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Why the current design of "Elite" enemy types is antithetical to the core combat

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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 more thoughts, which in turn led to me writing about this and finally putting my finger on something that's been bothering me for a long time.

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" to actually be the player being artificially slowed down by stumbling into something they cannot be aggressive toward at all. Some astute readers will bring up Heavies, 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. 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 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.

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. 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. Players tend to 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. 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.

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As a nimble assassin you should have only three options when dealing with elite armored enemies.

1 - Range Kill: This can be done silently or conspicuously, your choice.
2 - Stealth Kill: One hit kill with the hidden blade when having, for lack of a better word, initiative in the fight. If you move first, you take them down fast.
3 - Escape Combat: ... with the rest of your life.

I don't see WHY you NEED to kill every group of enemies before moving on. It's not realistic to think that a single 20something nimble fighter with low armor (designed primarily for stealth) can take on several armored knights.

It's not bad design; It's bad role-playing. It's design that encourages the player to actually play as an assassin instead of a tank. There SHOULD be enemies that you run away from - because that's your real skill: reading the situation and knowing your odds of success.

"Victorian values meant brutalizing people who were often poor." - Charles Palliser

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Thanks for the reply, you've got some good points to talk about:

I don't see WHY you NEED to kill every group of enemies before moving on. It's not realistic to think that a single 20something nimble fighter with low armor (designed primarily for stealth) can take on several armored knights.

You are correct. It is nice to think that way, and I agree that's a game I'd love to be playing, but this is not any of the games Ubisoft have made so far. It's what we would like them to be, and hopefully in the future they will be. Back to the present state of things: The rest of the game's design (pick an AC, any AC, except 1*) does not teach nor encourage the player to run away. It's not like Thief 1, 2 or 3, or harsher modern Stealth games like Metal Gear Solid V where even the basic enemies will kill a sloppy player. Basically, this enemy type is seldom encountered early enough in the game for the player to have built as a Habit the act of fleeing combat. On top of this, add that every other enemy is a push-over, and you get a clash between the design of 90% of the game's combat which conditions a player to kill everything smoothly, and the design of the remaining 10% which doesn't mesh with that. I'm comparing the kind of game Ubisoft are making with the way its design breaks down once this enemy is mixed in. A game is a conversation between player and game-state, and analyzing this conversation reveals some pretty bad stuttering when it comes to Elites.

It's not bad design; It's bad role-playing. It's design that encourages the player to actually play as an assassin instead of a tank. There SHOULD be enemies that you run away from - because that's your real skill: reading the situation and knowing your odds of success.

This would again be true, if it weren't so at odds with the rest of the game, and if it were true at all levels of the game.

This is one enemy type in a game that is otherwise entirely populated by enemies that can be killed through rhythmic combat without interruption. And they all exist in a game designed around conditioning the player to kill everything with that same maximum flow.

I myself love a good bit of roleplaying, which was the reason behind my Non-Lethal/Target Only vids. I felt more Assassin-like playing that way than any other. Of course, describing the problems I ran into during those runs in my video descriptions did reveal that the games are still not designed for Non-Lethal play, so that harshly damaged the amount of roleplaying I could do. That said, while this enemy type might serve to nudge roleplaying toward vulnerability, the rest of the game's design is detrimental to playing a vulnerable Assassin because of how powerful players get. There's nothing else in the game that necessitates running from enemies, and for the entire playtime up until they encounter Elites, players are only ever conditioned: kill, kill, kill, flow, flow, flow. In terms of self-imposed limits like my Non-Lethal/Target Only runs, players shouldn't need to willingly refuse to experience content they paid money for just to roleplay more, especially on a first playthrough. Things like gear, skills, all the rest. They can do so if they want to, but asking that of them as a kind of obligation also reveals poor design. A strong experience is usually crafted to ensure a player feels how the designers want them to feel. As such, in AC games, it's reasonable to say that the designers generally want players to feel powerful. We've agreed that this is a bad idea, but it's what Ubi are doing with their IP for the most part.

Back to the Elite and why it's a problem given what I just said in the above paragraph: There should be enemies that you run away from, I agree with this wholeheartedly. Generally what I'll do is kill every enemy except them, drop a smoke bomb and run. In Assassin's Creed's current designs, these enemies are so often in dissonance with the rest of the game, simply because there's nothing else you need to really run from, nor is the player ever truly encouraged to. So, when a player meets this enemy, they are not conditioned to run from combat. They're conditioned, by the game itself, at all times up to this point, to destroy everything in front of them, including this kind of foe.

They just don't fit so well with the rest of the game they exist within. This is both because of the way they're designed and because of the way they're presented, and it's much easier to change one thing (Elites) than it is to change a hundred (Combat System). As I said in my OP, a comprehensive (and preferable, honestly) solution would involve reworking Assassin's Creed's entire combat system and making the Assassin much more vulnerable. I also listed some bandaid, quick'n'dirty solutions.

