Military Martial Arts and the First-Person Shooter: A Dilettante’s Examination

Author’s Note: More blatant filler this time. I think I need some new subjects to talk about…

Recently, while doing some of my customary pseudo-random Wikipedia research, I was led into a search for the public-domain manual to the Modern Army Combatives programme of the United States Army, followed by a search for the manual to the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (a.k.a. MCMAP). Taking a quick look through the contents of these manuals to get my bearings on actual military styles of hand-to-hand combat, I noticed a distinct difference in approach to an essentially similar problem.

The Modern Army Combatives programme is heavily influenced by Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, going through the idea of dominant body position and finishing moves before anything else. In comparison, MCMAP’s ground fighting techniques seem to concentrate more on joint locks and chokes assumed from a standing position. The training of bayonet techniques starts very early in MCMAP training and continues to be a fundamental part of the discipline throughout. This, I assume, is an extension of the principle that “every Marine is a rifleman”. Meanwhile, Modern Army Combatives, being used in an armed force which uses carbines and squad automatic weapons above everything else, doesn’t seem to give as much focus on these techniques.

I find these manuals to be fascinating documents, even with my lack of knowledge about combative martial arts, and comparison between the two disciplines could go on for ages. Reading these documents eventually made me think of first-person shooters, particularly the quasi-realistic presentations of today. In first-person shooters of the past, such as Doom and Half-Life, a mêlée attack exists as a low-ammo backup at close quarters, with corresponding risks when it comes to closing with the enemy. In Doom, the basic mêlée attack takes the form of a straight punch with a hand covered in brass knuckles; the corresponding attack in the Half-Life series uses Gordon Freeman’s iconic crowbar. These are simple, unsophisticated attacks which fit the game mechanics of the series and mostly exist as a way to defeat less powerful enemies without expending ammunition.

In some more recent titles, mêlée attacks are a more viable combat option. The Halo series has been conspicuous for its representation of close-range weapon attacks, with the Energy Sword being a consistent part of the games, and the Gravity Hammer added in Halo 3 gave the series an additional close-combat weapon. Additional bayonets on other weapons, such as the Brute Shot, further expand the range of effective close-range attacks. Again, as in the examples above, the close-combat approach in the Halo series fits the rest of the game mechanics. However, these mêlée attacks are still relatively simple, and that has been a common point between close-combat fighting in most first-person shooters since their original development with Wolfenstein 3D.

Comparing the multitudes of possible manoeuvres found in realistic military martial arts with the techniques found in first-person shooters demonstrates how simplified the close-combat fighting of these games really is. A lot of this comes down to the limitations of the first-person perspective, and of game controls in general. Given the limited peripheral vision that a player is given in a first-person shooter, even with multiple monitors, it’s difficult to tell what the body of the game avatar is doing at any time, and most games take shortcuts in animation to avoid problems.

What’s more, given the sheer range of techniques that could be exercised in a martial arts scenario, there is no way to map all of these techniques onto a controller, or even a PC keyboard. Players don’t want to spend ages in the middle of combat performing quick-time events in an attempt to stop enemy close-combat fighting, and therefore, the single button approach to mêlée is a necessary simplification. This is typically not a bad thing, as long as the simplified techniques remain balanced and plausible within the context of the game, and often, they are. However, I feel some games overstep the mark, and one of the big offenders has been the Call of Duty series.

The change of setting from Call of Duty 3 to Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare didn’t affect the relative realism of the series, as the series has always been quasi-realistic and action-oriented. However, the more modern setting of the Modern Warfare titles makes the places where the game doesn’t conform to a simulationist approach more conspicuous, and there are few places where this is more obvious to me than the approach to mêlée attacks. The close-quarters weapon in the series is a combat knife, which is reasonable enough; a knife bayonet or combat knife is a common piece of equipment in a soldier’s or Marine’s arsenal. The problems arise when you look at how that knife is used: The avatar quickly sweeps the knife from its scabbard, and slashes across the body using an ice-pick grip.

Neither the US Army’s Modern Army Combatives or the Marine Corps’ MCMAP teaches the ice-pick grip as an appropriate way to hold a knife, for a start, and especially not for a slashing attack. Ice-pick grips might be perfectly useful for dagger fighting or street fights, but a trained soldier or Marine shouldn’t be expecting weapons parity at any stage of close-quarters combat. What makes this more galling is that the attack is presented as an instant kill in almost all game modes, which is not an assumption made of slashing attacks in MCMAP, where they are presented as a way to damage the opponent in such a way as to allow for a more reliable thrust attack to the vital organs or the head. Of course, the big question might be why a knife attack is being used when the avatar has a perfectly operational gun in hand, given that the context for knife fighting is expected to be when a soldier or Marine doesn’t have a rifle or pistol in hand, or as a follow-up strike when the enemy is already in a position of weakness due to a takedown or such.

