40: Metro 2033 Redux [official site] (2014)
Developer: 4A Games
Publisher: Deep Silver
The post-apocalypse as imagined by the East rather than the West, imagining a future-Russia where what’s left of the population ekes out a fearful existence inside Moscow’s subway system. On the surface, cold and radiation prevents all but the most monstrous life, while below ground various factions violently vie for control. While Metro 2033 is deeply uneven as an action game, with wildly spiking difficulty, an over-reliance on annoying monsters and infuriating quick-time events, it gets away with it thanks to its careful world-building (best underground pig farm in games?) and the decision to make combat low-tech and fiddly, your survival forever on a knife edge.
Notes: The Redux version offers a decent graphics boost, as well as improving the frustrating stealth somewhat, but you’re not missing out on a vast amount if for any reason you opt for the original instead. Alternatively (or in a Redux pack) there’s slicker sequel Last Light, which won’t have you screaming Бля at the skies quite so often, but trades away some of the challenge and strangeness as well the frustration.
Where can I buy it: Steam, or disc.
What else should I be playing if I like this: STALKER offers a less linear, wilder and frankly far superior take on the Eastern European apocalypse, but it’s a tougher nut to crack if you’re coming to these things from glossy American shooters. Rage is probably your best bet if that is the case.
39: Bulletstorm [official site] (2011)
Developer: People Can Fly
Possibly the most over-the-top shooter ever made – though Serious Sam presents stiff competition – Bulletstorm is a carnival of cartoon sadism and (far more importantly) of momentum. It’s dumb as blind-drunk sheep, but smartdumb, not dumbdumb. It works very, very hard to be dumb. You also have to accept it as just a game about shooting: it’s Time Crisis filtered through Jackass, with these preposterously ornate environments and setpieces attached, plus an almost bizarrely hard ‘skillshot’ system which means shooting someone in the willy isn’t quite as straightforward as it sounds. Also it has lots and lots of dick jokes. The guy who wrote ’em now writes Captain America comics for Marvel. Cap wouldn’t approve of that sort of language.
Notes: Back before game culture was tearing itself apart, it was defending itself against right wing US media’s breathless and unresearched claims that Bulletstorm’s violence and profanity would traumatise children, encourage sexual violence and generally destroy society. Our own John Walker played a major part in dismantling FOX et al’s uninformed fearmongering on this particular issue.
Be warned: Games For Windows Live.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Serious Sam if you want another FPS that doesn’t take itself at all seriously (apart from on the matter of shooting, of course), or there’s Sega’s The Club for a rather more sober take on shooter-as-score-attack.
38. Descent [official site] (1994)
Developer: Parallax Software
Our first ‘but is it a first-person shooter?’ entry. There’ll be more. Rewriting what we thought possible back in the mid 1990s, this six degrees of movement spaceship shooter was really in 3D – not Doom’s cheaty 2.5D deal. We felt motion sickness. We had to grow new fingers to maintain all the keyboard controls with this newfound Z-axis. And we loved it, became adept at it, shooting virus-infected enemies and rescuing hostages, before belting it out of the centre of whatever it was we were about to blow up. Descent still feels like it’s asking just that little bit too much of us even today, which is exactly why it’s still so loved.
Notes: The source code was released a few years later, leading to a number of more modern ports. DXX-Rebirth is probably the current leading light, and also offers a similar remake of Descent 2. You’ll need original files for Descent/Descent 2 to get it working, though.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Miner Wars 2081 had a crack at a similar six degrees concept in 2012, and involved former Descent audio staffers too. Alternatively there’s the Descent: Freespace series, which shares the IP but not the setting or mechanics, other than the whole being in a spaceship thing – it’s more of a fully-fledged space sim.
37: Quake [official site] (1996)
Developer: id Software
Publisher: GT Interactive
id’s real 3D follow-up to Doom did not invent mouse free-look (that was arguably Marathon on the Mac), but it did make it a standard control method. It also spawned the most intense use of the mouse-keyboard control system to date with the astonishing multiplayer. Quake, perhaps more than anything else, is the template for what a first-person shooter is today, especially in terms of deathmatch. That said, overlook the single-player side of things at your peril: it remains fiercely playable, with some excellent monsters and superbly imaginative level design, and a reminder of how brutal and thrilling things could be before the transformations of Half-Life. It also effectively birthed online deathmatch, thanks to the dialup-redeeming magic of QuakeWorld.
