FROM THE ARCHIVE: Battlezone – A Retrospective Game Review

“Let them have their ticker tape parades, their ‘space races’ and their commemorative packets of dehydrated ice cream. While Von Braun takes credit for his Redstone bottle rockets, I am finalising plans for an inter-planetary fleet that could plant an American flag on every rock and pebble in this solar system by the end of the decade. I will be watching the sunrise from Olympus Mons long before NASA takes their first steps on the moon.” – Dr. Wilhelm Arkin, Battlezone

Battlezone is a 1998 PC-format first-person vehicle shooter/real-time strategy, developed and produced by Activision. Despite the innovative “field commander” concept, the ambitious and impressive gameplay, and the interesting and various range of settings, it remains an obscure title to this day.

The story of the game starts in 1952, when an investigation into a meteor shower near the Bering Strait leads to the discovery of a strange extra-terrestrial material, soon dubbed “bio-metal”. Further investigations of this material lead to the discovery that weapons can easily be fashioned from it, weapons which appear to be derived from some sort of “memory” of the material to reshape into its previous form. These weapons systems, shaped into vehicles resembling the tanks of Earth, have very promising properties, like the ability to counter-act gravity, to redistribute damage over their entire bodies, rather than taking damage at any specific point, and a single ammunition source for every sort of weapon.

As both the Americans and the Soviets have both acquired samples of this bio-metal, it is clear that both of them will have discovered the material and investigated its properties, and with its properties being so promising, it is also clear that both sides will compete for the bio-metal which is believed to exist in the solar system. With the bio-metal at their disposal, either side could drive through their opponents’ cities with impunity, ending the Cold War with a single stroke.

In order to collect this bio-metal, Dwight Eisenhower establishes a secret space organisation under the control of the National Security Agency, named the National Space Defence Force, or the NSDF. Recruiting under the auspices of NASA, the NSDF, with the overpowering weapons constructed from the bio-metal at their disposal, set forth to set up a lunar outpost, and thus begin gathering as much of this strange alien material as possible.

However, the NSDF are not alone in space. The Russians have earned a substantial lead with their technical advantage in developing space technologies, and their Cosmo Colonist Army, or CCA, outnumber the NSDF contingent, with superior weapons systems. With the Soviets overpowering the NSDF, the commanders of the American forces must quickly make up for their slow start.

But many questions remain about this bio-metal. Where did it come from? What relation do they have to seemingly alien structures located around the celestial bodies the NSDF and CCA pursue each other over? With all of these questions and more, the future of humankind rests on the secrets of bio-metal.

The plot of Battlezone is not necessarily the strongest I’ve ever seen, but it’s definitely in the upper echelon, told exceptionally well through the game and the manual – which comes from the days when games came with a substantial manual in the box. I’m especially enamoured by the connections with the space missions undertaken by the Americans and the Soviets during that point in time, and I’m glad to finally see a space conspiracy which doesn’t suggest that man never landed on the moon. The angle of having a secret space war raging while the American and Soviet populaces remain occupied with the political concerns of the era is also interesting, and overall, it gives the game a nice political and military angle.

During the game itself, the plot is never made too elaborate, with little snippets of details coming from the player character’s reminiscences during the loading screens, and the general feed of information coming through the game. The plot never interferes with having a good time in the game, which is an imperative of action game design.

Speaking of game design, the gameplay is a great strength of this game. The first-person shooter and the real-time strategy are not necessarily genres that you would expect to work very well together, but Battlezone manages to meld the two genres together very well, through the process of making the player a field commander instead of a rear-echelon general. As such, the amounts of forces that are available are limited, and the clever commander will have to use those forces in the most appropriate fashion.

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All of the commands can be accessed using a small selection of keys.

Battlezone is first and foremost a first-person shooter, with the player taking control of a number of the bio-metal constructed vehicles, bringing them into combat versus the enemy forces. These vehicles, due to their anti-gravity, have a large amount of momentum, presenting them as moving targets at all times, and makes first-person strategies such as strafe-running still viable in this game.

Due to the concept of “one ammunition source for all weapons”, there will never be any logistical problems where you lack ammunition for any weapon in particular, and logistical requirements are quickly resolved by the production buildings in the game. This sort of unrealism is acceptable in a game which never claims to be anything less than fantastical. Another feature of unrealism is the concept of equally distributed damage, or EDD, armour, which renders the real life tactic of flanking obsolete, and generally simplifies the game.

