5. Quake (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 superb monsters, ingeniously cruel level design, and a reminder of how brutal and thrilling things could be before the transformations of Half-Life.
What’s particularly fascinating with Quake is that, over the last couple of years, it’s reached the point where it’s looking better rather than worse with age. Its wild mash-up of sci-fi, medieval fantasy and gothic architecture and creatures, all so physical in their blockiness and pixel-grid textures, now seems highly stylised rather than dourly retro. Quake is an aesthetic as much as it is a game, and that glorious aesthetic shines like a new sun in the grim quasi-photoreal darkness of 2019.
But, mostly, it feels so damn good. Fast, crunchy, spooky, a blistering death race through a twisting, tortured place that is all its own.
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: A lot of games have looked to recreate the old-school feeling of this monster. Amid Evil and Dusk are two of the better ones.
4. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow Of Chernobyl (2007)
Developer: GSC Gameworld
When we think of open world games, especially shooters, we tend to think of wide-open spaces in which you can hare around attacking anything in sight. The maudlin, post-apocalyptic, bombast-free sci-fi shooter S.T.A.L.K.E.R. isn’t that. It’s so much more. It’s a world game. Its environments are more constrained, sometimes infuriatingly so (I’m still angry about the barbed wire in the first area) and progress is to some degree gated, but they are living and they are convincing. A world divided into factions and monsters and worse, deadly outdoor spaces and terrifying indoor spaces, dark life in a land of ruin, but a real land, that breathtaking modern-day Mary Celeste that is the abandoned Chernobyl and Pripyat area of the Ukraine.
Life left it suddenly, and new life has slowly moved into the ruins. Fearful life, the Stalkers who patrol it alone or in quiet groups, wandering through the thunder and the distant sound of unspeakable horrors. The sad mutants who scurry and slope through the wasteland, mad and afraid, as much a victim of this place as you are. Small signs of hesitant community, as wanderers gather and play songs around a campfire. You’re on a quest, yes, but you can choose when to engage, who to engage with, where sympathies lie, what your status and purpose in the Zone is. There are no rules in the Zone, really. It can grant your greatest wish. The wish to be somewhere else, being who you want to be.
Beauty and horror. A world barely clinging to life, and all the more alive for it. Unmatched aesthetic and architectural accomplishments, paired with broken English and half-broken technology.
Notes: I settled on the first game because I love it for being uncompromising and how deep it reaches into strangeness and unhelpfulness, which for me is key to the wasteland mercenary fantasy it seeks to evoke, but without doubt third game Call of Pripyat is more approachable, more (comparatively) slick and stable and even more fully-featured. Play both, quite frankly.
You’ll also want to explore the mod scene, starting with graphical mods such as STALKER Complete then moving onto the survival sim ones which further increase the wonderful, terrible experience of life in the Zone.
Read more: How gamers experience the real Chernobyl, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: The Lost Alpha, Why game inventories matter, Idle Musing: Watching The AI Fight, On the importance of STALKER, Why I still play STALKER.
3. Left 4 Dead 2 (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 Vermintide games are a direct inheritor of the format. And the Killing Floor games offer a more frenetic and weapon-focused take on primarily co-op zombie-bothering.
2. Half-Life 2 (2004)
Developer: Valve Corporation
Publisher: Valve Corporation
Of course. So much is in Half-Life 2, from an unprecedented level of architectural design to facial animation which rendered anything else obsolete overnight, to a physics system which transformed shooter environments from scenery into interactive resource, to some of gaming’s most striking baddies in the Striders and a huge step forwards in making AI companions believable and likeable.
It’s also a long, changeable journey through a beautifully, bleakly fleshed-out world, and although of course you are on the hero’s journey, it’s careful to keep you feeling like a bit player in a wider conflict. That this, plus the cliffhanger ending of Episode 2, left so much more to be told leaves PC gaming in a perpetual state of frustration that the series has, publicly at least, ground to a halt. I don’t think all of it is as striking as it once was – particularly, much of the manshooting feels routine and slightly weightless now – but Half-Life 2 gave us more than any other first-person shooter before, and maybe even since.
Notes: If it matters, Half-Life 2 itself is the most memorable instalment of its own mini-series, but Episode 2 the tightest and most thrilling. I can understand why Episode 3 didn’t come to pass: this was a game constrained by its own limitations, having polished them to a new gleam in Episode 2, but with no place left to go. Let’s see what happens next.
It’s well worth grabbing the unofficial but semi-officially endorsed graphics mod/patch Half-Life 2 Update if you’re planning to play Half-Life 2 now.
Where can I buy it? On Steam, duh.
What else should I be playing if I like this: So many shooters deliver the story as you roll now, but BioShock is perhaps the best example of this philosophy taken to its peak.
1. DOOM (1993)
Developer: id Software
Publisher: Formerly GT Interactive, now Bethesda Softworks
The alpha and omega of first-person shooters. The origin story of mainstream videogames, a violent end to what games might otherwise have been, a gateway to so much more than otherwise might have been. The maniacal Star Wars of games, the blockbuster which changed everything and the Super-8 camera which handed the tools of invention to anyone. A never-bettered (including by its own creators) collusion and collision of vision between John Carmack’s technological purity, John Romero’s attitude and Adrian Carmack and Kevin Cloud’s lurid, no-rules creature design. In 1993, DOOM arrived fully-formed and self-contained, said all that first-person shooters really needed to say, and without pretensions to be anything more.
It embraces being a videogame, in its violence, its somehow perfectly complementary aesthetic mish-mash, its celebratory tone, its rejection of exposition, its high-speed, slip-sliding movement, its impossible levels, its escalating firepower, its increasingly titanic bestiary. It does whatever it likes because there was no perceived wisdom to say what was right and what was wrong. It was The Gun Game, the game that would always have been and the game that would always have set videogames on a certain path, because the world needed it, whether it wants to admit it or not.
It needed DOOM not just to scratch a bloodthirsty itch, but also to provide a canvas on which to create and to warp, without having to be part of the games industry to do this. Its modular nature enabled amateur-made content to be switched in and out, and resulted in a community gleefully making DOOM into anything and everything. Maybe we didn’t get to talk to the monsters, but the game opened so many doors for so many people, and gave so many experiences to so many others. Its shareware distribution made it all the easier for anyone to lay hands on it too, unbound as it was by the limited stock and high prices of traditional retail.
Trust me on this though: this is not number one merely because of historical importance. Improbably, DOOM has aged exceptionally well, and in fact improved over the years. What was at the time relatively plodding and mechanical in its controls and intended horror tone has, thanks to the unintended addition of mouselook and strafing, grown into a high-speed, brightly-lit dance of death, pure momentum, a thundering snowball of combat against iconic threats where you are invader rather than defender, and whose faux-3D sprites upscale beautifully, perhaps even timelessly.
A tireless community still creates endless new and sometimes deeply strange deviations upon it, while its infrastructure, still after all this time the shared foundations of any first-person game, can be and has been turned to so many other purposes. DOOM was both the inevitable corruption of gaming’s innocence and the necessary expansion of its horizons, and its blissful perversions continue unabated.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Everything else on this list.