I doubt that the presentation of a Modern Warfare game would be improved with a more complex approach to close-quarters combat, particularly in light of the control issues above. However, it seems decidedly out-of-place, even within the context of the series, to have a single-button kill with a mêlée weapon when the firearms take several body shots to kill in many modes, and it harms suspension of disbelief for me to be expected to believe that this sort of knife technique works as it is presented in the Modern Warfare games. Even a quick combination of a horizontal buttstroke, a bayonet slash and a thrust would be more plausible than the knife attack that presently exists. If a solution to close-quarters combat must exist in this series, it would do to not make it an overpowered, implausible way of settling things. The maps are already small enough to make the technique viable. It doesn’t need to be a separate strategy for success as well.

Revolutionary Technology in Formula One: The Monocoque Chassis

For a long time in the development of the automobile, it was common to build a car by fitting a separate body to an underlying rigid frame in a method called body-on-frame construction. While this technology had some advantages, such as the easy development of custom bodywork by coachbuilders, there was much left to be desired. With all of the torsional and bending strain placed on the rigid frame, it was necessary for this component of the car to be heavy and cumbersome in order to be strong enough to provide sufficient resistance against forces.

The earliest Formula One cars, such as the pre-war voiturettes of 1950 and 1951, were built on ladder frames, where the rigid frame only made up part of the bottom of the car, and the rest of the bodywork provided no structural support at all. This was quickly replaced with a more advanced chassis type when the sport moved to Formula Two rules in 1952. The spaceframe chassis, which was used on cars from the dominant Ferrari 500 of 1952 and 1953 to the Ferraris, Coopers, Lotuses and BRMs of the early 1960s, was based around interlocking struts placed in a geometric pattern around the body in such a way as to place the strain of torsion and bending all over the car.

Surprisingly for the top echelon of formula racing, though, spaceframes were old technology. The Second World War had necessitated a lot of technological and mechanical development in aircraft, and the improvements made in that field filtered down to car design in the post-war years. In the run-up to the war, the British, French and German air forces had independently designed fast interceptor fighter aircraft built on monocoque fuselages. The monocoque itself was not a particularly new idea, dating back to some reconnaissance aircraft of the First World War, and had been trialed in several pre-war car designs including the Lancia Lambda and the Citroën Traction Avant.

By the time Colin Chapman, owner of Team Lotus, designed his own monocoque Formula One cars, the technology had found its way into several commercial road-going vehicles, such as the Morris Minor and Chapman’s own Lotus Elite. It was therefore well-known that monocoque design provided substantial advantages over a ladder frame chassis in road cars, but it was yet to be demonstrated that these advantages would be worth the effort in Formula One racing.

Colin Chapman was known for his famous statements on car design, apocryphally stated as “Simplify, then add lightness”. Chapman, who had briefly been a pilot in the Royal Air Force, maintained a deep interest in aeronautical engineering techniques for the rest of his career in car design. Monocoque chassis use the body of the car as a supporting member in conjunction with the chassis, greatly increasing rigidity and therefore structural integrity. When Team Lotus introduced their Lotus 25 in 1962, the car was significantly lighter than its competitors and became the first of Lotus’ many successful Formula One models.

In fact, the Lotus 25 almost won both the Drivers’ Championship and the International Cup for F1 Manufacturers on its debut in 1962, but an engine failure for Jim Clark in the last race gave the championship victory to Graham Hill, driving for BRM with a more conventional spaceframe car. The results of the 1962 season underlined a weakness of the design characteristics of Team Lotus; while Graham Hill was classified at the end of every race that season, Jim Clark, despite his smooth driving style, had retired four times. The Lotus 25 was mechanically unreliable, and perhaps under a more leaden foot than that of the preternaturally talented Clark, the car may not even had made it that close to the championship that year.

That said, the car was clearly quick, and after the disappointment of the year before, 1963 would prove a change of fortune for Clark and Team Lotus, taking both championships convincingly against competition which persisted in using their spaceframe cars from the previous year. The advantages of the monocoque design had been clearly demonstrated, and another garagiste team joined Cooper in the annals of Formula One history.

Unfortunately, Jim Clark and Team Lotus were unable to repeat the feat in 1964. Ferrari and BRM, Lotus’ biggest competitors, had caught up technologically and built their own monocoque cars, and this combined with the Lotus 25’s recurrent unreliability left Lotus floundering at the end of the year. They would come only third, while John Surtees would secure the title for Ferrari after a year-long battle with Graham Hill in his BRM. Yet, by the time the Lotus 25 was replaced by the Lotus 33 a few races into the 1965 season, it had revolutionised the way that Formula One cars would be built in the future. The monocoque chassis is universal among modern Formula One cars, along with its near-universal presence in road cars.

