Far Cry is, ostensibly at least, about fighting for a righteous revolutionary cause—liberating a Caribbean island from an almost parodically evil tyrant. So it was a bit weird the first time I performed a glory kill in which my character slammed a machete blade through some poor lady soldier's temple. The blade bursts out of the other side of her head with a geyser of blood. Her face is a mixture of shock and agony, which at least seems like an accurate response.
At which point I felt it fair to wonder: Are glory kill designers okay?
In a game that sits tonally somewhere between earnest and a bit silly, including kill moves that could fit comfortably in Manhunt, Rockstar's 2003 masterpiece of sadistic brutality, seems a bit odd.
Or at least it does to me. But maybe I'm just going soft in my admittedly very old age. Don't get me wrong, I'm a glutton for extreme horror movies and fiction and this isn't a 'won't somebody think of the children' article. Frankly, I barely consider the children whatsoever. It's more that I'm confused by the arms race that seems to be happening in shooters to see who can frenziedly stab a lung with a combat knife most spectacularly. These over-the-top glory kills animations have all found new ceilings to violently burst through.
Based on the completely arbitrary review system established for this feature, I’ve decided Doom’s glory kills are mostly acceptable. Firstly, it’s Doom: it takes place in or adjacent to hell. It would feel weirder if the Doom Slayer wasn’t braining monsters with their own shattered elbows. Secondly, you’re fighting demons. There’s a slim chance they have families and hobbies and career aspirations and favourite hedgehog gifs, but it seems unlikely. Nobody gives a witch’s tit about how horribly they die. And, because of that, smashing them into meat paste feels like you’re doing humanity a kindness.
It’s also intrinsically linked to the feel of the game: the pace and execution of glory kills is part of Doom’s ferocious flow, rather than a cruel speed bump that takes you out of the moment. Horrible, perhaps. But appropriate.
Tonal dissonance: Finding a chick in your breakfast egg. Horrible but not entirely unexpected.
2. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus
Nazis. Of all the enemies on this list, it’s only the demons from literal hell who feel more deserving of gaming’s most disproportionate melee takedowns. But even then, there are a few moments of hatchet violence in Wolfenstein 2 that would make the most deeply-set monocle pop out in shock. It’s not just the mangled limbs, skulls, chests, bollocks, and achilles tendons that raise the eyebrows, but the moments when BJ decides the sharp end of the axe is for basic bitches. Why not try poking the handle into people’s necks, just for a laugh?
It’s the execution equivalent of the marriage counselor suggesting you buy a pair of furry handcuffs to zing things up. Have we really become so tired of crushed skulls and ventilated sternums that we need uglier ways to use a hatchet? Apparently so. Looks cool though.
Tonal dissonance: Crufts for Panzerhunds.
3. Call of Duty
It feels silly to complain about this one—the listicle equivalent of ‘You can’t fight in here… this is the war room!’ But the executions in Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War are enough to make the most battle-hardened special forces operative shakily whisper ‘steady on’. It’s the sort of game that makes you wonder if someone on the dev team has pathological hatred of chins. They’re stabbed, shot, stabbed again, then shot again for good measure. The finishing moves in Vanguard have no respect for ammunition management, either. Who cares if one bullet to the brain would do it? Why not have three? Like punctuation on an overexcited email!!!
A special mention, too, should go to Vanguard, for giving us a glimpse of how a gritty reboot of Shovel Knight might look.
Tonal dissonance: Special forces soldier armpit-farting 'The Last Post' at his best friend’s funeral.
4. Middle-earth: Shadow of War
The most jarring executions tend to come from first person games. Maybe because it feels like it’s your hands doing the killing, like the murdery gloves in a Dario Argento film. But Shadow of War deserves a special mention because it would put the ‘kill’ in ‘overkill’, except that clearly wouldn’t be killy enough. You will never see as many definitely-already-dead heads being severed from their shoulders. It’s not enough that most of the orcs Talion meets end up stabbed through the eyes, mouth, neck, nose, ears, or all five—he has to lop their noggins off, too.
It’s a vulgar display of power. It’s also a great way of terrifying nearby enemies—essentially saying, ‘I hate you all so much I’m going to kill three more times even after you’re dead’. Shadow of War makes the fights in Peter Jackson’s movies look like a soft play facility for red pandas. It’s what Tolkien would have wanted.
Tonal dissonance: Michael Bay’s The Silmarillion.
5. Titanfall 2
Titanfall 2 is, in its mechanical heart, a game about a sad man making friends with a lovely robot. It’s The Iron Giant with time manipulation and flamethrowers. It showcases a relationship that builds over the course of the neat campaign and makes you wonder if perhaps you should be kinder to your Amazon Alexa. It’s slightly jarring then, then, that the multiplayer game showcases as many horribly inventive ways to kill people as Mortal Kombat. I’m not suggesting that the kills should be replaced with a nine-hour adventure during which you and your erstwhile rival learn the value of trust and cooperation; more that BT didn’t teach me how to use my tools just so I could grapple human skulls or phase through people.
Tonal dissonance: Your microwave shouting, ‘dinner’s ready, you c*nt!’ instead of pinging.
6. Halo 5
This is where I reach the final form of ‘old man shouting at cloud’. The melee animations in Halo 5 are a bit silly. It’s not that they’re poorly executed or jarring or crass—more that they remind me of the constant, trampling jackboot of progress and it frightens me. Where once we had the elegant, nourishing ‘krench’ of assault rifle butt on Spartan skull, now we have a violent rumba. A mean-spirited, slapstick dance that feels more about humiliation than the clean, fleeting joy of a perfect assassination.
A melee kill in Halo should be like seeing a nice dog on the way to the shops. A pleasant bonus that fills you with warm fuzzies for a few minutes before you move on. If it was the point of the trip, it’d be weird. And as brilliant as it is to watch one seven-foot supersoldier dunk another headfirst into concrete like a kevlar-coated ginger biscuit, I’d still rather be long gone after a swift assassination, safely hunched around the corner waiting for the overshield to respawn. Just as well this one never came to PC—Halo Infinite has since restored the classic light touch assassinations.
Tonal dissonance: Halo: The Musical.
7. Far Cry 6
And finally, the skull-bothering typhoon of machete violence that inspired this feature. Maybe it’s the fact that Far Cry 6 feels like a first-person version of Tropico. Or maybe it’s because the connection of blade on bone feels so butchery, like you’re preparing chops for an island paradise barbeque. But even for a game about revolutionary violence, Far Cry 6 demonstrates a masterful disdain for sentient flesh. A special uncomfortable mention should go to the execution featured below, during which your victim stares you straight in the eyes as you extinguish their vital spark.
Which, speaking honestly, is a pathetic thing to complain about: "Don’t look at me when I kill you, it’s making me feel bad." Also, do you really need to cover someone’s mouth if they no longer have a throat? Is it some kind of airflow thing, like deflating a rubber ring? A question I hope never to have to answer.
Tonal dissonance: Luxury holiday resort where the pina coladas are served in kneecaps.