The best shooters endure. While the state of the art moves on in other genres and leaves old designs in the dust, it’s as fun to fire a well-made shotgun from an early 90s FPS as from one released today. For that reason, this list runs the gamut from genre classics to those released in the last year. There’s bound to be something for you inside.
You can turn the pages of this feature using the arrows by the header image, or using the arrow keys of your keyboard.
Of course, a good shooter is not just about the shooting. What lies beyond are primarily games of skill and reflex, but they are often as much about movement as about violence. And hey, sometimes you get a decent gimmick or story thrown into the mix.
Your favourite is at number 51. If you feel you must let us know about why we’re wrong to exclude something, make sure to make your comment an effervescent explanation of why the game you love is great. Make us converts with your glowing praise.
Note: We first ran this list in mid-2015, and this is our second revision. You can see what’s been evicted from last year’s list on the ‘Honourable Mentions’ page, after the top ten.
OK, let’s do this. Aim for the head.
50. Day of Infamy [official site] (2017)
Developer: New World Interactive
Publisher: New World Interactive
A tough multiplayer slog through World War II that feels like a treasure rescued from a time capsule. In the studio of New World Interactive, killcams and minimap radar never took off. Omnipresent voice communications was shunned. And the fatal danger of friendly fire never went away. You could call Day of Infamy old-fashioned (and it is based partly on the nostalgia of Day of Defeat) but that would ignore how much it refined the atmosphere of first-person WWII warfare.
Here, you can take the usual role of assault troopers or medics, but also the specialist roles of radio operator and commanding officer. The latter two have to work together to provide artillery, and to give the other players direction and purpose. Here, bad leaders call in smokescreens on the wrong hill, or order an assault at the worst possible moment. But good leaders shout at you from the top of a trench, telling you to get the hell out there, into the fray. Although this warlike atmosphere sometimes falls apart in tight corridors and choke points, which become grenade spam hells.
However, each respawn happens in tandem with others, and this forces everyone to move together in waves. As multiplayer conflict goes, it’s a punishing place, enforcing an attitude of “push forward or die trying”. It’s as demanding of your reflexes as CS:GO. But it also delivers the morbid fantasy of being in the landing craft on D-Day far better than Call of Duty’s recent efforts.
Notes: It’s a spiritual successor to Day of Defeat, which was originally a free Half-life mod. Valve liked it so much they hired the creators and published the game for real monies.
Where can I buy it: Get it on Steam.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Insurgency, by the same developers, has a similar no-hands-held attitude. The Red Orchestra games are also punishing war zones.
Read more: Brendan’s early access review
49. The Marathon Trilogy [official site] (1994)
Developer: Bungie Software
Publisher: Bungie Software
It seems openly bizarre that a first-person shooter from Bungie, they of the Halo series, should be considered even vaguely obscure, but that’s where we are. The Marathon games were hugely influential, but never enjoyed anything like the zeitgeist moment that Doom, Quake or Duke Nukem 3D did. Part of that is for another absurd-in-hindsight reason – it was initially released for Apple Mac rather than PC, and ended up overshadowed by all the flashy fare on what was then an infinitely more popular platform.
But Marathon was groundbreaking, taking the Wolfenstein 3D and Doom formula and pinning a proper story to it for the first time, as well as giving us vertical axis aim, dual-wielded weapons and massive progress in multiplayer, physics and optional objectives. No, it doesn’t still sing in the way Doom does, but you can draw a direct line from almost everything it does to what Halo does, and various open source remakes keep it in good, satisfying shape to this day.
Notes: You should probably steer clear of the original Marathon release in favour of open source, streamlined and prettified version Aleph One – with which you can use all three original Marathon games for free.
Where can I buy it: Download for free from Bungie themselves. Though again, you probably want to stick the files into Aleph One (see above).
What else should I be playing if I like this: Halo, if you want to experience a similar story and some of the mechanics in far flashier fashion. Or perhaps Blood if you want an evolved version of the Doom concept but without all that lore crap in there.
Read more: Remembering Marathon Infinity’s opening level, Have you played… The Marathon Trilogy?
48. F.E.A.R. (2005)
Developer: Monolith Productions
Publisher: Vivendi Interactive
This horror/action hybrid lost some of its lustre as a result of the series increasingly disappearing up its own plot-rectum, but it’s important to push J-horror tropes and everyone-is-related-to-everyone blather aside and look at what F.E.A.R. brought to the shooter table. So often, this genre is just about what a pair hands do, but in F.E.A.R. so much more of your character’s body was involved. The reason we don’t see much first-person kicking is that it’s very hard to get it right, due to the innate preposterousness of a pair of legs appearing somewhere near your nose. F.E.A.R. got it right: it’s such a physical-feeling game. It also pre-empted Mirror’s Edge by making the visible body related as much to movement as it was to combat. As a gun game, it was also a relatively early proponent of any weapon can be equally deadly in the right circumstance, which is still a refreshing move on from the arms race of most shooters. Also spooky little girl with hair over her face wooooooooooooooooo.
Notes: Everyone bangs on about Source’s deathlessness, but the Lithtech Jupiter EX engine created for 2005’s first F.E.A.R. still more or less lives on too, having been used in 2012’s Gotham City Imposters and modified for Shadow of Mordor. It, er, doesn’t exactly look bang-up-to-date in F.E.A.R, though.
Where can I buy it: It’s sitting pretty on Steam, though sadly the multiplayer aspect has been deactivated because someone was dumb enough to base it around Gamespy.