Additionally, a reminder that this foe is not more or less difficult than any other enemy in the game. They are not more aggressive, because if they were, getting that Parry or Counter would be much less of an issue. They do not do more damage, not really, and they don't offer any empowering passive effects to the enemies around them. Basically they are exactly like every other enemy type in the game, the only difference is that the player is not allowed to continue flow onto them until they wait for a Parry. They're not challenging, they're just inconvenient, and they should at least be re-evaluated so they fit within the game better. Maybe they're introduced from earlier on, maybe it's really demonstrated how much of a threat they're supposed to be, maybe the player is taught through gameplay that running from them is actually the ideal instead of standing their ground, or maybe the player has more options for fighting them that are difficult or require more time. Shadow of Mordor has Elite enemies, these are Captains and Warchiefs. The difference is that in SoM, a player can damage these Elites' health bars by using an Execution move. It doesn't kill them instantly, but it does hurt them and it doesn't break flow. In Assassin's Creed this doesn't work because the equivalent of an Execution is simply redirecting your Kill Chain onto the next enemy, which these Elites will block outright without receiving damage. Any of these things would be better than the way things are now.

-=-=-==-

*Not even Unity because the player being shot in the back while unable to dodge bullets during a retreat is a discouragement to running away without popping Smoke. Funny! If a game had Unity's combat but Syndicate's Bullet-Dodge mechanic, it would be infinitely more enjoyable than either game on its own, simply because the player is given a possible Response to "what do I do when escaping combat as conditioned, but there are aimbotting guards about to shoot me in the back?"

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When you are in combat, hiding places are marked on the mini-map (if you play with it on). It's still a design to have hiding spots in the event you flee. It's still encouraged on that front.

The reason you get the feeling that you should kill everything in your path is the necessary player leveling that comes with games. As the game progresses, not only do you (the player) get better at mastering the controls, but you (the character) also gets better gear/weapons/skills. THIS is where the encouragement to kill everything in your path comes from. It's because the tools are available that you CAN. But just because you CAN, doesn't mean you SHOULD.

stay your blade from the flesh of the innocent - don't kill guards just because they were hired by templars; they don't know better and are just trying to make a living...
hide in plain sight - don't draw attention to yourself through large combats in the streets
never compromise the Brotherhood

Now. The main problem here is not that the gameplay makes higher level guards not react the same as low level guards. The problem is that the main gameplay of Grand Theft Carriage has nothing to do with the Creed. If there were a game mechanic punishing large melee brawls, that would be one thing. If your character got tear-gassed and arrested for disturbing the peace, for example, and you lost all your funds and tools with no way to easily get them back, that would be one thing. Additionally, if there were opportunities for social stealth, that would be one thing. If your health never regenerated except by syncing the next mission, that would be one thing. But that's not what we have.

tldr: The problem is that the gameplay allows and encourages you (the player) to do the exact opposite of what you (the character) should be doing.

"Victorian values meant brutalizing people who were often poor." - Charles Palliser

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It's not that "the current design of "Elite" enemy types is antithetical to the core combat" ... it's that "the core combat is antithetical to the Creed" to begin with.

Public executions of main Templar players are one thing (Majd Addin), but massive street fights are another thing entirely.

"Victorian values meant brutalizing people who were often poor." - Charles Palliser

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I think we're talking about two different things that do not intersect, though they have some similarities at their roots.

I'm analyzing a game that exists, in front of us, comparing it against itself. (Syndicate against Syndicate.)
You're analyzing the state of the franchise at large, comparing Syndicate to something else. (There is value in that, though.)

With that out of the way, you're right about pretty much everything you've brought up, and I agree with it.

I'd appreciate if future games focused on having their gameplay reflect the Creed better, otherwise the name on the box is just there for branding/marketing purposes, and that's kind of scummy, all things considered. I mean, the story already has very little to do with the Creed, it's horrendous that they seem to have dropped the ball in gameplay as well. I'm hoping that the 2017 game really pays attention to the way its mechanics present themselves and the way they intermix with the narrative.

I think this is the major problem with the Ubisoft Open World TM.
It's that it's much easier to use the same design philosophy for every single game that's produced, just dropping it in thoughtlessly, than it is to really look at the game and understand what best suits it. I think this affects AC much worse than other games. The kind of game that Assassin's Creed is, at least in terms of where it came from and what its pedigree is, requires more detailed crafting and tailoring of the way its mechanics and world work. It's got some things to say about the nature of gaming (we kill tons of enemies all the time, we can resume play even after our character has "died," etc. etc.) and a lot of these things have been pushed to the side over the years.

The copypaste nature of the series right now exacerbates the problems we feel when it comes to the weird dissonance between what the Creed says we should be doing, and what the game's actual design encourages us to do. This is a problem that feels like Ubisoft has been looking away from, choosing to see no evil, as it were, and just keep carrying on as they have.

In order for the game to satisfy us, and fulfil the expectation its narrative has set up over the years, it needs to have its world, gameplay, and the tensions they exert on the player be things that are more finely tuned. It's tempting to copy the world design from past ACs, or from Far Crys, or others, but it's evidently not something players want anymore. It fell apart by the time of Unity ("Oh god look at all the icons!") and it was just stale by Syndicate ("I'll still do everything, but it's more of the same.") Our actions in the game tend to feel more artificial, more game-y and more robotic.

