30: Tribes Ascend [official site] (2012)
Developer – Hi-Rez Studios
Publisher – Hi-Rez Studios
How we hissed from afar at a free-to-play reinvention of a long-running, jetpack-based shooter series which many professed to love but few kept playing. Sadly, the same seems true of Ascend, which has a massively reduced community and very little visible love from its developers (who are focused instead on Smite) these days. But it’s still alive, and still worth dipping into for bouncy, elegant mid-air battles set in huge spaces, and where understanding the game’s physics is infinitely more important than how good you are at firing a gun. Rab even thought it had “the best Capture The Flag mode in gaming.” Given the bulk of the community is now long-term diehards, you’ll be plunging into the lion’s den of course, but maybe you should give it a go anyway, before it’s gone forever.
Notes: The community isn’t very happy with the developers, who even went and removed the official forum a while back. Don’t expect much in the way of tech support, or for updates to fix some not insignificant outstanding issues. And maybe not too many well-populated matches, either.
What else should I be playing if I like this: A pre-BioShock Irrational worked on Tribes: Vengeance, which you should look up if you want singleplayer jetpacks. For multiplayer, you could give Titanfall a shot, which mixes jetpacks with giant mechs, but its community isn’t as robust as hoped either.
29: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare [official site] (2007)
Developer: Infinity Ward
The tipping point between Call of Duty as was – i.e. a World War II shooter for quiet PC gamers – and what it is today – i.e. an increasingly sci-fi shooter for very noisy console gamers – Modern Warfare was one of the first post-Half-Life 2 shooters to be a true blockbuster. With its dramatically shifting locations, timelines and perspectives (admittedly much more commonplace today), it successfully destabilised the idea that shooters were about one man running through a bunch of tunnels until he killed the big nasty thing at the end. With some shock outcomes, it also introduced a new sense of mortality to our usually superhuman shooter protagonists. While later CODs overplayed the role of NPC buddies and embraced a numbing cacophony, Modern Warfare managed to retain a sombre, fearful quality despite all the explosions and whatnot. It also set the standard for present-day shooter multiplayer, albeit without quite so much focus on unlocks.
Notes: Please be sure to play the campaign through to the end, because you’ll unlock the Ragtime Mode, which remains the best thing ever.
Where can I buy it: Steam and on disc.
What else should I be playing if I like this: An infinite number of other Call of Duties, I guess. There’s also the Battlefield series, now COD’s arch-rival. If instead of all this Team America stuff you want a deconstruction of the evil that manshooters do, there’s Spec Ops: The Line, which some people think is inspired and some people think is the death of all that is good in games.
Why the expansion pack, and not the original (confusingly named) Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II? Jedi Knight was an exceptional game. As was Dark Forces before it. LucasArts (RIP) were making some of the most remarkable FPS games of the 1990s, though people only tend to remember them for their adventure games. Oddly MOTS offered something less than Jedi Knight itself. The morality choices were gone, fixing you on a path of light, which meant many of the Force powers were no longer available. But what you got instead was a far greater emphasis on the light sabre, realising it as one of the most exciting in-game weapons ever, along with a depth of narrative that was – at this point – rare in the FPS genre. LucasArts were pioneers of the early 3D FPS, and it’s time for that reputation to restored. Also, you can be Darth Vader in multiplayer.
Notes: The 2009 Steam version has a whole host of issues, fixes for many of which are listed here. Reportedly the more recently-released GoG version comes with most compatibility fixes built in.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic does lightsabers by way of roleplaying, and was the precursor to the Mass Effect series. Jedi Knight III is where to look if you just want to stab dudes with lightsabers rather than have to talk them first.
Read more: Retrospective: Jedi Knight
27: Star Wars: Dark Forces [Wikipedia page] (1993)
I try not to include too many games from the same series, but this is one of those instances where sequels were major departures from what went before. If Jedi Knight was the Skywalker game, its forerunner Dark Forces was the Solo game, or at least as close as we’ll ever get without someone hiring Harrison Ford to sound exasperated for 8-12 hours. This was Star Wars doing (a more ornate) Doom, and for my money (having replayed it just this morning) it’s still the best recreation we’ve got of the pew-pew gunfights and starkly industrial sets of the original trilogy. It’s breathlessly quick, Stormtroopers are useless and fall over brilliantly, and basically you get to just dash around shooting slightly unconvincing laser guns without anyone ever having time for more than a few bon mots. It’s pretty stupid, it’s very Star Wars.
