Roles of Monsters: The Heavy

The monsters we all remember the most clearly are those huge, beefy monsters that can both take and deal a lot of damage. Monsters that the encounter usually center around, and are usually a pretty difficult fight even on their own. These just outright try to kill the player (usually through stats), and take center-stage every time they appear. This category is the heavy; of course, named after the Team Fortress 2 class that wraps it up in a competitive multiplayer sense very nicely.


Shambler, from Quake


The first, most archetypal heavy is the Shambler from the first Quake. The first time the player runs into it, he can assume how dangerous it is because of its size, sound set and its overall design. It has the highest health in the game, and can do the most damage. As its ranged attack, it projects a stream of lightning for a few seconds that deals steady damage for as long as it’s connecting (you have to break line of sight to avoid it); dealing heavy damage if you’re caught in the full blast. Unless you have armor, its melee attack can potentially kill you in a single shot, as well. In addition to its high health, it’s resistant to explosive attacks, making it even tankier.

Heavies are kind of simple in how they work. Like the Shambler implies, heavies have to be able to both deal and take a lot of damage. There’s not much beyond that, in how their role works. It also helps if the heavy is competent in both ranged and melee combat; however, I’ve seen heavies that specialize in melee (Quake 4’s Light Tank) and heavies that specialize in ranged (Quake 2’s Tank, hilariously enough). Heavies are supposed to be intimidating, and having a heavy that’s useless at either ranged or melee combat lessens their impact unless they’re placed so that players are unable to take advantage of that (trickier than it sounds. It’s a good idea to grant your player enough respect to assume he’ll pull stuff like this).

Heavies by definition are a little bit like shockers. The player usually hates fighting them because they’re so dangerous and take so much punishment. However, there’s a major difference; heavies only shock by virtue of raw stats, most of the time. Shockers usually have some mechanic like some innate unpredictability, quick movement or things like that, but heavies are mostly just pure damage and high health. Also, once you learn how to fight them, they lose that shock value unless the situation makes its high damage and high health more immediate. Shockers are kind of required to stay shocky after the player understands them.


Tank, from Quake 2

Quake 2 was another game that has a pretty decent lineup of monsters, and of course, it has heavies of its own. The Tank was its primary heavy-class monster. It took a lot of damage compared to other monsters (but some of the weapons almost-literally melted it), but it was practically a weapons platform. One arm is a machinegun, one is a reliable, decently-damaging blaster, and the other is a three-chamber rocket launcher. It was almost exclusively medium-to-long-range, and it had no melee attack of any kind. In fact, as I’ll discuss in a moment, it was really punished when the player got close.

The biggest point of the Tank is that it has so many attacks. It doesn’t just pull the same trick all the time like the Shambler does. Each attack has its own tell, and its own way of dodging. You had to duck under the sweep from the machinegun, dodge the blaster shot, and usually had to take cover from the rocket launcher. More than that, there’s another version of the tank you encounter towards the end of the game called the Tank Commander. It had a different color so the player could tell them apart, and a lot more health. Of course, the Tank was pretty much phased out once the Tank Commander was introduced. This kind of variety is good for heavies, because it keeps them dangerous. The Tank could be harder to deal with than the Shambler because it does different things than just the one attack, and the Tank Commander is good for refreshing it if it got stale (or would have been, if it was more different).

The Tank shows that heavies can work well as turrets, if they have a properly-designed attack for it. The three-chamber rocket launcher was great for bombarding an area if it was positioned correctly, and it was tanky enough that you won’t going to clear that obstacle quickly. The two roles aren’t really exclusive to one another, but I consider it primarily a heavy because it’s so much more dangerous than any other monster in the game (again, by virtue of high health and high damage). It does have one massive flaw that forces it to be used like a turret, however; if you got behind it, you had a few seconds where it needed to turn around to be able to attack you. If you were were quick, you could stay behind it and unload with the super shotgun, basically keeping it helpless. In my opinion, heavies shouldn’t have flaws like these, or if they do, they should be used in such a way that the player doesn’t have much opportunity to take advantage of those flaws. It really blunts the effect this role should have.


Brute, from Dead Space


Heavies can also work as tanks (talking about the role. When I’m talking about Quake 2’s Tank, it’s with a capital T). The Brute from Dead Space is a pretty good example of this. It was a mostly melee monster, but had a ranged attack as well (not many people know about it, but I played around with the first one you run into and noticed it) letting it adapt to those situations. It could also close distances pretty quickly if you let it, and hit like a truck. It makes a good heavy in its own right, but what makes it a tank is that it has several thick plates in the front that mitigate damage. If you want to hurt it, you have to shoot it in the back, or hit one of the weak points near the shoulder (tricky to spot, but they’re there).

