Early melee weapons were meant for close combat in appearance only. Players fighting at long range are presented with an array of options: take cover, press forward, fire at a target, switch weapons, lie in wait, etc. But being thrust into a close-quarters situation completely disrupted the flow of combat. Lee Perry, Senior Gameplay Designer at Epic Games and responsible for many an FPS from Unreal Tournament 2003 to Gears of War, best summarizes this dilemma:
"When someone pops out in front of your character unexpectedly, it can get frustrating quickly. Your window to make a decision is massively reduced, it's challenging to suddenly assess how to use what you're holding for a role it's not meant for, and often you simply don't have a chance to think," which more often than not results in "flailing around and poking ineffectually." Not the kind of skirmish you sign up for when high caliber weapons are involved.
Developers approached this problem with a variety of solutions and varying results through the late 90s. Rare's GoldenEye 007 enjoyed huge success in '97 partially owing to Bond's famous chop. When players forewent range altogether with Slappers Only! in the License to Kill game mode (one shot kill,) melee combat was given a yet untapped stopping power and - more importantly - a frothing fan base. Not all shooters followed suit. Starsiege: Tribes, released a year later, eschewed the outdated blunt objects outright for their nearly 100 percent multiplayer affair. When you have jetpacks, who needs a knife? While this eliminated impotent melee weapons, the issue of close-combat confusion remained unsolved.
Halo: Combat Evolved sold over 5 million units worldwide and kept the Xbox alive through its adolescence. Halo has since spawned multiple sequels, action figures, its own anime DVD and ongoing Hollywood potential. But whatever he did for Microsoft, Master Chief did twice over for the FPS genre with a single gift: the melee button.
Rather than clutter the Spartan pair of guns that fill your arsenal, Bungie gave melee its own place on the controller, available regardless of load out or situation. Carrying a rocket launcher? Whack your enemy with it! How about a pistol? Sock them with your offhand! Melee's new accessibility and accompanying power made it a theretofore unseen staple in multiplayer matches. The shoot-punch combo rivaled even the jab-cross in utility, and being able to one-shot enemies from behind further sweetened the deal. Even better, players finally had a solution for hand-to-hand altercations.
Ultimately, the more important that melee becomes in multiplayer, the more it encourages long-range combat. Short-distance lethality is not so much the incentive for getting close as it is the penalty. It encourages players to uphold solid long-distance tactics. Penny Arcade's Jerry Holkins makes the same case, asserting that Modern Warfare 2's "knife is designed to be a reset. Like two misbehaving children, the use of it puts space between the two players, reverting to the optimal ranges of interdiction."
"The melee weapon is the go-to tool to make the combat personal," says Irrational Games' Lead Designer Bill Gardner. "Being able to see the whites of their eyes is an experience unique to melee. No matter how over-the-top the ranged attack, it simply can't hold a candle to being inches from your enemy's face as he expires. Letting enemies into the player's personal space gets a reaction like no machine gun can."