Notes: The XL Engine project moves Dark Forces into a slightly more modern renderer, including 3D accelerated (ooh, doesn’t it feel lovely to say that again?) environments. An alpha version is available and has most of the requisite bits and bobs in it, but progress towards a planned beta seemed to stall around a year ago.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Duke Nukem 3D or Blood if you want more throwback shooters with more open environments than Doom, or space combat sims X-Wing or TIE Fighter if you want to explore other quintessential aspects of Star Wars.
26. Rising Storm [official site] (2013)
Developer: Tripwire Interactive
Publisher: Tripwire Interactive
With big publishers having effectively moved on from World War II, Tripwire’s Red Orchestra series has become the de facto torch-bearer for the historical shooter. Far closer to simulation than any Call of Duty or Battlefield, it’s very much a specialist game, with a clarity of vision that delights its audience. Standalone RO2 expansion Rising Storm was where the more realistic (i.e. unforgiving, i.e. brutal) approach to warfare really hit its stride. The asymmetrical sides (American and Japanese), the glut of period weapons, a squad-based ethos and true variety to the maps. This is not about speedy supermen at war, and nor is it about chasing meta-rewards: it is about becoming very skilled at something very difficult, which is to say war.
Notes: The Game Of The Year edition includes most of the stuff from Red Orchestra II, so get that version if you can. Even if you don’t, you can get various free content packs via Steam.
What else should I be playing if I like this: There’s Battlefield 1942 if you want a poppier World War II, or if you want more brutal realism, take a look at World War I shooter Verdun.
Read more: Rising Storm review
Developer: Starbreeze Studios and Tigon Studios
Whether the idea of a game about, starring and to some extent by Vin Diesel is a ludicrous concept depends hugely on what ol’ growler’s up to right now. He’s currently back in favour thanks to recent Fast and Furiouses being seen as pulpy indulgences rather than turgid chest-thumping, but even so, the smarts of this prequel to the mostly-knob Riddick films are hugely surprising. Part stealth game, part conversation game, and part brawling stabbing game (as well as offering plenty of shooty-bang, of course), Riddick also boasts an inventive prison break theme and setting and pretty decent vein of science fiction. Riddick lets you play as a hardened criminal, a true anti-hero in a genre dominated by rote heroism.
Notes: Assault on Dark Athena is an expanded remake of the earlier Escape From Butcher Bay. While Athena’s prettier, there is an argument to be made that Butcher Bay is superior – it has quicksave, its lighting system doesn’t get in the way so much and it’s not saddled with the boring extra section. The balance just about tips towards the newer Athena, and in any case you can only obtain Butcher second-hand now anyway.
Where can I buy it: No Steam release here, but GoG has it and it’s not hard to find on disc.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Deus Ex: Human Revolution for more chat’n’stabbing in an oppressive future-world, or Shadow Of Mordor if you want more surprisingly robust movie license brutality.
24: Call of Duty 2 [official site] (2005)
Developer: Infinity Ward
COD2 saw the creators of both Call of Duty and its predecessor, Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, part company with World War II, but they did so with blockbuster panache. At that time, Band of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan and Stalingrad were the touchstone influences, resulting in a game with no less bombast than its bug-eyed modern-day successors, but a more elegant tone with its mind on sadness as much it was spectacle. This is a military shooter about soldiers rather than action heroes (though brutal realism it most certainly is not), and that’s made particularly clear in the near-traumatic Russian segments of the campaign. With often large and open environments and not too much in the way of cutscenes or bossy NPCs (though one of the earliest incarnations of Captain Price does crop up), it’s still a lesson in how to create a battlefield rather than a superheroic sprint.
Notes: It was particularly tough to decide between this and the first Call of Duty. 2 has endured the ravages of age more, but its introduction of regenerating health is a sore point for many, not to mention that in some respects it’s ‘just’ a glossier retread of 1’s fine work – especially in terms of the multi-protagonist setup and the harrowing Russian campaign.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Arma or Red Orchestra/Rising Storm if you want more realism, or there’s Gearbox’s Band Of Brothers series if you want more Saving Private Ryanisms.
