Deathmatch 101: Intro to Fragging

SAN FRANCISCO (04/19/2000) - Recently, it dawned on me that I cling to beliefs some might consider peculiar. No, I'm not here to discuss my convictions that one should avoid eating any vegetable resembling a brain and that a brown paper towel, when placed in your mouth, immediately sucks all the moisture from your body, leaving you a withered, crumpled husk. Rather, I want to talk about my long-held belief that in games-both virtual and real-force inevitably triumphs over finesse.

Seeing this notion spelled out in stark print makes it appear all the more fatheaded, but follow along with me for a second. Does it or does it not seem plausible that if you hurl a bowling ball down an alley at 120 mph, rather than 12 mph, and strike a couple of pins, more pins will likely fall thanks to collateral damage inflicted by the ricocheting objects your ball struck?

Likewise, if you shoot a cue ball out of a cannon and biff the 15 colored balls on a pool table-presuming, of course, that the balls don't shatter, slaughtering anyone standing within a hectare of the table-wouldn't you suspect the odds would be greater that, with all that movement, more balls would eventually drop into the pockets?

I hold this principle to be self-evident. Yet when I've attempted to apply it to other areas of gaming, it falls flat. Take my recent online forays into Quake III Arena and Unreal Tournament, for example.

I hurl myself into these contests, gather the gnarliest weapons and most robust armor on the map, and send a message to my enemies that I'm the baddest mo-fo (monster of force) in the land, but before I take a step, some joker with a single health point and a peashooter scatters my giblets from one end of the game to the other. Having suffered this kind of humiliation a dozen times or more-and from players who excuse themselves at 6 p.m. because they have to meet the rest of the local Cub Scouts at Billy's house to work on getting their Comportment badges-I started to rethink my strategy.

After trying a few new techniques-and actually paying attention to what was going on around me-I discovered that although brawn and catlike reflexes aren't entirely wasted in these games, those who use their brains inevitably win the day. Allow me to share some of what I've learned along the way.

Taking Control

Playing these games isn't like driving an automobile. With a car, you have to conform to the vehicle's controls-right foot for the accelerator, left foot for the clutch, right hand to shift and steer, and left hand to hold the cell phone that puts you and the drivers around you in mortal danger.

Although games such as Quake III and Unreal Tournament come with a default set of keyboard assignments, there's not a reason on earth you should stick with them. Nor should you be at a disadvantage because some of your online opponents use the multibutton mouse that came with their PC while you're stuck with the one-button, round rodent flung into the box with your iMac DV.

Start by procuring a mouse with more than one button. You'll naturally want to assign the firing command to the left mouse button (unless you're left-handed), but how you configure the right mouse button depends on personal taste. Some adventurous players use this as the forward-movement button in conjunction with keyboard keys Z, for strafing left; X, for backward movement; and C, for strafing right. These same players keep the spacebar as the jump-command key; use either the option or control key for Unreal Tournament's Alternate Fire command; and assign the A, S, D, and F keys to particular weapons (Quake's rocket launcher, shotgun, plasma gun, and rail gun, for example).

Others maintain the default setting for the movement keys (W, A, S, and D) and use the right mouse button for jumping, Unreal's Alternate Fire, or-for those who love sniping-zooming. Modern mice often boast a scroll wheel that some players use to cycle through weapons. I'm not keen on cycling weapons-I prefer to get the weapon I want when I want it with a key command-but if you aren't using the wheel for anything else, this is a reasonable assignment.

Once you've found a keyboard and mouse configuration that feels right to you, practice, practice, practice against the bots. Before going up against human opponents, you should be comfortable running backward, dodging sideways, leaping about like a hyperactive baboon in a trampoline factory, rocket jumping (setting off a rocket at your feet to gain serious altitude as you jump), and producing exactly the weapon you want in an instant.

Know the Lay of the Land

Both Quake III and Unreal Tournament provide you with a single-player mode not only so you can practice against bots, but also so you can scope out the games' many maps. In Unreal Tournament, before the game starts, take the time to fly through the map and learn where all the weapons, armor, and power-ups lie. In Quake III, choose Skirmish mode and configure the match so there are no enemies to get in the way of your explorations.

Dangerous Intersection The railgun and armor found at this intersection in Quake III Arena will likely attract plenty of targets. With your own railgun and a protected hiding place, you can quickly rack up frags.

Prevent Defense

One of the secrets to Deathmatch success is knowing where the goods are and making sure you have 'em and other players don't. If you can manage to take a particular weapon, power-up, or piece of armor temporarily out of the game-and out of another player's hands-by cleaving it to your bosom, do so. If your health is maxed out, do yourself the tiniest bit of harm by facing a wall and setting off a weapon that damages you, then grab the health power-up. This is easier in Quake III, where the plasma gun causes only two points of damage.

Unreal Tournament's weapons either do no damage or sap half your health if you're right up against the wall, so before trying this trick, take two or three steps backward.

This preventive strategy may do little for your power or health, but it could seriously undermine a player who possesses only a puny weapon or is in desperate need of some righteous healing. Learn how often the most powerful items spawn and try to be nearby when they do.

Listen Up!

Keep your ears open. Both Quake III and Unreal Tournament provide aural clues to the location of your enemies. If you hear a series of armor shards being gobbled up and you know those shards live right around the corner, you can place your enemy and plan accordingly. And listen for players respawning-these born-agains lack worthwhile weapons and make easy pickings.

Be Unpredictable

There's nothing more natural than running around the right side of a pillar and emerging on the left. Unfortunately, this is so natural that other players will expect you to do just that, and will plant a rocket in exactly the spot where your next steps will take you. To avoid becoming another notch in someone's BFG, do the unexpected-double back instead of going around that pillar, vary the directions you dodge and turn, and sprinkle a few leaps into your movement.

And to be a better hunter, look for patterns in other players' movements.

Quick Tips

These tips require little explanation but can be very helpful:

-- Maintain the high ground. Raining death from above is more effective than attacking from below.

-- Rocket jump (or impact-hammer jump) from bounce and accelerator pads and elevators to gain more height. This can surprise someone waiting for you at the other end of a pad.

-- Target spots where other players are likely to appear-for example, the nexus of two hallways, an opening to a courtyard, the location of a particularly juicy power-up or weapon, or a spot where players land after using a bounce pad.

-- Try to predict where your opponent will be. Few weapons fire instantly, so you need to guess where your enemy will be a few seconds after you shoot.

And there you have it-all the tips, tricks, and techniques you need to stay on your feet and reduce your opponents to their component parts. Happy fragging!

If I don't see you online, I'll see you at the pool hall (I'll be the guy with the howitzer).

Contributing Editor CHRISTOPHER BREEN hopes that the force of his personality will compel you to explore his coauthored book, My iMac (IDG Books Worldwide, 1999).

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