What else should I be playing if I like this: The Condemned games if you want more spooky horror-times mixed in with your action, or No-One Lives Forever if you want to see developers Monolith at the absolute top of their game.
Read more: The origins of Fear
47. Star Wars: Dark Forces [Wikipedia page] (1993)
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 (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.
Where can I buy it: Steam and GoG.
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.
Read more: Why Star Wars Makes For Better Games Than Films
46. Serious Sam HD: The First Encounter [official site] (2009; original game from 2001)
Publisher: Devolver Digital
If you want TOTAL EXCESS at its most attractive then you’ll want Serious Sam 3, but frankly it takes far too long to get going. Serious Sam HD, meanwhile, embraces cray-cray early on. Some say it’s a welcome return to the just-get-on-with-it carnage of early shooters such as Doom, but really Sam is a law unto himself. Huge open spaces, huge enemies, huge weapons: it passes all the way through parody and comes out the other side as something pure and earnest. Are you shooting? Are you moving? Are you shooting and moving? Are you emitting a low, sustained scream? If not, you are not playing Serious Sam. Early Call of Duties had their infinite waves of enemies, but that micro-second to micro-second ferocity just isn’t there in anything else. This is bullet hell shump as FPS, a wild dance of breathless persistence. And every time you think it’s gotten as big as it can, it gets bigger.
Notes: There are now more Serious Sams than you’ve had hot dinners, most of which are different versions of the first game. You could get Serious Sam HD Gold instead, which includes The Second Encounter HD and assorted DLC. Or if you’re a purist who wants to play it in its original engine, there is the option of Serious Sam Classics instead of HD, or the fairly new Serious Sam Classics: Revolution which packages The First Encounter and The Second Encounter with some brand new stuff.
Where can I buy it: Steam, primarily, but boxed copies are still sold on yer Amazons and whatnot too. Alternatively GoG has the significantly more archaic non-HD version if you want to do the DRM-free thing.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Doom, if you want just-getting-on-with-it shooting that won’t see you grind your teeth to paste with the intensity of it all. Or there’s Painkiller if you want a more latter-day take on traditional shooter values, but without Sam’s shouty craziness.
Read more: 16 reasons to play Serious Sam, Serious, Sam
45. Call of Juarez: Gunslinger [official site] (2013)
This is a series which has been all over the place, kicking off with a Wild West setting and an ambitious dual-protagonist setup, then selling its soul for the mean-spirited, present day-set The Cartel. It was the cut-price Gunslinger that hit the sweet spot though, pairing crunchy, delightfully unreconstructed frontier shooting with a rich sense of irony about it all, but which doesn’t devolve into snark or hypocrisy. Gunslinger doesn’t take aim at other shooters – it stars a protagonist prone to boasting, so an absurd fight with a hundred men is justified as him telling a tall tale. He’s also prone to distraction, so the action occasionally spins out into strange loops as his mind (or body) wanders, or he’ll warp your on-screen reality to better fit his crazy claims. Importantly, all this is him showing off, not the game showing off: it clearly wants to be a good time.
Notes: Gunslinger was made and sold as something of a budget game, so be aware going in that there are compromises. It’s short, the cutscenes look like they were dashed out in an evening and there are unresolved performance issues. The game itself still looks rootin’ tootin’ good, though.
Where can I buy it: Steam or Uplay. Don’t worry, the latter isn’t required if you go for the former. Boxed copies are still available here and there too.
What else should I be playing if I like this: There’s Rockstar’s Red Dead Revolver if you want straight-up Westerning, though sadly the wonderful open world sequel Red Dead Redemption never came to PC. As a lo-fi, more playful alternative, there’s the recent Westerado: Double Barreled, which brings (slightly silly) life as well as death to the frontier.
Read more: Have you played… Gunslinger? , Call of Juarez: Gunslinger review
44. Dishonored 2 [official site] (2016)
Developer: Arkane Studios
Dishonored 2 is more experimental in its design than its predecessor, most notably in the shifting spaces of the Clockwork Mansion and the altogether different shifts in a later level. To discuss that in detail would be unfair to those who have managed to remain unspoiled. When they do step outside traditional sneaking and stabbing territory, of which there’s plenty, Arkane make sure their ideas aren’t gimmicks bolted onto existing systems. Everything is built on the foundation of movement and observation.
There’s an argument to be made for the first game’s superiority and it’s certainly more tightly constructed in places, but the greatest surprise of Dishonored 2 is that it swiftly banishes memories of Dunwall. The city that felt like it could be home to a trilogy at the very least is only seen briefly, and most of the game takes place in a new city in a new region. Karnaca feels like a new home within a few hours and by the time the game is over, we know it better than we ever knew Dunwall. Now is the time to scour all of those in-game maps and charts to figure out where Arkane might take us next.
Notes: Has bumped its predecessor from this list. There were internal disagreements about which was truly the ‘best’ game but we’ve settled on 2 for now.
Where can I buy it: Steam, retail.
What else should I be playing if I like this: The Thief series – particularly Thief 2 – which we cruelly removed from this list in favour of a more appropriate stealth one. See also Deus Ex.
Read more: Why Dishonored 2 allows you to skip its finest content, Wot I Think: Dishonored 2, Dishonored 2 is the Thief sequel we deserve
43. Metro 2033 Redux [official site] (2014)
Developer: 4A Games
Publisher: Deep Silver
The post-apocalypse as imagined by the East rather than the West, imagining a future-Russia where what’s left of the population ekes out a fearful existence inside Moscow’s subway system. On the surface, cold and radiation prevents all but the most monstrous life, while below ground various factions violently vie for control. While Metro 2033 is deeply uneven as an action game, with wildly spiking difficulty, an over-reliance on annoying monsters and infuriating quick-time events, it gets away with it thanks to its careful world-building (best underground pig farm in games?) and the decision to make combat low-tech and fiddly, your survival forever on a knife edge.
