When I was a kid, in a time before I played MMOs, there was this fascination with the idea of melee combat.
A lot of games I played in my youth either had gun combat or kid-friendly combat – pulling enemies into headbutts in Ristar, jumping on the heads of enemies in Sonic or Mario (with what we know about CTE today, that seems like a pretty valid way to wreck someone!), but there was always something satisfying about melee combat.
The few games I played with it – your old school arcade RPG beat em up hybrids like Gauntlet – made melee pretty fun. If you were at a playground, it was far more common for someone to play swordfight than it was to see a pretend wizard casting spells.
Naturally, then, when I settled down with WoW in late 2004 and early 2005, the first character I rolled was a warrior, an orc to be precise. Hulking, large, and muscular, with a big axe – it was everything that playground battles had trained me for 10 years prior, right?
Well, I found that day that maybe I wasn’t a big fan of melee.
To backtrack, my initial non-console RPG was Diablo II, and while I did try a barbarian first, I ended up gravitating to the necromancer. There was something really cool about necro – leading an army of skeletons, a construct of varying compositions from earth to blood, and casting bone magics (not a double entendre in this case, I assure you) and poisons to deal with enemies before they ever reached me.
Diablo II occupied a lot of my downtime in my teenage years, and alongside Starcraft, cemented my induction into the Blizzard fanbase. But Diablo II also marked something interesting for me – the beginning of a caster obsession.
In the aforementioned days of my youth, the idea of enjoying casting seemed weird, mainly because the games I had access to didn’t really have casters in that way. Magic was either corny huckster entertainment, or that thing villains in Disney movies did. It never really resonated with me, especially when the ends of the spectrum were rabbit extractions from headwear or Jafar. I mean, Jafar was cool – but he was also bad!
The JRPGs I played in those younger years didn’t really make magic a main course style of combat, either. My first Final Fantasy, save for little bits of the original on NES, was Final Fantasy VIII, which infamously used the Junction system, where you pulled spells from marked extraction points in the world and then bound them to stats for improvement and character advancement. Instead of eventually learning Ultima on your Black Mage character, who would then cast it for a cost of, I dunno, 400 MP, you would find an Ultima node in the world, draw from it, and you’d have 10 Ultimas, and you could just use one to cast it, but Ultima was one of the best spells in the game and it was far better serving you by being bound to a stat, so using 1 of them was an expensive proposition.
These games were also menu-bound, so all combat was slower than it might otherwise be. Sword-fighting wasn’t an action-laden affair, you just pressed attack and the character would run up and hit the targeted enemy. Spells played the same – you just had to pick Magic and then use the menu to find the spell of your choosing.
The fun of the combat in these games was strategy, both during combat but also before and after it. You needed to be able to keep your character development on target – in FFVIII, through Junctioning, in FFX, through your path around the Sphere Grid, and through whatever other means the game offered, like equipment.
When I got to Diablo II, I found that the strategy I enjoyed was more present in caster classes – not to suggest it was absent in a barbarian, but rather that I found necromancer to be more enjoyable because I felt like I could pre-plan my combat and get a bigger reward for having done so. It was that aspect of the gameplay that really planted deep for me – especially since this was the era of the Blood Golem/Iron Maiden build that gave you a ridiculously sturdy, survivable necromancer. I really enjoyed that aspect of playing, more than anything – the only class I ever seriously leveled in Diablo II was a necromancer.
When WoW came around, I felt like the closer focus would mean that warrior would be the winner. I did play warrior for a while, too, although I spent a good amount of that playtime in Razor Hill leveling Blacksmithing, which ultimately didn’t matter much since I abandoned that character. I then tried mage, which was fun, but also felt a bit too squishy.
When I finally got really into WoW, it was priest that suckered me in. There was a cornucopia of senses to enjoy about it – Smite having that gentle vacuum sound while it wound up and that satisfying swoosh-ing crunch when it landed, the Night Elf casting animation for Smite seeing me wind up the spell, and the surroundings of Teldrassil in their green tranquility coupled with the sharp contrast of arriving in Darkshore. All of it felt weirdly satisfying, and that was the point where I was hooked.
