An Argument Against Real-time With Pause Combat

Jody Macgregor has written another column for PC Gamer, in which he takes issue with the usage of real-time with pause combat systems in RPGs, and argues that developers should always rather go with turn-based or full real-time. A snippet:

To minimize the amount of time characters in Dragon Age bob like idiots when it's not their turn the attack animations are extended into dizzying combos so that even your wizard's default attack involves whirling a staff and whizzing off multiple blasts while striking dramatic poses. To reduce the amount of pathfinding calculations by the second game the rogue's backstab ability somehow involved teleporting behind enemies so you didn't actually have to walk round them. In Dragon Age: Inquisition the amount of whizz-bang special effects hurtling across the screen every time an ability is used can almost distract you from what's going on, though the longer you play the more the clunkiness behind the curtain becomes apparent. An attack in Dragon Age 2. A leaping attack in Dragon Age 2.

By contrast the Mass Effect games remove those hidden turns, giving you the responsiveness of an actual real-time game. When you look down the scope of your M-98 Widow Anti-Material Rifle, take a breath, and then place a round in the head of an advancing Collector, you're doing it while the battle smoothly carries on around you. When you do pause to give orders they're carried out instantly as well, your squadmates launching Incinerate or Singularity in devastating synchronization. By Mass Effect 3 the system was so polished they could scrap the ability to pause altogether for the multiplayer mode and still have something that was surprisingly fun. The multiplayer mode of Dragon Age: Inquisition didn't hold up nearly as well.

Pillars of Eternity makes its own tweaks, of course. Its engagement mechanic punishes running around like a headless chicken, there's an option to play in slow motion rather than stuttering stop-start, and of course the spell effects look a lot more impressive (although that means if you pause at the wrong time half your party will be obscured by bursts of light and flame). But it still has characters who get confused by having to walk all the way round an ogre to get somewhere, or wait until an oil slick has been summoned to run right through it, or blithely stroll straight into traps they've already detected. Wasteland 2, another Kickstarter-funded resurrection of old-fashioned RPGs, modernized the combat of the early Fallout games with a healthy dose of XCOM, and was better for it. But while Pillars of Eternity preserves a lot of things about old games that are worth keeping, its preservation of pausable real-time combat feels like a step in the wrong direction one that leads back into the darkness of the Nashkel Mines, where I never want to place foot again.