Notes: The Redux version offers a decent graphics boost, as well as improving the frustrating stealth somewhat, but you’re not missing out on a vast amount if for any reason you opt for the original instead. Alternatively (or in a Redux pack) there’s slicker sequel Last Light, which won’t have you screaming Бля at the skies quite so often, but trades away some of the challenge and strangeness as well the frustration.
Where can I buy it: Steam, or disc.
What else should I be playing if I like this: STALKER offers a less linear, wilder and frankly far superior take on the Eastern European apocalypse, but it’s a tougher nut to crack if you’re coming to these things from glossy American shooters. Rage is probably your best bet if that is the case.
Read more: Metro Redux review, Metro 2033 review
42. Bulletstorm [official site] (2011)
Developer: People Can Fly
Possibly the most over-the-top shooter ever made – though Serious Sam presents stiff competition – Bulletstorm is a carnival of cartoon sadism and (far more importantly) of momentum. It’s dumb as blind-drunk sheep, but smartdumb, not dumbdumb. It works very, very hard to be dumb. You also have to accept it as just a game about shooting: it’s Time Crisis filtered through Jackass, with these preposterously ornate environments and setpieces attached, plus an almost bizarrely hard ‘skillshot’ system which means shooting someone in the willy isn’t quite as straightforward as it sounds. Also it has lots and lots of dick jokes. The guy who wrote ’em now writes Captain America comics for Marvel. Cap wouldn’t approve of that sort of language.
Notes: Parts of the US media made breathless and unresearched claims that Bulletstorm’s violence and profanity would traumatise children, encourage sexual violence and generally destroy society. Our own John Walker played a major part in dismantling FOX et al’s uninformed fearmongering on this particular issue.
Where can I buy it: The updated Full Clip Edition is on Steam.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Serious Sam if you want another FPS that doesn’t take itself at all seriously (apart from on the matter of shooting, of course), or there’s Sega’s The Club for a rather more sober take on shooter-as-score-attack.
Read more: Have you played… Bullestorm?, The RPS Verdict: Bulletstorm
41. 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-time granddaddy of first-person shooters even boasts a 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 New Order, in either spectacle or humanity. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus on the other hand…
Where can I buy it: Steam, Amazon download.
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.
Read more: The RPS Verdict: Wolfenstein The New Order, Wolfenstein: The New Order review
40. Team Fortress 2 (2007)
Developer: Valve Corporation
Publisher: Valve Corporation
That Team Fortress 2 is a sequel and a remake of a sober-as-a-nun multiplayer mod seems almost irrelevant now. But it’s part of what makes the game so important. Valve took years and years to settle upon a model for what has become one of the firmly-entrenched favourites of the PC gaming fraternity, and that they did so allowed it to prove that a multiplayer first-person shooter can be funny, even witty, and that constant experimentation and progression can keep a game alive and evolving long after it should have ground to a halt. Team Fortress 2 felt like an experiment, and it still feels like an experiment, and that experiment was a success. A move to free-to-play and a hat-centric economy has kept TF2 thriving. The cost of this is that something of the original spirit was perhaps lost in this translation to gimmee, gimmee, gimmee, which is why TF2 isn’t embedded closer to the top of this list.
Notes: A big part of TF2’s success and enduring appeal is the work Valve put into fleshing out a cast who would otherwise simply have been shootymen with funny accents. The Meet The Team video series is perhaps game marketing’s finest hour.
Where can I buy it: Steam. It’s free these days.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Overwatch, you fools.
Read more: Twenty bucks: Team Fortress 2, 857 Hours Later: Team Fortress 2, Achieving Nothing In Team Fortress 2
39. The Operative: No One Lives Forever [Wikipedia page] (2000)
Developer: Monolith Productions
Publisher: FOX Interactive
NOLF is a lovely spoof of the James Bond genre, with its gender-switch approach, and gleeful nicking of Flemming’s gadgets, vehicles and plot structure. Cate Archer makes for an excellent protagonist, peculiarly snooty and unlikeable in some ways, while defiant and ass-kickingly pleasing in others. The pleasure of using gadgets to approach situations in your own chosen way is immense, with a good mix of stealth, action, driving and narrative. Flavours of Hitman, Deus Ex and Austin Powers made for an interesting cocktail. One that really worked and still impresses with its uncommon inventiveness and wit even now. Shooters imbued with comedy to anything like this extent were rare then, and even rarer now.
Notes: 2002 sequel No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.’s Way is also a treat, but standalone expansion/prequel Contract J.A.C.K., which threw out most of the spy stuff in favour of shooter conventions (including generic gruff man protagonist, allegedly to help sales) into the series, should be avoided like 14 types of plague.
Where can I buy it: The rights are tied up in a knot no-one can (or wants) to untangle, so second-hand’s your only strictly legal recourse. However, if you make a POINT of looking closely, you might find it somewhere.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Hitman does gadgets and stealth impeccably well, and even weaves absurdist and slapstick humour into its assassination vignettes. Or there’s Dishonored for a more flexible and serious (yet fantastical) approach to the gadgety stealth shooter.
