The latest entry in the Doom franchise was a critical and commercial success last year, bringing the series back to its roots for a lot of the die-hard fans who weren’t as sold on Doom 3. It’s easy to see why, with its focus on pressing forward, and fluid gameplay that felt almost like an arcade game at times, Doom took the best of modern design and augmented it with a core of solid, mechanics driven play. It’s a violent, exhilarating experience, where you’re likely to be attacked repeatedly by rooms crammed full of demons ready to tear you apart. It should be overwhelming, frustrating, hard to stay on top of, but it never is. And I suspect Batman: Arkham Asylum is the reason why.
The Arkham series is about as far from Doom as you can get, the games are very story driven, thematic experiences, that deal more with psychology, character, and set pieces. Arkham Asylum is probably one of the strongest video game narratives in the modern era. But I want to talk about the Free Flow Combat System.
Free Flow was introduced in Asylum and while it has been copied elsewhere, it’s only the Arkham games that seem to have a good feel for it.
Oh, and it’s sort of amazing.
See, the crux of combat in these games is that Batman needs to feel like a martial arts master capable of taking on five, maybe even ten guys, at once and without breaking a sweat. The problem with that is how to give the character this proficiency without expecting the same proficiency from the player. You could just make the goons go down really easily, but that wouldn’t be satisfying. Enter, Free Flow.
At its core, Free Flow is insultingly simple. One button to attack, one button to counter. Hit the attack button and Batman will trigger an move, wait until the game signals an incoming punch and hit counter. Follow these simple rules and, until pretty late into the game, most encounters will be solvable. Even the weakest players can master two buttons. But embrace the combat system and you find a world of flexibility that encourages you to think about fight differently. The goal is not to pull off the most intricate individual moves, but to plan how you’re going to string those moves together, and win the fight in the most incredible ways.
As you progress, Batman’s gadgets will get added to your combat arsenal, with each accessible from a simple quick-fire button; as your variety increases, the elaborate possibilities of the fight do too. What starts as a game of punch and counter soon becomes a rush to plot out a string of devastating moves. Punch, counter, stun, plant explosives, punch, dodge, detonate explosives, grapple enemy, throw batarang, finishing move. The game encourages you to approach each fight like a routine, winning isn’t up for debate, you’re Batman! What matters is how quickly, or cleverly can you do it. The more variety you throw in, the more XP you’ll claim at the end.
So what has this to do with Doom?
Well, Doom kinda does the same thing. Things are tweaked a little differently, of course, this isn’t a martial arts, super-hero game; the game wants to give the player a feeling of pure brutality. A lone super-soldier prepared to mow through these demons. And mow he does. While Doom is a shooter, melee executions play a huge part of the game. The marine will be surrounded by enemies in little arenas throughout the campaign, he will then be encouraged to hot swap weapons, take them out phase by phase, and stay alive. Health is scarce. It should be difficult, but play up to the mechanics and a familiar flow starts to emerge.
Every time you weaken an enemy enough to stagger them, they become susceptible to an execution, performing the execution makes them drop health, you’ll need this health to survive the trickier waves. You’re surrounded by enemies, some tough, some weak, but focusing on the toughest enemy is rarely the best strategy. Often better results can be found by planning a route through demons, take out some mid-strength foes with a half decent gun, execute a tiny imp or two for health and ammo, aim your big guns at the biggest demon and if it damages you, harvest a few more imps. Like the Free Flow combat system, rarely is a battle in Doom about thinking about taking down one enemy, or firing the best gun until something dies. It’s about planning a path from one foe to the next, using mechanics intended to preserve the flow of the fight.
The two games doesn’t have much else in common, but this approach to combat is something I’d like to see more games try.
If you know any other games with similar systems I could add to this, leave me a comment. I’d love to know about them!