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.