The gameplay isn’t limited to vehicles either. It is possible to hop out of vehicles and transfer to others, or to bail out when your vehicle is destroyed, progressing on foot, although infantry are far weaker than vehicles. To balance the game when the player is on foot, it is possible using a high-power sniper rifle to take out the pilots of other vehicles and commandeer their weapons against them. This generally improves the survivability of the player, although there is a mission during the campaign where it is necessary to use this technique of commandeering enemy vehicles. Unfortunately, this mission doesn’t use this game device particularly well, and I prefer using it as a matter of expediency rather than a necessity to progress through the campaign.

The other section of the game, the real-time strategy, takes a back-seat to the action, but is necessary to proceed, because the odds will definitely be against the lone-wolf. The central unit in this part of the game is the Recycler, the fundamental construction unit from which all other units are derived. It is imperative to the game, and if it is destroyed, the game is lost. The Recycler creates the most basic units in the game, including the Scavenger, used as a resource collector in the game, and also produces the Factory, responsible for building advanced units, the Armoury, which produces weapons systems and provides long-range logistics, and the Constructor, which builds bases, and is also used as a resource stop-off point.

The other creator units all come into their own roles nicely, with the Factory making everything from tanks to rocket tanks up to the Walker, a huge and extremely slow but very powerful attacking unit which can steamroll over the enemy if used correctly. The Armoury delivers replacement weapons systems, allowing players to customise their vehicles appropriate to different situations, and also delivers repair and ammunition units to any spot on the battlefield, but the further from the Armoury, the longer the delivery takes. The Constructor takes care of the process of base building, providing power plants, fixed emplacements, and supply and repair facilities.

The resource unit in the game is the unit of bio-metal scrap, gathered by the Scavenger. The game goes to long lengths to make sure that the player will never get bogged down in the standard real-time strategy process of “peasant watching”, by making the Scavenger units relatively autonomous and able to find scrap supplies easily by itself.

Another way in which the game makes sure that you don’t get bogged down in the more monotonous aspects of many real-time strategies is by restricting the numbers of any various type of unit to ten for each type. This means that not only is your population not dominated unnecessarily by resource collectors, but the “Zerg Rush” idea that plagues most real-time strategy games is removed, replaced by a concept of tactics which transcends throwing everything you have at the opponent and hoping for more kills on your side than theirs.

The game further allows for the survival of the units under your control by allowing them to use the same repair and ammunition resupply facilities that you, yourself, can use, and allows a commander to re-organise their army by recycling units for their scrap value, thus ensuring that you should never be left with units that are no longer of any use.

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The Recycle option makes up for that restrictive population limit.

I found this gameplay to be refreshing, and still do, especially after being crushed by the likes of an army of Zealots and Dragoons in the original StarCraft, but you can’t really appreciate the full complexity of the game in single-player. Unfortunately, due to lack of internet at the time of playing the game, I never played the multiplayer, but I did investigate it, and it seems like an ideal multiplayer experience for those looking for more tactics than evidenced in most first-person shooter, while not moving over to the hardcore difficulty of looking after every unit as evidenced in many RTS games.

For those looking for a quicker thrill than the strategy-based main game, there is a more traditional deathmatch style multiplayer mode, but the real meat of the game is definitely in the strategy game, and most of the multiplayer maps are set up with that in mind.

Unfortunately, this game isn’t perfect, and there are quite a few flaws lying around the place. It is a particularly buggy game, and is somewhat incompatible with modern operating systems. The most obvious bug that I found was an inability to get the hardware 3D renderer operating properly – no matter what system I tried it on, the game crashed. Windows 98, Windows Me – well, of course it was going to crash there! – Windows 2000, Windows XP – all afflicted with this 3D renderer bug, meaning that I had to run the game in the decidedly inferior software rendering mode. I tried this on a multitude of graphics cards as well, and every one of them decided to choke up when the hardware rendering was on.

This doesn’t render the game unplayable, and I was rather glad for the software rendering in an era when I only had a 1MB 2D graphics card and I was running Windows 95, but it is a disappointment, because the software renderer creates quite a few jaggy and grainy images, particularly noticeable on the pylons in the training area and on some of the vehicles.