Read more: The Missing Conflict
23. Dishonored [official site] (2012)
Developer: Arkane Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
The game in this run-down which caused the most wringing of hands in RPS towers, which is nothing at all to do with whether it’s top or knob, and everything to do with whether it tips too far into Other Genres. It doesn’t go all the way into the inventory Tetris and conversational decision-making of Deus Ex (which I did feel was too roleplaying-y for this), but if you do treat it as a straight-up gun game you’re looking at something both briefer and less meaty than a whole bunch of otherwise lesser shooting galleries. But everyone should get to experience Dishonored’s industrial/magical mash-up world design and architecture, no matter how little time they end up spending in it. It’s also a ‘shooter’ which does far more interesting things with movement than most, thanks to a short-range teleportation power which turns the vertical as well as the horizontal into your playground. When we talk about good first-person shooters, so often we mean that the movement felt good rather than that the shooting felt good, and by making guns a lesser thread in its grand tapestry, Dishonored pushes getting around to the fore.
Notes: Dishonored’s The Knife of Dunwall/Witches of Brigmore DLC is a significant improvement upon Dishonored itself, thanks to a more interesting protagonist and a more complete story, plus the optional involvement of henchfolk to help you out. So if you can afford it, do pick up the GOTY version of Dishonored, even though at £20 it’s twice the price of the vanilla one on Steam.
Where can I buy it: Steam, disc and most other download services, though all they’ll give you is a Steam code.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Thief: Deadly Shadows if you want more, and still relatively accessible fantasy-stealth, or there’s the third-person Shadow of Mordor if you want something with more blood and more magic.
22. Unreal Tournament 2004 [official site] (2003)
A scene as much as it is a game. Looking back, it’s easy to concentrate on all the mods and things that UT2004 spawned. It was an amazing piece of work for the creative folks among us, and it spawned amazing things like Air Buccaneers. However, it was also an astoundingly well-engineered piece of gaming technology. The Unreal engine was, at this point, as smooth as a marble, and it clocked up the core super-fast deathmatch of its predecessor with the addition of vehicles and more modes than a very expensive hairdryer. It still plays like a perfect fever-dance of competitive death, with finely-tuned controls that purr in the hand, but the little-stirred melting pot of aesthetic styles means it shows its age in ways beyond the purely technological. God though, this is like complaining that a Lotus Esprit looks a bit a 80s. It’s still a bloody Lotus Esprit, y’know?
Notes: For a far prettier reincarnation, Epic are currently providing an alpha version of a new UT’s infrastructure for free, with content primarily provided by the community. It’s nothing like as a rock-solid as UT 2004, nor does it have the variety or player-base as yet, but hey, graphics. Also, freeness.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Quake Live, the (semi-free) reincarnation of UT’s uber-rival Quake III, unless you believe in being entirely partisan even when it comes to pretending to shoot people, in which case the other Unreal Tournaments are the only acceptable answers.
Read more: File System Ageing: Game Of The Past Edition
21: Left 4 Dead 2 [official site] (2008)
Developer: Valve Corporation
Publisher: Valve Corporation
Zombies: in 2008 they were still very exciting. They still are today when blessed with Valve’s magic touch, which in a few, brief, cyclic co-op skits adds more life, wit and hinted-at history to its characters and its world than most of the 8 hour+ singleplayer campaigns in this list stuck together. Including L4D2 in the list was complicated, however, given most of what makes it to strong was work done by the previous year’s Left 4 Dead. It’s a sequel not that different to the original, and not a game that I felt, on its first outing, really changed anything. However, it’s clear with time that Left 4 Dead 2 was a major under-the-hood upgrade, both closer to what was intended for the game, and also a bigger move in the direction of pure co-op, which wasn’t something that even seemed possible before the let’s-all-die-together first Left 4 Dead came along.
Notes: Another strong reason to choose this over L4D1 (which still has a more memorable cast of Survivors, to my mind) is how much it’s been expanded by mods. You can stick Deadpool in there, expand it from a 4-player game to a 16-player one, turn everyone into a dinosaur or recreate pretty much the entirety of L4D1 within it. Get thee to the Steam workshop and indulge.
Where can I buy it: Steam. You can get keys from elsewhere, but you ain’t escaping Steam.
What else should I be playing if I like this: The Killing Floor games offer a more frenetic and weapon-focused take on primarily co-op zombie-bothering, or Evolve has original L4D creators Turtle Rock experimenting with more strategic co-op (plus really big monsters).