Note: If you want to just read my ideas on how to make Star Wars combat good, skip to below the line.
One can no longer discuss Star Wars video games without discussing the wildly successful Star Wars: The Old Republic. Bioware's latest take on epic space-opera has greatly outstripped the popularity and influence of its predecessors, the brilliantly made original Knights of the Old Republic games, and, I believe, finally managed to rip the title of 'top MMO on the market' from World of Warcraft.
Not that I think that's a title to be proud of.
I despise the MMO format. It's outdated, unoriginal and lazy; it's the ultimate fall-back position for game designers who want to play it safe. Every single MMO since WOW has followed the same tired old formula, because the format itself, at its core, rejects any deviation from the rigid orthodoxy that WOW established. The way I see it, that formula ought to have died a long time ago; MMOs can be enjoyable for sure, and SWTOR is the perfect example, but not because they are MMOs. SWTOR, for example, was successful purely because of its cinematic storytelling, which is unquestionably superb, but everything else in the game--the side quests, the group missions, the PVP, and even the combat itself--feel like they're getting in the way of that story. You either did them because your level wasn't high enough to progress to the next phase in the story or because you'd reached the level cap and had nothing else to do. Though Bioware finally seems to have acknowledged this and has successfully used the knowledge to re-vitalize the game, the format of SWTOR cannot be changed, and it will therefore always be much a much lesser game than the one it could have been.
Now, don't get me wrong: I don't feel any disdain towards Bioware for the way they designed SWTOR. In fact, I actually agree with their business model, and to prove it I've subscribed to the game since launch and genuinely believe it to be money well spent. Bioware's trade-off of gameplay for storytelling has produced the desired affect; the game has enough content to keep people active for years, as the story really is good enough to keep people coming back for more. However, I maintain that SWTOR could have been even better--much better, in fact--if Bioware hadn't played it so safe. Part of the problem is the rigid orthodoxy of the whole industry; it's a sort of peculiar tradition for 'role-playing games' to utilize the same inferior combat systems that they always have (either turn based or button mashing, and always ten or twenty hit kills) despite the fact that a better system would actually be simpler and easier to implement as well as infinitely more enjoyable. Yes, I don't like MMOs, but if you have to make an MMO, what's wrong with giving it the combat mechanics of an FPS? Wouldn't that be easier than trying to make sure that literally hundreds of different abilities are all balanced and complimentary to one another? The reason is simple--this is the system that's always been used, and people keep buying it. Anyway, I digress. I'm not saying that Bioware should have done anything different, and for me asking how to make the best Star Wars game possible is a purely theoretical exercise, but an interesting one at that. So, if a game designer came to me and asked me how to make the perfect Star Wars game, what would my answer be?
Firstly, I would tell them that Bioware got their list of priorities spot on. Star Wars is loved because of the story, and the story should be the first priority in any Star Wars game. Furthermore, the moral choice mechanic, even one as deceptive and simple as Bioware's standard 'get from A to D via either C or B' system ties in perfectly with the light/dark element that is so integral to the Star Wars universe and should absolutely be included. But enough about what SWTOR did right.
As I've said, gameplay is where SWTOR really suffers and, up until the recent changes, it was simply too monotonous for me to bear. Personally, I believe that the Star Wars universe provides enormous potential for heavily skill-based combat, the complete opposite of SWTOR's system and a far cry from its two predecessors. The intricacy of lightsaber combat and the added use of force abilities could make for a challenging and yet highly rewarding combat system that allows players to really feel like they're advancing along with their characters as they develop from amateurs to experts, learning not only how to become an effective swordsman but how to maximize their force abilities, chaining them in with their lightsaber attacks to take down hordes of enemies in style. In fact, I believe that skill-based combat is essential in a Star Wars game, because one-hit kills are an absolute must; having to hit someone twenty times with a lightsaber or blaster to kill them utterly ruins the immersion, even more so than it would in an FPS where you can get around the problem of oneshots somewhat by relying on automatic weapons. I do realize that this sort of skill-based combat could prove to be exceedingly difficult to pull off, but I would like to point out that I don't think it's ever really been tried. The Jedi Knight/Jedi Academy series came closest, but even that game (limited as it was by the standards of the time) didn't fully explore the possibilities of skill-based Star Wars combat. The way I see it, there are several ways that a new game could do so, with some being more difficult to pull off than others but more rewarding if they were done right.
OPTION 1: ASS CRED
The Assassin's Creed series is infamous for its 'easy to learn, impossible not to master' combat, but the system of timed counters and one-shot kills would be well suited to lightsaber fighting and very difficult for a developer to get wrong. It wouldn't take too much imagination to expand on the newer system of chaining pistol attacks in with melee combat to come up with a decent force-combat system, and such a system would certainly achieve the seamless integration of lightsaber combat and force abilities that I believe is essential to skill based combat in this universe. It's hardly ideal, but it's a whole lot better than button mashing.
