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Behind the Mask: Taking a knife to a gun fight

Patrick Mackey

In the long history of MMORPGs, there have been two mighty class divisions vying for supremacy. The melee damage dealers, lead by the mighty rogue (and in the olden days, the monk) showed us that the raw speed and power of melee damage output was of dire importance. The ranged damage dealers, led by the mages and wizards, did not have the staying power of a rogue who might be subject to random AoE at close range. They had to rely on the incredible fury of their spells and the relative safety that distance brings in a battle.

In Champions Online, that division is magnified. Ranged and melee characters can select all the same defensive powers, meaning that melee characters must, by the very nature of close combat, expose themselves to more risk. The advent of superhuman mobility multiplies the divide even further -- while a ranged character can flee at incredible speeds, melee characters require special advantages to get in close and stay there.

The Super Power Pack came out a while ago and while I talked a lot about it in its early stages, I didn't get a chance to cover how the devs' final answer to these problems worked out or what the landscape of melee is today.

That's changing now.

Two guns or two swords is OK, but not a gun and a sword

The Super Power Pack split damage dealers into two different roles, Avenger and Brawler. New buffs introduced in the Super Power Pack were divided through the middle -- currently most sustainable buffs won't improve both melee and ranged damage types at the same time.

As an example, a martial artist could choose Way of the Enlightened Warrior and a form toggle, then put himself in Brawler mode to increase his damage. Unfortunately, none of these abilities does anything for any ranged attacks he might choose. If he wanted to play a tattooed monk who breathes fire, he'd be stuck; his fire attacks would not get any damage buffs. There's almost no way he could use these abilities in tandem to their fullest -- of all the long-term sustainable damage buffs in the game, only Enrage applies to both melee and ranged attacks. Since Enrage works best in tank-oriented builds, this is a significant problem.

If you're planning on playing a martial artist who throws Hadoukens or a super-strength character with heat vision and frost breath, you're kind of out of luck if you want to be a damage dealer. This is probably the worst gripe I had with the Super Power Pack's final implementation, and in true Behind the Mask fashion it wouldn't be right if I weren't complaining about something.

Criminals, meet fists

Not every enemy in PvE flies out of your grasp like the new VIPER, so for the most part, the changes to melee did a lot of good. The overwhelming feedback I heard after the final buffs to Might was that melee felt strong. Martial artist players posted YouTube videos of their characters fighting tough spawns to showcase just how far melee had come.

I remember being in zone chat a couple weeks after the patch went live, and people insisted that not only were melee powers useful now, but also vastly superior to ranged powers. Regardless of the truth of this statement, if players feel that their chosen playstyle is optimal and not just viable after developers made a lot of fixes to that playstyle, that is a definite win for the developers.

A lot of the melee powers now work in tandem with each other, including a fair bit of cross-set synergy. For instance, many Single Blade attacks cause Bleeding, which naturally flows with Form of the Unconquered Swordsman to get benefits from Bleeding enemies. However, Bestial Supernatural also has a few powers that cause or interact with bleeds, allowing players to create interesting, synergetic hybrids. It also discourages "cherry-picking" of choice melee powers, although needing to pick several powers from a group in order to make all of them effective may be seen as a downside to some.

Melee players still have it a little tougher, since enemies still run from players in close combat and getting in melee means exposing your character to risk. However, the added punch (unintentional pun) served to make selecting melee powers a lot less laughable.

You're supposed to stand still and let me hit you

"If you root yourself in the idea that your concept character is going to get buffed by the devs to be competitive with min-maxed PvP characters, you're just kidding yourself."

I've deliberately avoided talking about PvP on Behind the Mask. I have a fair bit of knowledge on the subject, but my personal views differ from the dedicated PvP playerbase and I spend a lot less time in Hero Games delving into the PvP metagame as a result. Still, on the issue of melee versus ranged balance, PvP is an unavoidable subject.

I have strange views on balance, as I'm sure you already know. One of the things that players don't understand about PvP is that game developers cannot honestly be expected to make everyone's build competitive. I actually don't mind that 95% of builds are garbage in PvP, as long as there's enough good high-level builds to make an interesting PvP metagame.

That being said, if your build relies entirely on melee-range powers and lunges, you will be terrible at PvP. Don't let the sheer destructive power of Haymaker fool you. PvP is about adapting to a moving metagame, and if you root yourself in the idea that your concept character is going to get buffed by the devs to be competitive with min-maxed PvP characters, you're just kidding yourself -- regardless of what game you're playing.

Adapting to a moving metagame means looking at melee powers too, and there's quite a bit of useful stuff. For instance, while keeping in melee distance to stack bleeds is kind of hard against a moving foe, the payoff for rupturing a big stack of them is massive. Haymaker is the highest base-damage attack in the game right now, and there are a lot of ways to buff its damage. Scoring an Uppercut-Haymaker combo with full Enrage and Aggressor stacks in Brawler mode will bring many characters to their knees with no time to recover.

Like any PvP build, getting someone to stop running to charge a melee power means rooting or holding them. If you're not stopping your foe, she is running and you are losing. The added time it takes for melee characters to close range with an enemy after locking her down gives her precious seconds to click active defense powers or otherwise try to escape. Like every other PvP build, you need a practiced kill method that you can execute on demand after you've held your opponent. Practice it on training dummies or on friends, but you need to be able to execute it on the first time, every time.

Dealing with powers that can be activated while held is harder for melee than it is for other characters. Active defenses have a linked 30-second cooldown, so like all characters, you have to bait your foe into using an active defense, then kill him quickly during the cooldown. Force Eruption and Sparkstorm are the worst because they can be activated while held, they have no cooldown, and they knock back. Force Eruption can be baited, since it takes time to charge. You can start charging your melee power, walk out of range, then walk back in range as your attack is triggering. Sparkstorm is harder to deal with. It only has a chance to knock back, but it has a wider range and no charge time or cooldown period. Melee's best bet against Sparkstorm is to get lucky.

In Hero Games, surprise kills are the norm -- the leading cause of death is getting jumped while fighting with someone else. Melee makes this much harder to do, since it's hard to ignore some superbabe who just jumps down and starts punching you. Fortunately, enemies tend to be evasive glass cannons, so you don't need to use the best, most optimal kill methods.

I'll be honest -- Hero Games is ruled by massive team-synergy builds that utilize stacking debuffs and large long-range team spikes on a single foe. In the lower tiers, which are less dominated by top tier builds and strategies, melee can do alright. It isn't in the top level of Hero Games PvP though, and unless group spiking gets nerfed badly, it probably never will be. I guess I can always hope that CO gets Protective Spirit.

Also, I hear through the grapevine that people would like to get a Massively SG started! If you're interested, send me an email at patrick AT massively DOT com and let me know what events you'd like to do together. Make sure to include an idea for a snappy name -- I'm hopeless with names. So if you don't want to join "That One Massively SG" or something, you'd better think of something good. We're counting on you!

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