A Knife to a Gun Fight

There is a reason the “S” in FPS doesn’t stand for stabber, slasher, or slapper – it’s all about the guns. Curious, then, that where once getting punched to death was a laughable demise, now just moving into spitting range invites the same mortal danger as waltzing into a sniper’s crosshairs. Many gamers believe that the increased potency of melee somehow detracts from the genre, but the truth is carved out by chainsaws, crowbars and fists in the messy history of first-person shooters. Close range combat, from humiliation kills to stealth assassinations, is as vital as the ballistic weapons it complements, and modern iterations embody an important trend: developers now sharpen your knife so you can stick to your guns.


The first sprite-age close quarters FPS weapons were invented to give the desperate/indulgent player a means of survival. Blasting hellspawn in Doom with an enormous arsenal is all well and good, but with great firepower comes great responsibility: BYOB. Bring your own bullets. Aside from lending an air of realism to the other-worldly gameplay, the acquisition, conservation, and selection of ammunition was an important metagame. Fail that game, and your favorite toys are put in timeout. This leaves the player with two choices: dust off your knuckleduster or rev up your chainsaw.

“For a designer, [a melee weapon] gives him the ability to get the player around the issue of a game which has limited ammo. No one likes the feeling of coming to a gunfight without even a knife,” says Grant Collier, a designer on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and its sequel. “In an action FPS, the designer always wants the player to have options.”

Though its then-nascent deathmatch revolutionized the way shooters were made and played, Doom is still a single-player affair with multiplayer trimmings. The conventions used in PvP matches are originally tailored for campaign mode, and some nuance is lost in translation when making the transition. In Doom‘s multiplayer, punches are every bit as worthless as they look.

But players, ever-resourceful, used melee in multiplayer for a different reason: humiliation. Besting your bazooka-wielding opponent with a glorified pimp slap is invigorating, though for more reasons than you would think. The sheer difference in power and functionality of your weapons is the first key. In and outside the game world, fisticuffs trumping gun is like scissors beating rock. The second is the implied deliberateness of your handicap. With early melee weapons safely sequestered behind the “1” key, close-range kills were the FPS equivalent of winning with your gun-toting hand tied behind your back. The third reason is at once the most powerful and least-acknowledged: the knife’s existence outside of a shooter’s gameplay narrative. You have literally brought a knife to a gun fight.

FPS games operate under the assumption that you will be fighting at a distance. Level design, weapon availability and game mode objectives all work to varying degrees within this construct. Combat solutions are presented in easily utilized and understood weapons – even non-gamers can recognize that you use a sniper rifle for distant enemies and a shotgun for close ones. But when confronted with an unexpected face-to-face battle in early FPS games, players almost always opt to blast in a frenzied, inaccurate panic between awkward reloadings rather than switch to a weapon tailored for that situation. Why? Because such a tool did not exist.

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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.”

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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