Read more: Retrospective: No One Lives Forever
38. Titanfall 2 [official site] (2016)
Developer: Respawn Entertainment
This could have been the best singleplayer FPS of 2016, if it hadn’t been for the new Doom. Nonetheless, if you want straight-up action thrills with a whole lot of flash, some particularly glorious movement and impressively stressful mech-based boss fights, this is going to make you very happy. And hey, there’s a robust soldiers vs giant robo-suits multiplayer mode in there too, building on what the multiplayer-only Titanfall 1 already established.
That is, assuming you can find opponents. Titanfall 2 suffered from something of a failure to launch, having resolutely lost the marketing wars of late 2016. It may stay alive over time thanks to word of mouth, but even if it doesn’t, definitely check it out for that singleplayer campaign. It is, however, on the brief side, so we strongly recommend playing on Hard difficulty – as well as making it last longer, it makes the mech fights particularly feel that much more satisfying once you finally claim a steel scalp.
Notes: Requires EA’s Origin app to install and run, which seems to rub some people up the wrong way. More positively, in a roundabout sort of way, Titanfall 2’s retail struggles means it’s easy to find it for cheap.
Where can I buy it:Retail or EA’s Origin.
What else should I be playing if I like this: You could slam all the way into simulation and seek out Mechwarrior 4, or if it’s the high-speed, ultra-fluid, wall-running movement that most pleases you, give Mirror’s Edge a try.
Read more: Wot I Think: Titanfall 2, 2016’s best shooter, EA explain Titanfall 2’s eccentric timing
37. Aliens versus Predator [Wikipedia page] (1999)
Publisher: FOX Interactive
AvP was not just another game about killing nasties in the dark: it was a game about being inside the skulls of iconic movie monsters, and fleshing out those beasts far more than any movie ever did. Three playable perspectives – alien, predator, human marine – and all so distinct, and each’s motivations rendered sympathetic despite encountering them all as enemies from the other perspectives. To boot, AvP made much more of the first-person perspective than most of its gun-crazed genre-mates ever did. While the telltale targeting reticule was ever-present, this is a game about survival and observation, a claustrophobic odyssey of fear and strange abilities. Add to this multiplayer and skirmish modes that deftly realised the fantasy of the titular What If? and you have a smart, wonderfully asymmetrical remix of first-person shooters which somehow manages to be scary even when you’re playing an otherworldly death-machine.
Notes: Easily confused with 2010’s quasi-remake Aliens vs. Predator, which was, y’know, fine, but came across as far more straightforward. The 1999 AvP was retroactively renamed Aliens versus Predator Classic 2000 for a recent re-release and slight overhaul (including widescreen support, modern Windows compatibility, gamepad support and not requiring you to have CD 2 in your drive if you wanted to hear the music, which I honestly kind of miss.
Where can I buy it: The original is long out of print, but the superior Classic 2000 re-release is available on Steam and GoG.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Alien: Isolation is the other great Aliens game, though it doesn’t have the strategic oddness of playing as the beasts.
Read more: AvP Retro: A Stand-Up Fight Or Another Bughunt, Retrospective: AVP 2
36. Prey [official site] (2017)
Developer: Arcane Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Prey is set aboard a space station with gooey aliens who have the ability to mimic whatever they desire. They took one look at human beings and decided: “No, I’d rather be a chair”. And that is why you spend a large amount of time in this new age immersive sim looking suspiciously at furniture.
But the baddies are arguably the least interesting thing about it. Talos Station takes inspiration from Metroidvanias as it does from System Shock or Deus Ex. New powers let you access spaces you couldn’t reach before. Locked doors inspire curiosity and force you to make mental notes about the orbital’s metallic confines. “I’ll come back here,” you think, “when I can turn into a stapler.” It’s exploratory sci-fi that builds on Looking Glass’ legacy.
As a shooter, it often puts its guns last, favouring extraterestrial superpowers or environmental traps (even your wrench remains useful for much of the game). But why worry about guns when you can program two turrets to do all the shooting for you, and carry them around wherever you go?
Notes: A speedrunner once completed the game in 7 minutes.
Where can I buy it: Get it on Steam.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Deus Ex: Mankind Divided has similarly wonderful level design, even if it doesn’t fully embrace the Metroidvania school of thought.
Read more: Prey makes locked doors cool, The art of Prey’s monsters, John’s Prey review
35. Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege [official site] (2015)
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal, Ubisoft Shanghai, Ubisoft Toronto, Ubisoft Kiev, Ubisoft Barcelona
Rainbow Six Siege does what Battlefield games have thus far only pretended to do: provide a multiplayer world which is destructible at a granular level. Instead of buildings collapsing when scripted levers are pulled, in Siege almost every door, window, wall, ceiling, and floor can have a hole poked in it via gunshot, grenades, battering rams and breaching charges.
It feels like technical wizardry and the consequences ripple throughout the entire experience, creating tension from the ability to be attacked from any angle, encouraging teamwork through asymmetric missions which force one team to defend themselves against the other’s attempt to breach their compound, and forcing traditional Rainbow Six tactical awareness without a planning phase by requiring you to hold a perfect mental map of the building around you at all times.
It’s equally impressive for being a team-based multiplayer shooter that feels fresh, offering something different from the Counter-Strikes and Call of Dutys while staying true to the spirit of the Rainbow Six series.
Notes: Now has a cheap Starter edition if you want to give it a try without going all in. You can pay to add bolt ons if you want the full package afterwards.
Where can I buy it: Steam and uPlay.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Rainbow Six Vegas 2 is another series highlight, particularly in terms of poppy, glitzy co-op vs AI. If you want real tactical action, you’ll want to be back to the original Rainbow Six trilogy.
