20: Alien: Isolation [official site] (2014)
Developer: The Creative Assembly
Another definition-stretcher, given the first truly great Aliens game since 1999 involves a whole lot more hiding and quivering in terror than it does the firing of weapons, but it’s still an action game from a first-person perspective, and in which (like everything else here) the primary mechanic is, in fact, movement. I.e. when to move and when you really, really shouldn’t move. It does have some traditional shooting sections if you demand them, and finds a way to make a very different and non-titular foe unsettling too, but it’s the cowering from Giger’s indefatigable giant-penis-with-teeth that really makes it. With environment design that borrows from the austere whites of Alien’s sci-fi structures, rather than the oft-imitated more industrial design of Aliens, Isolation creates a strong sense of place as well as a strong sense of absolute terror. There are some wobbles later in the game, but journey > destination.
Notes: A disclaimer: I know one of the writers on Alien: Isolation. Please seek alternative number 20 placements in Best Shooter Lists if this concerns you.
What else should I be playing if I like this: The Thief series, for first-person games which entail more avoidance than conflict, or there’s the infinite array of Slender and Five Nights At Freddy’s games if you’re into jump scares above all else.
19: Wolfenstein: The New Order [official site] (2014)
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Of everything 21st century in this list, The New Order puts the lie to nostalgia goons’ claims that shooters ain’t what they used to be. Pairing up pure pulp with surprising heart, then earning both by underpinning the sci-fi gloss and melodrama with super-solid, impressively flexible combat, this alterna-history Nazi-shooter is the complete blockbuster package. The latter-day follow-up to the all guns, all the time grandaddy of first-person shooters even boasts a robust stealth option. Its large levels and long length takes you to all sorts of wild places too: some misfire, some are exactly what you’d want, and the result is a shooter which knows exactly what it’s doing, and while (despite deviations into the maudlin) it’s too happily dunder-headed to earn the breathless adoration of a BioShock or Half-Life, as a singleplayer action game it just doesn’t compromise.
Notes: Don’t opt for standalone expansion/prequel The Old Blood, released this year, just because it’s a newer game. It’s perfectly adequate as manshoots go, but it doesn’t reach as high as The Old Blood, in either spectacle or humanity.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Half-Life is a clear inspiration for The New Order, in terms of being another resistance tale with dramatically changing environments and your trying to live up to the expectations of a fearful supporting cast. There’s also the earlier Return To Castle Wolfenstein if you want to shoot fantastical Nazis without having to worry about feelings.
18: Natural Selection 2 [official site] (2012)
Developer: Unknown Worlds
Publisher: Unknown Worlds
The standalone sequel to a beloved Half-Life mod, asymmetrical multiplayer shooter NS2 ended up doing space marines versus aliens far more successfully than the contemporaneous disaster Aliens: Colonial Marines. It’s so much more than mere deathmatch though: its rare mash-up of FPS and real-time strategy sees players building bases and defences as well as battling each other directly. Each team has a commander – a single player who directs the action and builds structures – while the rest of the gang run around the sci-fi corridors, battling the opposing team and attempting to support the actions of the commander. Or completely ignoring him/her, as tends to be the way of things on public servers. A few games have taken similar positions in the time since Natural Selection first appeared, but few of them have done it with as much vigour as this. The huge differences between the sides – humans with guns, aliens with tooth and claw – saves it from the routine and predictability of standard multiplayer shooters, but be warned that you may struggle to get too much out of it without seriously committing to long-term play with a similarly-minded team.
Notes: Out recently is standalone mod (of a mod gone standalone, yes) Natural Selection 2: Combat, which dispatches with the base-building stuff in favour of straight-up asymmetrical murder, with a touch of RPG-style levelling. I won’t be enormously surprised if it ends up being more popular than NS2, given that people really do like killing each other.
What else should I be playing if I like this: There’s no shortage of community chest-thumping claiming that Natural Selection 1, a mod for the first Half-Life, is the series’ highest watermark, and they might just be right. Sadly you’ll have to work harder to find a decent match. You could also check out Planetside 2 for larger-scale team-based sci-fi, with the emphasis on base-seizing rather than base-construction.
17: Crysis [official site] (2007)
Some say the golden age of the shooter is the Doom and Duke Nukem 3D era – there’s that jpg idiots sometimes circulate on Twitter showing the difference between the openness of the maps in Doom and the maps in Call of Duty: Something – but for me it’s the age when several big companies were trying, and partially failing, to make them open world, before they became standardised into the Infinite Icons Of Ubisoft model. You’ll see STALKER elsewhere in this piece, which is the high watermark as far as I’m concerned, but I have a lot of time for early Crytek’s attempts to offer the player their own playground. Now that they’ve moved into slick and focused linearity, I oddly miss that which I once griped about: their tendency to default to over-powered monsters in the third act out of some (presumed) fear that freeform dude-shooting wasn’t interesting enough for an entire game. At least Crysis, unlike the earlier and in some ways superior Far Cry, hands you fantastical boons too: the highly tactical Nanosuit which enabled superjumps, supersprints and superpunches, wondrous for navigating the huge environments (and getting into huge fights) in the game’s first half. What Crysis does so very well is to give you a generous toolbox and a sizeable workbench on which to use them; what it eventually does wrong is to lose confidence that that’s enough.
