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Knife In A Gunfight: The History And Evolution Of First-Person Melee Combat

by Christian Belland on Aug 27, 2015 at 09:35 AM

It’s easy to see why guns get all the glory in video games. Unleashing the BFG on a group of Hell Knights never gets old, and sniping a headshot from across the map is always satisfying. Compared to their louder, flashier cousins, melee weapons were often a neglected portion of the first-person video game armory. Thanks to some key titles in the past 25 years, modern games like Dying Light and Fallout 4 have embraced the notion that using a machete or sledgehammer in first-person can be just as much (if not more) fun than shooting a gun.

Ultima, Nazis, and Demons

Almost 20 years after Maze War and Spasim pioneered first-person gaming, Blue Sky Productions (later known as Looking Glass Studios) released Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss. This 1992 dungeon crawler is one of the most important 3D first-person games, inspiring foundational works like The Elder Scrolls and Deus Ex. Underworld famously replaced the previous tile-based environments of games like Wizardry with a true 3D world to explore. Most interactions played out through your character’s eyes, from exploring shadowy labyrinths to fighting goblins.

If not for id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, computer RPGs might have ruled the first-person genre unopposed. Wolfenstein 3D set the stage in 1992 and then id unleashed Doom a year later. Full of macabre imagery and graphic violence, Doom’s runaway success caused a moral panic and established first-person shooters as a dominant genre. 

The game also deviated from Wolfenstein’s simplistic melee combat in important ways. While B.J.’s knife wasn’t very useful or notable, Doom introduced one of the most iconic weapons in gaming: the chainsaw. The chainsaw attacks roughly four times faster than the space marine’s fists and has a high chance to stagger some enemies. While the numbers behind the chainsaw make it a plausible tactical choice, the true importance of the weapon is how viscerally satisfying it is to use. Instead of strafing and shooting Cacodemons from a distance, players could get up close and personal with the chainsaw. No other weapon in Doom could compete with the low rumbling of the engine, the high-pitched whine as the revving blade ripped into an enemy, or the resulting shower of blood. This level of combat was a far cry from poking Nazis with a knife in Wolfenstein or dragging a mouse to swing a sword in Ultima Underworld.

The ‘90s saw the introduction of some other iconic melee weapons as well, which developers used as an additional way to show a game’s personality. Duke Nukem 3D shook things up with the Mighty Boot kick instead of just a punch attack. In an early version of the game, players could equip and “fire” the Mighty Boot while also using the separate quick kick key. The hilarious result is Duke kicking with both feet while still being able to run and jump. Goldeneye 007 devoted a whole multiplayer mode, Slappers Only!, to its wacky Roger Moore-era judo chop.

Adding Knives to Gunfights

After the turn of the century, Doom and Duke Nukem 3D’s wild success eventually lead to the release of modern first-person shooter classics like Half-Life, Counter-Strike, Halo, and Call of Duty. While gunplay was still the main focus, these games in particular used expanded melee combat to alter the experience of what a “pure” shooter could offer.

Counter-Strike began as a humble Half-Life mod in 1999 and was officially acquired by Valve in 2000. As one of the most popular multiplayer shooters of all time, Counter-Strike’s knife mechanics have also been instrumental in pushing first-person melee combat forward. Movement speed while the knife is equipped is faster than with most other weapons. Secondary attacks to the back are lethal in all versions of Counter-Strike – perhaps an early deviation on Thief’s blackjack from the original 1998 game. Talented Counter-Strike players can even string knife kills together, though this is very challenging.

Consequently, knife kills have evolved in the community as a way to humiliate other players and show off talent. A complex economy has even sprung up around Counter-Strike knives after the Arms Deal update in 2013. This update enables players to buy, collect, and sell decorated weapons on the Steam community market. New cosmetic knife skins were included, like the karambit and gut knife. Most knife skins are still extremely rare, and combined with the right blade pattern can sell for nearly $400.

In 2004, the elusive energy sword that terrorized Master Chief in the first Halo game was finally usable in Halo 2. Players relished the opportunity to turn the weapon against the Covenant for the first time. The energy sword’s appeal was tied to its highly satisfying lunge attack, where the player would rush toward an enemy with a powerful swing. The first chance to use this weapon came during the early Arbiter levels, an interesting narrative twist where players not only assumed the role of a former enemy but also used their signature tool. The energy sword was popular enough to push players to create an unofficial zombie mode in Halo 2’s Team Slayer. This became an official mode, Infection, in Halo 3 and Halo: Reach. The Zombie game type lives on in Halo 4 as Flood, complete with unique Flood character models for the zombie team. 

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in 2007 was the first game in the franchise to feature a knife as a permanent melee weapon. Unlike Counter-Strike, the Call of Duty knife is a one-hit kill in all but a few scenarios and is activated by a button press instead of being equipped like another weapon. In early Call of Duty multiplayer, knife builds became plausible strategies. In Modern Warfare 2, for instance, players were especially dangerous if they combined the commando perk with the tactical knife pistol attachment. In Call of Duty: Ghosts, the combat knife can be equipped in multiplayer create-a-class exactly like a gun. The gold combat knife, available only to prestige five players, speeds up the attack animation considerably.

One-hit kill melee attacks have become so common in triple-A shooters that it’s hard to imagine a time without this mechanic. Giving every player a one-hit-kill weapon reshuffled the risk and reward dynamic of most encounters. Scoring a knife kill in Call of Duty is very valuable. It’s silent, nearly instantaneous, and earns bragging rights. Balancing out this reward is the fact that the only way to get in range of a one-hit-kill is to also put yourself in range of the very same attack – not to mention the fact that you might be rushing a gun-wielding enemy. By balancing both tactical choices, players learn when it’s smarter to take a few bullets and kill with the knife and when it’s better to hang back.