This isn’t assisted by the low maximum resolution. 640×480 was acceptable when I was running Windows 3.1 on my first computer, but it’s not exactly what I want to play games at in this day and age. System Shock played at 640×480 four years before this, and Half-Life went 1024×768 and above that very year. I don’t normally complain about graphics, but it does seem a bit ridiculous considering that other first-person perspective games that year could go to the sort of resolutions that I typically use. Again, I wasn’t complaining when it was a matter of expediency with my ancient S3 graphics card – which, incidentally, I still own – but with the gift of hindsight, I can see that they left little room for posterity.

To be honest, though, it doesn’t matter that much. Battlezone is fun, it’s original, it’s clever. Gifted with a great plot, fantastic and intelligent gameplay and bringing new ideas to the world of first-person shooters, Battlezone deserves far more attention than it received.

Half-Life 2 – A Retrospective Review

“Rise and shine, Mister Freeman, rise and… shine. Not that I wish… to imply that you have been sleeping on… the job. No one is more deserving of a rest, and all the effort in the world would have gone to waste until… well… let’s just say your hour has come again. The right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world. So wake up, Mister Freeman…wake up and… smell the ashes.” – The G-Man, during the introduction to Half-Life 2.

When Valve Software released Half-Life in 1998, they came straight out of the gate with a game that is now regarded as one of the best and most important computer games ever released. Half-Life not only brought a stronger sense of storytelling and atmosphere into the mainstream of first-person shooters, but also served as the launch point for a huge variety of mods, including Counter-Strike, Day of Defeat and Team Fortress Classic. With this pedigree, Half-Life 2 became one of the most hyped titles of the early 2000s – and managed to live up to the hype. Half-Life 2 revolutionised computer game physics, represented the best in a generation of increasingly realistic graphics and used some of the most intelligent AI code seen to that point.

Half-Life 2 continues the adventures of Gordon Freeman, the protagonist of the original Half-Life. At the time of the original game, Gordon Freeman was a theoretical physicist, recently awarded his doctorate and working at the Black Mesa Research Facility, a military installation controlled by the United States government. Against the odds, Gordon Freeman managed to survive the alien invasion of the facility after an experimental disaster and was employed by the enigmatic G-Man, being kept in suspended animation until his services were required again.

Twenty years later, at the beginning of Half-Life 2, Gordon Freeman is brought out of his suspended animation, ending up on a train entering City 17, a mega-city located tentatively in Eastern Europe. The game wastes no time in presenting the consequences of the invasion at Black Mesa, as Gordon Freeman returns to a world where the people of Earth have been enslaved, under the administration of Doctor Breen, former administrator of Black Mesa and Quisling to the invading forces of the interstellar empire of the Combine. Floating camera drones buzz around, constantly observing and photographing the citizens of Earth; armed, uniformed and masked guards of Civil Protection stand as sentinels around the city, with no hesitation at beating and humiliating citizens for any hint of defiance.

The Vortigaunts who had proved so hostile against Gordon Freeman in the original game have been reduced to an even lower status than the humans, abjectly left to janitorial roles under the supervision of the brutish Civil Protection, while huge war machines resembling the tripods from The War of the Worlds march through the streets of City 17. Unarmed and given little indication of where to go, Gordon soon meets with Barney Calhoun, a security guard from Black Mesa and friend of Gordon who has been working undercover as a Civil Protection guard.

Directed towards the hidden lab of Dr. Isaac Kleiner, another old friend of Gordon who had worked with him at the time of the Black Mesa incident, Gordon goes towards the laboratory and before long is being chased through the streets of City 17 by Civil Protection guards and APCs. With the assistance of Alyx Vance, the daughter of another former scientist at Black Mesa, Gordon reaches Dr. Kleiner’s lab, where the revelation is made that the surviving scientists from Black Mesa have covertly been doing their own research into teleportation.

With the return of Gordon Freeman, who through his improbable survival of the events of Black Mesa, stopping the initial alien invasion, has inadvertently become a prophetic figure and a standard to rally behind, the seeds are sown for rebellion and insurrection. However, the teleportation technology of the resistance is untested. A failure of one of the components during an initial teleportation run ends up alerting the Combine to Gordon’s presence and leaves Gordon in a situation where he must run and fight for his life – and eventually for the lives of humanity.