Notes: The Steam version is missing the soundtrack due to license wrangling. One way to get it back is Ultimate Quake Patch, will also introduces an improved engine which may offend your eyes a little less. There are also a whole bunch of new clients (thanks to id open-sourcing the engine) if prettiness is your main interest.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Quake Live if you want a speedier, slicker, easier to get working take on the essential multiplayer ethos here. Painkiller may be your best bet for no-frills, gothic monster-shooting with maze-like levels and a throwback feel.
36: Team Fortress 2 (2007)
Developer: Valve Corporation
Publisher: Valve Corporation
That Team Fortress 2 is a sequel and a remake of a sober-as-a-nun multiplayer mod seems almost irrelevant now. But it’s part of what makes the game so important. Valve took years and years to settle upon a model for what has become one of the firmly-entrenched favourites of the PC gaming fraternity, and that they did so allowed it to prove that a multiplayer first-person shooter can be funny, even witty, and that constant experimentation and progression can keep a game alive and evolving long after it should have ground to a halt. Team Fortress 2 felt like an experiment, and it still feels like an experiment, and that experiment was a success. Repeatedly: most recently, a move to free to play and a move to a hat-centric economy/progression system has kept TF2 thriving. The cost of this is that something of the original spirit was perhaps lost in this translation to gimmee, gimmee, gimmee, which is why TF2 isn’t embedded closer to the top of this list.
Notes: A big part of TF2’s success and enduring appeal is the work Valve put into fleshing out a cast who would otherwise simply have been shootymen with funny accents. The Meet The Team video series is perhaps game marketing’s finest hour.
Where can I buy it: Steam. It’s free these days.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Well, it’s hard for anyone to beat Valve here. But there’s this year’s Evolve, while only partially successful for reasons we won’t go into here, is worth looking at as another investigation into giving its classes very clear roles, necessitating teamplay on a far deeper level than the usual ‘one guy chucks some medkits around.’ There’s also Splash Damage’s Brink, which didn’t quite muster the personality it needed but offers more objective-led teamplay.
35: Far Cry 3 [official site](2012)
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. Look, I personally disagree with my colleagues’ assertion that Far Cry 3 was the best game of 2012, but I can’t really argue that its theme park of murder doesn’t deserve a place here. It (and its very similar successor Far Cry 4) are probably the closest we’ve got to games which make the concept of a truly open-world shooter work. It’s not just that you career around a large landscape, getting into fights either at your leisure or by haphazard accident, but also the outpost liberation missions, which offer these glorious anything-goes experiences that can test out your stealth skills, ability to cope to with waves of enemies or a middle path of mayhem involving angry wildlife. It’s a shame the sandbox is so defined by a map filled with a thousand icons, and that the semi-optional campaign’s storyline is a horrifically backfiring and obnoxious attempt at self-satire, but as purely an exercise in cutting loose and making a big world play by your own rules, Far Cry 3 is justifiably loved.
Notes: It took iron willpower not to make this entry ‘Far Cry 3/Far Cry 4.’ They’re extensions of the same experience; I went for 3 because I found it more focused and initially creative, but the Himalayas-set 4 is more effective at gobbling up your time, and its story/characters aren’t quite as luridly unpleasant. But only just. You can’t go wrong with either game, because they succeed and fail in the same ways.
What else should I be playing if I like this: If you dug FC3’s screechy attempts at analysing/lampooning shooter conventions, standalone expansion Blood Dragon hammers those points home until everything bleeds. If you want open worlding that is a mad carnival for perhaps not quite so deliberate reasons, investigate the notorious Boiling Point.
34: The Operative: No One Lives Forever [Wikipedia page] (2000)
Developer: Monolith Productions
Publisher: FOX Interactive
NOLF is a lovely spoof of the James Bond genre, with its gender-switch approach, and gleeful nicking of Flemming’s gadgets, vehicles and plot structure. Cate Archer makes for an excellent protagonist, peculiarly snooty and unlikeable in some ways, while defiant and ass-kickingly pleasing in others. The pleasure of using gadgets to approach situations in your own chosen way is immense, with a good mix of stealth, action, driving and narrative. Flavours of Hitman, Deus Ex and Austin Powers made for an interesting cocktail. One that really worked and still impresses with its uncommon inventiveness even now. Wit, too: shooters imbued with comedy to anything like this extent were rare then, and even rarer now.
Notes: 2002 sequel No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.’s Way is also a treat, but standalone expansion/prequel Contract J.A.C.K., which threw out most of the spy stuff in favour of shooter conventions (including generic gruff man protagonist, allegedly to help sales) into the series, should be avoided like 14 types of plague.
Where can I buy it: :( The rights are tied up in a knot no-one can (or, more likely, wants to) untangle. So second-hand’s your only recourse for now. Last year, plans for a re-release were announced, but nothing’s happened yet.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Hitman: Blood Money does gadgets and stealth impeccably well, and even weaves absurdist and slapstick humour into its assassination vignettes. Or there’s Dishonored for a more flexible and serious (yet fantastical) approach to the gadgety stealth shooter.
