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Why the current design of “Elite” enemy types in Assassin's Creed is antithetical to the core gameplay

by Leo Karakolov on 04/20/16 12:30:00 pm

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Recently, a user on Reddit asked if players enjoyed fighting the Elite enemy types in the Assassin’s Creed games, giving examples of Jagers, Officers, and generally enemies which are perceived as “tougher” to kill. This sparked a really interesting thought in my head, which led to this post. Let's begin.

These enemies can be designed much better than they are now. The problem with them is that Assassin's Creed's combat systems tend to be very simplistic, and the recent games also promote flow and rhythm as qualities the player should be aiming for in their combat. This causes issues when designing difficult enemies who remove the player's options, leaving very few remaining to actually tackle those enemies with.

First, I'll clear a misconception, though I will congratulate the designers for succeeding in fooling many players with it: It doesn't take less skill or more skill to beat Elites than any other enemy the player will fight, not after they learn this enemy type once. This is because Elite enemy types aren't genuinely any easier or harder than other enemies in the game, they just break flow in a really egregious way and are antithetical to the core of the combat system overall, which causes players to blunder into them. Many of them force a Parry or a Counter, which forces the player to Wait and ruin the sense of balletic flow that the combat had up until that point, especially in a game like Syndicate which tracks a player's Combo in the UI. This makes these Elites' major source of perceived "difficulty" actually be the player being artificially slowed down by stumbling into something they cannot be aggressive toward at all. Shadow of Mordor and the Arkham games have superficially similar combat systems, and they do not suffer from this. Some astute readers will bring up Heavies or Brutes in Assassin's Creed now, but this is actually a great example of an Elite-like enemy who does not dissonate with the game's combat system.

Unlike Elites, Heavies can be "opened up" with a guard-breaking attack, whereas with Elites, there is no way to keep up a player's flow except to shoot them with a Ranged weapon or use Tools on them. Damaging them with a Tool without killing them does not open them up to further melee attacks, and killing them with a tool outright feels anti-climactic.

It feels like they were actually designed to be killed easily with Tools, but the way it plays out in actual combat has the tendency to make this course of action feel "cheap" or like the player is not fighting the proper way. When a Tool is used in combat in the Assassin's Creed games, the impact of using that tool often feels weak or empty due to low damage or lack of consequence. Basically, this action not only feels ineffectual, whenever it does feel powerful, it costs the player next to nothing, and it doesn't feel like a meaningful decision to make.

This means the only two options the player has when fighting Elites are to;
1) Wait for them to attack, ruining combat flow completely, which is antithetical to the way combat is currently designed to be played.
2) Shoot them with a tool, which tends to feel improper or like it's "bypassing" the way these enemies are meant to be fought.

Because of the above, I dislike encountering Elites, and beyond the illusion of challenge they present, I doubt most players really love them after the first few times they see them either. The way the games' combat systems all work to encourage maximum flow also incentivizes the player to kill the Elite in the "cheapest" and fastest way available, so they can continue their flow onto the rest of the hostiles in that encounter.

Most analysts would say this is a failure of design, and something that needs to be reworked in future releases.

I agree. However, this is a problem that is intrinsic to the way Assassin's Creed's present combat system works on a fundamental level. Until AC's core combat system is reworked, this problem will not get solved because there is no way to solve it unless Elites are removed, which is bad for enemy variety. Let me explain this now.

If all the player has access to in combat is:

1) Attack
2) Defense (Counter/Parry)
3) Guard Break/Knockdown
4) Tool,

then removing any of those four options leaves the player with a very limited set of Verbs to use against the enemy, and removing MOST of them causes a complete halt in the game's flow while the player waits for the enemy to launch an attack. This also feels more "game-y" than it needs to.

Some might say there is a fifth option:

5) Escape Combat

And while this may be true, the vast majority of players will not think to escape this tougher enemy, because the game at large has not trained them to run away from conflict, but to destroy all enemies in an encounter before moving on. This is another way Elites are inconsistent and dissonate with the game's combat design.

In the end, these enemies are not so much a challenge as they are an inconvenience, and the games are worse for having them be designed the way they are, because they do not mesh well with the way their combat systems work.

This needs to be addressed in future games.

A band-aid solution would be to have Tools not only damage them, but also open up that enemy to Strike combos. Whether it's a tool that's specific, or a more general, ranged damaging Tool is up to Ubisoft, as long as the system works well and doesn't collapse the flow that the rest of the combat system works to build up. Players tend to also be encouraged by most games to fight enemies, so making them aware that running away is a strong and even desirable option would be another good move in general, not just regarding Elites. Even something as simple as changing the text "Kill All Enemies or Escape The Area" to "Escape The Area or Kill All Enemies" would be a step in the right direction. A more comprehensive solution would involve changing the philosophy behind how the combat system works from a core level, and from there, changing the amount of options the player has to end conflict with enemies.

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