At a game design lecture held the morning of the first official day of GDC, Raphael Colantonio, creative director at Arkane Studios, explained many problems faced by designers in the realm of first-person hand-to-hand combat, a challenge it faced head-on in its Dark Messiah of Might and Magic.
The team made the choice of going with a middleware engine, specifically Valve’s Source engine, which helped define one of the main goals of the project: “We didn’t want Half Life 2 with a sword instead of the crowbar.” The other main challenges, as the team saw things at the start of the project, were working on an aiming system that made sense for close range moving targets, giving a strong sense of damage feedback, and gaging distance.
This last, Colantonio admitted, was never fully solved, and they mostly cheated distance by giving the player a larger “hit zone” for enemies, even though a thrust might technically miss as far as physical reality is concerned - if it was 'close enough' Arkane let it count as a hit.
Concerning damage feedback, for player and enemy, it was decided to have the player’s character be a full 3d model. This posed its own problems in that many animations would clash with each other, for instance when crouching the hands would go through the legs, and many attack animations would occur below the player’s field of vision. The ways they worked around this were to begin by exaggerating player animations, so that while a kick seen from a third-person perspective would look awkwardly distorted, seen from the first-person the kick would look natural and, more importantly, land in the center of the field of view allowing for more precise aiming.
To solve the problem of clashing animations, Colantonio and company turned the character model into three separate models: A model for the arms, a model for feet and chest area, and a model for the head. All three could then be manipulated separately depending on the pitch of the camera, creating an effective visual continuity.
When they saw how well this solution worked, the decision was made to widen the player’s field of view, the drawback being that every character animation had to be redone from scratch.
Another problem was that by the time they found the right combination of elements that made the combat work, most of the actual levels had already been completed. Though they were able to make some changes to levels to be more in line with the finished combat engine, Colantonio felt that overall the level designs did not work out very well with the combat engine.
Finally, Colantonio grinned, his other big regret was being unable to create a successful back-flip animation in a first-person game - however, he was joking, for obvious reasons (the player not being visible from first-person mode.)
[UPDATE - 03/11/07 - clarified back-flip comment as being sarcastic!]