Avatar combat is a system that was added to Pirates of the Burning Sea late in their design phase. Original plans in 2006 were to launch with ship combat and to add avatar combat only later in the game, however, the strength and voice of their community persuaded them otherwise. Since then, we've seen avatar combat evolve slowly through sneak peeks at various conventions and developer letters. Game Designer, Drew Clowery was brought on at Flying Labs in October of 2006 and since then has been dedicated to fleshing out, balancing and generally making avatar combat fun and exciting in Pirates of the Burning Sea.
"Avatar combat and small arms use is all about balance and skill execution," Drew told me. One of the basic tenets of the martial arts is about keeping one's balance. The techniques of breaking your opponent's balance and keeping your own are taught in arts as diverse as Judo to Fencing and Pirates makes full use of it as well. Combat is not a matter of hitting "A" and walking away. It is active and reactive. It is not simply a roll of a dice to determine a hit based on your skill and the number of points based on your opponent's defense. In Pirates, a modifier is applied, one that you can directly affect with skill and strategy.
"Balance is our mechanic that determines how well your attacks will land on your opponents and how well you defend against your opponents' attacks," said Drew. The loss of balance therefore directly affects your defense. It will regenerate during combat and there are skills that give you balance back, as well as skills that attack your opponent's balance directly. A move that players can do to regain their balance is to simply stun their opponent, then step back for a second or two. Of course, others might decide they'd rather take advantage of a stunned opponent to inflict more damage.
Currently, balance is shown on the character's stat bar, as well as blue circles around the characters, and the last two builds have been to make it more intuitive as they refine avatar combat. "The only things missing right now," said Drew, "are the results - the numbers - that lets users know when balance is lost."
Other defense mechanisms are Block, Dodge and Parry. These are passive skills and each of the three schools of combat specializes in one of the forms. They are: Dodge for Dirty Fighting, Parry for Fencing and Block for Florentine. Unlike class distinctions where one class may dish out more damage but likewise take more damage or vice-versa, the choice of combat schools in Pirates is all about player style. Dirty Fighting makes use of a Cutless, Fencing uses a rapier - the animations are of the cut and slash style with Spanish influence and Florentine is a two handed style using a dagger and a French short sword. I paused here. Historically, the Florentine was so named because it was the popular style in the city of Florence, Italy. Why the French short sword? Drew chuckled, "Artistic license! It's a bit of an abstract hybrid." Well, so is Dirty Fighting, with the ability to throw sand in your opponent's eyes, I would suppose.
I asked about the speed and animation as that was the main criticism I had of the last build I saw. "We started with reality," said Drew. "We filmed the local masters of the school of fencing and from there, drew our inspiration, expanding it towards the Hollywood style flourishes that most people are familiar with and frankly, expect." They also recently squashed a bug that changed the animation latency randomly. In the current build, a 1.5 second cool down between animations seem to be working well, but as Drew mentioned once again, Pirates is in beta and avatar combat still being improved on.
Drew also shared the ideas behind their skill trees. Players will not be forced into the DiabloII-type long linear trees. Instead, there are nine chains of five skills. A much flatter pyramid and the ability to quickly attain the skills you choose to learn. "Level is not the be-all and end-all in Pirates," said Drew. "The biggest piece we have left to finish in Avatar combat is that there isn't a lot of group based skills, the cool stuff you can do in a group." They weren't ready to say anything yet, but I was told that they were in the process of implementing more ways for skills to work more effectively, particularly between players. For example, perhaps skills that will allow a player to intervene or shield another player, or stuff that might be even cooler and drawn from Hollywood Pirate movies.
I got some hands-on time as Drew took me through a combat demo. The combat icons were color coded for ease of identification. Yellow impacted balance, orange showed your basic attacks and impacted hit points only. Green icons were special usage and Red were finishing moves which required initiative - a bar that filled up during combat. I especially liked that range from your target was provided when you acquired it. That made life a lot easier for ranged attacks.
"There are no clerics and healer classes," Drew reminded me as I started. "You have bandages which provide a small heal over time, and they can be interrupted." We went through all the moves I had on my ability bar, including small arms fire. Movement and animation was fluid and natural. None of the jerkiness or pauses from previous builds were evident and combat was intuitive, the UI provided all the information I needed, apart from the aforementioned balance numbers. I played a bit, then a bit more, switching out skills and trying different things to watch the combat animation.
What's the coolest thing in Pirates? I asked Drew. "Oh, it has to be throwing sand in someone's eyes. It's a stun of course," was his reply. Unfortunately, the demo character I had was of the Fencing school, so I could not see that action. "In combat, you're always involved. Reacting and engaging. The three on one is always the best. You're Errol Flynn and taking on three guys at a time. It can be done in Pirates!"