The game presents this narrative to the player through a strong and distinctive cinematic technique where the camera perspective never leaves the sight of Gordon Freeman. Half-Life 2 uses the visual medium superbly, with a distinctive architectural arrangement which evokes the crumbling concrete apartment blocks of the Soviet era in Eastern Europe. This contrasts with the futuristic, industrial, metallic aesthetic of the buildings of the Combine, especially the colossal Citadel at the centre of the city, reaching far into the clouds and dominating the skyline. Gigantic screens dot the city, presenting propaganda broadcasts from Doctor Breen and the Combine. The citizens of Earth have been outfitted with the same overall-style clothing, which both invokes a sense of the citizens being unskilled workers and prisoners on their own planet.

Importantly, the game doesn’t become overbearing with these details, presenting just enough of them at a time to create a realistic impression of the world after the Black Mesa incident and the Combine invasion. Indeed, Valve’s attention to detail seems to be extremely professional, with a polish which shows the artistry that went into the game.

The gameplay demonstrates similar polish. At its core, it continues the same sort of linear first-person shooter action of its predecessor, but brings a set of important improvements which help update the game and make it feel more immersive and visceral. Chief among these was the introduction of realistic physics through the use of the Havok middleware package. The use of realistic physics not only helps immersion through relatively realistic interactions of objects, such as the scattering of objects with explosions or the ragdoll physics of dead enemies, but also plays a big part in the game itself.

One of the biggest and most touted features in Half-Life 2 was the Zero Point Energy Manipulator (also known as the Gravity Gun), a device allowing the player to pick up, move and violently hurl objects around them. This comes in handy at several points in the game, where it can be used to move obstacles out of one’s path, use other objects to shield one’s self or build impromptu stacks of objects to climb to out-of-the-way places or use the objects as weapons by hurling them into enemies. It does seem appropriate that a game named after a physics concept, with a physicist as a main character, was one of the first to use realistic physics in such a way.

However, there are a few instances where the game turns into a showcase for the physics engine and the Gravity Gun. There are a few instances where you must manipulate certain objects in a certain way to proceed and the game seems to go almost as far as to shout out, “This is a physics puzzle!”, which doesn’t help with immersion. Luckily, such occasions are few and far between. By and large, the physics manipulations are integrated very well into the game and really help with making the game feel more of an authentic experience.

Another place in which Half-Life 2 feels distinctive is in the vehicular sections. At certain parts of the game, you are required to use various vehicles in order to progress – an airboat used for getting through the canals of City 17 and a stripped-out scout buggy for roaming the countryside outside of the city itself. While vehicular sections in first-person shooters weren’t new by that stage, most contemporary games rendered their vehicle sections in either third-person, in imitation of Halo, or in a modified first-person perspective, such as through gun sights. Half-Life 2, on the other hand, steadfastly sticks to its “eyes of Gordon Freeman” first-person perspective throughout.

The vehicular sections in Half-Life 2 are a bit of a love-or-hate beast, since they are quite a divergence from the core gameplay, but I personally love them. They present a sense of speed and exhilaration as you make your way through obstacles, enemies and the scenery around you. There are plenty of stunning set-pieces, such as being chased through the canals and tunnels by an attack helicopter, culminating in a duel to the death near a large dam. There are opportunities to experience the potential of the vehicles as weapons in their own right as you use them to plough through the infantry forces of the Combine. Between that and the use of realistic physics with the vehicle handling, I think that these sections represent some of the best vehicular action in any first-person shooter.

Speaking of set-piece battles, there are some spectacular ones outside of the vehicle sections as well. Alien gunships periodically attack, forcing the player to shoot them down with rockets, steering the rockets past the defences of the gunship as it seeks to shoot down the player’s rockets in mid-flight. Even the standard infantry of the Combine can offer some impressive battles, with AI that was at that point very impressive, even if you don’t get to see their full potential in the tight corridors of the city.

Half-Life 2 was a graphical masterpiece when it was released, even managing to look distinctly better than its best contemporaries. Surprisingly, the game still looks good ten years after its first release, especially with the addition of HDR lighting in conjunction with the release of Half-Life 2: Episode One. While later games have improved on texturing, especially at close ranges, Half-Life 2 certainly does not look embarrassing, especially given that its architectural aesthetic was so distinctive.