Melee Combat Steals the Spotlight

While some of the best-known first-person games from the turn of the century are shooters, clever implementation of melee combat enabled other developers to differentiate their titles from the warzones of Halo and Call of Duty. This was sometimes achieved by simply making melee combat as involving and effective as the gunplay.

The 2004 Xbox exclusive Breakdown did just that, focusing on a surprisingly satisfying hand-to-hand combat system all in first-person. As experimental test subject Derrick Cole, players had access to a variety of martial arts techniques from hooks and jabs to kicks and curb stomps. Executing these moves was similar to a simplified fighting game, with precise button combos required. Guns were available, but punching and kicking foes was much more fun.

Developer Starbreeze also chose to expand melee combat in its 2004 title, The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. Guns were unusable in the beginning of the game, but Riddick could execute deadly combos with his fists. While fighting through the halls of Butcher Bay prison with guns blazing was an option later on, the game encouraged stealth. Riddick eventually gained the power to see in the dark, so hiding in the shadows and using a silent screwdriver or shiv was an effective way to progress through some areas. 

Another popular approach was to limit the availability or usefulness of firearms outright. Doing so built tension and a distinct sense of powerlessness. Condemned: Criminal Origins ran with the concept of player vulnerability through forced melee combat. Guns are powerful but relatively rare compared to the melee weapons scattered around every level. Even if you find a gun, it could not be reloaded and would be missing any bullets the enemy shot at you. In keeping with the game’s minimal HUD, the only way to know how many rounds you have left is to physically check and then look at the onscreen popup. Guns also break easily if you try to use them as melee weapons.

Survival depends on scavenging melee weapons from the environment, which are much more reliable in the heat of combat. These could be anything from lead pipes to fire axes, each with different strengths and weaknesses. Keeping with the grounded tone, combat is weighty and methodical. Unlike Riddick, protagonist Ethan Thomas cannot string attacks together. Instead, he must carefully time his swings and blocks against smart enemies that can flank him and use feints.

The decade wound down with 2008’s Fallout 3, a game offering so much variety that an entire feature could be written about the combat. Much like Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series, Fallout 3 is a watershed for first-person melee fighting. The game still retains some of its turn-based roots with the V.A.T.S. system, allowing melee fighters to get close to enemies and then pause the action. Unlike guns, melee weapons can’t target specific body parts in V.A.T.S. This isn’t entirely necessary, though, especially with the infamous Bloody Mess perk. Combine this perk with a weapon like a power fist, for instance, and an attack can cause enemies to explode in an absurd shower of blood and limbs. Fallout 3 has a wide variety of these weapons, from mundane knives and shovels all the way to mechanized sledgehammers and flaming swords.

Present and Looking Forward

The more recent evolutions of first-person melee combat fall back to old standards: knights and zombies. With a renewed focus on smooth, engaging gameplay and deep mechanics, these two games represent some of the best of the genre so far. 

Chivalry: Medieval Warfare took the next logical step in the school of deliberate combat. Set in a fictional war with Medieval-era technology, players engage each other with axes, daggers, spears, claymores, and other nasty murder accessories. Precision and timing are paramount in Chivalry’s unforgiving brand of fighting. Swing even a second too early or too late, and you’ll probably die. Only the knight class can try to go hit for hit in battle, so mastering the block, parry, and feint moves is the only way to survive. While some matches can devolve into mobs of players running in circles swinging swords at random, the game’s robust core shines through when skilled players clash. 

Dying Light, Techland’s follow-up to the zombie massacre simulator Dead Island, is one of this year’s biggest releases and features some of the most polished first-person melee combat thus far. Dying Light takes Dead Island’s gory, intense fighting and adds parkour and even tighter controls. Using electrified machetes, poisoned sickles, and flaming samurai swords, Kyle Crane can cut a swath through the infected hordes of Harran. Moment-to-moment, Dying Light’s combat is fast, visceral, and satisfying. Most bladed weapons can dismember infected enemies in multiple ways; chopping off arms, legs, and heads is a great strategy. Scoring a headshot with a blunt weapon slows down time like a Zack Snyder film, showing the zombified head explode like a watermelon.

Melee combat in first-person gaming continues to evolve. Doom roared back to relevancy during E3 a few months ago. The stage demo announced the triumphant return of the chainsaw as well as some vicious melee finishers against staggered enemies.

Bethesda also showed some melee fighting in Fallout 4. The combat system looks to be improved from Fallout 3, with robust weapon crafting that allows players to concoct some devious melee weapons in their crusade against super mutants and radscorpions. 

Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is making changes to its combat system by taking out usable guns completely in service of emphasizing the core principles of the original game: mobility, fluidity, and Faith’s vulnerability in combat.

Blasting video game enemies away with myriad firearms will likely remain popular forever, but the brutal intimacy of melee combat is a satisfying, welcome antithesis to the genre’s standard long-distance shootouts. Ducking behind cover and lining up the perfect shot offers an equal but distinct thrill from taking on a group of drug-addicted thugs with nothing but a rusted lead pipe. Combining the already claustrophobic dynamic of hand-to-hand fighting with a cramped first-person viewpoint creates a fundamentally different way to engage enemies in our favorite virtual worlds.