However, there would be a few last significant demonstrations of spaceframe design in Formula One, taking place during the 1966 and 1967 seasons, where the increase of engine power from the new 3-litre engine formula gave the advantage to those who could acquire a reliable engine. Jack Brabham, having won the 1959 and 1960 Drivers’ Championships in mid-engined Coopers, had set up Motor Racing Developments, better known as Brabham, and chose a high-torque, lightweight aluminium engine from the Australian engineering company, Repco. This engine, which would prove the class of the field even with a deficit of power versus the Ferrari and Honda V12s, was allied to a conservative series of designs by Ron Tauranac, who still preferred the spaceframe.

There was one advantage of the spaceframe design which was of significance to Jack Brabham – it was easier to repair than a monocoque design, as a piece of tubular frame could be cut out and replaced a lot quicker than having to remove a whole section of body and weld in a replacement in such a way as to retain structural integrity and strength. Yet, in a season of unreliability, this was a secondary issue compared to the temperamental new engines used by most teams. Despite the dated design of his Brabham BT19, Jack Brabham would win the 1966 Drivers’ Championship with superior reliability and a run of four consecutive wins.

This was followed up by another Drivers’ Championship victory in 1967 for Brabham’s team, this time for Denny Hulme, but by the time 1968 came, other teams had caught up in the engine race, most significantly Team Lotus. Their assistance in the development of the Cosworth DFV had given them access to the engine which would dominate the next two decades, while the Repco engine didn’t cope well with additional power. By 1970, even Tauranac had conceded to the monocoque. Meanwhile, this would merely be the first in a series of innovative solutions from the mind of Colin Chapman.

Metroid Prime – A Retrospective Review

(This review is based on the Metroid Prime Trilogy version for the Wii.)

Along with the Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda series, Metroid could be considered one of the “big three” intellectual properties of Nintendo. Despite that, the series was the only one of this group not to receive a game title on the Nintendo 64. When Metroid Prime was announced for release in 2002 on the GameCube, having been developed by a small Texan studio named Retro Studios under the watchful eye of Shigeru Miyamoto, it came with a significant change of gameplay. The change was controversial at first, but soon accepted, and the Metroid Prime series was expanded to a further title on the GameCube, a title on the Wii and two titles on the Nintendo DS. In 2009, the home console Metroid Prime titles were gathered together in the Metroid Prime Trilogy collection, which featured gameplay enhancements to the GameCube games to bring them in line with Metroid Prime 3: Corruption.

As stated above, Metroid Prime is a first-person perspective game incorporating details of the first-person shooter genre, the action-adventure genre and the three-dimensional platformer. The player plays as Samus Aran, an intergalactic bounty hunter who has previously been involved in the infiltration and destruction of the home planet of the Space Pirates, an alien species bent on controlling the rest of the universe, and who are responsible for the destruction of Samus’ own planet.

Having escaped from Zebes, Samus receives a distress call from an abandoned space frigate above the surface of Tallon IV. While exploring the spacecraft, Samus discovers that it belongs to the Space Pirates, some of whom have escaped Zebes and are conducting experiments with a mutagenic and radioactive substance known as Phazon. Destroying one of the Phazon-induced specimens on board the Frigate Orpheon and causing the spacecraft to self-destruct, Samus manages to escape before the crash-landing, chasing the reborn enforcer of the Space Pirates known as Ridley down to the surface of Tallon IV. However, Samus’ powered armour suit has been damaged during the escape, and she must regain her capacities while discovering the secrets of Tallon IV and preventing the Space Pirates’ plans with Phazon.

The original GameCube version of Metroid Prime owed quite a bit to the first-person shooter genre, but limitations of the control system meant that it didn’t play quite like the first-person shooters that were present on other consoles at the time. The Wii version uses updated controls, allowing analogue free-aim with the infra-red sensors of the Wii Remote in addition to the already-present lock-on controls from the original. This makes the game slightly easier, but also makes it less frustrating and more akin to the rest of the first-person shooter genre.

While the controls have changed, the rest of the game stays mostly intact as it was in 2002. The Metroid Prime Trilogy version of Metroid Prime takes influence from the PAL and Japanese versions of the game, cleaning up some exploits found in the original NTSC version, removing some of the plot holes and notably adding an extra routine to one of the closing bosses, along with making it substantially harder in its second form than the NTSC version.

Metroid Prime‘s starting interface includes the Combat Visor, which is used to fight opponents in the visible spectrum, along with the Scan Visor, which represents the biggest change from the standard first-person shooter genre. The Scan Visor is used to analyse the environment, giving details on the weak spots of enemies, environmental hazards and interesting details about the surroundings. More visors can be found throughout the game, giving perspectives in different electromagnetic spectra.

