Breaking Bones with a Bone Club
You truly beat the life out of your enemies in Zeno Clash. An uppercut to the jaw sends them flying across a grassy field. It takes them a moment to get back up. While they're dazed, you can run up and kick them a few times for good measure. More than in other games, you can watch yourself doing this: Like an anarchic version of Mirror's Edge, your field of vision swings with your body as you reach back for an uppercut, and your view of a downed opponent heaves forcefully as your leg thrusts outward to kick him in the side.
Another factor is the sound of your punches and kicks landing -- it's nice, loud and slappy, like a Shaw Bros. martial arts film experienced from the first-person. Blow to blow, you're situated squarely in the moment -- as the aggressor. There's little of the numbness that I've come to associate with first-person shooters, which feel more like hyperreal, demented shooting galleries than the truly violent spaces they depict.
It's easy to forget that hand-to-hand combat in Zeno Clash is a lot like playing Punch-Out!! -- your enemies aren't just targets; they struggle and fight back. As such, you're able to block and dodge left and right. There's an intimacy to one-on-one fighting built this way; you have to pay attention to your opponent's movement and vice versa. But where a boxing game like Punch-Out!! frames and legitimizes your fight within the confines of the ring -- elevating conflict into a sport -- there's a sense of desperate abandon in Zeno Clash, whose outdoor terrain is sprawling in comparison. As you fight, you'll circle around trees and huts, face adversaries that come running at you from the other edge of a field, and flee as you're outnumbered by a group of two or three (a small pack by FPS standards). Because there aren't any clear boundaries to the violence here, the sense of danger is heightened dramatically. Any satisfaction you get from beating the crap out of a bird-headed creep is accompanied by the sudden fear of being slammed from behind by his troll-like crony.
You have to watch your back at all times in Zeno Clash, or else you'll become victim to the same aggression and anger you've been dealing out all along. As much physical power as the game gives you, that feeling is amplified by a sense of your own vulnerability in its open spaces. I'm thinking of Far Cry 2 in contrast, whose open terrain is designed for you to hide and scope out enemy forces before systematically demolishing them with your own long-range vision and weaponry. It's too bad Zeno Clash relies so heavily on unplayable, unskippable cut scenes, because your sense of displacement into its playable environments is so vivid and raw -- a surreal feeling that's easily the equal of the game's future-primitive art of bones and hair.