If you're coming from a mostly MMO background, combat in Age of Wushu is a bit daunting at first. It's really nothing like combat in any other MMO. It has a bit slower pace than a typical action-MMO, but it is the first to really employ tempo control. Attacking recklessly is a patch to a quick defeat, forcing players to make tough tactical decisions.
If you're like me and came to MMOs from a fighting game background, things readily click into place. Baiting common reactions and punishing them, punishing actions on reaction, and getting in the head of your opponent is better-rewarded than in any other MMO combat system. I don't want to badmouth games like GW2 that have great combat, so don't get me wrong; many other games have excellent combat. Age of Wushu's battle system is just even more fantastic. When I win a fight against an even-leveled opponent (or higher level, though that's rare) without taking an unblocked hit, I feel like a total beast.
Blocking makes it all happen
Blocking is the first thing that makes Wushu's battle system what it is. Blocking is extremely powerful, and the jump from novice to intermediate includes the idea that one should block more frequently and at the right times.
When you block an attack, it reduces the damage from the incoming attack by 55% for most characters. A few meridian lines increase this number, and a few meridian lines allow you to penetrate some of it to deal more through enemy blocks. Additionally, most special effects do not take effect on a blocking target. Most stuns, knockdowns, and debuffs from overt attacks won't occur if the initiating attack is blocked. I said most, though, not all; there are a few tricks (other than feints) that work even on block.
The resisted damage is dealt to a separate guard meter, which regenerates very slowly over time. If the guard meter is completely depleted, a character will stop blocking as though a feint broke her guard (with the debuff, but no special feint effect). The guard meter is fairly durable even for characters with "low" guard meter totals, but as players get more and more life from meridians, it has a greater tendency to break in extended fights. It rarely gets broken, except in intermediate battles where players do a lot of traded blocked hits. Experts tend to play around blocking better (and stall for time more) and novices rarely block.
Each martial arts style also has a blocking skill that triggers a unique effect if an attack is blocked. This skill takes the form of a buff that can be changed on the fly and modifies the basic block ability. This buff can do many things, including deal recoil damage to enemies, restore energy, debuff your attacker or buff yourself. Many styles are block-dependent, meaning they benefit greatly from applying a buff or debuff from their blocks. As an example, Soul Losing Blade's block skill bleeds the opponent on a successful block, and its Soul Destruction skill will knock down a bleeding foe. There are other ways to apply bleeds in Soul Losing Blade, so it is not strictly block-dependent, but there are many styles that depend very heavily on their blocking buff.
Other block skills are very neutral, such as Vertigo Dart's block, which applies a massive movement speed buff for a lengthy period after blocking an attack. These blocks can be used with any style (except a block-dependent one) to provide different kinds of tactical advantages.
Blocking an attack also builds rage. Each hit blocked generates 4 points of rage to the blocker, with 50 points needed to execute most super moves. Because there are many three-hit lunges in the game, blocking builds rage very quickly. Rage can also be built by attacking (2 points per hit, whether blocked or not) with either feints or attacks, but blocks build it much faster.
Aggressive play against an opponent willing to block a lot will only serve to give him his block skill's benefit more and fill his rage bar. You might feel good about wearing down an opponent's life through his guard (and many styles do it reasonably well) only to eat a counter-super followed by a combo into another super, killing you in two swift attacks.
Feints are the answer to blocking. A feint is similar to an attack; your character strikes out, frequently in a small cone in front of you, and if it connects with an enemy, it deals damage. However, if a feint strikes a blocking opponent, it provides a bonus effect and shuts down the enemy's guard for several seconds, allowing you to deliver follow-up attacks. Only feints that don't hit blocking opponents can be dodged, so not even the RNG can spare you if you guess wrong.
For many styles, the bonus effects are the reason to feint. My favorite is Golden Snake Sting's feint; while slow, it sends the opponent flying if blocked, leading to big combos. Breeze Sword's feint is similar; it has a fairly lengthy knockdown that can be linked into a lot of damage.
For other styles, the bonus effect kind of sucks, so just crippling the opponent's block is enough. As an example, Vertigo Dart's bonus effect simply damages the enemy's guard meter. This is rarely useful. However, breaking the enemy's guard leads to a few follow-up attacks. Even in this case, nothing is guaranteed. Even if Vertigo Dart manages to break the enemy's guard, the follow-up can be punished with a ranged CC (Demon Born in Emptiness being one of the best tools), which can lead to an unexpected turnaround.
Some schools even have combo point feints, which lets them chain their feint immediately into some kind of attack. This lets them use their feint more safely or leads to more reliable post-feint damage. The Departing Sting combo point is extremely deadly for this reason (as the post-feint lunge makes the feint much safer), and the Lotus Palm combo point leads to guaranteed, near-unreactable damage.
Feinting is extremely risky. First, a feint that doesn't hit a blocking enemy deals mediocre damage. Second, if a feint is struck by an attack at any point, the feint is immediately voided, giving a "Restrain" message. If this happens in the startup frames of the feint, it fails to come out at all, dealing no damage.
This makes blocking powerful, but it can't be completely relied upon, as a feint will come in and crush it. Likewise, a feint at the wrong time can lead to a brutal, guaranteed combo starter.
The key to winning in Age of Wushu is with unblocked attacks. Attacks in Wushu are not much different from attacks in other games. There are some that are fast, some that are slow, some that apply DoTs or CC effects, some that are AoE, and some that are ranged. The important take-away is that attacks are not made equally and they all have cooldowns, though some are very short.
Though I don't plan to delve into how mind games play out, the basic concept is that blocking is mostly safe, feints are very risky and attacks are somewhat risky because of the opportunity costs incurred.
Attacking a blocking opponent doesn't just give him rage and his block skill benefit; it also puts your attack on cooldown. Some attacks don't have any special hitstun properties, and these are useful only for filling combos. This makes the main attacks that you want to use very important. If you expend one of your best non-super attacks, the opponent can use that time to attack you.
Here's an example: Bone Corrosion Palm's offense, while tricky, is almost entirely contained in one move, Blood Stops in Seven Steps. Blood Stops is the only move in BCP that functions as any sort of defense; if Blood Stops is down, I know that the BCP player has no real option for punishing my offense. Because Wanderers have low guard meters and mediocre super moves without going to outside schools, I can get aggressive and just attack into their block, encouraging them to block more. Even if they get rage, the effect from their block isn't that bad as long as I count Blood Stops' cooldown properly and the rage isn't that useful (plus I build my own by attacking). Also, attacking a bit recklessly after Blood Stops is down encourages my opponent to block, which makes squeezing in a feint easier later in the fight. I can combo my feint into a big death combo into super and end the fight in one stroke, while BCP (and other Wanderer styles) can't do much with the excess rage.
That's a lot of words, and they're only the basics. Chances are, you probably already knew those. Don't worry, though; the real games begin next time.
Age of Wushu is a wonderous place, full of hidden secrets, incredible vistas and fearsome martial arts. Join Patrick as he journeys through China, revealing the many secrets of this ancient land. The Ming Dynasty may be a tumultuous time, but studying The Art of Wushu will give you the techniques you need to prevail.