By: Stephen Crane (Photo: Chivalry)
Video games as an art form have done a very good job of mastering first-person and over-the-shoulder third person combat. Or rather, gun combat. Despite our best efforts, even AAA games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim haven't quite brought us melee or sword-based combat that delivers the same level of fidelity we expect from the shooter counterparts like Gears of War and Call of Duty.
This is an issue the games industry is going to need to consider as it develops and evolves in the future. Continuing down the same path of lackluster sword and melee combat severely damages the potential of entire genres and settings. Unfortunately, it's also a tremendously difficult task and may require rethinking the combat from the ground up.
CLANG developer, Neal Stephenson appears to belief the issue is with the controller itself. In his design philosophy, it doesn't matter how we map controllers or if we change the function of a trigger: the problem is the trigger itself. To a degree, he's right. One of the most impressive tech demos of the early PlayStation Move days was Sports Champions's Gladiator Duel mode. It really showed what a 1:1 motion conversion could do for melee based games. The Developers of CLANG appear to want to take this a step further with a larger arsenal, more realistic combat, and smoother control in an arena type setting.
An issue that motion control developers will have to consider, however, is what Extra Credits referred to as "Kinesthetic Projection" or the uncanny valley of motion controls. When what we do doesn't match up with what we see on the screen, there is a problem.
While 1:1 motion controls are pretty cool, they don't take into account the broad variety of fighting styles capable of the individual weapons, so you'll and up seeing players use broad swords as rapiers and vice versa. In order to really show the breadth of fighting styles, 1:1 may not be the best answer. We may end up with vague gestures with hands or controllers equating to more complicated maneuvers on the screen. While more visually more stimulating, this design direction risks losing players because of this "uncanny valley" effect.
On the opposing side, you see Torn Banner Studios and their game, Chivalry: Medieval Warfare which looks like it intends to approach melee combat by changing how it looks and feels while still sticking to current ideas of controller mapping. They came off the Source mod, Age of Chivalry which was adventurous but technically lacking. Chivalry: Medieval Warfare is trying to achieve the same goal but with updated technology on the Unreal engine.
The approach of using the familiar mouse-and-keyboard control scheme is nice, but offers its own obvious challenges. How do you control two arms independently while also adjusting for leg movement and speed without all of the controls getting in their own way? How do you make sure the movements aren't repetitive and robotic?
While the challenges are great for any development approach, the medium needs to find a way to come to grips with a good, first-person or over-the-shoulder-third-person melee combat system. Unfortunately, it's a big enough risk that we'll most likely not see too much innovation from the AAA world. Instead, we'll need the independent game scene to pave the way first an soak up that risk. Games like CLANG and Chivalry: Medieval Warfare are only two of the titles that are experimenting, and we'll definitely need to keep an eye on their successes and potential failures.