May 23rd, 2006

Auto Assault

Auto Assault: An Oddly Successful Combat System

OK, as I explained yesterday, my original biggest dislike of Auto Assault was because of a misunderstanding of its story line. So now that I'm 4 days into my 14 day free trial, what do I think of it, really? I honestly can't make up my mind. The parts of it I like, I really, really like. The parts of it I hate are things where City of Villains and Star Wars: Galaxies (the original version) spoiled me so much that I may never find another MMO I like.

I didn't expect to be, but I'm sold on the combat system. Quick background, for those of you who've never played any of the 3D graphical online massively multiplayer roleplaying games: there are two paradigms for combat, turn based and first-person shooter (FPS). In the turn-based systems, generally modeled after combat in D&D or GURPS or whatever, you select the target (usually by tabbing to it, online) and then push a button or click one of the mouse buttons or click one of the on-screen buttons to tell it what attack to make next. Behind the scenes, it checks if you're in range for that attack or not, and if you have enough endurance or stamina or mana or energy or ammo or whatever left to cast that attack, then compares your attack skills to its defense skills to determine the outcome of the attack. Then it shows the animation of the results, and adjusts the on-screen displays of everybody's hit points and so forth. Then there's usually a "cool down" or readying period where you can't use that particular attack again for anywhere from a few seconds to fifteen minutes, depending on how uber the attack is. In the meantime, while that attack is in progress, you've assessed the situation, switched targets if necessary, and clicked/hit the button for the attack you want to happen next, when this one is over.

First Person Shooter, or "twitch" combat, is easier to understand and (for most people) harder to play. You pick what attack(s) you're going to use, try to keep your character in range of what you're attacking, try to keep the mouse cursor over the thing or person you want to attack, and click the mouse button; it plays the "attack" animation and if you managed all of that, you hit and it also plays the "hit" animation for the target. You're much more in control, but if you're not a hyperactive teenager with hair-trigger reflexes on crack (and if you're not playing on an $8,000 customized gaming rig to maximize your screen refresh and depth of field and visibility), it's an exercise in frustration.

When Neocron, which (bogusly) advertised itself as the first cyberpunk MMO, first came out, they were inordinately proud of their "hybrid" system. In their system, it's an FPS interface, so it's very twitch based - but then instead of automatically hitting, only if you had the cursor over the target at the right time and clicked does it do a normal to-hit and dodge and damage and damage-resistance series of "dice rolls." It ended up being very frustrating, as instead of combining the best of both worlds, they actually managed to achieve the worst of both worlds. Those of us who hated FPSes couldn't keep up, and those who loved FPSes couldn't stand missing when they knew full well they had the cursor in the right place when they clicked.

Well, to my vast surprise, Auto Assault actually managed to make a hybrid combat system that works. Here's the deal. Considering that you're basically playing fighter pilots in 2-D, it won't surprise you that there's a lot of strafing and chasing and wheeling around for position.* The good news, though, is that you don't have to manually hold target for your main, rooftop-center, turret-mounted gun. Once you have a target selected, it will track that target, and if you right-click, it will fire in the right direction, and if you were in range at the time and you make your to-hit roll, you hit it. After about level 5 (on a 60 level scale), you typically also have a front-mounted gun, and it works a lot more like Neocron's guns do in that when you fire it, it rolls a to-hit roll on anything in front of you and in range. However, it does a beautiful job of displaying the current arc of fire for the main gun and the turret in real time, while you're driving. So really, it's more like "if the target is visibly inside the triangular area marked on the ground (via head's-up display) in front of your car when you pull the trigger, you get a to-hit roll. Since it's very visible, with great instant feedback, it's much less frustrating than Neocron is.

And the sweet thing about target selection for the turret (and for your "minions" if you have the ability to summon any), is that there's the truly beautiful thing. If you check one (annoyingly non-default) option, you get three ways to select a target: tab, automatic, and click. If you hit tab with nothing targeted, it grabs the nearest target. Then, when it falls down, if you have automatic targeting on your cursor jumps to the highest level target that's in range, the one that's doing the most damage to you. Or you can tab. And if you're stuck in a scrum, even the least twitch-happy gamer will sometimes find it easier to simply reach up with the mouse and click on the target it wants the turret to track. You can use which ever technique is easiest for you in each situation. It works remarkably well.

OK, this is already long enough for one night. So, hoping you all don't mind, one more journal entry on Auto Assault tomorrow night, on the artwork and the in-game missions and the loot system and the crafting.

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* Footnote: Although you don't entirely have to. I've noticed that my biotek mastermind actually does better by maximizing his meager shields, diverting all power from the vehicle weapons to the droids, and just more or less parking on the edge of what I want them to destroy, moving just enough to control their movements and maybe dodge or run away from things when it gets too hairy. And what I'm already loving about playing my human engineer is that he's got so many self-repairs, shields, armor, power plant upgrades, and general survivability bonuses that often I can, in fact, park my truck in the middle of the scrum and just bang away with the turret and let my dinky little combat drone chase the few things that try to escape while wounded. But no, most of the other class/side combinations I've tried play more like a real-time version of the much-beloved old tabletop game Ace of Aces.