A Knife to a Gun Fight

Brett Staebell | 7 Sep 2010 08:02
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Epic's Lee Perry echoes the belief that "once long distance is out of the equation, it's best to end the encounter decisively," further elaborating that making such an encounter "visceral and well-implemented ... can turn a potential negative situation of frantic randomness into ... a hallmark for your game." The Gears of War Lancer Assault Rifle stands as a testament to this idea, a hybrid of Doom's old chainsaw with the modern gun that solves the short-distance equation with a healthy remainder of style and gore. When your weapon becomes as iconic as Half-Life's infamous crowbar, you are in good company.


The final contribution that powerful melee attacks lends to FPS games is the strong sense of reward associated with landing a short-range strike. Basketball, oddly, provides a strong analogue - the slam dunk. Just like FPS games, shooting provides the bulk of "points" in basketball, and scoring is as much a result of your own skill as your defender's. When rules of engagement break down, however, and distance or defense fades away, the player is provided with a critical window to make dramatic, easy points. A study conducted by Gamasutra verifies that gamers also experience high reward when involved in scrums with their aggressors, with biometric feedback registering a 25 percent increase in positive emotion over the normal readings. Kills using Halo's Energy Sword rated even higher.

It's just fun, as Grant Collier points out: "I have always felt a sense of great joy when I have been able to sneak up on an enemy in an FPS and kill him with the butt of my rifle, with a knife, or (the ultimate in shame) with the blunt end of a grenade. This only matters when this type of kill is broadcast to the rest of the players. So good!"

Melee weapons in multiplayer FPSs may help enforce and encourage keeping one's distance, but recent entries into the genre have proven it is a fine line to walk. The Halo franchise has upped the ante every entry since Combat Evolved. Halo 2 and 3's energy sword has skewed combat so far towards the melee end of the spectrum Major League Gaming limited it in official play. The upcoming Halo: Reach shares a similar flaw, pro-gamer Best Man laments that "there's no way to counter someone sprinting at you and double meleeing you, unless you're expecting it." The issue is not unique to Halo. Infinity Ward's Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare 2 offers a custom class build that, as Jerry Holkins puts it, "allows players of infinite stamina to teleport and murder people." Given that both games are wildly popular in spite of these kinks, one must wonder where FPS melee will go from here.

However maligned the most recent uses of melee have become, such personal combat will remain an integral part of the shooter landscape. Contradictory though it may seem, melee weapons are the tools players need to enjoy the flow of long-distance combat with minimal interruption. Players may not choose to focus their play around the knife, but - worst case scenario - it's always there to fall back on when the well of available lead runs dry.

Brett Staebell is guilty of making a witch-blade style custom class in CoD4; though, in his defense, he named it "That Guy."

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