We often lament that videogames are so often violent, but that doesn't mean that weapons can't feel so good when done right. Sometimes a single weapon can even make a game worth playing all on its own. Far Cry 2's bolt-action rifle? Resident Evil 4's Broken Butterfly revolver? Action Quake 2's Handcannon sawn-off shotgun? Those are Alice's, but Adam, Alec and Graham gathered to discuss their favourites - leave your own in the comments.
Graham: Adam, you mentioned that you'd been thinking about this recently. What prompted it?
Adam: I’m drawing up a list of what are inarguably the 25 best stealth games ever made and I’m putting them into sequential order, from best to least best, because I know all things. As I was going through, I realised that most of my favourite weapons are in stealth games because I remember, or perhaps even savour, a weapon that is used rarely far more than one that I spend twenty hours reloading and emptying into zombies.
With that said, perhaps somewhat predictably, I do love both of Doom’s shotguns and the animation and sound effect for the double-barrelled super shotgun reload in particular. There’s something very satisfying about weapons that are ranged but that end up being used almost exclusively at point blank range. The scattering of the blast with Doom’s shotgun encourages you to sprint toward monsters and stick it right in their face before pulling the trigger. It’s like punching a spike into them and works perfectly with the game’s speed and flow.
But at the other end of the spectrum, in stealth, I’ve got two favourites. One is Any Sniper Rifle, although more specifically it’s Any Sniper Rifle in a Hitman game. Even the first game in the series had wonderful physics, in the sense that they were calibrated to create these beautifully dramatic death sequences, whether it’s a target slumping forward in a chair or tumbling out of a window. Add in the superb crowds of the later games and a kill from afar becomes not only an achievement but a cause of these systemic ripples through the level as NPCs react.
And then there’s Garrett’s bow. Bit of a cheat, I guess because it’s the multi-functionality that I love. It’s a gadget as much of a weapon, capable of snuffing out lights with a water arrow, softening sound sources with moss arrows, distracting with a noisemaker or creating new routes with rope arrows (which still feel like a ludicrously technical achievement to me, even in the age of Just Cause 3’s infinite grappling hooks). Oh, and you can shoot people in the neck as well. I’ve got another subset of weapons that I love but I’ll step back and survey the damage of these initial opinions for now.
Graham: I feel like "best bow and arrow" in games could be a category all in itself. It's regularly my weapon of choice whenever available. It's come to define the Far Cry games for me, thanks to 3 and 4. It rekindled my interest in Team Fortress 2 when the Huntsman was added to the Sniper's repertoire. I like plenty of hit-scan weapons and splash damage weapons, but controlling the arc of an arrow fired over range, trying to get headshots, and being able to see your projectiles protruding from wherever they land, make it one of the most satisfying weapons, always.
I also love sniper rifles and Doom's shotguns, of course, but to introduce something new: bolt-action rifles. Particularly those from World War 2, and particularly those found in Red Orchestra 2. It's not only the satisfying blast and ching! of the empty shell bursting from the barrel. It's also the slow reload time, the reliance on iron sights, and in Red Orchestra particularly, the way soldiers react when struck. They mix canned animations with physics in a way that makes checking for a hit - in a game where your kills are often ambiguously reported, especially on hardcore servers - exciting. Exciting in a really grubby, uncomfortable sense.
Alec: Yeah, I always loved the single shot/glacial reload rifles in early Call of Duties, less for their destructive capabilities and more for how it made you really, really think about your shot, because you’d be in a whole heap of trouble if you missed as it takes so damn long to reload. And you get to see that reload, gloriously animated in all its glacially slow detail. I am so not down with autofiring sniper rifles. Gotta reload after a single shot. So far my MGSV tranquiliser sniper rifle is still single shot, but I dread the day I upgrade to one which can spam little green darts everywhere. The Quake III railgun is the zenith of the single shot, don’t-you-dare-miss gun of course, although it doesn’t have the reload issue - just that agonising heartbeat wait before you can fire again. A beautiful line of death with infinite range and which requires maximum skill, I don’t think it can ever be bettered. It’s so oddly low-key and small-scale compared to some weapons, and I think that’s what makes it quite so terrifying.