Read more: Have you played… Rainbow Six Siege?, A history of Tom Clancy games, Wot I Think: Rainbow Six Siege
34. 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 anecdote-generating than being 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. This is better than Arma 2 in almost all ways, especially handling of UI and animation, plus there are little innovations like the Zeus mode (providing a game master for multiplayer). It’s 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 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.
Read more: Arma 3 campaign review, Let’s dive into the Arma 3 workshop
33. Star Wars: Republic Commando [official site] (2005)
Not everything that came out of the Star Wars prequels was flailing nonsense. RepCom was a tight, squad-based shooter that eschewed hokey religions, midichlorians and Obi-Wan’s roaming detective agency for a band of clone brothers facing down assorted Confederacy threats. A combination of straight-up shooting and team tactics, with a starring quartet who managed to turn a minimum of broad personalities into a maximum impact. Which is why everyone still feels so sore about the semi-cliffhanger ending.
It’s showing its age now, but it’s still twenty times better than anyone would ever have expected. Puts the Wars back in Star Wars, this one.
Notes: A rumour went round one year that EA were working on a sequel called Imperial Commando. It was not a true rumour. It was an extremely cruel fabrication. Dammit.
Where can I buy it: Steam, GoG
What else should I be playing if I like this: You could try the Star Wars: Battlefronts – although they are a resolutely multiplayer affair.
Read more: Dev commentary on Republic Commando, retro: Republic Commando, the 10 best Star Wars PC games
32. Shadow Warrior 2 [official site] (2016)
Developer: Flying Wild Hog
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Shadow Warrior 2 was a worrying prospect. Quite frankly, so was its predecessor. When Flying Wild Hog announced they’d be revisiting one of the nineties Build engine games that seemed best left in the past, hopes weren’t particularly high. Lo Wang’s adventures were a gory good time, ditching elaborate level design in favour of slick melee combat and a fancy skill tree to work through. Slicing enemies into pieces was a joy and the pleasures of carving the flesh were potent enough to make even the feeblest jokes tolerable. More of the same would be fantastic.
In a way, that’s precisely what Shadow Warrior 2 delivered. More swords, more guns, more gore (it’s the best dismemberment and disemboweling system around, for what that’s worth) and more monsters. But it did all of that in randomised maps, taking notes from Diablo and the like with minibosses scattered around with tricky little minions. Half ARPG, all first-person hack, slash and shooter, it could have been very messy indeed.
But it works. The combat system is better than ever, the chainsaw is a delight, and there are more weapons, enemies and quests than you can shake a wang at. Against all reason, a foul-mouthed muddle of dad jokes and infinite demons is precisely what modern shooters needed all along.
Where can I buy it: Get it on Steam.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Other than the predecessor, Serious Sam or Bulletstorm are probably your best bet for ‘not taking this seriously’ OTT action. Or watch Deadpool, I guess.
Read more: Wot I think: Shadow Warrior 2, Have You Played… Shadow Warrior?
31. Far Cry 4 [official site] (2014)
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Far Cry 2 was excellent, but Far Cry 3 stripped out much that was awkward about the game – its grim setting, its protagonist’s malaria, its respawning enemies – for something that was less interesting but more purely fun, thrilling and silly. Far Cry 4 goes further still, stripping out the wrongheaded attempts at colonialist critique from Far Cry 3 and creating something that’s even more fun, even more silly. The Himalayan-inspired setting of Kyrat is a gorgeous location, and it’s even more eager to give you toys to play with than its predecessor. Liked the hang glider in Far Cry 3? 4 gives you one almost immediately. Then it gives you a wingsuit. Also a gyrocopter. Also a physically-simulated rope for climbing cliff faces. Also you can ride elephants.
It is ridiculous, of course, but there’s still wonderfully smart design here, too, mainly in the return of outposts. These are enemy-controlled villages which you can take down separate from the main storyline, challenging yourself to outwit different kinds of AI enemy using the box of toys the game has provided. They’re always the best thing about Far Cry, and here they’re joined by Forts – bigger, harder versions of the same idea – and enhanced by the ability to team up with a co-op partner in the same open world for the first time. Want to use your grappling hook to hang from the bottom of a gyrocopter being piloted by a friend? Yes, you do.
Notes: The manic characterisation and acting rubs a lot of people up the wrong way, even if it’s not quite as overdone as Far Cry 3. In which case, definitely make a beeline straight for the spectacular co-op mode. In fact, do that anyway.
Where can I buy it: Steam and uPlay.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Far Cry 3 if you want more of more or the less same, Far Cry 2 if you want a similar concept but with less pinata and more punishment, or Far Cry Primal if you want it without guns but more mammoths. And, um, Far Cry 5 if you want your fun snatched away by unavoidable bad guy monologues.
Read more: A ranger in Far Cry 4, Wot I Think: Far Cry 4
30. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare [official site] (2007)
Developer: Infinity Ward
The tipping point between Call of Duty as was (a World War II shooter for quiet PC gamers) and what it is today (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 unlockable gizmos.
Notes: Please be sure to play the campaign through to the end, because you’ll unlock the Ragtime Mode, which remains the best cheat mode 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 you want an alternative to this Team America stuff, there’s Spec Ops: The Line, which some people think is an inspired deconstruction of the evil that manshooters do, and some people think is mediocre.
Read more: Why COD4 was one of 2007’s most interesting mainstream games, How Call of Duty’s Stories Went Awry
29. Star Wars Jedi Knight – Mysteries Of The Sith [Wikipedia page] (1998)
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.
Where can I buy it: Steam and GoG (the latter only as part of a bundle with Star Wars: Dark Forces II – Jedi Knight).
