There are some monsters who don’t really have any special abilities as a tank or support. There are some monsters who are supposed to be shockers but just fail at it, but are still dangerous. They could be all of the above, but too strong to be fodder. It could possibly be more of a closer-range monster and have absolutely no utility as a turret. There are a lot of monsters that don’t fit these roles we’ve discussed before. Would these sorts of monsters work, in normal gameplay?
Quake 2’s Gunner was one such monster. Up to this point in the game, you’ve only run into fodder, swarmers and meat shields. Then you run into the Gunner, which has much more health and two high-damaging attacks. It has a chaingun for one arm that already can do more damage than every other monster up to this point, and a much more dangerous four-shot grenade launcher that can potentially outright kill the player if he gets caught by each attack. Granted, you never took full damage since the chaingun was damage over time and the grenade launcher was splash damage spread over an area, but if you weren’t careful, it really punished you. While still nowhere near as powerful as the Tank, the game’s designated heavy, it’s a huge ramp up in strength compared to other monsters.
As I’ve alluded to in the intro, it also has basically nothing to do as a support or shocker, not much value as a tank, could conceivably work as a turret but isn’t strictly useful there (more a carpet bomber, in a few Quake 2 maps). The Gunner is a monster that exists to be a threat to the player, to just be more of a challenge. There’s nothing wrong with this; just like fodder is a useful tool to sculpt encounters with, threats work in much the same way to help set pacing. Many encounters, you don’t really want to use a special role.
The Berserker, from the same game, was a monster that I think was supposed to be a threat in a similar way. It had even more health than the Gunner and it was much faster. The problem was it only had melee attacks; attacks that took time to wind up, no less. Even considering that, if they connected, they didn’t do much damage compared to the Gunner.
Be very careful how you design threats, especially melee-only threats. Compare it to the Berserker from Quake 4 (which I consider more of a shocker, but ignore that) which does more damage, doesn’t have long attack wind-ups and had a very rare ranged attack too (rare enough that I still consider it melee-only). As it stands, Quake 2’s Berserker ended up as a meat-shield, fodder that could only absorb damage and herd the player during fights with more dangerous monsters, rather than the threat they were probably intended to be.
The Gunner is used quite often over the course of the game, in a variety of different ways. Occasionally, you see one used like fodder, a single one in a corridor in between encounters, to try to keep the pace of the game. You can see them in groups of two or three as a whole encounter, or you can see them mixed in groups of other monsters (Berserkers and Gunners mixed particularly well). The Gunner particularly worked well with different terrain, since its grenade launcher made it incredibly dangerous if it was placed on a ledge above you. It works really well in all of these situations. The problem with the Berserker is because it’s so limited in how it can act, it doesn’t work as a threat. In my opinion, threats should be more well-rounded, like the Gunner, if only to give yourself more room to work when designing encounters.
The Elite from Halo is the best example I can think of for this type of monster. It’s pretty mobile, takes a beating (more of a beating, because of its shields), and can deal a lot of damage pretty quickly if you let it. Another interesting feature is their shields; you would think having recharging shields (the ability to mitigate damage) would make this monster more of a tank, but the shields can’t stand up to a player’s focus and the Elite tries to get out of the way as quickly as possible when it starts taking damage (while a good tank would prefer to take focus). The recharging shield gives it staying power in a fight, as long as the player has other things to deal with.
Most of the time when you fight Elites they’re leading groups of Grunts, the game’s dedicated fodder. Not only does a threat/fodder mix work really well, but they were almost designed for one another. Grunts are so short that the Elite can fire clean over them, allowing the stronger and more accurate monster to attack you without the fodder inadvertently assisting you. Again, this helps the threat as a tool for customizing encounters.
More than anything else, the best feature of the Elite (in Halo 1, at least. I didn’t notice it much in Halo 2) is that it’s a lot smarter than any other monster in the game. It changes its behavior based on how much health it has and whether or not it needs to let its shields recharge. They will lay down covering fire to keep you down while they go for cover, they will avoid grenades, they will actually flank you. Advanced AI like this works really well for threats. AI might help other roles (except fodder, which you probably don’t want to be very advanced), especially swarmers (to help them swarm) and shockers, but it’s mostly the mechanics that make a tank, support or turret what they are that are important. Threats can use more advanced AI to be threatening.
The Elite also has quite a lot of variety. The four color-coded varieties (Blue, red, gold and black. In the first Halo, anyway) can use either plasma rifles or needlers. Then there are stealth versions, and the tougher three varieties can use plasma swords for one-hit shots. Each step up is more aggressive, a little smarter and takes even more damage. This kind of variety helps the threat, just like it helps the fodder. Because the player might run into these fairly often over the course of the game, it helps to mix it up, so the player doesn’t get bored with that particular variety. Though, I’m not a fan of small changes, like the difference between blue and red, or even blue and gold, unless it brings something new for the player to consider, because then the same approach to the gold Elite still works for the blue Elite, for example. It doesn’t make anything really new. Though that’s more a comment on variety than on threats. In the next article, I will point out a variation that I think works very well.
Other roles can still be threats, of course. Quake 4’s Gladiator is a threat so it makes you want to target it, otherwise it doesn’t work as a tank because the player can just kill everything else off before fighting it. Quake 1’s Fiend is definitely a threat, and if it wasn’t then it would fail as a shocker. Quake 2’s Icarus is a threat so it can try to restrict your movement like it does. In groups, swarmers like Manhacks or Cherubs all together are threats, otherwise they have no point. The Quake 1’s Shambler is by definition a threat. They don’t obsolete this role, however, because sometimes the lack of those things is useful. They all have their strengths, but they each have their balancing factors and issues with implementation.
I don’t think there’s anything really new in this article. Like my piece on hard vs soft roles, I think it’s something that seems more common-sense, but should still be defined to make things clear. Really, the only reason I classify this is because I’ve noticed a lot of monsters that really don’t have any virtue as a tank, shocker, support, turret, etc., don’t have the raw power to be heavies but are too tough to be fodder. The threat is a good role to use when you don’t want to build an encounter around a specific monster or type of monster, or if you want to ramp up difficulty in an encounter without adding too many members of other roles. Not everything has to be one of those special roles, sometimes you just have a cool design and an idea for a tough monster.