Kenneth Chen

Kenneth Chen

Digital Media PhD Student

Kenneth is a doctoral student in the Digital Media PhD program. In his series “Kenneth on Games” he writes about his passion for games and game design.

Back when the Arkham series was going at full blast, it seemed inevitable that its freeflow combat system would get copied and used in all sorts of games, from Mad Max to Shadow of Mordor. Now, we can see that it hasn’t happened. Developers have learned the limitations of what freeflow combat can and can’t do, and a lot of that is tied to how it relies on an overloaded dodge maneuver. One single mechanic can skew the design of a whole series in a suboptimal direction.

The Batman Fantasy

Since these games started with Batman, they all wanted to deliver on the feeling of what it means to be the Batman. Not just any superhero, but one who wins through tactics and cleverness. In order to do this, they made dodging very, very strong compared to other similar games. Here’s a quick rundown of all the attributes of freeflow-style dodging compared to a few other action games:

  • Batman: Arkham Knight‘s dodge

    • Can be done at any time (overrides most other actions).

    • Stuns a single enemy.

    • Displaces you a large distance in any direction.

    • Makes you invincible.

  • Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance‘s block

    • Must be timed and aimed precisely.

    • Does not displace you.

    • Makes you invincible.

  • Dungeon Fighter Online‘s backstep

    • Can be done during most times (overrides some actions but not all).

    • Displaces you a short distance in only one direction, backwards.

    • Does not make you invincible.

  • Dark Souls‘ roll

    • Cannot be done at any time (only during certain frames of an attack animation).

    • Displaces you a short-medium distance in any direction.

    • Makes you invincible, but only briefly.

    • Costs stamina.

  • Hyper Light Drifter‘s dash

    • Can be done at any time.

    • Displaces you a large distance in any direction.

    • Invincibility is strange… at first it didn’t make you invincible, but later the developers added a patch which added it, and the community said it was too easy.

    • If you dash too many times in quick succession, you can crash into a wall and be momentarily stunned.

    • Costs stamina.

Batman’s dodge is far superior to any of the defense mechanics in these other games. This is in order to maintain the fantasy that you are calm and collected, avoiding attacks on autopilot while assessing the situation. The player is able to feel this way because they are able to constantly dodge whenever they feel overwhelmed, or escape with the grapple and figure out a new approach. It’s like when an angry mobster is trying to punch Batman and he just casually dodges all of their attacks.

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However, this is a very specific fantasy that does not apply to games where you are not Batman. If you were Superman, this would be ridiculous: why bother dodging when you can just use your laser eyes? This is exacerbated even further with games like Shadow of Mordor and Mad Max, where you are forced into very disempowering roles. These are practically the polar opposite of the Batman fantasy (and when Rocksteady wants you to feel disempowered as Batman, they often fiddle with your ability to dodge).

The weaker defense mechanic in Metal Gear Rising suits that game’s narrative, as you are a relentless cyborg who is proactive rather than reactive. Dark Souls also tries to set the player up as an analytical thinker without also being a martial arts genius, so its defense mechanic is similar to Batman’s but weaker. Hyper Light Drifter is an interesting parallel to Batman because the dash is almost equally potent, except with the caveat that you can crash if you use it too much. This ties into the game’s narrative setup because the player character is also very powerful but cannot overexert himself due to his illness. The player feels this internal conflict through the way that dashing is designed. Each of these games uses its mechanics to incentivize players into a certain style.

Boss Battles

Most notably, Batman’s freeflow combat system is absolutely terrible at delivering strong satisfying boss battles. Arkham Knight had virtually no true boss battles, as they were all either some kind of gimmick or a car/tank fight. The previous Arkham games were very similar, where boss battles were typically beaten with item gimmicks. In particular, the final battle in Arkham City can only be won by throwing freeze grenades constantly, which makes for an unsatisfactory ending.

It all comes back to the overpowered dodge. If the player is able to avoid any kind of attack, the simple way to increase difficulty is to increase the number of incoming attacks. Then the designers needed to keep adding new things on top of the system to keep it fresh. Here are some attacks that can’t be countered. Here are some enemies that will push you back if you try to dodge towards them. Here are some guns that can shoot you even if you’re dodging away.

The constant escalation makes freeflow combat perfect for fighting against large mobs of enemies with straightforward attack patterns. This is when the Batman fantasy is at full force and the game feels amazing. It’s also why so many of the bosses will intermittently call in their dumb lackeys for reinforcements as they fight. Otherwise, there is no real way to make bosses interesting with the core mechanics.

Many people dislike boss fights that are just oversized normal enemies. As bad as they are in most other action games, imagine how much worse they would be with freeflow combat. It would be one bad guy attacking over and over with the same telegraphed move but with more health. Rocksteady’s solution was to turn every boss fight into an item gimmick, but even this could only go so far before gamers caught on.

Arkham Knight didn’t even end with a true boss fight: it ended with an abstract experimental narrative segment. This was a great way to deliver a satisfying ending while also circumventing the problems with freeflow combat, but in the end it was a bit of a design cheat. Spec Ops: The Line was very similar, but in that case it was an intentional part of the narrative experience.

For a game like Shadow of Mordor that relies so heavily on its Nemesis System, a combat system that is explicitly bad at one-on-one battles seems like the wrong choice. On the other hand, a game like Mirror’s Edge Catalyst might have benefited from a stronger dodge to make players feel more like clever freerunners triumphing over stupid cops.

It seems that now with the freeflow combat craze dying down, we can see the effects it left in its wake. Modern games are already accused often enough of having too few boss fights, or poorly done boss fights. Quicktime events are used everywhere as a buffer for narrative cohesion when the basic mechanics can’t do the job. Designers need to consider their mechanics down to every last detail in order for games to deliver the proper narrative fantasy.