50: Eldritch [official site] (2013)
Developer: Minor Key Games
Publisher: Minor Key Games
Taking the cubist free-form destruction and relentless enemies of Minecraft then chucking it all into a tongue-in-cheek Lovecraft blender, the result is a brilliantly challenging yet gonzo game of first-person survival. Admittedly there’s slightly more stabbing and thumping than there is shooting, but in terms of minute-to-minute tension it’s right up there with the big boys despite having a fraction of the budget. It also builds in a strong sense of wonder as you roam around its procedurally-generated mazes of madness, reliably transforming into fear as some low-poly horror lurches around a corner towards you. What looks like a random tombola of various game-parts coalesces into something both chilling and cheerful.
Notes: Was updated with a free Mountains of Madness expansion, nominally Christmas-themed, but if you can’t enjoy giant evil penguins any time of year then frankly you can’t enjoy anything.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Minecraft, at least if you want more destroying/digging and slightly less being randomly crushed by falling spikes. If you want more Cthulhu but without the blocktastic look, you should definitely check out the ambitious but muddled Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners Of The Earth.
49: F.E.A.R. [official site offline] (2005)
Developer: Monolith Productions
Publisher: Vivendi Interactive
This horror/action hybrid lost some of its lustre as a result of the series increasingly disappearing up its own plot-rectum, but it’s important to push J-horror tropes and everyone-is-related-to-everyone blather aside and look at what F.E.A.R. brought to the shooter table. So often, this genre is just about what a pair hands do, but in F.E.A.R. so much more of your character’s body was involved. The reason we don’t see much first-person kicking is that it’s very hard to get it right, due to the innate preposterousness of a pair of legs appearing somewhere near your nose. F.E.A.R. got it right: it’s such a physical-feeling game. It also pre-empted Mirror’s Edge by making the visible body related as much to movement as it was to combat. As a gun game, it was also a relatively early proponent of any weapon can be equally deadly in the right circumstance, which is still a refreshing move on from the arms race of most shooters. Also spooky little girl with hair over her face wooooooooooooooooo
Notes: Everyone bangs on about Source’s deathlessness, but the Lithtech Jupiter EX engine created for 2005’s first F.E.A.R. still more or less lives on too, having been used in 2012’s Gotham City Imposters and modified for last year’s Shadow of Mordor. It, er, doesn’t exactly look bang-up-to-date in F.E.A.R. these days, though.
Where can I buy it: It’s sitting pretty on Steam, though sadly the multiplayer aspect has been deactivated because someone was dumb enough to base it around Gamespy.
What else should I be playing if I like this: The Condemned games if you want more spooky horror-times mixed in with your action, or No-One Lives Forever if you want to see developers Monolith at the absolute top of their game.
Read more: The origins of Fear
48: Zeno Clash [official site] (2009)
Developer: ACE Team
Speaking of first-person games which lean towards fisticuffs, the gloriously weird, wonderfully physical Zeno Clash remains the one to beat. A sort of boxing game structured around a fantastical quest, it’s as weird as it is beautiful, and as tactile as it is fanciful. The fights are hard and crunchy, the opponents by turns ridiculous and terrifying, and all told it’s a true original. Zeno Clash punches far, far above its modest weight, and while the shooting aspects are comparatively thin if that’s what you’re after, the consistent level of invention and combat which makes it almost impossible for me to not bust out stereotypical action praise like “bonecrunching” is more than worth the trade-off. I’m not sure I can name a more chilling boss-foe than Father-Mother, either.
Notes: There is a Zeno Clash 2, which attempted a whole bunch of interesting stuff and was a much-expanded experience, but it fell a long way short of being as fresh and startling as its precursor. Never take your eye off developers ACE Team, however.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Man, even the idea of suggesting there’s anything quite like Zeno Clash feels offensive. On the most superficial level, Beast Boxing Turbo will let you indulge a sick love of punching weird creatures in the face, though.
47: Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory [official site] (2003)
Developer: Splash Damage
Publisher: Activision Blizzard
The grandaddy of the objective-led multiplayer matches which are popular in many of today’s online shooters, but Splash Damage’s spin-off from Return To Castle Wolfenstein has a rare focus on escalation and push-and-pull team battles that the unlock-focused mania of many latter-day alternatives has thrown out with the willy-waving bathwater. Sure, you rank up in Enemy Territory, but you rank up within the match, for the sake of the match. Military shooters – at that point tending to favour a World War II setting – were popular but staid scoreboard affairs, which W:ET turned into micro-action movies starring a cast with diverse class abilities and set within interlinking missions. Hugely ambitious as online shooters go, but unlike its follow-ups Quake Wars and Brink, it didn’t have eyes bigger than its stomach – its raw essentials of team-based, classed-based combat are pristine.