Joining the analysis equipment is a wide assortment of weaponry. The early part of the game allows you access to a few choice pieces of hardware, including the Charge Beam, a powered-up version of the rapid-fire Power Beam which Samus carries in her arm cannon, the Missile Launcher, the Morph Ball, a device which shrinks Samus into a metre-wide ball which allows access to tunnels, along with the Morph Ball Bomb, which allows for attacks while in this smaller form. All of this apart from the Power Beam is removed from you during the end of the prologue, but as the game progresses, these weapons are returned and joined by more powerful weapons, including the electrical Wave Beam and the powerful Super Missile.

All of these devices contribute to the exploration process, and most of them are required in some way or another to proceed through the game. Despite the first-person perspective and the inclusion of shooting mechanics, this game is not first-and-foremost an FPS game. The adventure component shows through, particularly with various components borrowed from Nintendo’s other adventure games. This is perhaps most apparent when it comes to the boss battles, which are treated quite separately from the standard enemy encounters, and require specific strategies to beat. The Scan Visor and the lock-on system are imperative for beating the boss battles, as is an appropriate knowledge of the boss movement sequences. As such, these battles play more like a first-person perspective run through a boss in the three-dimensional The Legend of Zelda games than a traditional FPS boss battle, and the game benefits for that.

The developers didn’t forget the Metroid series’ platforming elements either, as there are still a few platforming-style parts of the game. Samus’ jumping characteristics, including a reasonably long hang time and a lack of falling damage, serve to make this part of the game quite a bit more tolerable than other first-person games with jumping elements. Combining all of the elements of this game together into a cohesive whole gives an experience which is quite a bit different than other games in the first-person shooter genre.

One of the things which has notably remained from the game’s release in 2002 are the graphics. Despite the gap of almost ten years, the graphics in Metroid Prime still look impressive today, despite the low resolution and especially against the other titles on the Wii. Whether this is an indictment of the graphical standards of the Wii or more a reflection on the high quality of Metroid Prime‘s graphics in the first place, I’m not sure, but the graphical design and the level of detail make areas such as Magmoor Caverns and Phendrana Drifts still look impressive. There are some specific features which add to the quality, such as the water effects when Samus emerges from being submerged, and the reflection of Samus’ face on her visor after a bright flash of light, but a couple of the minor details in the GameCube version, such as ice freezing over on a charged Ice Beam, were removed for technical reasons.

Another element which has remained impressive almost ten years later is the sound and music of the game. The sound effects sound authentic enough to remain immersive, while Samus Aran’s (limited) voice acting is done by the now well-known voice actress, Jennifer Hale. However, the music is quite a bit more distinctive, with many tracks being inspired by Metroid, Metroid II: Return of Samus and Super Metroid tracks of the past, and others being original compositions. The soundtrack, composed by Kenji Yamamoto, combines immersive, catchy remixes of classic tracks for the environments with pounding, exciting tracks for the boss battles, and all-in-all works very well for the game. Particular highlights include the themes for Phendrana Drifts and Tallon Overworld, along with the remix of Ridley’s classic boss battle theme from Super Metroid.

I was deeply impressed by how fresh Metroid Prime still feels, especially a whole generation after its original release, but there were a few niggles which came from the adaptation onto the Wii controls. The addition of free aim is a godsend in some respects, making certain battles quite a bit easier, but playing with a sensitive infra-red sensor in one hand pointed towards the screen is not always a comfortable position to be in. While the projectiles and hitboxes in Metroid Prime are forgiving enough of slight deviations, sometimes it’s difficult to get your aim quite right because of small muscular tremors shaking your bead off the target. What’s more, the position that I had to adopt in order to brace my arm caused more fatigue than playing with the original GameCube controls that I was experienced to from Metroid Prime 2: Echoes.

Some experienced Metroid Prime players may therefore be wondering what the point is in getting the Metroid Prime Trilogy collection. To be honest, if you’ve played the GameCube version of the game, particularly the PAL localisation, you’re not missing much – it’s pretty much the same game with different controls, and the GameCube version still works on the Wii. However, if you’re new to the series, the collection is extraordinarily generous, providing three fully-featured games for a low price. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to get the game through retail outlets any more; the Metroid Prime Trilogy collection was a limited edition offer, meaning the only way to get the game is to buy a second-hand copy. In any circumstance, it’s still the easiest way to get all three games at once.

Bottom Line: Metroid Prime has managed to stay surprisingly fresh since its release. The motion controls can make the game easier, but can be frustrating to deal with at times.

Recommendation: If you’re a new player to the series, track down the Metroid Prime Trilogy collection. It’s worth the search, with an extraordinarily generous offer. Those who have played the games before won’t gain much more of an experience, though.