Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Punch Out that Red Steel P1: A meditation on First Person Melee

at 3:23 PM
As popular as are melee action brawlers (God of War) and first-person games (Halo), it's a bit odd that we don't see the two notions cross over more often. It's clearly not because each viewpoint is intrinsically connected to the gameplay style, as shooters are just as commonly viewed from varied removed perspectives as they are from the eyes of the avatar. Even those games that do hand you a sword in first-person tend to draw from pre-existing genre standards, like RPGs or FPSs, rather than defining a unique FPB. Allow me to coin that term right now to save myself the hassle of typing "first-person" a million times in this post. FPB = First-Person Brawler, FPS = First-Person Shooter (in case you're new to Earth).

So what do we have to work with? What games attempt to tackle this unspoken-for FPB salsarito? The Shock games (System Shock through BioShock) encourage you to lean on your wrench, both through hand-to-hand upgrades and classic survival horror ammo scarcity. However, these games are still shooters first and brawlers second. The layout of the environment is in accordance with FPSs of the eras that spawned them, whether it be corridors in System Shock 2, or two-sided rooms with cover positions in BioShock. These layouts encourage static defensive positioning, not aggressive free-form space manipulation. To put it simply, enemies function on rails or like turrets, rather than reactively covering an open area. In shooter form, characters are also fragile. Both enemies and the player must avoid damage to sustain longevity; they make swift, lethal assaults rather than trading blows. Despite providing a close-range combat alternative, these games are definitely shooters guest-starring melee.

If the presence of guns undermines melee sensibilities, why don't we look to swords and sorcery? The Western RPG has one of the longest standing traditions of first-person games - as a matter of fact, it even predates the FPS (uh I assume - Wizardry came out in 1981, I don't think any FPSs existed before that, but I could be wrong). The older games implement turn-based battles, but action has become popular in recent years. Ultima Underworld was actually developed by Looking Glass Studios, who would later bring us the aforediscussed System Shock. These later games, most popularly Elder Scrolls IV & V, rely mostly on the restrictions common in action-RPG combat, and are unsurprisingly no more FPBs than Diablo is Devil May Cry. It's all about rinse-repeat, powering up a character and assigning them a skill-set, then using the same skill combo ad nauseam. There's no sense of physicality and momentum to the clashes, you either stand still and pound away or kite an enemy along, and again that's in part because these are fodder enemies. Their capabilities are nothing like yours and they exist just to soak up blows.

These two umbrellas, FPS and FPRPG, cover a surprisingly large segment of first-person gaming. You've of course got your adventure games, flight sims, and racing games, but they obviously aren't what we're looking for. Where can we look for straight-up face-to-face bludgeoning action? As you may suspect from this setup or - nay - the very title of this piece!, I'm about to throw you two examples of what I'd call an FPB. Before we talk in depth about Punch-Out!! and Red Steel 2, allow me to first namedrop a few probable FPBs that I haven't yet had a chance to play. See, it's easier to write about classic games, because I can whip out an emulator and try out twenty in an hour. Anyway, FPBs-to-check-out include Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, Zeno Clash, Karateka (2012) (it's uh, kinda the right idea, if not exactly first-person), and Rage of the Gladiator. I'm starting up Dishonored today and will add that to the discussion in the near future, and you can check out Greg's recent review of Getsu Fuuma Den here.
(skip to 1:50 for combat, sorry, I don't know how to start an embed from a time mark)

I'll be back tomorrow to talk about about how Punch-Out!! establishes first-person hand-to-hand combat as a viable and repeatably fun gameplay mechanic in a manner that screams to be mimicked, and how Red Steel 2 uses the beat-em-up confrontation structure and foe equivalency in conjunction with the limitations of a first-person viewpoint to make for extremely dynamic combat.

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