Notes: Bot mods abound if, quite understandably, you find the idea of wading into its long-standing community to be rather a fearsome one. Depending on your choice of server, you can also play matches with XP deactivated or made semi-persistent between campaigns.
Where can I buy it: It was and is free, so all you need do is go here and download it.
What else should I be playing if I like this: There’s Team Fortress 2 if you want a manic, comic take on teams and classes, though its unlocks are a whole other world of dedication and expenditure. Or there’s latter-day Battlefields for a more military-focused but modern-day take on things, and at a far more dramatic (but maybe more impersonal) scale.
Read more: The Splash Damage story
46: The Darkness 2 [official site] (2012)
Developer: Digital Extremes
Publisher: 2K Games
The first Darkness is probably the superior game, with its unexpected deviations into watching TV on the couch with your bae and its generally more introspective, even thoughtful tone, but that’s not available on PC so it’ll have to be II. Which, while it’s a psychotic fun fair ride which barely pauses for breath, let alone reflection, is pretty damn good as First Person Shooters But… go. You get tentacle monster powers, you get my pet demon powers, you get oh so many ways to violently destroy oh so many bad men, plus a neat dark/light system to make it vaguely tactical. It’s cacophonous lunkheadedness for sure, but as an exercise in how to make first-person action games involve more than repeatedly placing a reticule over an imaginary man’s face and pressing fire, The Darkness II entirely deserves your murderous attention.
Notes: This one was tackled by Digital Extremes, best known for partnering with Epic on assorted Unreal games, but this was the first time they knocked it out the park by themselves. The Darkness 1, meanwhile, was handled by Starbreeze, who you’ll see me say adoring things about elsewhere in this feature for their Riddick game.
Where can I buy it: Steam, assorted download services with ‘Game’ in the title, or on disc, like in the olden days.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Prototype, if you want monster mash powers but in an open world setting. Or there’s F.E.A.R. if you want a more straight-laced take on diverse combat and creepy voices.
Read more: The Darkness II review
45: Serious Sam HD: The First Encounter [official site] (2009; original game from 2001)
Publisher: Devolver Digital
If you want TOTAL EXCESS at its most attractive then you’ll want Serious Sam 3, but frankly it takes far too long to get going. Serious Sam HD, meanwhile, embraces cray-cray early on. Some say it’s a welcome return to the just-get-on-with-it carnage of early shooters such as Doom, but really Sam is a law unto himself. Huge open spaces, huge enemies, huge weapons: it passes all the way through parody and comes out the other side as something pure and earnest. Are you shooting? Are you moving? Are you shooting and moving? Are you emitting a low, sustained scream? If not, you are not playing Serious Sam. Early Call of Duties had their infinite waves of enemies, but that micro-second to micro-second ferocity just isn’t there in anything else. This is bullet hell shump as FPS, a wild dance of breathless persistence. And every time you think it’s gotten as big as it can, it gets bigger.
Notes: There are now more Serious Sams than you’ve had hot dinners, most of which are different versions of the first game. You could get Serious Sam HD Gold instead, which includes The Second Encounter HD and assorted DLC. Or if you’re a purist who wants to play it in its original engine, there is the option of Serious Sam Classics instead of HD, or the fairly new Serious Sam Classics: Revolution which packages The First Encounter and The Second Encounter with some brand new stuff.
Where can I buy it: Steam, primarily, but boxed copies are still sold on yer Amazons and whatnot too. Alternatively GoG has the significantly more archaic non-HD version if you want to do the DRM-free thing.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Doom, if you want just-getting-on-with-it shooting that won’t see you grind your teeth to paste with the intensity of it all. Or there’s Painkiller if you want a more latter-day take on traditional shooter values, but without Sam’s shouty craziness.
44: Call of Juarez: Gunslinger [official site] (2013)
This is a series which has been all over the place, kicking off with a Wild West setting and an ambitious dual-protagonist setup, then selling its soul for the mean-spirited, present day-set The Cartel. It was the cut-price Gunslinger that hit the sweet spot though, pairing crunchy, delightfully unreconstructed frontier shooting with a rich sense of irony about it all, but which doesn’t devolve into snark or hypocrisy. Gunslinger doesn’t take aim at other shooters – it stars a protagonist prone to boasting, so an absurd fight with a hundred men is justified as him telling a tall tale. He’s also prone to distraction, so the action occasionally spins out into strange loops as his mind (or body) wanders, or he’ll warp your on-screen reality to better fit his crazy claims. Importantly, all this is him showing off, not the game showing off: it very clearly wants to be a good time.