The sound design of the game is similarly impressive. There are realistic sounds for all interactions with the environment, including the meaty sounds of the guns in the game. The sounds of the enemies are all distinctive and impressive, from the muffled radio reports of the Combine soldiers to the screeches of the headcrabs and the groaning of the zombies. The game’s music is a peculiar mix of various genres, from rock to techno to ambient, but it is set up very well to create atmosphere and is a credit to Kelly Bailey, long-time composer for the series.

Given the polish of Half-Life 2 and the way it shines out in gameplay and presentation, there are few flaws which I can point at in the game. Some of the physics puzzles are a bit blatant, while there is a short period after you are forced to abandon the scout buggy where I feel the game slows down a lot in a jarring change from fast-paced action and set-piece battles. The section of the game takes place on the coast line outside of City 17, where alien creatures known as antlions burrow out of the ground whenever you touch the sand on the beach. Cue frustration as you try to either fend off enemies as they persistently attack you or try desperately to stack objects in front of you in what feels like an extended game of “keep off the lava”. The addition of an achievement for getting through this section without touching the sand adds to the frustration; I have the achievement, more out of sheer bloody-minded completionism more than anything else, but I won’t be going for it again any time soon.

Despite those occasional flaws, Half-Life 2 is a triumph of first-person shooter design. The polished professionalism shines out as an example of how to do a cinematic game without bogging down the action with overly long cutscenes. The gameplay is tight and intuitive, while the game physics and the strong AI work well to improve immersion. Half-Life 2 is a masterpiece of modern game design and should stand as an example for any developers hoping to develop in the genre.

Bottom Line: Half-Life 2 is a masterpiece, combining excellently polished gameplay and design with graphics and sound that are still impressive. The cinematic presentation works exceptionally well and creates immersion in a way that should be an example to other developers even now.

Doom – A Retrospective Review

Author’s Note: Having been distracted recently, first by the Isle of Man TT, then the 24 Hours of Le Mans, then the FIFA World Cup, I have not had much material to add to my blog recently. The forays I’ve made into my more traditional blog material have been limited to things I’ve written about before, typically racing games in the vein of Tourist Trophy. However, I still intend to keep some sort of schedule, as vague as that may be. I offer a review of a game for which I am perplexed that I haven’t written a review before.

In 1993, the first-person shooter genre wasn’t new, having seen id Software’s original attempt at first-person game dynamics with Wolfenstein 3D, which was, despite several games including BattleZone and Elite which used first-person perspectives, the first game to be described as a first-person shooter proper. However, despite its historical importance, Wolfenstein 3D was somewhat crude in its design; all walls in the game were set at 90-degree angles which limited the architecture of levels, for instance. Still, it was quite a jump from the side-scrolling Commander Keen games that id Software had started on and gave them a basis for a substantially more ambitious project – one called Doom.

In Doom, you play a nameless space marine who has been stationed on Mars as punishment after an altercation with one of his superior officers. He is posted in a security role for the Union Aerospace Corporation (UAC), one of the companies doing work on Mars. Part of the UAC’s research on Mars involves the development of teleportation technology with gateways between Phobos and Deimos, the moons of Mars. What is expected to be a dull assignment devoid of excitement takes a sudden turn when there is a report of a disturbance on Phobos. Reports from the UAC outposts on Phobos suggest that things have gone seriously wrong and the player character along with several other space marines are sent out to Phobos to investigate.

The player character is left to guard the perimeter of the outpost when the investigating party arrives, while the other space marines venture into the outpost to investigate what has gone wrong. As the player character waits outside, armed with only a pistol, he hears the screams, yells and gunfire of his colleagues. It doesn’t take long for the space marine to realise that the rest of his unit are dead. Left without an alternative, the space marine ventures inside the outpost himself to try to make some sense of the situation. Before long, he is embroiled in a battle with the forces of Hell as they attempt to invade through the gateways developed by the UAC and must battle his way through not only Phobos, but Deimos and even the depths of Hell itself in order to destroy the source of the invasion.

The plot is rather reminiscent of pulp stories and never gets any deeper than what is described in the backstory. Then again, this was ultimately intentional by the id Software team; despite a more elaborate story design earlier in Doom‘s development (noted in external materials), the id Software team clearly took an approach closer to that espoused by John Carmack, who regards the plot of games as secondary to the gameplay. I don’t believe that a weak plot works against Doom; the game’s design doesn’t necessitate elaborate, intertwining plot strands to work.