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
28. Halo: Combat Evolved [official site](2003)
Developer: Bungie / Gearbox Software
We’re talking about the PC version specifically, the Gearbox port of which didn’t manage to be as iconic as the original Bungie version was on console, plus had a whole bunch of technical issues. Still, we got a good taste of what’s been so popular in Xbox land: the wide-open spaces, the vehicles, possibly the most solid and recognisable arsenal of guns in videogames, and that sense of a great escape from the lone, tunnel-bound skirmishes of shooter tradition and into a wider war. The PC version also brought (official) online multiplayer to the first Halo for the first time, which a fair few people continue to play to this day. Halo multiplayer may be inextricably mentally associated with brightly-coloured robo-men teabagging each other, but it’s such a tight, well-balanced affair which deftly weaves both land-based and airborne vehicles into the core of the combat.
Notes: Be sure to grab the Custom Edition add-on, which among other things enables support for fan-made maps, as well as introducing a tool with which to make ’em. Gearbox provide it for free. You’ll also need a very recent patch to get the multiplayer working in wake of Gamespy’s demise.
Where can I buy it: Nowhere digitally, but it’s cheap enough second hand. Be sure you get a working CD key, though.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Battlefield does the big-map-multiplayer-with-vehicles thing, as does Unreal Tournament 2004. Or there’s the PC version of Halo 2 if you simply want more, though as a singleplayer game it’s inferior and as a multiplayer game has features stripped, as well as involving Windows Live stuff which may or may not work for you.
Read more: Clues to the (eventually cancelled) Halo MMO
27. Rising Storm [official site] (2013)
Developer: Tripwire Interactive
Publisher: Tripwire Interactive
Before the big publishers came bumbling back to World War II, Tripwire’s Red Orchestra series was 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: 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.
Where can I buy it: Steam, Humble or disc.
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
26. The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault On Dark Athena [Wikipedia page] (2009)
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: You’ll have to find it on disc, because the digital version has been removed from GOG, just like it was removed from Steam before that.
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.
Read more: Retro: The Chronicles of Riddick, Assault On Dark Athena review
25. Call of Duty 2 [official site] (2005)
Developer: Infinity Ward
At the time of COD 2, Band of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan and Stalingrad were go-to touchstones, 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.
Where can I buy it: Steam and on disc, while the App Store has the Mac version (as does Steam).
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 Brothers In Arms series if you want more Saving Private Ryanisms.
Read more: The Missing Conflict
24. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus [official site] (19XX)
Developer: Machine Games
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
A corridor shooter that begins with the hero in a wheelchair. “Is this what a hero looks like?” the Nazi arch-villain of this alternate history might ask. Yeah, says Wolfenstein 2. It is.
A sequel to New Order, this keeps the basic formula of gunning through fascists, careful to take out an special officer enemy before they get a chance to raise the alarm and call more stormtroopers. Yes, there’s that commitment to ultraviolence and bloody bullet-hosing that we’ve come to expect from its predecessors, so perhaps its not surprising that Machine Games somehow managed to hide a beating heart among all this slithering viscera.
It’s over-the-top in more ways than one. The characters of the resistance aren’t afraid to get both their hands and words bloody. In one scene, the black woman leading your resistance group breastfeeds her baby while planning to overthrow the Nazi regime and simultaneously taking the time to tell you that the phrase having balls is a thoughtlessly male way to describe bravery. Is this what a hero looks like? Uh-huh.
Notes: If you’re still not convinced, you can always try a demo.
Where can I buy it: Get it on Steam.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Wolfenstein: The New Order, or the demon-bashing moderno-Doom, also from Bethesda.
Read more: Adam’s Wolfenstein 2 review, How Wolfenstein 2 takes the white dudebro hero apart
23. 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.
Where can I buy it: Steam or GoG.
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
22: 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. In fact, the primary mechanic is 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 22 placements in Best Shooter Lists if this concerns you.
Where can I buy it: Steam, Uplay, disc.
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.
Read more: The lead designer of Amnesia on Alien: Isolation, the Spectrum version of Alien, all about the Xenomorph
21. 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: The Natural Selection 2: Combat mod dispatches with the base-building stuff in favour of straight-up asymmetrical murder, with a touch of RPG-style levelling.
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.
Read more: The devs on why they introduced a donation system, Natural Selection 2 review
20. Crysis [official site] (2007)
For many, the golden age of the shooter is the Doom and Duke Nukem 3D era. But there’s another era to remember. The age when several big companies were trying, and often failing, to set all their shooters in an open world. 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. What it eventually does wrong is to lose confidence that the toolbox is 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.
Where can I buy it: Steam or Origin, and on disc.
What else should I be playing if I like this: The first 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 if you want more superpowered sandboxing, even though that’s a little underwhelming.
Read more: Campaign for a better memory of Crysis, Who’s The Real Star Of Crysis?
19. SUPERHOT / SUPERHOT VR [official site] (2016)
Developer: SUPERHOT Team
Publisher: SUPERHOT Team
There ain’t nothin’ new under the sun – a miserable claim that SUPERHOT Team disproved twice in one year. First there was SUPERHOT itself, a shooter in which time only moves when you move (or shoot) (or throw something) (or punch). Then there was SUPERHOT VR, which singlehandedly redeemed the whole concept of virtual reality.
SUPERHOT is both maximum-adrenaline thrills and highly tactical – transforming the first-person shooter from a game about precision aiming and relexive movement into one in which every twitch counted. The world is super-slow-mo until you do anything, which grants you the time to plan the move but leaves you subject to a devious puzzlebox construction in which one action leaves you vulnerable to some other threat. It is sublime, and it is impossibly cool.