Read more: Retrospective: No One Lives Forever
33: The Typing Of The Dead [Wikipedia page]
Developer: WOW Entertainment / Smilebit
Typing tuition program meets lightgun shooter. Type words fast to kill zombies, listen to mangled translations and sub-Wiseau acting as you do. Even though it had a slicker, and all-too-knowing sequel, a couple of years back, there just isn’t anything like the first Typing of the Dead. It is one of gaming’s most singular artifacts. It can never be equalled, it can never be beaten. It’s a moment of absolute reckless, unfathomable stupidity – yet one that’s unforgettable, almost sublime. You type to kill zombies – zombies from a strange, terrible, wonderful universe in which everyone’s afraid of words and no-one ever learned how to act. How did this happen? I don’t ever want to know. I’m just infinitely glad it did.
Notes: As mentioned, 2013’s Typing Of The Dead: Overkill revisited the concept with (only slightly) better graphics, and this time set to a screechy and tawdry grindhouse theme. I found the attempts at comedy lacking when compared to the original’s beautiful incongruity, but the addition of a Shakespeare pack, a profanity pack, custom dictionaires and more at least span the joke out a little further.
Where can I buy it: Nowhere digitally, sadly.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Everything. Anything. Shed expectations, shed hatred, embrace all possibilities. Or I guess there’s Resident Evil if you want zombies and terrible acting.
Read more: Retro: The Typing Of The Dead
32: Aliens versus Predator [Wikipedia page] (1999)
Publisher: FOX Interactive
AvP was not just another game about killing nasties in the dark: it was a game about being inside the skulls of iconic movie monsters, and fleshing out those beasts far more than any movie ever did. Three playable perspectives – alien, predator, human marine – and all so distinct, and each’s motivations rendered sympathetic despite encountering them all as enemies from the other perspectives. To boot, AvP made much more of the first-person perspective than most of its gun-crazed genre-mates ever did. While the telltale targeting reticule was ever-present, this is a game about survival and observation, a claustrophobic odyssey of fear and strange abilities. Add to this multiplayer and skirmish modes that deftly realised the fantasy of the titular What If? and have you a smart, wonderfully asymmetrical remix of first-person shooters which somehow manages to be scary even when you’re playing an otherworldly death-machine.
Notes: Easily confused with 2010’s quasi-remake Aliens vs. Predator, which was, y’know, fine, but came across as far more straightforward. The 1999 AvP was retroactively renamed Aliens versus Predator Classic 2000 for a recent re-release and slight overhaul (including widescreen support, modern Windows compatibility, gamepad support and not requiring you to have CD 2 in your drive if you wanted to hear the music, which I honestly kind of miss.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Alien: Isolation is the other great Aliens game, though it doesn’t have the strategic oddness of playing as the beasts. More abstractly, Prototype has you play an inhuman superfiend who climbs walls and devours people.
31: Halo: Combat Evolved [official site](2003)
Developer – Bungie / Gearbox Software
Publisher – Microsoft
We’re talking about the PC version specifically, the Gearbox port of which didn’t manage to be as iconic as the original Bungie version was on console, plus had a whole bunch of technical issues. Still, we got a good taste of what’s been so popular in Xbox land: the wide-open spaces, the vehicles, possibly the most solid and recognisable arsenal of guns in videogames, and that sense of a great escape from the lone, tunnel-bound skirmishes of shooter tradition and into a wider war. The PC version also brought (official) online multiplayer to the first Halo for the first time, which a fair few people continue to play to this day. Halo multiplayer may be inextricably mentally associated with brightly-coloured robo-men teabagging each other, but it’s such a tight, well-balanced affair which deftly weaves both land-based and airborne vehicles into the core of the combat.
Notes: Be sure to grab the Custom Edition add-on, which among other things enables support for fan-made maps, as well as introducing a tool with which to make ’em. Gearbox provide it for free. You’ll also need a very recent patch to get the multiplayer working in wake of Gamespy’s demise.
Where can I buy it: Nowhere digitally, but it’s cheap enough second hand. Be sure you get a working CD key, though.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Battlefield does the big-map-multiplayer-with-vehicles thing, as does Unreal Tournament 2004. Or there’s the PC version of Halo 2 if you simply want more, though as a singleplayer game it’s inferior and as a multiplayer game has features stripped, as well as involving Windows Live stuff which may or may not work for you.
Read more: Clues to the (eventually cancelled) Halo MMO