Heavies can work as tanks, by definition. Heavies sort of need high health in order to have the impact they want. When you add a gimmick like the Brute’s armor plating, you have a very effective tank as well. The difference, however, between tanks and heavies (and the reason I keep these two roles separate) is that heavies should be perfectly capable of killing the player. Tanks just need to get the player’s attention somehow so they can absorb damage, but they don’t have to actually kill the player themselves. Every heavy I can think of off the top of my head would be a decent tank, but not every tank would be a good heavy. Red Faction: Armageddon’s Monolith isn’t, for example.

The problem with the Brute, however, is a problem I alluded to with Quake 2’s Tank. With Dead Space’s limb-severing mechanic, you can kill them very easily. If you know where to shoot and are fast enough, you can take advantage of the gaps in the Brute’s armor and pick it apart with the game’s first weapon! Even if you know how to fight them, the Shambler and Tank (ignore its turning speed for a second) can still be difficult fights. As I said before, heavies shouldn’t have flaws like this, or if they do it should be done in such a way that the player can’t take easy advantage of it; otherwise the effect the heavy should have is lost.


Hercules, from Binary Domain


The Hercules from Binary Domain lets me make one extra point that I found interesting. As a heavy, it was pretty standard; it took a lot of damage, it had a large chaingun that ripped right through you, and it was very, very obvious in a fight. It wasn’t encountered often (aside from a few rail-shooting segments), as well.

What was interesting about them was another monster entirely. There was one support monster you encounter throughout the game called the Whirler. All it did was ferry individual fodder into the fight. About half-way through the game, though, we see flying Hercules’ being kept aloft by Whirlers, making the Hercules a pretty different fight, though we immediately know what to expect because we have seen both monsters before. While it was a concept that was only really hinted at in Binary Domain and I haven’t seen it fleshed out anywhere, heavy-specific supports (supports that only exist to support heavies) would be very good to see somewhere.

Heavies are pretty straightforward in how they’re balanced. You’re trying to make a monster that absorbs and deals a lot of damage, so make sure it absorbs and deals a lot of damage. When you’re making a monster that tries to actively kill the player, there’s a trap a lot of people fall into where they design it in such a way that it does it too well. The attack does too much, it’s too difficult to dodge, etc. You always have to give the player some way of defeating it. If your goal is to kill the player, put him in a crusher as soon as the level starts. The goal here is to challenge the player and provide an enjoyable game. Once you have that in mind, balancing them is easier than other roles, like shockers and supports.

One more thing I have to say, however, is about heavies with specific vulnerabilities. The Strider from Half-Life 2, for example, was only vulnerable to explosive weapons, and even then it took a lot of rockets to bring down. What ends up happening if it’s outright immune to your other weapons is that you have to make sure that the player has more than enough of that high-power ammo to bring it down. Otherwise it gets really frustrating for the player (and indeed, that first time you fight them in Half-Life 2, it was). In order to balance the large amount of ammo the player needed, they made sure the rocket launcher couldn’t carry much ammo and placed crates that give you infinite rockets, so you had more than enough for that boss fight, but didn’t have enough to outright break other encounters. However, if you go through all that trouble for just the one monster, it’s not really a heavy anymore, it’s just an outright boss encounter.

The heavy is a role that has been around since the beginning of the shooter genre (the SS in Wolfenstein 3d), and is one of the central roles you can find in most of them. Even modern-military shooters could feature a heavy in some form because of how simply they work. They’re also one of the easier roles to balance correctly. Like shockers, they have a tendency to evoke that reaction from the player, and convey a feeling that a big battle has just started.

Roles of Monsters: Shockers

I did say in the kamikaze article that they can provoke some emotional response (really, just panic or fear) from the player. Shockers are a class of monster dedicated to making the player panic, through some mechanic or because of how it works, or scary to the point where he gets a little afraid from just hearing a sound from one of them. For example, a kind of famous moment from my playthrough of Quake 1, a friend of mine signed in on chat and it played the Doom 2 Archvile’s sight sound (that I set to play when she logs on). Despite that monster not being in the game, I still reacted and immediately dove for cover to avoid it.

