Monday, July 14, 2014

America's Next Top Hack and Slash Part 1: What is a Hack? What is a Slash?

at 6:00 PM
Both as an attempt to research/define the genre and because hell I like them, I've been on the prowl for a hack and slash that really clicks with me. What is a hack and slash? Something that has no concrete definition in the primary gaming discourse. The term is thrown around to mean everything from beat-em-ups with swords (Golden Axe) to click-fest action RPGs (Diablo) to 3D action games with swords (Devil May Cry). Crazily enough, the term originated as a description for any tabletop D&D campaign heavy on combat (and was thus later applied even to such turn-based D&D video games as Baldur's Gate, Fallout, and Icewind Dale). Read without context, that's leaves it about as meaningless as "beat-em-up" (a term which I reclaimed already).

Black Isle's Icewind Dale represents the most traditional D&D notion of a hack and slash. An RPG with combat.
That's not good enough for me. I mean, I'm not gonna go burn someone's house down over a meaningless term - I've been through that with "the cloud" and around year five of the prison sentence I realized it wasn't worth it. But after defining brawling (combat with enemies who can counter), there remains a wide swath of melee combat action games uncategorized. And it is immensely tiresome to write "melee combat action game" every other sentence. You wonder why I haven't posted in so long? That term right there.

Naturally I want to try to define the type of non-brawling combat that stars in top-down games like Ys, Gauntlet, Beyond Oasis, Dynasty Warriors, and Torchlight - whether they all fall into a single category remains to be seen. I'll need some games to analyze more closely and I'd prefer ones that gravitate as close as possible to the traditional notion of an action RPG "hack and slash" (Diablo) so as to retain some of the term's original flavor. For now our working definition can be "isometric melee combat games", though it'll become more refined as we go.

I could play Diablo III, but I could also spend the $60 on at least six non-Blizzard-taxed games
The problem in instantaneously summoning such a game from my library is that the mouse/keyboard interface of Western action RPGs adds an additional variable; an extra barrier to comparison with other combat I've examined. Whether the interface precipitates a different type of action or the same action simply feels different through a different interface is hard to tell. If I really wanted to dig into that subject I'd grab the console version of Diablo III and compare it side-by-side with the PC (which I may at some point do). But for now I think it's more straightforward to factor out the extra variable by choosing an isometric action game that was designed for controllers in the first place. Which until the 7th generation was essentially a unicorn and is still not a particularly common thing.

One such game I did recently get through is Lord of the Rings: War in the North, one I really enjoyed for its stripped down leveling and looting in favor of tactical action. It's what got me on this whole kick. War in the North is good stuff, pretty much exactly what I'm looking for in terms of gameplay - challenging action, arena combat, ranged/melee mixing, skill based targeting, and defensive mechanics (blocking and dodging). Something I can get my teeth around. The only real shortcoming is that it's a bit limited on the enemy front - most foes are a basic iteration of the standard grunt, the shielded grunt, the slow bruiser, or the ranged archer. It's also not isometric perspective - not that that REALLY matters, just that I'd like to get a game as close as possible to the top-down archetype (since the perspective of this one makes for an easy counter-argument that it's just an RPG aping DMC conventions). It's a fall back, but the truth is, if there aren't other games out there in its bracket, this search will be meaningless anyway.

The "Fellowship's little brothers" syndrome seems to afflict every LOTR game. As if the idea of an alliance of a dude with a pointy-eared dude with a short dude is really fundamental and intrinsic to Middle-Earth.
When I get to playing, I'll try to take a look at these basic questions to help me understand what's going on during the combat:
  • What is my goal in battle?
    • What persistent factors are there to manage? Health? Mana? Inventory?
    • Are there priority classes of enemies? Ones that need to be taken down first? Why?
    • What is the spawning behavior of enemies? Fixed position? Arena-style? Infinite?
  • What is my opposition?
    • What type of attacks do enemies have?
    • What type of defense do enemies have?
    • What is the size of enemy groups?
    • How are enemy types distinguished?
    • How are enemy types mixed?
    • How do the enemies react to the player?
    • BOSSES????
  • What options does a player have in combat?
    • At what point are those options available?
    • What drives one choice over another?
    • How are those choices paid off?
Naturally, good answers for these questions require more than demo-play. But that's of course the point of picking a handful of games to stick with it.

So next time on part 2 I'll be listing up some 360 demos I've checked out, how they stack up, and whether any is truly fit for the title of America's Next Top Hack and Slash for Consoles That Actually Has Some Combat To Analyze, Definitely Not DeathSpank.

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