10. Far Cry 2 (2008)
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
And here’s the other side of the coin to Crysis – a semi-open world shooter (this time in a dirty and oppressive Africa rather than a paradise island) which actively robs you of power, rather than festoons you with it. The dark beauty of Far Cry 2 is the extent to which it places you in danger, creating a truly hostile world in which you are hamstrung and hated rather than a playground in which you are mollycoddled and lionised. It inverts conventional wisdom as part of an astute observation that it is more satisfying and meaningful to succeed in the face of great adversity than it is to grant you more and more toys until you just can’t help but be victorious. It took several more years of power fantasies before I realised that. Far Cry 2 also seeks to embrace the truth of a world of guns: it’s nasty, it’s really about money, people do die, you are not a hero, and no-one’s coming to bail you out. Well, maybe the pal you met in that last hideout is…
Notes: As steely-focused and uncompromising as it might be, there’s no denying that Far Cry 2 made some frustrating design decisions – most notoriously the respawning guard posts, who’d chase you down every damn time and hold up travel around the map in a way that was irritating rather than appropriately unforgiving. Several mods remove it, but I’ve got my eye on Dylan’s Realism Mod, which also adds in a bunch of other hardcore stuff, hopefully resulting in a game which is just as, if not more, unfair but without being grindy about it.
What else should I be playing if I like this: The fatalistic horror of STALKER, the sober realism of the Arma games, or if (like many) you can’t stand FC2’s icy aversion to ‘fun’ and want to invert matters entirely, there’s Just Cause 4, fully embracing the super-heroic, super-destructive implausibility of more traditional open world action, rather than trying to have it both ways.
9. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (2012)
Developer: Valve Corporation / Hidden Path Entertainment
Publisher: Valve Corporation
Timeless, deathless. Broadly speaking not much in Counter-Strike’s fourth major iteration is that different to its first, because it simply doesn’t need to be. Terrorists vs counter-terrorists, locked in eternal, easy-to-learn, difficult-to-master war. The once, present and future king of team multiplayer is as fiercely competitive and strategically twitchy as it’s ever been, and CS:GO is all the more loved for being a little closer to the legendary Counter-Strike 1.6 than its predecessor Counter-Strike: Source was. Straight-faced and minimalist, it’s a perfect collision of pursuing objectives and fighting to stay alive, with maps that can never be bettered. By this point it’s entirely reasonable to assume that Counter-Strike will never fade, let alone die.
Notes: There are purists who won’t leave the original Counter-Strike, and there are purists who won’t leave Counter-Strike: Source. There are probably even a couple of madmen who won’t leave Counter-Strike: Condition Zero. With the exception of the latter, it doesn’t really matter which you play, but GO has matchmaking, interesting new modes, looks flashier, is more customisable and has a growing library of mods and add-ons.
Where can I buy it: Steam.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Rainbow Six Siege is a good contender. Team Fortress 2 if you find this too sombre and unforgiving, one of the latter-day Call of Duties if you want a progression system and/or to be sworn at more frequently, or Rising Storm if you want to be even harder on yourself.
8. BioShock 2 (2010)
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.
What else should I be playing if I like this: BioShock 1, because it’s also the best BioShock game.
7. Devil Daggers (2016)
2016 was in many ways a vintage year for first-person shooters, and the reason for that was because they understood their past. DOOM, obviously; Overwatch returned to Team Fortress rather than COD; Titanfall 2 was the big sci-fi silliness of the noughties again and Devil Daggers… well, Devil Daggers is from an alternate timeline where Quake changed everything and was never forgotten in favour of military men and careful plots.
A beautiful hellscape of big square pixels against a midnight backdrop, monstrous things looming at you from the darkness, and the dance, the endless dance. A pure test of everything that first-person shooters ever taught us. Reflex, awareness, movement, practice, true grit and no surrender. It is about your own time and only about your own time, because that is all that matters – everything else that shooters ever added is mere fluff.
Devil Daggers is purity and perfection. An eternal creation. The only surprise is quite how long it took us to realise that this was what we really needed from gun games.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Thumper – similar values applied to rhythm action.
6. Half-Life (1998)
As every boring old fart has observed over almost 20 years, Half-life is Indiana Jones. The unexpected dangers, the daring escapes, the semi-comic deaths of anyone who isn’t the hero, the quest to stay alive as the situation becomes more and more disastrous, the threat which comes as much from a trap-filled place as it does from your foes. But what foes. Like Doom before it, Half-Life has an iconic rogue’s gallery not simply because it was early, but because it wasn’t following any rules. Great visual ideas went in because they were great visual ideas, so it’s the hodge-podge of monster tropes which somehow seems like it belongs together. The pinnacle of this is the tentacle monster, a boss fight that isn’t a fight, but which has an entire level built around it and turned into one giant environmental puzzle in the process. No slathering maw, death ray or gruesome decapitator has ever been as threatening as the sad tap, tap, tap of a lost, blind giant trying to escape its metal prison, and undiscerning about who it blames for it. It’s just one example of a story which tells itself as you play, often wordlessly, almost never interrupting you. Even Half-Life 2 has lessons to learn from that.
Let us not forget, too, that Half-Life might just be the greatest gift there ever was to modding, with the exception of DOOM. An awful lot of PC gaming as we know it hinges upon Gordon Freeman’s first adventure.
Notes: In truth, Half-Life has been superseded by its own, second remastering, the fan mod gone standalone Black Mesa.
Where can I buy it: Steam, or second-hand.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Linear story-telling aside, it took shooters a long time to pick up Half-Life’s baton. Of Valve’s own back catalogue, first-person puzzler Portal is almost closer than Half-Life 2, due to its focus on conundrums, hinted backstory and sight gags. Other than that, BioShock is your best bet for a voyage through a collapsing construct with excellent environmental story-telling.