Now, this is probably the most subjective article I’ve written on monster roles. How much panic a particular monster inspires widely depends on the player, his skill with the game, and his play style. If you disagree with what I say about a particular monster, I hope you do still see the point that I’m trying to make.

Fiend, from Quake

Quake’s Fiend is the first monster I consider a shocker (and honestly, what prompted me to write this article). It has some of the highest health in the game, and is very quick besides. It attacks by slashing with its claws when up close, and will leap at the player if it’s not quite close enough, doing pretty high damage if it connects. Several times in the game, the player walks through a doorway or opens a door, hears the throaty cry of a fiend and has to react quickly to avoid getting a face- or side-full of spikes and claws.

The player’s first encounter with a Fiend is one of the most frantic spots of the game; it’s leaping everywhere and you’re doing your best to avoid it, but you’ve probably already taken one or two good hits from it. If you’ve fought it enough times before, you know what to expect and how to deal with it, but not that first time. Because it’s so in-your-face with its mobility and damage, and because it won’t die easily, this thing makes the perfect example of a shocker.

Spawn, from Quake
Another example from Quake (seriously, the last episode of the game on Hard mode is one of the most frantic and difficult games I’ve played), the Spawn fits beautifully into this category. It keeps a low profile, and announces its presence with a quiet growl, but then starts bouncing all around trying to crash into you while making a very distinct clicking/slapping sound. It does lower damage than the Fiend, but is harder to avoid, and around the end of the game they appear in high enough numbers that they can be considered swarmers. Its real danger, however, is that it explodes when killed, doing as much damage as if you fired a rocket at your feet. Worse still, because its attack requires that it gets close to you, it’ll probably be right next to you when it explodes.

While the Fiend is shocky by virtue of its mobility and damage, most others are because of some innate mechanic. The Spawn is a great shocker because of a mix of both; it’s so in your face, but also has its kamikaze secondary ability. The best qualities of shockers are either high mobility or some stealth, and usually some high damage that’s tricky to avoid. It’s not an exact science, however; you’ll probably have to play around with a few different designs in order to achieve the desired effect.

Hunter, from Half-Life 2
Like with most dangerous monsters, good introductions are helpful to have. With shockers, it can be helpful to inform the player that this is something that should really be feared. Half-Life 2, famous for introducing its monsters and gimmicks fairly gently, does it very nicely again. In Half-Life 2, Episode 2, towards the beginning of the game, you enter a deserted area and hear odd sounds from an unknown enemy. After looking around for a way to continue, you and your sidekick Alyx are ambushed by a Combine Hunter, which knocks you unconscious and mortally wounds Alyx (Sorry for the spoiler, but it’s ten minutes into the game and you should be playing it anyway). The next part of the game is looking for a way to help her. Later on, about halfway through the game, you’re given another introduction, where you and Alyx hide from a patrol of Hunters, before attacking and killing them. In this way, the game lets you know that this is a monster that should be feared and taken seriously. It can work pretty nicely.

The unfortunate thing is that when you tell the player that this is a monster that’s worth panicking about, you have to make sure that the monster is worth panicking about. While again, this is pretty subjective, I don’t think the Hunter is as much a great a shocker as the Fiend, for example. It takes and deals more damage than most monsters and can be pretty quick, but it’s not as in-your-face as the Fiend or Spawn. It mostly hangs back and fires its flechettes at you. However, while it’s a great monster and another excellent design to come from Half-Life 2, I’m mostly bringing it up as an example of how your game can introduce shockers.

Archvile, from Doom 2
Some shockers just need one particular gimmick. Doom’s Archvile is pretty quick and takes some heavy damage, but also has one very interesting attack. It sets you on fire (just an aesthetic thing; it doesn’t damage you at this point), and after a few seconds of channeling, if there is still a clear line-of-sight between you and the Archvile, it blows you up dealing heavy damage and throwing you in the air. It requires you to stay on your toes. The main gimmick of the Archvile, however, is that it resurrects other monsters. Depending on the arena, all of these factors combined can really make the player panic; especially if it’s an area the player already went through and left some bodies behind.

It can really be considered a support/shocker (though I don’t consider it a support because of how dangerous it is, even when its alone), and is even used as a turret occasionally because of how its attack works. It’s a great example of a monster that can fill several roles depending on how it’s used. Some shockers just need some basic gimmick, however, depending on that gimmick, to be effective. For example, the Poison Headcrab, despite being a hard support. I have no doubt Quake 4’s Teleport Dropper would be a good shocker if it didn’t have those crippling problems it does, but it just wasn’t dangerous enough for that.