Notes: Gunslinger was made and sold as something of a budget game, so be aware going in that there are compromises. It’s short, the cutscenes look like they were dashed out in an evening and there are unresolved performance issues. The main game itself looks rootin’ tootin’ good, though.
Where can I buy it: Steam or Uplay. Don’t worry, the latter isn’t required if you go for the former. Boxed copies are still available here and there too.
What else should I be playing if I like this: There’s Rockstar’s Red Dead Revolver if you want straight-up Westerning, though sadly the wonderful open world sequel Red Dead Redemption never came to PC. As a lo-fi, more playful alternative, there’s the recent Westerado: Double Barreled, which brings (slightly silly) life as well as death to the frontier.
43: Tron 2.0 [official site] (2003)
Developer: Monolith Productions
Publisher: Disney Interactive
Back before Daft Punk had even dreamed of sampling Jeff Bridges’ friendly growl, Monolith’s cyberspace shooter was more Tron than Tron. Mixing the iconic style of the 80s movie – Lightcycles, disc battles – with far more substance, thanks to the logical freedom of actually being a game world, plus having far more real-world technological concepts to call upon in its metaphorical depiction of a digital place. Of course, there’s the distinctive black’n’neon look of the thing too – it’s important to remember that Tron 2.0 was a rare lighthouse of colour amidst what was then a sea of brown shooters, and even to this day the 80s-vision-of-tomorrow style keeps it looking fresh. With downtime conversational sections and a skill tree thrown in, plus a superbly substantial multiplayer Lightcycle mode, Tron 2.0 did far, far more than such a fundamentally silly film possibly deserved. Be warned: annoying platform sections, though.
Where can I buy it: It’s on Steam, otherwise you’ll want the second-hand market.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Deus Ex: Human Revolution has a certain Tron style, parsed through a gold filter, plus it expands massively on the conversational and skill tree elements. Or there’s indie platform-puzzler Sp.A.I., which packs in plenty of cyberspace-themed hacking and shooting.
42: Rage [official site] (2011)
Developer: id Software
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Much-maligned, perhaps understandably given it should have been a grand comeback for the studio which effectively birthed the first-person shooter, but with all the expectation (both in terms of being an action milestone and a technological milestone) pushed aside, Rage has a whole lot going for it. There’s a ton of world-building in here, pacing designed to suit the player, and some really great shooting which found the middleground between throwback and modern. On the quiet, it was almost a dungeon-crawler too: gather yourself and your supplies, head off a dangerous mission in the ruins, even getting to cross an overland in your buggy to get there. It suffered partly from anticipation that it would far more open world than it was – not helped by the relatively contemporaneous arrival of Borderlands – and partly from a third act which threw out the ideas rather than expanded upon them, but approach it as purely what it is and Carmack’s last game is a great shooting game in a great setting.
Notes: Don’t get too preoccupied with the dangling plot-threads left by the conclusion: lead designer Tim Willits told us in 2013 that “we have no immediate plans” to make more Rage games, although he denied that the franchise is dead. The best you can get for the forseeable future is Wolfenstein: The New Order, which pairs Rage’s ambitious graphics tech with a superior shooter.
Where can I buy it: Steam or on disc.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Gearbox’s Borderlands 2 offers a similar theme but with more an action-RPG structure and comedy which makes me personally want to burn the world, but others seem to love it. Alternatively you’ve got Fallout 3 or New Vegas, for a more sedate take on the post-apocalypse.
41: Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Vegas 2 [official site] (2008)
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Specifically, this real world shooter makes this list because of its super-tight, super-tense co-op Terrorist Hunt mode, which has you and up to three chums try to chase down a finite number of baddies hiding around large maps. Because death’s icy fingers reach out out so readily extreme caution and not a little patience is required, and the anxiety when all but one of your team has been slain and everyone is watching the last player creep around, the whole match now riding on them, is as acute as it gets. There’s no great reason to pick Vegas 2 over 1, given the two games are so very similar, but the maps in this one have a slight edge, plus you can customise your character (including their gender).
Notes: Rainbow Six Siege is due later this year, and in theory offers broadly similar shootybangs but with a heightened emphasis on realism and even more of a multiplayer focus. You can sign up for the beta, which should be kicking off fairly soon.
What else should I be playing if I like this: SWAT 4 offers a more tactical and thoughtful take on special ops, plus has a massively more interesting singleplayer campaign. If you just want out and out multiplayer military action with a team focus, any of the recent Battlefields should do you.