Notes: What should have been the best multiplayer mode in the world sadly wasn’t, and in any case was recently shut down. So if you pick up Crysis, be aware that you’re only getting the singleplayer side of it. Also, no, your PC probably still can’t run it well at max.
What else should I be playing if I like this: the earlier Far Cry does better and grander island-hopping, semi-stealth warfare to my mind, but there are more irritations and it lacks the glee of the Nanosuit. I’m going to say Prototype again if you want more superpowered sandboxing, even though that’s a little underwhelming.
16: Arma 3 [official site] (2013)
Developer: Bohemia Interactive
Publisher: Bohemia Interactive
The Arma series – spiritual sequel to the original Operation Flashpoint – has always been more of an infrastructure for infinite anecdote-generating, player-driven, co-op, open-world military adventure than they have been great games in the traditional sense. Although the third game was the most solid and substantial right out of the blocks, like its predecessors, the mods and maps spawned from its sizable and impassioned community are what makes it such a fountain of invention and simulation. Even III is better than II in almost all ways, especially handling of UI and animation, plus little innovations like the Zeus mode (providing a game master for multiplayer). Far more tactical than most everything else on this list, to the point of it becoming almost a second career, but take a peep down the rabbit hole and you may never return. (Please note that line was not a deliberate allusion to how much time you spend staring at men’s butts in Arma 3. But maybe it is now.)
Notes: We can’t mention Arma without talking about DayZ, an internal mod for Arma II now gone standalone. A game of freeform, competitive (or co-operative: you never do know) survival after a zombie apocalypse, it might stretch the definition of first-person shooter too far to comfortably sit in this list on its own, but it’s nonetheless a watermark moment for what we might loosely term ‘action’ games.
Where can I buy it: Steam, disc
What else should I be playing if I like this: There are those who feel the more focused original Operation Flashpoint remains superior. Battlefield 3 and 4 are far more approachable if you want large-scale war with tanks and helicopters and jeeps oh my.
15. Mirror’s Edge [official site] (2008)
Developer: EA Digital Illusions CE
I know, I know, including a game whose occasional shooting sections were by far its weakest element in a list of best shooters is almost wilfully perverse. But where else are you going to put DICE’s cult classic, perfectly kinetic first-person parkour title? And what a sin it would be to overlook it. If we go with an argument I’ve been sporadically making throughout this piece, that a good FPS is more about movement than guns, then Mirror’s Edge becomes a paradigm of that. Keep running, across the rooftops and along the walls of a startling future-city. Find a rhythm. Don’t explore, but push ever-forwards, reacting instinctively: slide, jump, roll, climb, have faith that you will know where to go when you see it, rather than kill momentum with preparation. A first person shooter is about performing movements which ensure your survival in a deadly place; in Mirror’s Edge, the routine mechanism of targeting is swept away to focus on those movements and that survival. Mirror’s Edge’s austere and so far age-resistant beauty – that of a deadly place which doesn’t need to visually demonstrate that it is deadly – makes your fevered sprint a thrill rather than doomy. So much goes wrong later, but so much is right throughout.
Notes: The much-demanded sequel has been on again, off again, on again for the best part of a decade, but EA recently announced that it’s due for release next year. There’s a great deal of anxiety that it will up the gunplay and conventionalise the protagonist, but early footage is encouraging so far.
What else should I be playing if I like this: The Assassin’s Creed offers more free-running across city rooftops than you could ever possibly desire, though it’s never attained the elegance of Mirror’s Edge. If you want to flex parkour muscles within a traditional shooter, there’s Splash Damage’s so-so team game Brink.
14. Battlefield: Bad Company 2 [Official site] (2010)
Developer: EA Digital Illusions CE
There’s been an overblown quality to recent games in the core Battlefield series, not helped by being saddled with turgid singleplayer campaigns trying too hard to butt heads with Call of Duty, but the Bad Company spin-offs found new verve and focus. By which I primarily mean “you get to trash a load of stuff.” The capacity to blow holes in walls is probably the most thrilling and interesting element of BFBC2. You can use it to gain access to a building, to remove cover from the enemy, or just to feel like you actually destroyed something. As well as that, it simply feels tighter, more direct and more exciting than Battlefields 3, 4 and Hardline. Bad Company 2, the series highlight, is the Expendables rather than Tom Clancy, with a cavalier quality that injects it with far more life than more recent military shooters. For that reason, it retains a more active community than more recent shooters of the same ilk.
Notes: Even the devs don’t seem quite sure how to meaingfully follow BFBC2 up. As DICE boss Karl-Magnus Troedsson told Eurogamer last year, “Some people say this: the Bad Company 2 multiplayer is the best you’ve ever done. Okay, why is that? It’s hard for people to articulate what that is, which is actually hard for us. It would be hard to remake something like that.”
What else should I be playing if I like this: The Red Faction or Just Cause games if you can’t get enough of trashing the scenery, while last year’s Battlefield Hardline is, though a bitter pill to swallow, the series trying to inject a little more mayhem again.
