Swords are cooler than guns. This was my revelation after playing Halo 4 and Dishonored back-to-back. Sword fights are, in every way, more exciting and more thrilling and more satisfying and scarier than gunfights. This stems from the back-and-forth pacing inherent in a sword fight: The attack is immediately followed by a parry, offense is immediately followed by defense, and advantage is immediately followed by disadvantage. There’s a story within a sword fight that’s missing from a gunfight because the latter is over far too quickly.
The Best Sword Fighting Game Ever
Prince of Persia
(Broderbund; US: 2 Dec 2008)
(Bethesda Softworks; US: 9 Oct 2012)
Gears of War
(Microsoft; US: 21 Nov 2006)
The original Prince of Persia will always hold a place in my heart as the best sword fight simulator I’ve ever played, even to this day. Its combat mechanics are simple: You can attack, parry, move forward, more backward, and through that simplicity the game is able to distill the story of combat down to its essentials.
Every fight tells two stories: the moment-to-moment back-and-forth between my attacks and my opponent’s parries and the larger narrative of how this fight moves through the environment. Enemies encountered early in Prince of Persia won’t parry. They’ll only attack. This teaches you how to block and how to anticipate an incoming blow, how to read the rotoscoped animations of fighters, and to react at just the right moment to brush a sword away. Eventually you encounter an enemy that knows how to parry and he’ll always, inevitably, land that first strike because you’re never expecting it. Then the real fun begins.
These skilled enemies can parry over and over again, forcing you to do so as well. Their attacks come almost instantly after a successful parry, so you can’t wait to see if your attack hits before starting to block. You can’t react to what your opponent does because he moves too fast. You have to react to what he’s going to do, and the simplicity of the controls and the resulting predictability of actions adds to the tension of combat. Anything more complex than the need to “attack and parry” would just be distracting. Another thing to consider: when I get hit, I lose multiple hearts, but when he gets hit, he only loses a single heart. This means I can’t just match him hit for hit, I have to be better than him, I have to overwhelm him, or at the very least, I have to fight smarter than he does.
You can advance and retreat during a fight, and every time you advance, you push the enemy back a step. The closer you get, the more the character models overlap, and the harder it becomes to see your opponent’s movements, as the ability to see any visual cues from your moment-to-moment combat is removed. If you manage to stay alive, this is the moment when you realize that the constant back-and-forth of triggering attacks and parries has become so intuitive that you can keep up this relentless rhythm with your eyes (metaphorically) closed. Your eyes then become free to wander. You begin to notice the traps within the environment, and you—as a player, as co-writer of your gaming adventure—are able to incorporate these more complex elements into your story of combat. Now you can fight smarter, using the traps to your advantage by advancing until you force your opponent off an ledge or into some spikes.
However, if you advance too far, if you get too close to your opponent, you’ll switch places with him. So now he can turn the tables on you at any moment. When he is backed against a bottomless pit, he can spin around and put you on the defensive. With this added risk, the player is able to really define his own character within this story. Are you the prideful sword master who never retreats? Are you the underdog who is clearly out matched but wins through a clever use of the environment? Are you caught off guard by your enemy’s sudden skill, or do you relish the chance to fight a worthy opponent? We embody each of these roles and more over the course of the game depending on where the fight occurs, how much time we have left, how much health we have left, and other contexts. Every fight is new story.
No game has done it better since.
The Best Sword Fighting Game of the Past Year
Dishonored isn’t quite as effective as Prince of Persia at evoking a story out of a sword fight, mainly due to the overabundance of magical abilities at the player’s disposal, but if you strip away all those extra powers, then Dishonored becomes a surprisingly excellent single-player sword fighting game.
I stress single-player because there are many multiplayer-based sword fighting games on the market. There’s the Mount and Blade series or the more recent Chivalry: Medieval Warfare or War of the Roses. I haven’t played any of these games, mainly because I prefer single-player experiences, but also because, based on videos I’ve seen, none of these games seem to evoke the same sense of story that Prince of Persia does. The best thing about Jordan Mechner’s masterpiece is that every fight is a one-on-one battle; you’re not going to have anyone come up from behind and get in the way, which looks to be common in the mass skirmishes of multiplayer melee games. The best kind of sword story is personal. I want a duel, not a war.