Particularly in VR, where you are making those movements yourself – the ducking, the punching, the throwing, the shooting. The Matrix fantasy without any of the bilge – just superhot action. A glorious, glorious reinvention of first-person violence.
Notes: SUPERHOT and SUPERHOT VR are sadly sold seperately, and the latter only supports Oculus Rift with its expensive Oculus Touch add-on controllers. A hugely pricey undertaking, even for an experience as wondrous as this.
Where can I buy it: Steam, direct from devs ; Oculus store for SUPERHOT VR
Read more: Oculus Touch review: the games, Wot I Think: SUPERHOT
18. Quake III: Arena [official site] (1999)
Developer: id Software
This pure multiplayer shooter, starring weapons which are the very archetypes of simulated violence, was deathmatch elevated to, if not an art form, then certainly high science. No frills, no superfluous weapons, almost nothing between you and movement, a pure test of skill and accuracy, great f—ing maps. It might have had these gothic sci-fi trappings, but Quake III could be colourless squares sprinting and bouncing around untextured paths and it would still be the complete, perfect shooting game it is. id, after creating the first-person shooter, perhaps also had the final word on it. That’s why they, as much as anyone else, so struggled for relevancy in its wake.
Quake III still feels amazing, have no doubt. Quake III still makes otherwise unused parts of my brain spring to life; faster, more aware, more engaged, more awake. Quake III is good for me. And for you.
Q3DM17 4 EVA.
Notes: Quake III itself remains popular enough that you won’t struggle to find a match, but it primarily lives on as the free-to-play, browser-based semi-remake Quake Live. While this retains the majority of Q3A’s appeal and folds in a host of technical modernisations, if you’re a purist you may struggle with the changes it’s making in order to try and attract a less experienced audience. Of course, if you’re a real purist you’ll just play the original Q3A demo. Many still do.
Where can I buy it: Steam for Quake III itself, or free here for the base version of Quake Live, with optional payments for extra maps and whatnot.
Read more: Q3WCP9, Or “Great F***in’ Level”, Strafe-Jumping’s Near Death In Quake III
17. 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 meaningfully 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.”
Where can I buy it: Steam, Origin or on disc.
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.
Read more: Love is a battlefield, Thoughts & Demolitions
16. 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: You can get the Gold Edition on GOG. And 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.
Read more: Irrational exuberance: replaying SWAT 4, Have you played… SWAT 4?
15. Battlefield 1942 [official site] (2002)
Developer: Digital Illusions CE
The original Battlefield still stands tall: so focused and so complete in its depiction of land, air and sea World War II team battles that there simply isn’t any need for all the classes, load outs, progression systems and mode remixes of its successors. The push’n’pull of the Conquest system remains a superlative motivation to fight for your team rather than yourself, and the long race back to the front line after death a glorious moment of excited tension, balancing the need for caution with the urgency of getting stuck in again. Indeed, it got it so right in one map – the legendary Wake Island – that a not inconsiderable community still played the demo until the recent, forced server shutdown. And what theme music, too: unbeatable military bombast you’ll find yourself whistling years later whenever you think you’re about to do something impressive, like carry a washing machine up three flights of stairs.
Notes: The collapse of Gamespy saw Battlefield 1942 officially go offline last year, but the community has found assorted workarounds which will allow you to connect to or host servers regardless.
Where can I buy it: Tragically, EA removed 1942 from Origin when Gamespy died, so unless you’d already grabbed it prior to that (it was free for a short time in early 2014) your main recourse is to find a disc version. Some sites claim to host legal downloads, but I don’t want to guarantee their legality or safety.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Battlefield 4 is a modern day-set, more complicated (yet frenetic) take on same essential concept. Battlefield I is a modern take on World War I.
Read more: Gaming made me: Battlefield 1942
14. Planetside 2 [official site] (2012)
Developer: Daybreak Game Company (was Sony Online Entertainment)
Publisher: Daybreak Game Company (was Sony Online Entertainment)
“It is the grandest of combat operas,” wrote Jim after two years of playing this wide-scale, tri-faction sci-fi multiplayer shooter. The size of the maps stretches into kilometres, allowing a freedom of movement nothing else here can beat, but PS2 doesn’t come up short in terms of what it gives you to use in those vast spaces. Stealth suits, mech suits, jeeps, dropships, light assault aircraft, tanks, APCs, all vying for control of bases and outposts, and colliding in huge battles outside of them. The fight rolls seamlessly from massed outdoor battles to tense indoor skirmishes and back again, and fortunes can turn on a dime as reinforcements roll in or a well-time flanking operation pays off. While PS2 does require a team to come alive, it is not the exercise in infinite patience and dedication of something like EVE: you can drop in, get involved, be useful and feel you were part of a war effort without having to set aside large portions of your life. Nothing else aims for simulated conflict on this scale, let alone achieves it.
Notes: There’s a pretty sizeable RPS community for PS2, which you should absolutely get involved with if you’re at all interested in playing – they’ll help you get to grips with it as well as egg you on to fight for them. Details here.
Where can I buy it: Free to play (with optional microtransactions) from Daybreak.
What else should I be playing if I like this: It’s spaceship-based and an MMO, but EVE Online is the logical step upwards if you want more scale, more unpredictability and more flexibility. Battlefield 3 and 4 are probably the way to go if you want a more focused war, or one which requires less dedication to a team.