13: Action Quake 2 [not entirely official site] (1998)
Developer – The A-Team
Publisher – N/A
Honestly, I haven’t played it. But I was afraid my daughter would end up orphaned if I didn’t accept Alice’s… suggestion that I include it here. I haven’t included many mods here, because I think they need their own feature, but apparently this is first-person shooters being as first-person shootery as first-person shooters can be. Here’s Alice on why: “Leaping from rooftop to rooftop with a sawn-off shotgun and stealth slippers, barrelling through an art museum at night with an M4 and laser sight, going full Desperado with handfuls of throwing knives, or simply kicking people off a roof, everything felt cool in this multiplayer mod. Action movie weapons, perk-like items, and semi-realistic damage combined with Quake 2’s ridiculous movement physics for fast, deadly, and often silly action with a staggering skill ceiling.” Thalice.
Notes: Hasn’t been officially updated since 1998, but apparently still has a small but active playerbase in South America, Scandinavia and especially in Finland, and I definitely didn’t just copy that from Wikipedia.
Where can I buy it: It’s free and doesn’t even require Quake 2 now. You can either install the standalone mod or jump straight into a rapidly-downloadable single file executable known as Q2Online, which gets you into the game with a single click. Speed really is everything when it comes to Action Quake 2. There are tons of different versions kicking about though, as the original creators open-sourced it.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Some of the team went on to its follow-up Action Half-Life, which you should absolutely read Quinns’ words about here. I’ll also suggest Unreal Tournament 2004 for more supersonic speed deathmatch.
Read more: 3…2…1… Action Half-Life.
12. BioShock 2 [official site]
Developer: 2K Marin
Publisher: 2K Games
Oh, it’s hard. So hard. People who say BioShock 1 is the best BioShock game are right. People who say BioShock 2 is the best BioShock game are right. (People who say BioShock: Infinite is the best BioShock game should be buried at sea immediately). But they’re both best for different reasons. BS1 has one of finest videogame openings of all time: the architecture, the mystery, the deftly immediate creation of an effective antagonist without his first having to attack you or yours, the introduction of the unquestionably iconic, darkly nuanced Big Daddy/Little Sister pairing, the sea-life, and at least two of the finest mid-game moments too – the eventual encounter with the aforementioned antagonist, and the horrifying art installation of Sander Cohen. Sadly, so much of what’s around it seems plodding in the face of BS2’s crunchier, more open and responsive combat in a decaying city beneath the sea. If what you’re looking for, first and foremost, is an action game, BS2 wins outright. What it lacks in big moments it makes up for with consistency. Over time, I also realised that it’s also a more complete, focused and moving tale, not collapsing into an undercooked soufflé of handwaving in its final act. The people who say BioShock 1 is best really are right too, though.
Notes: Another reason I eventually plumped for 2 rather than 1 is thanks to the Minerva’s Den DLC, an even more self-contained tale of technology wars under the sea. It has moment-to-moment finesse that the longer BioShock 2 (or 1) just can’t beat, and while the later Infinite expanded the BioShock mythos into overblown fantasy, this far more effectively dials it down into a vignette which fills in another corner of what already works.
Where can I buy it: Steam or disc.
What else should I be playing if I like this: BioShock 1, because it’s also the best BioShock game. I’m also going to hesitantly suggest the contentious Spec Ops: The Line, as another (though less affecting) investigation into the monstrosity of the player character.
11: SWAT 4 [official site] (2005)
Developer: Irrational Games
Publisher: Vivendi Universal
It’s bewildering that this series stopped here. Surely everybody would love the chance to represent the long arm of justice; to lace up some heavy boots, load up with thousands of dollars worth of protective equipment and lead a brave team into a building to protect the civilians within and incapacitate the criminals by firing a beanbag into their beanbag? But you know what, that doesn’t even cover half of SWAT 4’s appeal. It’s also in the briefing where every word, every scrap of information could doom you or save a life. It’s in the ungodly stretches of silence where you’re meticulously picking your way through an empty building, knowing deadly gunfire could erupt at any moment. It’s in the minuscule gasps of action where you go dashing into a room after throwing in a flashbang. The whole game feels like you’re disarming an emotional bomb that could go off at any instant, and the serial killer level in particular is as perfect a gaming experience as has ever been put together.
Notes: Developers Irrational (who, of course, went on to make BioShock and BioShock: Infinite) turned down the option to make a straight sequel as they wanted to stretch their creative wings, but they did pitch a SWAT game set during a zombie apocalypse instead. Publishers Vivendi didn’t think the police vs deadhead angle was workable (which is a great shame) but did greenlight it as a zombie shooter named Division 9. Sadly this went unmade, as 2K acquired Irrational not long afterwards.
Where can I buy it: Oh, man. Nowhere online, which is a tragedy, but second-hand prices aren’t too scandalous.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Last year’s Battlefield Hardline experimented lightly with non-lethal combat and a police theme, but sadly couldn’t help but collapse into outright (and morally ugly) violence. Alternatively, the Terrorist Hunt mode in recent Rainbow Sixes offers solidly stressful co-op.