Dishonored does pit you against multiple enemies at once, so it too (and really all modern games when you think about it) is a less intimate experience than Prince of Persia. However, its sword fighting mechanics are designed around this idea so that every brief clash is like a piece of flash fiction.
Unlike in Prince of Persia, blocking is easy, so general attacks aren’t much of a problem. This is a control concession that’s meant to help you stay alive against groups of enemies. You can defend yourself and stay alive without too much effort, but thankfully, winning requires more effort and better timing. If you block at just the right time, you’ll knock the enemy off balance, and he’ll stumble back a few steps. This is your chance to kill him with a single blow, but if you just hit the attack button to strike from where you’re standing, you’ll miss because when you pushed him back he stepped just out of range. You have to move forward to get back into range. It’s a minor thing from a control perspective, but it makes all the difference.
Sword fighting in Dishonored demands that you go from extreme defense to extreme offense in the blink of an eye. You don’t just block and attack, you block and charge forward to attack, and then you block again as the other enemies come at you. This creates a very literal back-and-forth momentum to the experience of the fight. You retreat as bad guys come at you, then advance when they’re stunned. Combat becomes a kind of dance with you moving forward and back, spinning around to face those behind you, and side stepping behind cover when someone tries to shoot you. It’s the same kind of dance as the one enacted in Prince of Persia but with an added dimension and sped up into a single well-timed action. Instead of offering a small number of sprawling fights, Dishonored gives the player several dozen little microcosms of a story to read in these actions all at once.
Unfortunately, since you’re always so overpowered, the combat in Dishonored doesn’t present the same range of narratives as does Prince of Persia. You’re rarely the underdog, even when surrounded, and when you do get overwhelmed, it’s easy to resort to magic, guns, and grenades. The combat in Dishonored only tells one story, but it tells that one story exceptionally well.
The Best Sword Fighting Game Involving Guns
Gun fights are more about speed than story. There’s no better example of this than the trope of the quick draw. Two men stare each other down and draw their guns at the same time. The one who shoots first wins. Guns fights are all about offense. There is not meant to be a back-and-forth because neither party can block a bullet. To better evoke a story, combat has to be slowed down and some measure of defense has to be added. It seems appropriate that the one shooter franchise that beast evokes the story of a sword fight is the one shooter franchise that goes to great lengths to emphasize the bayonet: Gears of War.
Cover in Gears of War is designed to slow the pace of a gun fight. Shooting first doesn’t matter if your opponent is behind a rock. Getting into cover is the equivalent of blocking, and so the “stop and pop” gameplay of Gears perfectly mirrors the back-and-forth sword fighting of Prince of Persia. On top of that, enemies can flank you, pushing you in a certain direction through strategic use of the environment, thus bringing back the layered battle narratives of Prince of Persia that are missing in Dishonored.
The enemies in Gears are “bullet sponges,” meaning, of course, that they soak up bullets like a sponge. In other words, you will have to shoot them a few dozen times before they actually die. This puts Gears at odds with most modern shooters in which enemies go down after just a few shots, but this extra health helps extend the action of the game into something more narratively interesting. In any good sword fight (save Dishonored), both parties get sliced a couple of times each before one person strikes a killing blow. This kind of damage over time doesn’t make sense for most gun fights given how powerful guns are (that’s why people are such bad shots in any John Woo action movie, missing become the equivalent of blocking), but Gears gets around this problem by giving us a supernaturally resilient enemy.
Then, of course, there’s the chainsaw bayonet. Since Gears of War is a sword fighting game at heart, it only makes sense that it gives you a means of literally enacting dramatic close quarters combat. The sheer power of the chainsaw also encourages the player not to rely on guns exclusively. Guns meant to be used at a distance, and the game is designed to make that distanced combat feel as intimate as possible, but once you get within arms reach, it’s time to take out the blades. There’s a reason that the Lancer gun is the symbol of the series. It sums up the mix of combat styles that defines Gears.
Prince of Persia has the best sword fights of any game, Dishonored speeds up that story to tell it again and again as many times as possible, and Gears of War slows that story down in order to mix in firearms. Perhaps this is why the cover-based shooter became so popular, so quickly. Circle strafing doesn’t offer us much of a story, and when we play a game, we want to come away with a story to tell. We want to be able to brag to friends about how we got out of a particularly tricky situation. Gears of War proves that you don’t have to drop the gun to turn combat into an interesting story, but you do have to pick up a sword.