Doom uses an early 3D game engine with pseudo-3D (or 2.5D) interactions along the z-axis. There is no facility in the original engine for changing perspective along the z-axis, but shots made in line with an enemy on a higher or lower plane will be adjusted to fire towards that enemy. The character therefore moves and rotates in a horizontal plane; similarly, while levels have areas of different elevation along with stairs and elevators to get between those different elevations, level design occurs on a generally horizontal plane, with no walkable areas on top of other walkable areas. In general, these simply work out as peculiarities of the engine and don’t often affect gameplay, although there are some peculiar circumstances where explosive damage can affect game entities far above or below where the effects of that damage would realistically be expected to affect, or where enemies can attack you or you can attack enemies on planes which you can’t even see.

The action in Doom is known for its fast pace compared to contemporary first-person shooters. As the player character has a high resilience towards a lot of the damage in the game, with many of the more powerful individual attacks requiring specific evasive techniques to be used to avoid critical damage, the damage system promotes run-and-gun tactics in a way not frequently seen in more recent first-person shooters. The limited objectives, largely amounting to collection of keys to allow you to progress further within the level, the lack of cutscenes within the game itself and the sheer fun-factor of zipping through the levels also contribute to the fast-paced action of Doom. Indeed, as there is a timer at the end of the level which tells you how long it took to complete the level, the game doesn’t disguise the fact that it’s meant to be played at speed. There have been long-running speed-run competitions based around attempting to complete levels or episodes of the game as quickly as possible and the nature of Doom makes it an especially suitable game for this sort of competition.

Starting out with a puny pistol which takes several shots to kill the weakest of enemies, your arsenal grows as you progress through the levels, incorporating a pump-action shotgun, a chaingun, a rocket launcher and two powerful plasma weapons which can be found from the second episode onwards, the plasma rifle and the BFG 9000. Similarly, enemies begin from the start of the game with the reanimated corpses of your former associates, armed with pistols or shotguns and progress onwards to the gigantic Barons of Hell and the even more powerful Cyberdemon and Spider Mastermind. As your arsenal grows, the least powerful enemies simply become roadblocks, while the more powerful enemies can be hazardous at any stage.

Doom is interesting for its large spread of difficulty levels, from the lowest difficulty level which would only pose moderate challenge to even a neophyte to the highest difficulty level which is excruciatingly difficult and was originally designed to be a challenge to cooperative multiplayer groups and which only the most experienced Doom experts can battle their way through without dying regularly. My own preferences now lie with the second-highest difficulty level, Ultra-Violence, which is still a substantial challenge and comparable with many of the most difficult contemporary first-person shooters.

While Doom‘s multiplayer capabilities are laughable by today’s standards, it was probably the first first-person shooter to really promote multiplayer support. There are two modes, with the cooperative campaign where up to four players join forces to play through the game and the deathmatch mode where the players fight each other. The limit of four players in multiplayer restricts the scope of deathmatch games, especially compared to contemporary first-person shooters, but the core gameplay is still fun, even if the fast-paced multiplayer action of Doom has been displaced and improved upon by successive generations of Quake and Unreal Tournament.

Graphically, Doom could never stand up to a modern game, but then again, the limited graphics help give the game such flexibility when it comes to source ports (discussed below). Nevertheless, the graphics are not embarrassing considering the age of the game; designed before polygonal designs became common, the graphics don’t suffer from the more significant aging of early polygonal games on the PC and late fourth/early fifth-generation games consoles – i.e. the SNES with the Super FX chip, the PlayStation and the Nintendo 64. Some of the enemy sprites do suffer from the lack of ability to rotate them effectively as you sidestep around them or so on and all of the moving enemy sprites have limited numbers of frames, but I believe that Doom holds up better than its age dictates that it should.

Ultimately, one of the highest accolades that I can grant to Doom is that it’s still fun more than twenty years after it was first released. The gameplay is exciting and fast-paced, while still providing a challenge today. It has absolutely none of the pretensions of realism that are present in most of today’s first-person shooters and retains its fun factor because of this; it isn’t trying to be something that it’s not. Unlike many other games from its time period, Doom is remarkably easy to play on today’s platforms. Aside from the original MS-DOS version, official ports have been released on platforms as diverse as iOS and RISC OS and the Xbox 360 and the Atari Jaguar, while the release of the game’s source code under the GNU General Public Licence has led to unofficial ports of Doom on nearly any platform that can handle it. Many of the unofficial ports on PC platforms come with a host of additional features, including graphical updates, the ability to play the many, many additional campaigns developed by the Doom community and fixes for bugs found in the original engine. In any circumstance, Doom is readily available to today’s players – and probably even more so than it was when it was first released. Not a bad sign for a game more than twenty years old, is it?

