Dev Blog: Hybrid Combat

INTRODUCTION

Welcome to this dev blog, regardless of whether you’re new to our games, a hardened Vermintide veteran, a passionate Warhammer 40,000 fan, or one of those wonderful gamers running around headshotting since before you figured out who you wanted to be. My name is Mats, and I’m the resident combat designer at Fatshark. I’ve been asked to write a few lines about the gameplay of Warhammer 40,000: Darktide and how it came to be - horrors and successes alike.

BUILDING ON THE FOUNDATIONS OF VERMINTIDE

When I started working at Fatshark, my colleagues shared an exciting proposition: We wanted to do First Person Melee, but good. Like, really good! And in co-op. Over network. I asked if we had a good example of another game to set the level of expectation for the scope. We quickly concluded that no, there’s probably none. I had previously worked with many combat mechanics but mainly in a single-player capacity. So all the minor tweaks and tricks you employ to make a punch feel impactful usually rely on time manipulation or slowdowns to get it right. You can’t do that in multiplayer. Most of the tells and interfacing we create require a good, clean view of the enemy. We wanted scores of enemies on screen. So looking at that, we gave a silent Swedish nod of “this might get tricky” and then built the Vermintide combat.

When we started working on Darktide, we discussed an even more exciting proposition: taking the core of Vermintide, putting it into the 40K universe, and adding ranged combat to it. Not like separate sections of classic shooting. But integrated. A mix of the two - A hybrid between meaty Melee and Classic FPS. Because 40K has never been about running around with rifles. 40K has never been swordsmen clashing shields. 40K, in its essence, is Bolter in one hand and Chainsword in the other, facing a tsunami of enemies. Do we have any examples of this from other games? No? Another silent Swedish nod and it was “go time.”

We started out with a very colorful prototype, using Vermintide content but with very bright blue and red mockups of guns. The first “limited scope” was a proper but straightforward aim down sight with some basic recoil and spread pattern controls. It was a step up from our previous games. But here’s the thing: if you put an awesome, cool gun in a player’s hands, it comes with expectations and reminders of other games that solely focus on the first-person shooter aspect. We knew this was a risk. We wanted to avoid presenting and reinforcing these expectations. In Darktide when hordes of enemies close in on you, you swap your Lasgun for your Thunder Hammer and wreak righteous havoc on their corrupted souls. We’ve opted to call this Hybrid Combat - not FPS with an optional melee weapon. Players will need to learn how to use both and when to switch between them.

After creating the first prototypes, we sat down and took a long hard look at the game. At the end of that conversation, the Combat team put it bluntly: Shouldn’t we just build a proper FPS experience for our ranged combat? With all the bells and whistles, blend states and dynamic weapons and advanced recoil mechanics and suppression loops and interfacing that come with it? So we did. We even infused all those details into the progression system, allowing players to tailor the weapon handling through a mixer-board-like stat system that makes your gun unique. You are still highly encouraged to bring out your melee weapon because trying to kite a horde or some of our angrier elite enemies will end up with you dead. But up until that point, you’re free to shoot 'em up as much as you like.

STAYING TRUE TO WARHAMMER 40,000 & CO-OP PLAY

Our core pillars have always revolved around staying true to the lore and supporting co-op play throughout. Most of us in the combat team spent a ridiculous amount of time discussing minute details that we needed to resolve to create a proper 40K rendition. How does one aim a lasgun? Is there an iron sight on it? Do the models just lack that detail because they are tiny plastic representations? What are the effective ranges of lasfire? And how well do they deal with armor? Do they have holo sights in the grim dark future? If they do, would it have a slightly gothic arc shape? Of course it would. How does the recoil of a lasgun work, and is it heresy to suggest it has it? If you slap a tactical flashlight onto a lasgun does it, in fact, become twinlinked? At the end of the day, the balance has always been between lore and fun. The “rule of cool” happens to embody the design principles of both Warhammer and Fatshark.

We’ve always wanted to build a game that allows each player their time in the spotlight. We’re aiming to create enough challenges and player moves that there is both variety and roles to fill. We want Darktide to be a game where it’s not just four players pulling their weight in stacking enemy corpses per second but rather an intuitive shift in your behavior and who takes point. Making enemy hordes be easily dealt with by your fully automatic, flechette shooting Rippergun, while making it weak against heavily armored enemies allows other players to step up and protect you from the elites in the secure knowledge that you’ll purge the poxwalkers.

MIXING IT UP WITH RANGED COMBAT

With the inclusion of a proper ranged gameplay loop, we added a couple of new concepts into the mix, such as Combat Ranges. We expanded on the melee range seen in Vermintide with both a “Far” range and a “Close” range. Core to the experience is the notion that enemies and players behave and perform differently based on their combat range.

  • Far Combat is the cover-based peeking and accurate shots of combat rifles.
  • Close Combat is the chaotic and fast dance of short-range damage dealing while dodging and weaving between enemies to survive. Shotguns. Submachine Guns.
  • Locking fighters in Melee Combat forces both sides into the hand-to-hand combat of Vermintide, which can be helpful as it removes the concern of the ranged threats and replaces them with much more immediate problems, often involving chain axes.