How about melee weapons? Do they count? The sprinting robofist punch of MGSV again, the way the wrench was gloriously over-powered in the original Bioshock, even Batman’s gauntlets and boots in the Arkham games if we want to stretch the definition. And anything where you’re playing a stealthy dude who koshes people over the head with a blackjack. Or chokes them with piano wire in Hitman. The gruesome tactility of actually connecting with a character rather than just dropping them from afar.
Graham: They definitely count. I've grown particularly fond of the magical knives in games like Call of Duty and Battlefield, in which clicking to swing them doesn't just slash the air, but fixes and draws you towards the enemy at the same time. It's a bit of unnatural animation fakery, but it gives heft and impact maneuver and - thankfully - actually makes it look and feel less like you're using an actual knife.
Adam: Melee weapons brings me to one of my other picks and also a completely different category of weapons - named, unique weapons like wot you find in fantasy RPGs. My favourite weapon with a story, purpose and unique effect on the world is The Black Sword from Ultima VII. It fits with the game’s themes, and it allows for interactions with the world and characters that haven’t been available before binding it to the Avatar.
I’m also interested in the weapons that are horrible to use. Early Call of Duty guns often make me feel a bit queasy, a combination of the real and mechanical nature of the slaughter and the animations of injured and dying soldiers. Hitman’s piano wire too - even though the game often leans on the slapstick and comic, it can be horribly brutal and sinister. But is there a weapon you’ve felt uncomfortable using? I remember an experimental freeware game in which you were part of a firing squad and had to shoot a character - that was the only possible interaction. Or at least the only obvious interaction. It was making a point about that one click and pull of the trigger, but has a situation within a game ever made you feel something like that?
Graham: Like Alec, I love weapons that are slow to reload and so place emphasis on when and where you take your chance. Conversely, I hate the recent spate of games that force you into a situation where your only option is to pull the trigger. A bunch of games recently have done it as their introduction to the game. Watch_Dogs, for example, has you pull the trigger while pointing the gun on an unarmed man, or you can't progress. It turns out the gun isn't loaded, but it feels gross.
Weirdly, I don't feel that uneasiness about the same situation when it's systemic. Far Cry 2 has a number of excellent weapons, and I love their eagerness to fall apart and jam in your hands, but I also like the discomfort it makes you feel when you need to turn those weapons on your own AI partner, to put them out of their misery. It feels earned rather than the cheap, scripted equivalent.
Alec: I’m really not a fan of the animal skinning and gutting in Far Cry 3 and 4, but maybe that’s because I’m a goddammned pinko lettuce-eating lentil-worshipping vegetarian hippy bastard. It does somehow seem to relish the awfulness of it in a way that man-shooting doesn’t, however - revelling in the sound effects and the blood. Also the plastic bag suffocation in the Manhunt games was somehow the very worst. I guess it's because it’s a death where I can sort of guess how it might feel, and the sheer fear of it, whereas getting shot is both hard to imagine if it hasn’t happened to you and, in most games, we don’t get shown any of the suffering of it: the enemy just keeps on shooting back until their hitpoints are exhausted.
Graham: It seems like sometimes a good weapon is defined not merely by the weapon, but how the world reacts to that weapon: the hit animations upon the bullet striking, for example, is part of what makes a weapon feel powerful. The way physics objects fly and plaster crumbles from walls is a big part of why FEAR's weapons feel so meaty and powerful.
I think the same is true of weapons that are horrible to use. I don't mind skinning animals in Far Cry quite so much, but I hate shooting them in Cabela's Big Game Hunter Pro. The game employs the same system as Sniper Elite, where each bullet strike is shown in slow-motion and as an x-ray of the target. Bullets ripping through deer lung and bone, before they limp off to suffocate.
I find these things cheap and scuzzy and unpleasant, whereas there's a silliness to most of the violence I do like. Even when you're skewering BioShock 2's splicers to the wall, there's a kind of absurdity to the physics of it that undercuts any potential horror or reality.
Adam: Yeah, the reactions are definitely an important part of a weapon’s impact and can either encourage a laughter or a horror response, even when the actual result is mechanically identical. Any game in which people don’t just die upon impact, but clutch at a wound, struggling, immediately disturbs me in a way that a gory headshot rarely does. It’s amazing to realise games have taught me to kill, cleaning up the living things so that a level is empty, but never to acknowledge that anyone might be hurt by what I’m doing. It’s a rather simple, crude comparison but in some ways it’s the difference between a traditional John Wayne movie and Saving Private Ryan, I guess.
