First-person shooters have always loved the melee weapon, even as they render it essentially obsolete. No amount of situationality can prevent the visceral joy of beating something to death (especially something wielding real guns) with the bludgeoning instrument of the dev’s choice.

Melee hasn’t changed very much since the early years of Doom and Wolfenstein. It often has the following upsides:

· First or second weapon found in the game, if not just equipped from the beginning
· no ammunition required to use
· sometimes makes less noise than other weapons, or other unique combat advantages (usability underwater for example)
· sometimes a one-hit KO
· Sometimes dealt increased damage to less dangerous enemies

And it often has the following downsides:

· if it’s not a One hit KO, it usually deals low damage, like a single pistol shot
· shortest range of any weapon in the game
· deals reduced damage to bosses

The melee weapon has always had the same intended combat function; an emergency weapon or a way to save ammunition at the cost of putting yourself in more danger when using it. Or a way to bust open noncombat obstacles like crates.

Melee weapons also gave the game devs a chance to be creative and
Melee weapons also gave the game devs a chance to be creative and establish the tone of the game early on.

And early FPSes were totally okay with this. The fists from Doom and the knife from Wolfenstein 3D are completely summed up in these bullet points. Doom demonstrates two odd melee tropes that I don’t see often anymore; hiding a secret, much better melee weapon for savvy players and having a powerup specifically designed to turn the melee weapon into a temporary super-slaying juggernaut of death.

As games progressed, the trend instead was to give the melee weapon utility uses in order to facilitate its usefulness. In Far Cry, the machete was the only weapon that could operate underwater, justifying why you constantly wasted one of your four weapon slots carrying it. The Impact Hammer in Unreal Tournament let you rocket jump. It was around this era that Team Fortress 2 came around, and it’s obvious that this desire for useful melee weapons affected the melee weapons in the game. While the utility of the knife and wrench were inherited from Team Fortress Classic, the damage boost and increased random critical chance were two obvious attempts to make the emergency melee weapons actually worth using in an emergency.

Bioshock Infinite's Sky-Hook is the logical progression; a melee weapon functioning as a mobility tool you cannot beat the game without.
Bioshock Infinite’s Sky-Hook is the logical progression; a melee weapon functioning as a mobility tool you cannot beat the game without, also fully upgradable to the point you can beat the entire game using barely anything else.

Sometimes the utility of the melee isn’t even justified in-universe; for example in Spec Ops: The Line melee kills refill your other weapon clips as a reward. This is the only reason my roommate’s preferred playstyle works: “Rocket Launcher a group, melee whoever isn’t dead to get your ammo back, repeat”.

But melee weapons have evolved beyond Team Fortress 2 in modern shooters and the trend now seems to be making them what TV Tropes calls “Quick Melee“; rather than being their own weapon with a slot, hitting a unique button causes them to swing automatically, whereupon your equipped ranged weapon reasserts itself. Often this attack wasn’t even an actual melee object; in Loadout and Left 4 Dead your character whacks the space in front of them with the butt of their gun. On other trend I’m noticing is a distancing from the creative melee choices from before; instead of wrenches and baseball bats and crowbars every game seems to pass out combat-sensible but boring knives. These two factors are no doubt related, as there’s little reason to give any fanfare to an attack that isn’t even considered a weapon in its own right.

On the whole, I’m pleased Team Fortress 2 melee weapons existed before this era of downplaying them as a part of the game. Melee weapons are a great way to establish some personality for the wielding character and the game as a whole, and players will always enjoy beating things up with barbaric bludgeoning no matter how inefficient the game devs make doing so. A melee kill in a shooter will always carry an element of awesome silliness; might as well give the weapon doing it some attention.

This article is part of my “On Shooters” series, where I compare multiple games by focusing on a specific game mechanic or developer objective. To read the rest, click here!

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