I think Calvar was onto something big when he suggested that the things we do in these games should feel like they're a reward for their own sake, instead of only pushing along in Sync % and progress. If the games were built in this way, a higher focus on the Creed, and on the way the Assassin interacts with their "enemies" could become possible: the problems you've highlighted could be fixed. (And we can both agree that they definitely need fixing, cus it's getting pretty ridiculous. The fact that I even had to write this post at all, as you said, already speaks volumes.)

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I agree that we are talking about two different things.

I disagree that they do not intersect.

The designers seem to have made a deliberate choice with these high level guards that force you to approach them differently. Call it "breaking flow" all you want, but you SHOULD have to approach different guards differently.

They have made these deliberate choices for two reasons:
1 - to discourage unnecessary prolonged combat by making enemies more difficult and/or less fun to take down
2 - give you a visual and gameplay cue that it's time to escape (i'm thinking more the Jagers and Janissaries that seemed to show up when you reached higher notoriety)

Can you continue to fight and kill every last one of them? You bet your ass you can, but it's not going to be by doing the same thing you've been doing to everyone else.

The way I see it, the designers wanted a beatable archetype that was just tough/different enough to dissuade you from prolonged combat.

Whether these decisions were good I cannot say. But, if you're sticking to the Creed, you shouldn't have to worry anyway.

"Victorian values meant brutalizing people who were often poor." - Charles Palliser

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You're right, actually. If every enemy in the game could be fought the exact same way, that would be overly homogenous and bland. So, it does make sense that different enemies should be approached differently, that there should be guards the player needs to run from, and that some guards should be very hard. The problem is that Elites right now are none of these things, even though they do supply the illusion of it. They're not tough, the player actually isn't encouraged to run from them, and they do not need to be approached differently. They are exactly the same difficulty as everyone else. All they do is make the player Wait and it is a loss of rhythm that can be felt physically and mentally. I'll explain why this is bad a few paragraphs down, in a different way than I have until now.

It's the same problem Arin/Egoraptor has with Ocarina of Time: Not real difficulty, but the illusion of it, by wasting the player's time. Again, if you attack a Heavy, they tend to damage you or block you in similar ways to Elites, but that's because you've made the wrong decision, not because the enemy feels the need to waste your time.

Even in the unlikely scenario of these faults being the results of something deliberate and thought-out, it can still be done much better than it is now. The enemy can actually be threatening, for one. Second, they can be more aggressive and simply have a far larger (massive, even) health pool, in addition to dealing more damage. The player then may feel like this enemy type is legitimately dangerous, and be forced to get more defensive, hitting everyone else in an encounter the usual way while "managing" the threat that this enemy outputs by defending against them as necessary. This also means that if too many of them (say, 3 and up) are mixed into an encounter -- something that never happens in the current games -- the player is absolutely certain that this means they should be running away and there's no guesswork about it. If they truly wanted a player to run away, they wouldn't just make this enemy a waste of time, they would make them something that outputs an appropriate amount of threat to make the player want to run. Little things like that. So much can be done to make this enemy more interesting and meaningful. An actual threat, and not a pretender, which would make them more enjoyable to outsmart, kill, or evade.

Right now they're shallow, and while the rest of the combat system is as well, at least in every other instance the player can get into a tempo, a flow, a rhythm, that can distract from how repetitive and simple the fighting is. Whereas this enemy type draws attention to this fact: when the rhythm is gone, the player can truly see how simplistic combat actually is. Their crime goes beyond simply being "unfun," it's that they don't fit, and they damage the game that they're in with the way they exist at the moment.

The idea of them does fit, though, and I'd love to see them be given more attention in future titles. The sentiment that there should be guards that need to be approached in more thoughtful ways is a fantastic one, and there can be massive improvements to the way the player engages with Stealth, Combat and Parkour all at once, simply because of an enemy that truly does what you describe. Right now their execution is poor and can be made more interesting, more threatening, and more cohesive with the rest of the experience.

Do you see what I'm saying?

As for following the Creed, and roleplaying which pushes us away from interacting with guards at all, we should judge what exists in front of us today, since we already know the previous games were godlike. But, if you'd like me to comment on why playing this way is not the one-size-fits-all answer to the problems I've revealed, I'll take a moment to do that now. Despite doing two full playlists of Non-Lethal/Kill Target Only Stealth Speedruns on AC Unity and AC Syndicate, I stumbled into many issues while making them, because the games aren’t built for such a playstyle, and playing this way feels artificial, clunky, and stiff. Right now, the games on their own give the player no incentive to live or play by the Creed, not the way the older ones did. You and I may play this way, either because we “know better” or because we feel like it, but this is not an experience representative of the game most players will get out-of-the-box. That's why I judge the game itself, not the mind-made, "house" rules we might impose on it. That the game overall doesn’t support playing as a Creed-respecting Assassin still rings true, and it still leaves a bad taste in our mouths. Tugging on the design of Elites and unravelling the whole game from that point could help restructure Assassin’s Creed to actually be more… Well, more Assassin's Creed.

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Agreed.

"Victorian values meant brutalizing people who were often poor." - Charles Palliser