Does anyone want to know about my other favourite weapon category? I’M GOING TO TELL YOU. It’s weapons that I made myself. And I don’t necessarily mean the crafted variety that’s so popular these days - I’m thinking specifically of early Microprose strategy game Master of Magic, in which you could use a spell to customise an enchanted set of armour, or a big old axe. I loved the feeling that those weapons were my creations and that they were capable of becoming legendary.
Alec: Oh yeah, even latter-day Elder Scrolls games, which I don’t think anyone in their right mind would claim offer the best weapons in any category, have some lovely ways to build your own thing. You pick your base blade, you enchant it with a damage type of your choice - I love a freeze spell - then you give it your own ridiculous name, like Axe of Twattening or Would You Mind Awfully If I Hit You With This. When they finally become less powerful than something else in the world, it’s a little bit heartbreaking: that weapon was a reflection of you, and hitting someone with a sword that’s more deadly just because you got it from a dangerous cave or paid a ton for it doesn’t have any meaning whatsoever. Anything with more than 12 weapons in it should let you rename all those weapons, at the very least.
OK, so: desert island guns. What one weapon would you take with you, if it was to be the only game weapon you could ever use again?
Graham: There's so many weapons we haven't mentioned - from rocket launchers to Half-Life 2's gravity gun. But if I have to pick just one, I'm going to go for the first Half-Life, and Snarks. They were living weapons. You could lob them like grenades, or drop them through vents into rooms with unknowing scientists, and they would go to work. They were kind of cute. They were funny to use, especially in multiplayer. And they're part of a lineage of silly weapons that runs through old Blood and Duke Nukem games but mostly seems to have died out in modern shooters.
Adam: The mention of Blood means I have to at least mention the brilliance of the dynamite, which was as versatile an explosive as you could hope to find, and the flare gun simply because it was the least boring “First Peashooter Gun” imaginable.
Since the Desert Island is a metaphor, I won’t ask for a portal gun (although, how I’d love to see the Portal 2 climax expanded upon - a portal gun out in the world rather than beneath it) and I won’t stick with the Thief bow in the hope that I could live off infinite water supplies and perhaps even chomp the moss. I’ll go with a daft answer because it still makes me laugh - the Land Shark Gun, which first appeared in Armed and Dangerous and later cropped up in Saints Row: The Third. Land sharks entertain me.
Alec: It’s the Quake III shotgun for me. I don’t know what alchemy was involved there, but that’s a rare weapon where I somehow feel the shot leaving my hands and colliding with something else. The timing of that thing, my God, it’s just perfect, and the way you start to learn the exact distance which constitutes a fatal shot rather than simply a wound. I can imagine that weapon in my hands. I can close my eyes and picture how it would feel if it were real: the coldness, the thump, the force I’d need to apply to wheel it around onto someone. None of this is about the actual violence, just the apparent authenticity of an entirely non-existent tool. It feels so damned real, and it feels made for high-speed competition rather than brutality. In any shooter I always make a beeline for the shotgun, and I always end up so horribly disappointed because it doesn’t feel like Quake III’s gleaming twin-barrels of precision doom.
Adam: I feel this is the place to confess that I made a Doom map that had a long corridor specifically designed so that the BFG could be fired from one end to the other, and the person who fired it could run to a vantage point that allowed them to ‘magically’ kill everyone in the level. A level built around an exploit that half of the people I played with didn’t understand.
Alec: Perhaps you are your own best weapon. I’ll also note, as a closing point, that I appreciate any game which allows you to pervert a weapon to a purpose it was never designed for. Like when you put a silencer on a shotgun, or turn a submachine gun into a sniper rifle. You’re allowed to choose a favourite and then adapt it to the situation rather than have to constantly switch or obey someone’s scary dedication to 100% realistic weapon modelling.
Adam: Oh! All of the weapons in the Jagged Alliance 2 1.13 mod. And now my keyboard has jammed and I am also out of ammo.
Alice: Wait, were you all talking about murdertools without me? In descending order of range: Far Cry 2's bolt-action rifle; Resident Evil 4's Broken Butterfly revolver; and Action Quake 2's Handcannon sawn-off shotgun. Please put all three in a single FPS.