Bottom Line:Doom remains a pinnacle of the fast-paced, action-packed first-person shooter that existed long before the rise of Call of Duty. While dated in several areas, it still packs a punch even today.

Recommendation: Given how easy it is to find Doom, whether you purchase it on Steam or buy it off the App Store, the only reason not to give it a try is if you don’t like first-person shooters at all. Pretty much anybody else is recommended to give it a go.

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.

A Brief Comment on RPG Elements in Contemporary First-Person Shooters

Author’s Note: Just a piece of Blatant Filler™ this week. This is an interesting topic, and I may expand on it later when I have a bit more to say on it.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare not only represented a significant change in its series, from superficially realistic Second World War action to modern-day urban warfare with the same veneer of realism, but also worked its way into the multiplayer market with faster-paced action than the predecessors in the series. One of the big features which Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare brought to the fray was an experience-based progression system which allowed customisation of class traits and weapons, along with the unlocking of weapons and perks as kills were made and specific goals were achieved.

It was undoubtedly not the first game in the first-person shooter genre to do something like this, but it certainly popularised this as an element of multiplayer play. With a large demographic of casual and occasional enthusiast gamers along with the more traditional first-person shooter audience, the following titles in the Call of Duty series have progressed along the same lines in multiplayer, even with the brief return to the Second World War setting with Call of Duty 5: World At War.

I’m not an avid online gamer, nor am I a particularly accomplished one, but I have a bit of online first-person shooter experience ranging back about eight years, starting with Quake II and progressing through some of the more popular multiplayer games of the period. As such, I’m in two minds on the subject. There’s certainly more longevity with an RPG-like progression system in a multiplayer game, and Call of Duty‘s achievement system does encourage the use of weapons beyond the comfort zone of the player. That said, almost all RPG-style systems, whether they are in the role-playing genre themselves or allied to a different style of gameplay entirely, are imbalanced in some respect.

From my perspective, the main imbalance in the Call of Duty games comes as a result of the perk system. While weapons aren’t entirely balanced, and have at some points been gamebreakers (I’m looking at the Model 1887 shotguns here!), there is sufficient flexibility in the weapon choices even for a novice to overcome these problems. The perk system, on the other hand, has had a clear gap between some of the perks for a long time. This was most clear in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare with the Martyrdom perk, which violated what should be one of the unwritten rules of multiplayer first-person shooter mechanics: Do not reward a player for being outclassed. Martyrdom, which chucked down a live grenade next to the corpse of the player who chose the perk, completely broke this rule with a game mechanic which was lethally effective in small maps and even moderately effective in larger maps.

After making a return in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, irritating everybody once again, this perk was thankfully removed from Call of Duty: Black Ops. However, not everything is right with the perk system in the most recent instalment of the series. The Pro perks, improved versions of the perks with no balancing disadvantages, give an edge to more experienced players at the cost of neophytes, with no cost to the Pro players except the time and effort required to complete the challenges required to receive the Pro perks. I don’t mind more experienced players having more flexibility when they’re choosing perks, but I’d prefer the clear gap between the neophytes and the experienced players in a first-person shooter to be a consequence more of skill rather than unbalanced game mechanics.

I have complaints about the Call of Duty system of multiplayer progression, but at least they’re taking their influence from more traditional RPG mechanics. Team Fortress 2 seems more content to take influence from a different set of RPGs – the MMO sort. How else could you explain the huge set of revenue-enhancing devices, the purely cosmetic set of hats which the game has acquired and the item crafting and trading mechanics? OK, to Valve’s credit, they haven’t made it a necessity to use the unlockable weapons to play the game competitively, which is a good thing. I vowed when the first set of unlockable weapons were released that I would never use any of the unlockables in the game, and it still irritates me that a huge set of achievements are locked unless you use them.

Yes, OK, it’s good to see that Valve is still supporting its games and what not. I’d just rather they put those people to work on Half-Life 2: Episode 3. Cliffhanger ending? Remember?