Fantastical Combined Arms

I really like it when a story has fantastical combined arms. For the uninitiated, “combined arms” refers to using different weapon systems operated by different soldiers together to cover for each other’s weaknesses and maximize effectiveness. The one that’s been going around the news lately is using infantry and armor (which mostly means tanks) together so that enemy infantry don’t blow up all your tanks with javelin ambushes. Primitive militaries (even when their gear is high-tech, like modern armies with pure armor units with no infantry attached) tend to sort units by weapon type, because that’s simpler and more straightforward for the commander, who is in charge, but advanced militaries (even when their gear is low-tech, like iron age armies with infantry and artillery (i.e. archers and/or slingers) mixed together in a single unit) mix different troop types together, training them to support one another for more tactical effectiveness.

Having fantastical combined arms not only improves verisimilitude, since combined arms is effective across so many technological and geographic landscapes in the real world that it’s hard to imagine a fantasy setting where that wouldn’t also apply, they also make for more interesting gameplay and more varied fight scenes.

As recent posts suggest, I’ve been playing through the Force Awakens recently, and while that game is mostly pretty meh, its unit variety is occasionally really good. They have a decent variety of different stormtroopers and stuff, which is cool but not a big enough deal to justify an entire blog post, but what really caught my attention was the penultimate battle on the first visit to Felucia (right before Shaak Ti). The Felucians have tamed rancors, a bunch of melee warrior mooks, a powerful chieftain in front, and a shaman who provides buffs in back, and they all cover for each other really well.

The rancors are the headliners, of course, with powerful melee and ranged attacks (they can hurl boulders at you) that will deal most of the damage to Starkiller. They’re vulnerable to being kited with Force lightning, though. You can blast them with lightning, during which time they’re stunned and can’t retaliate, and then run away while your force recharges to blast them again. Their hurled boulders aren’t hard to dodge if you’re focused on a rancor alone.

This is where the warriors and especially chieftain come in. The warriors can swarm you while you’re blasting the rancor with lightning, hitting you while your hands are occupied and you can’t defend yourself, and the chieftain has a much faster ranged attack that can interrupt both your Force lightning and your melee combos. The chieftain and warriors can both be defeated by giving them a quick blast with lightning, and then moving in for a full damage lightsaber combo before they recover from the shock, but the Force shaman can give the warriors a shield making them immune to lightsaber attacks. Due to their sheer numbers, blasting them all down with lightning is impractical.

The shaman is extremely vulnerable to any sort of attack, but doesn’t have to be anywhere near the frontlines to boost their allies, so in this fight the shaman hangs back behind the rancors with a couple of warriors around as a last line of defense.

It’s only the mid-point of the game, so the battle still isn’t especially difficult. The extremely agile Starkiller doesn’t have a whole lot of difficulty getting past the rancors without killing them, and taking out the fragile shaman at the back. With the shaman dead, you can thin out the warriors with quick blasts of lightning for stun followed by a combo for damage, dispatching a warrior or two before any of the rancors can catch up and dish out serious damage, and you can use the Force repulse power (which sends out a Force push in all directions, knocking away everyone nearby) if you get surrounded. Once the rancors’ warrior support is too thinned out to interrupt the lightning, you can kite them to wear them down. There’s three of them and they’re too big to be affected by Force repulse (despite the fact that a couple of weeks later at the most, Starkiller literally pulls a star destroyer out of the sky, so you’d think he’d have the whole “size matters not” thing down hard enough to toss a rancor around like a ragdoll, but you’d be wrong), so you have to be careful not to get surrounded, but Starkiller’s agility saves him again, easily able to outmaneuver the lumbering monsters to keep all three on one side.

Then you have to finish them off with a quick time event, which, god, can’t the finishing animation just play automatically? The Force Unleashed usually uses them infrequently enough that they’d be perfectly good as a quick spectacle as a reward for defeating a mini-boss (although this encounter specifically is a bad example, since there’s three rancors at once – probably best to let the first two just die and only use the finishing animation on the last one), but because there’s a quick time event slapped on, I’m distracted from the animation and the sequence feels annoying and anti-climactic instead of rewarding. Oh, well. Nothing’s perfect.

I use a video game example here because that’s what prompted the post, but you can see how this could apply to prose or animation or whatever. The enemies don’t just have extended health bars or deal more damage, the way in which Starkiller fights them is different. He might start out trying to blast the rancors with lightning and get swarmed, then try to fight the warriors and find the shaman keeping him at bay and the rancors catching up with him.

After using his Force-empowered agility to leap through the trees past the frontline and catch the shaman, swiftly dispatching them (after a short chase) with his lightsaber, the rancors would catch up, he’d try to blast them with lightning again, and get swarmed by the warriors and chieftain. After using Force repulse to clear away most of the warriors, he’d have a melee fight with the chieftain while dodging stray warriors and rancor swipes, and then, once the chieftain is down, unleash the full power of his Force lightning to fry the rancors.

You might cut two of the rancors if they feel redundant, and you definitely want the ending to be a single sustained burst of Force lightning, long enough that the audience gets how the warrior swarm was able to interrupt it, but not dragging on the way the game’s kiting strategy would, and you’d also want to rely on Force lightning a lot less for fighting the warriors and chieftain so that it can be reserved as the rancor-killing finisher move, but the basic pace of the fight is the same.

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