In general, effective shockers are ambush monsters. They work a lot better when they get the drop on the player; think of the Fiend, leaping at you from behind doors or from around a corner. Or Poison Headcrabs jumping at you from the shadows. If you design your shocker to be focused on ambushing, loud, distinct sounds and high mobility are really beneficial. If a player’s startled, he’s probably not going to fight back effectively against a monster that’s already in his face. You shouldn’t do this very often, though; Doom 3 is heavily criticized for pulling so many cheap scares throughout the course of the game. Pulling this as few times as Quake did, though, can make for a few memorable fights (Play Quake 1 E1M3 on hard mode, you will know exactly what moment I’m talking about).

Almost by definition, shockers become less shocky as the player gets more familiar with them. People fear what they don’t understand, so as they come to find patters with shockers, they don’t fear them as much. This is why I think the Fiend, Poison Headcrab and Archvile are so great; even when you understand them, they still require quick reaction, so they still startle you and make you scramble to avoid them even if you perfectly understand how they work. The Spawn still feels really random and unpredictable in its movements, so it’s a bit more stressful to fight as well. Always make sure your shocker can hold up after the elements of surprise and mystery are gone, so it can still fulfill its role as a shocker. One great example is the Wraith from Red Faction: Armageddon. Even without any upgrades, you can tag it with the magnet gun, melee it a few times, and it dies without much of a challenge. It just can’t hold up as a challenge once the player knows how it works.

I feel like shockers would do very well in games with a lot of ambiance, that try to draw the player into the world. Doom 3 was one such game, with beautiful ambient sounds and good detail all around; you occasionally heard gunfire from a surviving marine or the distinct growl of some particular monsters. If you have a well-designed shocker in a game like that, you just need to play a sound from it, and the player will react, usually getting more cautious or jumpy. Doom 3 tried to do this with the Commando Zombie, but like Red Faction: Armageddon’s Wraith, the Commando Zombie just couldn’t hold up to being a shocker after you realize you can duck under its tentacle attack and just blow it away with the shotgun. However, the intent was there, and if it was more dangerous, it would have worked beautifully.

In survival-horror games, you should approach shockers through a certain lens. In most games of this genre, most monsters only make you panic because the game itself is built around it. The environment tries to hide the monster, sounds and stingers play when they appear, and the game mechanics are such that you don’t have an easy time reacting to their attack. If you try to decide if a monster in a survival-horror game is a shocker, ask yourself if the monster would have the same effect on the player in a game like Quake, where the player is more capable. For example, in Dead Space, most monsters try to surprise you, but the only one I think of as a shocker is the Twitcher (because it’s so fast and hard to avoid). The Slasher, Leaper or Brute would be perfectly fine to deal with in Quake, but I would consider the Twitcher a shocker because of how difficult it would still be in that other engine. Again, however, it had a problem; if you upgraded a certain weapon’s damage enough, you could literally kill them in one shot with no effort, making it useless as a shocker.

Shockers can work pretty well in main encounters; Quake proved that a shocker (Fiend) combined with a turret for area denial (an Ogre on a high perch) can work pretty nicely, for example. The potential problem is if those monsters can hurt one another (in the case of kamikazes especially), and especially if the game has Doom- and Quake-style infighting, where monsters will fight one another if they take damage. Many shockers that are just all over the place in combat can provoke this a lot. That’s when shockers could work better as lone-wolves because they can wreck encounters if they aren’t used carefully.

One small problem that both turrets and shockers (more than most other roles) run into is that the player can potentially just retreat into an area he’s already cleared out and is more convenient and fight there. The shocker would probably follow along and the turret might not be able to, defeating the purpose of an encounter with both. Quake deals with this by usually locking you into an arena, preventing retreat, and unlocking. Depending on how often this is done, this can work well or be a complete disaster. Quake allowed the player to retreat most of the time, but there were occasions where the player gets locked into a battle; usually for especially difficult battles, so they don’t lose their impact or challenge. However, this is a subject for some other time; I’m just bringing it up here because it affects shockers and turrets quite a bit and needs some thought from the developer when he designs an encounter.

Like fodder, shockers can help the designer dictate the flow of combat and gameplay in general. After lulling the player into some form of security with fodder, you can throw a shocker at him to bring the level of involvement right back up. The main objective is to allow low-energy segments as breaks while keeping the player engaged, and then draw him right back into a high-energy segment; something shockers can really excel at.