OPTION 2: CHIVALRY, OVERGROWTH AND HALF-LIFE
Has anyone here played a game called Chivalry: Medieval Warfare? It's probably the best melee combat game on the market, but I doubt too many people here will be aware of it. Chivalry makes excellent use of the mouse to give players easy control over the direction of their attacks (left click for horizontal swing, scroll down for vertical swing, scroll up to stab) and combines this with a timed blocking system to create an excellent skill-based experience. It gets bonus points for using a hybrid skeletal and health bar system that allows you to lop off limbs and heads with well aimed strikes. All up, I don't think medieval melee combat could be done much better, but that doesn't mean a straight lift would work well in a Star Wars game. Lightsaber combat is much quicker, more intricate and more refined than the simple, brutal combat Chivalry depicts, and this would present added challenges for both the animator and the player. For the animators, it would certainly be difficult to make the repetitive preset attacks of a player pressing buttons on a mouse or controller seem as fluid and elegant as lightsaber combat needs to be, and for the player, it might prove very difficult to react in time to the flurry of dynamic attacks with which they would be faced.
If you haven't heard of Chivalry, I'm willing to bet almost anything you haven't heard of the game I'm going to cite as the solution to the second problem: Overgrowth. It's a melee combat game about fighting rabbits. I know how it sounds, but give it a chance: the devs chose to use rabbits because the combat was too realistic to not be disturbing if it were happening to humans. The combat is based entirely on a skeletal system, so damage depends entirely on where you get hit, and the damage model is completely realistic; if you get hit with a sword, you die. If you time a backflip wrong and land badly, you snap your spine. All this makes for incredibly fast-paced and brutal combat that's probably too much for most players to handle, but the game's solution is incredibly simple: a slow-motion button that can be used at any time. It may seem like cheating, but it works perfectly and doesn't seem to interrupt the fluidity of the combat at all. In a Star Wars game, this system would make perfect sense: force-users are meant to have enhanced reflexes, so the ability to see things in slow motion is a completely logical gameplay mechanic for this universe.
My final piece of inspiration requires far less introduction and explanation than the others: Half-Life II's Gravity Gun is the perfect example of how physics-based combat be done in a video game, and it would require almost no effort to substitute it for telekinesis. I don't think anything more needs to be said about that.
Obviously, the hybrid of various combat systems that I have described would be an immense challenge for game developers, but if it was done properly, the results would be spectacular. Fast-paced, one hit kill lightsaber combat, with directional attacks and timed blocking, made playable by a simple slow-motion mechanic and supported by a solid physics engine that enables telekinesis to be used creatively by the player would make for a perfect combat system that would be uniquely specific to the Star Wars universe. Now, I've talked a lot about lightsaber combat, which of course has to be the core of any Star Wars fighting game and by far the most difficult thing to get right, but I also have one thing to say about blasters: don't do as Battlefront has always done and make them into glowing versions of real life weapons. Once again, a good Star Wars game needs to feel unique to the Star Wars universe, and in the movies blasters are powerful, slow firing weapons similar in their characteristics to the bolt-action weapons of days gone by. Before you tell me that this wouldn't work in shooter-style combat, spare a thought for Red Orchestra II, a hugely successful World War II shooter that's widely regarded as the best FPS ever with good reason. It CAN work, it just hasn't been tried by the developers of Battlefront because it's safer to make Battlefield in space.
In summary, the perfect Star Wars game would have a combat system that requires the player to become more powerful not by upgrading their stats and accessing new buttons but by learning how to use a simple set of abilities more and more effectively. It would involve simple, skill-based lightsaber and blaster combat at its core and combine this with an equally simple but adaptable system for the use of the force, which allows the player to manipulate their environment as well as simply attacking their enemies. Even if the player had to be handicapped with infinite slow-motion and assassin's-creed style prompts, such a system would make the game infinitely more enjoyable, more immersive, and more rewarding than all previous titles, and I genuinely believe that such a game could be made.
I do not, however, expect that it will be.
BELOW: SOME LINKS TO THE TWO LESSER KNOWN EXAMPLE GAMES THAT I'VE REFERRED TO. THE SECOND (CHIVALRY) MAY NOT LOOK NEARLY AS GOOD AS I'VE DESCRIBED, BUT PLEASE TRUST ME WHEN I SAY THAT IT FEELS A LOT MORE FLUID TO PLAY THAN IT DOES TO WATCH.