The class kept me to endgame because even as I went Shadow spec, there was still something satisfying about all of the class kit. Mind Flay’s constant static almost made you feel mind flayed, the breathless fearful gasp of the Mind Blast sound effect, the dark purple hues of Shadowform, and the really enjoyable pwoosh sound and visual effect of Power Word: Fortitude. As I gained healing abilities, priest became more interesting and strategic. If I faced a ranged DPS foe, I could cast Elune’s Grace (oh man, no one in Classic has leveled a Night Elf priest high enough for that yet, have they?!)If I had uninterrupted channel time, I could hit Starshards, or use Mind Flay to keep the enemy at range for longer.
As I started to level alts, I think something that is more of an MMO-specific problem with melee combat stood out to me. Melee combat is visceral, it’s supposed to be direct, close-quarters, and feel very threatening, with a strong sense of impact. Hits need to feel strong and violent to be immersive. Spellcasting offered me that in WoW – the earlier Smite example being the best one in that era for me personally.
Melee combat in MMOs tends to lack immediacy of that sort, which does make it less immersive. Hits make clanking sounds but rarely sound, for lack of a better term, juicy. Gameplay dictates that melee range in WoW is 5 yards but if I stand at max melee, my animations clearly don’t hit. Early vanilla at least would have longer swing timers for min-maxed damage dealing (see Naithin’s post about this in Classic!) and some abilities for melee, like the warrior Heroic Strike, were tied to the next melee auto-attack, rather than being instant casts like today, but the animations and motion of combat doesn’t make much sense. My Demon Hunter often looks like she must have done speed prior to raiding, since she’ll swing her weapons halfway and then interrupt to cast Spirit Bomb suddenly, but the game tells me that both attacks and the Spirit Bomb hit and did damage.
Some classes fix this a little better than others. Rogues in WoW have always had particularly good sound design, which definitely helps set them apart. Their attacks are satisfying, the various crunches and snaps of their CC abilities, and the almost-aggressively scary stealthing sound defined my early experiences in PvP as a priest. When I think about WoW PvP, I still think of the panic-inducing stealth sound and how it would prompt me to pivot my camera and begin moving erratically to hopefully evade a stunlock!
Other MMOs have different solutions to the problem. Final Fantasy XIV has an animation lock system for melee abilities that creates an effective “window” for a melee attack to complete prior to another one being used, which, coupled with the game’s longer global cooldown compared to WoW, makes melee feel a little better. However, melee in FFXIV also feels worse to me, because there are fewer well-designed abilities in terms of feel. Gunbreaker is probably my best example, because they have a core rotation that feels awful – the abilities sound like they’re slamming into a foam pad and the animations aren’t much better, but then the cartridge combos all feel much better with stronger animations, including a good hitch in the animation where the trigger pulls and the cartridge is used, resulting in an explosion as the follow-through on the blade finishes. The other melee jobs I’ve played are fairly meh and don’t have a strong, exciting melee kit in terms of impact or feel. Dragoons poke at things and it feels okay but not amazing, Monks feel like they’re punching a training bag with the way their sound effects are put together, Samurai feels okay but is also very reliant on slicing sounds that don’t sound like they’re hitting anything, and the other tanks are sort of a mixed bag.
At this point, I’m pretty firmly into both of the games mentioned, so I level the melee roles despite this inconsistent handling of gameplay feel, but I do think, looking through a new player’s eyes, that it can feel a bit off-putting to be missing that impact and follow-through on attacks. It is part of why I think I gravitated to caster classes early on in my MMO “career” – casting feels like it doesn’t need quite as much “feel” to be right, but you can get the feel to align and make casters feel even better!
Blizzard revamped melee animations throughout Legion, so over the last two years, the gameplay feel of a lot of the melee specs has improved somewhat. However, a lot of these revamps focused on giving the melee roles more flashy effects to match casters, so in many cases, the original lack of impact remains, but at least has a sword trail prior to impact, so hey!
I’m not sure I know the right answer to this either – I think in some ways, Age of Conan had the right idea with directional melee attacks and the…juicier, M-rated impacts in combat. However, I think it was hard to map that to the tab-target gameplay or to offering real ability progression to melee players since many abilities did not follow the directional system for combat, so even it, while a good example of an effort one could take, didn’t quite clear the bar.
I do think it is an issue that can be solved, but I wonder if it would require a step away from tab-target gameplay? Perhaps a topic for a later date!