigate the next attack, so running in with aegis on allows you to stay in close for at least one incoming attack. Beyond this, inflicting a daze or stun on your target will disable them for a time while you apply damage or heal. You can then cripple your foe and use an escape or knockback skill to create distance.

An example:

As a Mesmer, I approach a pair of melee foes with a skillbar of two weapon sets. The first weapon set is my staff, the second weapon set is a sword and torch. My utilities are Ether Feast as a heal, blink, mirrored feedback and mirror images. I pull my target with winds of chaos on my staff. As the target starts to come towards me, I switch weapons and use my third skill to summon a melee clone of myself. As my clone nears the mob, I immediately use the secondary swap skill on my clone swordsman and switch positions with him and stun nearby enemies. I then proceed to hit the mob with my combo 1 attack, applying vulnerability to both foes. When the mob breaks free, I hit blurred frenzy and gain distortion, hitting the enemies while they miss swings flung through my distorted body. Bam, the first enemy dies, but one remains. My remaining foe stuns me and gets a big hit on me. I dodge back and away, accidently attracting the attention of a nearby archer. My health has taken a sizable hit. Am I in trouble? No, I heal and use my diversion shatter on my initial melee  target, disabling it from attacking me for a couple of seconds. Switching weapons again, I move towards the archer. On my way there, I cast Chaos Storm over the Archer while moving and begin firing off Winds of Chaos. When I get close to the chaos storm, I hit my second staff skill for feigned escape for its leap finisher effect, creating a chaos shield around myself that applies conditions to foes and boons to myself when I am attacked. Soon, with the Chaos Storm and the Chaos shield, I am spreading conditions to both targets as I circle kite around both of them while I spam out that Winds of Chaos. Next, I apply mirrored feedback on the Archer (causing his projectiles to reflect back to him) and switch to sword/torch. I cast my third skill again which creates another leap for a second Chaos Shield within the Mirrored Feedback field. I blink behind the melee enemy and beyond the Mirrored Feedback field, causing them to turn around to face me again. By now both enemies are low on health. I summon mirror images and use The Prestige torch skill to vanish from and blind my foes. I get between both of my targets and hit Mind Wrack shatter, creating double damage through the Mind Wrack and the explosion fire effect of The Prestige. Both targets die and I’m near full health.

What is missing in that description is any reliance on stats to provide constantly active but ultimately passive defenses. There are no dodge or block percentages. You either use a block skill or you don’t block. Some harder fights will ask you to change your weapons and utilities to adapt to what the fight brings to the encounter.

Kessex Keep

A quiet battlefield is easy to read.

Visual Literacy and Its Issues

What I have just begun to describe about Guild Wars 2 combat requires a learning of the visual information the game provides. You have to learn those combo fields and finishers, and what those fields look like on the battlefield. Furthermore, it requires understanding a lot of boons and conditions. These are the visual literature of the game, but as of now, the game isn’t always that easy to read. I noticed improvement in my battlefield awareness from my BWE experience to my stress test experience, but many issues still remain. Most of the Damage over Time conditions are shown through little icons on the UI. ArenaNet has set up this whole system to take players away from watching the interface, but their boon and condition system still largely requires interface monitoring. Unfortunately, their current system is in ways worse than the older system in Guild Wars 1, which explains bleeds and poisons through color changes in your health bar. Currently, the feedback from the game is not strong enough for many players. If ANet wants the game to be visual then more conditions need to be as easily read as the limping of your character with the cripple condition on them. Combo effects likely need a larger, more informative textual notation. Most of all, combat skills rely on the animation of the attack to tell the attack is coming and to mark the spot within the animation where the attack hits. These animations need to be more telling, at least for mobs, and if not more telling then more unified. It is asking a lot of your customer to remember the different attack tells of the hundreds of enemies they will likely find in the game. Audible clues would go a long way and add the crunch of hits that the game lacks at times, and that players often mistake for a lack of “heaviness” to combat. The animation system and softer hit sounds have left players thinking the combat is floaty when it’s truly anything but floaty.

So Bam!

Don’t get hit. Realize everything your skills do. Don’t play it like WoW. Don’t spam and lose.

Mole out.