Controlling the range you fight at is central. We wanted movement and positioning to be an essential part of the gameplay loop, whether that means assaulting into melee to quiet the enemy hellguns barraging you with lasfire, or keeping the enemy horde at bay to allow the team to mow them down with gunlines of flamers and autoguns alike. We introduced elements like sprinting, vaulting, suppression, enemy positioning anchors, and combat vectors to create a direction for the combat and allow the players to control the flow of action and manage the ranged threats introduced. A colleague also added sliding as part of an internal hack week project. We quickly integrated it, bridging that last distance as your effective sprint runs out, and you need to slide-dodge a blast from a shotgun to bury your power sword in the gut of a Chaos Ogryn.

Attacks are not all about damage. This has been a critical pillar we built the Vermintide games around, and it holds true for Darktide as well. At its core, we think about attacks as two separate things: Control and Damage. It’s all fine and good to do solid damage, but if you’re not interrupting the enemy while you’re at it, you’ll be eating a rusted axe to the face. This goes both ways, where getting stunned or hurt are two different consequences of getting hit. We try to build this deterministic loop where you are in control and should be able to avoid taking hits. There’s no random chance, no false attacks, no “Whoever clicks fastest wins”. We want you to master the gameplay and it’s why we introduced the “Damage taken stat” to the end-of-round screen of Vermintide. It’s the most important one.

This became a problem for us with the introduction of ranged enemies. Specifically, lots of ranged enemies. Dodging and sprinting to avoid shots only take you so far. So we introduced Toughness. It’s a simple shield mechanic allowing players to soak a couple of ranged hits before getting hit-stunned and killed by incoming fire. It’s “the Emperor protects,” but within reasonable limits. It’s the number of shots the Ogryn can take before he realizes he’s been shot. It makes the game work and makes the combat more fun while keeping the player in control and responsible for any damage. Just remember to stay together, as regeneration is tied to sticking with your team.

So, that sounds kind of involved and complicated, right? It is. It’s been one of our primary concerns. Vermintide wasn’t really well known for explaining things. But Vermintide was known for playing quite well. To me, there are certain features you build and a couple of details you add just to make it play right. It’s those little touches that make the game feel good. They don’t necessarily need to be understood or explained or exploitable by the players, but they make or break the gameplay. And as long as the enemy behavior is intuitive, and lines up with the lore and the player fantasy, it just works.

ENEMY TYPES

One of the main tools we have, which has also turned into one of the most important rules for us to follow, is the Enemy Types we use. Since everything is complicated and dynamic, we had to build a little ruleset to develop and design around. If we keep to the rules, things combine and work together fine. That’s the main idea until we find something super fun to implement right away. Then we break all the rules, but for all the right reasons.

ROAMERS & HORDES

Horde enemies and Roamers are the baseline threat you face. They are easy fun. Players should kill them at their leisure with any weapon or tool at their disposal. Gratuitous gibbing fodder… Until they appear in masses and the players get distracted and overrun, that is.

ELITES

Enter the Elites. Built to challenge and promote specific behaviors and load-outs, Elites break your flow, demand your immediate attention, and will end you unless dealt with properly. They also provide an excellent chance for the Plasmagun-toting, “I crave big explosions and instant gratification”-type players to blast them out of existence to the applause of the rest of the team. That thing about your moment in the spotlight.

SPECIALS & MONSTERS

We throw Specials at you to enforce and challenge teamplay; once you’re grabbed, downed, gnawed on, or hanging from a ledge, you rely on your teammates to purge whatever heresy put you in this position and get you back on your feet. Monsters challenge the entire team and demand everyone’s attention while providing an excellent distraction to allow the horde to kill you. We build our enemies with a purpose. We stick to the rules, build that rock-paper-scissors dynamic with our armor types, player weapon profiles, and enemy behaviors. The ask is for the team to identify the threats and adapt their behavior accordingly.

Playing a game of Darktide allows four players to join together and try to survive a mission. There are parts of the mission that you traverse, facing varied and generated compositions of enemies. Since we never build bespoke scenarios, it’s very much a once-removed design process of setting up rules and flows and fail-safes to keep the ebb and flow of threat suitable but deadly. We use a lot of chef allegories since we never know in detail what will happen where or when, but I think we’ve mastered most of the recipes by now. Building up that gut feeling of what consequences an increased Special coordinated attack timer has or tuning up the number of bodies in a horde requires a lot of playtesting. Running the same combat reference level over and over again. The same goes for the mission events, where we challenge the players to solve a task while surviving an ongoing battle within a fixed arena. Tuning which enemies best sabotage the players’ efforts of a specific event or knowing when to throw everything at them to create a hectic chaos dance of desperation is always a balance between sadism and benevolent game master.

In the end, the formula and core are the same. We wanted to keep what was great with Vermintide, expand on it with solid ranged gameplay and provide true hybrid combat. It has been difficult. It has been challenging. It has been massive amounts of lore, clicking, and passion. At the end of the day, we’re proud. The experience found in Darktide is fun and panicky and overwhelming and impactful, while our veterans and people who stick around to master it find and explore that depth that makes you stick around. At least, that is what we think we built. We hope you feel the same way.

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