Reaction speed is one of the most difficult things to train in Age of Wushu, especially for old-timers like me. Reacting to things in a timely matter is a massive advantage; it lets you punish feints, interrupt sluggish normal attacks, and stun people out of dance-like moves. The trouble is, we're human, and humans are slow. This time, we're going to look at exactly what that means in hard technical terms.
Ways to get around reactions that we won't be covering
Before we begin, I want to remind you guys that reacting to things isn't the only answer. There is always the option of prediction or reading the opponent's mind. If you can do that, you don't need to react and can interrupt the enemy with perfect timing. It's always nice when you can pull it off, but on the other hand, predictions are often wrong.
Option selects are a safe option when you're not sure what to do. Option selects are one option that beats several unique and distinct enemy options, such as a choice that beats both blocking and feinting or a choice that beats both attacking and feinting. There are many different option selects in Age of Wushu, all with different strengths and weaknesses. We won't be covering them this week, but I wanted to point out that they're there if you want to go looking for ways of hedging your bets.
Both of these could easily fill a whole article on their own.
When we're totally unaware of what kind of situation is going on, our response times are slow. I don't mean "slow" in a gamer sense. I mean, it takes literal seconds to react to something we're unfamiliar with. Driver brake times in driver's ed assume drivers will react to a threat in something around two seconds. That's so incredibly slow! As drivers get more experience, their response times improve. It's the same way in games.
The reason it takes us so long to react is because our brains want to process what's going on first. We need to try to understand things, and in the time it takes us to figure out what's going on, we're already at risk. I have had friends who could not process something as simple as "I got hit by a feint into a combo" because the whole situation felt totally alien to them. They told me, "I was blocking and then I died. I don't even know what happened -- it was too fast!" If the idea of getting hit by a feint is alien to you, getting comboed afterward is likely even more alien. Your brain spends most of its time trying to catch up, and you get no useful information about what actually happened.
There's a lot of room for improvement there. We can practice and get a pool of likely threats in our mind, and we can improve our ability to watch for them. Once we're aware of what the dangers are, reacting to them becomes a lot easier because our brains aren't trying to figure out what hit us.
The reason practice is so important is that our unconscious brains make the decision to act on a stimulus long before our brains actually finish the thought process of whether to act. That's sort of confusing to explain, especially to people who have a strong concept of "free will." However, the truth is evident; your brain is better at simply reacting to a stimulus than you are at thinking about what that stimulus is.
The glass ceiling
There is a hard cap on our reaction speed, though. In this case, it's a limitation of our optical nerve's ability to send data to our brain. Our eyes capture detail in long snapshots called sacchades, and we tend to only have a few of them each second. If our unconscious mind is trying to identify whether an action is a feint or another kind of attack, we need to see enough detail to get that information in the first place.
Empty reactions (that is, actions that occur without forewarning) tend to hit the floor at just under one second for normal people. This is assuming that you're looking for many different types of stimulus (such as when you're driving or you're in neutral fighting situations in Age of Wushu) and don't have an idea of what might happen next.
We can push that down by narrowing the list of things that need reacting to a smaller number, typically two or three. If we don't need to react to more than that, we can respond to the things we do want to react to much more easily. In this situation, our speed tends to improve to around 400-500ms, approximately half a second. That's still extremely slow.
The hard limit for human reaction speed is around 200ms in an empty situation. If you're looking for a specific thing, you are very well-conditioned, but it could happen at any time, so you're going to react to it around 200ms or slower on the average. Now, 200ms is superhumanly fast. This time increases as you get older because your eyes get slower at taking pictures and sending them to your brain. My fastest empty reaction speed is closer to 300ms because of my age penalties to Dexterity.
There are ways to improve this further, but they're something for another time.
One strategy that I employ against better players is feinting in the literal sense. I pretend I'm going to airdash at my enemy in order to bait his anti-air attacks, or I whiff an attack that is too fast to react to in order to bait an enemy to try to punish. Sometimes, I just let go of the block button. Some people are conditioned to react to that since it means you're probably going to attack.
The trick is that you have to give your opponent enough reaction time to actually react. This is especially true if you're just letting go of the block button. I talked to an old fighting game buddy at PAX, and he was talking about how he would run forward and telegraph a throw but that he had to take a lot more time than normal "selling" the throw. This is sort of the same thing.
I try to test my opponent's reaction speed by fake airdashing (jump, start an airdash, immediately start blocking so that it cancels), especially if he has some sort of anti-air counter. We used to be able to fake slide by using the infinite flight meter trick, but that was patched out. I will often "test" my opponent with things that aren't aggressive just to see how sharp his conditioned responses are. An opponent who doesn't react to my releasing the guard button usually gets chain-feinted shortly thereafter because that opponent's reaction speeds are so slow that he can't react to my feint.
For opponents who are extremely good, you can bait out their powerful interrupt combo starters by employing fakes.
It's possible to "react" to things faster than 100ms. These reactions only work in certain situations, but these situations are probably the most important things to learn in Age of Wushu. For every other situation, though, you need to know your limits!
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.