Working on the Crysis series, I grew a deep appreciation for games that allowed me to approach combat encounters at my own pace. While I’ve always enjoyed games like Thief and S.T.A.L.K.E.R., actually developing games like Crysis opened my eyes to the details laid down by designers to help players dictate their own strategies and tactics.
One way to describe Crysis is that it’s a “pro-active” game. Players can scout the battlefield before alerting any AI, spot opportunities such as vents, explosives, ammo, mounted guns and then execute a strategy, hopefully successfully!
When designing a space for pro-active combat, we can look to include ingredients to promote tactical planning and encourage strategic play, for example:
A vantage point or “recon” point where the player can perch and scout from.
Sandbox opportunities that can be spotted from afar to flavour the encounter and present different gameplay options (vehicles, turrets, explosive barrels).
Varied approach vectors. Having a single viable route into the encounter space would homogenize tactics, so often these spaces resemble multiplayer maps more than shooting galleries.
Crossfire opportunities and multiple fronts. Building multiple fronts of defense into the space allows AI to react to the player in an intelligent way and make combat fun from multiple directions.
Refuge spots and interior cover. Allowing the player to catch their breath or get some cover in a pro-active sandbox space is crucial as things don’t always go as planned.
Usually we associate pro-active encounters with stealth, but pro-active gameplay doesn’t have to be the core experience of the overall title. The Last of Us, for example, has many varied encounter spaces, both pro-active and reactive. Knowing what kind of encounter to build relies heavily on the title you are developing as well as the pacing and emotional intent of the encounter. Pro-active spaces can promote empowerment as well as help increase a sense of tension.
The final ingredient I want to mention when developing a pro-active encounter is also the most important one: the enemies. The ability to track not just an enemies movement and location but their intent can assist greatly in developing an exciting pro-active space. Seeing enemies do something contextual, behaving as though they are aware of the space they inhabit can help push decisions and tactics in specific directions and helps engage players massively.
The Arkham series of Batman games uses the idea of Batman as a “predator” in its core gameplay formula. Mixed with enemy AI that reacts to the player hunting them, it produces a very satisfying “pro-active” gameplay loop. Many of the mechanics in the Arkham games support the premise that Batman is a tactician and surgically dismantles his opponents by executing well planned tactics.
Hitman has also done this very successfully and it does a wonderful job of telegraphing enemy intent. Often enemies will call out movements and reference objects in the environment to create a real sense of place, as well as helping the player decide upon a strategy.
Using these techniques, level designers can create encounters that put players into the driving seat and find approaches that suit their own personal play styles.