Read more: Planetside: The 1%, Planetside 2: My Favourite Game Of The Past Two Years
13. Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds [official site] (2017)
Developer: PUBG Corporation
Publisher: PUBG Corporation
Or Plunkbat, as it is universally and uniformly known. Yes, you could play this in vanilla third-person mode but then it wouldn’t make our list, would it? And you don’t want us to have a bad list.
Plunkbat drops you from a plane full of screaming, hollering murder fans onto a massive map filled with tiny houses, trundling cars, and dangerous bridges. And guns. Guns everywhere. Before its release the battle royale coals had been burning strongly for a while (with Brendan Greene’s own Arma 2 mod providing the spark) but this was the game to throw petrol on the fire. It’s the reason Fortnite went from zombie defence build-em-up to massive multiplayer death battle. It’s the reason Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is adding its own battle royale mode.
But it’s not the game’s influence that gets it on our list. It’s the tension and the teamwork, the suspense of wandering across an open road, the panic as the death circle closes in, the excitement of a frantic gun battle, the adrenaline of a chicken dinner soundly winnered. In that plane full of hatenoise, you have a 1 in 100 chance of being the last person standing. And when that comes to pass, it’s a more savoury victory than being the top of any Call of Duty killboard.
Notes: Plunkbat is definitely the correct nomenclature.
Where can I buy it: Get it on Steam.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Fortnite battle royale, I suppose?
Read more: Has Plunkbat been improved by its updates?, Matt’s messing about in Plunkbat
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.
Read more: Colourblind gaming: is it in his eyes?, BioShock 2 review
11. DOOM [official site] (2016)
Developer: id Software
Yes: 2016’s do-over of the quintessential first-person shooter is a gory triumph in its own right. Classic weapons and bestiary help, as does the fact that it’s open about the fact we’re all here for bloodshed, but it’s the momentum system that makes it so damn good. Killing is movement is killing is movement: the more you kill, the faster you move, and this builds and builds in tandem with your learning how to play and how to survive.
A roomful of enemies that seems intense and unfair near the start of the game is like a country ramble compared to what comes later on – but rather than this being a simple matter of difficulty, it’s because DOOM trains you on the job, expertly and effortlessly. You don’t hit walls here. You punch right through them, cackling and grinning, having the time of your life.
A completely unexpected, brilliant comeback. Doom still matters.
Notes: Thanks to this, we really don’t need to think about Doom 3 any more. Also: Doom remains a going concern, thanks to a trickle of updates and user-made ‘Snapmap’ levels, so it most certainly doesn’t end when the campaign does.
Read more: Best FPS 2016, how DOOM’s glory kills maintain momentum, the RPS Verdict: DOOM
10: Far Cry 2 [official site] (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.
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.
Where can I buy it: Steam, Uplay or disc.
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 2, fully embracing the super-heroic, super-destructive implausibility of more traditional open world action, rather than trying to have it both ways.
Read more: Another Life, Another Time: Far Cry 2 revisited, Why Far Cry 2 is still the best in the series
9. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive [official site] (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: 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.
Read more: Playing with firearms in CS:GO, Gaming Made Me: Counter-Strike
8. Overwatch [official site] (2016)
One fine day, Blizzard decided that they wanted to take over multiplayer shooters. And so they did. From afar, Overwatch’s sudden dominance seems effortless, although it’s powered by a budget and expertise that almost no other game can dream of.
A team shooter that owes much to the venerable Team Fortress 2, put pushes for far more variety of characters and skillsets even if it feels a bit less tight for it. This is MOBA values applied to the online shooter, with a heavy focus on each character having a very particular set of skills and personality. You find your favourite, you learn them well – and then you switch gleefully to a new one once they’re released. It’s all backed up by extremely well-planned lorefluff and cosplay inspirations that has made this a darling of wider game culture as well as the hardcore.
The polished to the nth degree sheen to Overwatch can be a bit of a turn off, but even if that is the case for you, it’s such a tight, enjoyable and accessible without being dumb online shooter that it flat-out doesn’t matter. Blizzard totally owned it.
Notes: Overwatch is celebrating its second birthday this year, with a new map, modes and cosmetics.
Read more: The year’s best multiplayer shooter, Overwatch character guide, the history of Overwatch’s abilities
7. Half-Life [official site] (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 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. Although incomplete (it’s taking its time working out how to make the notorious Xen sections not be focused around horrible platforming), it’s both a striking visual overhaul and willing to take a scalpel to some of HL’s less loveable aspects. If you don’t want to play something incomplete and aren’t a purist, Valve’s own semi-remaster Half-Life: Source has a slight edge over the original.
Where can I buy it: Steam, or second-hand on disc.
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 (which I’ve not included in this list because it is primarily a puzzle game, but I don’t know how comfortable with that decision I am) 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.
Read more: Never Been Half-Lifed, Unpotting the history of Half-Life modding, Premature Evaluation: Black Mesa, How Half-Life Killed The First-Person Shooter.
6. 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 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.
Read more: The best of the L4D2 Workshop, Valve on L4D2: “trust us a little bit”
5. Devil Daggers [official site] (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 these gun games.
Where can I buy it: Steam, direct from devs.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Thumper – similar values applied to rhythm action.
Read more: Our game of the year 2016, Wot I Think: Devil Daggers
4. Quake [official site] (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 2017.
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.
Where can I buy it: Steam, or you can combine the shareware version with FreeQuake to get the multiplayer going.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Quake Live if you want a speedier, slicker, easier to get working take on the essential multiplayer ethos here. Painkiller may be your best bet for no-frills, gothic monster-shooting with maze-like levels and a throwback feel.
Read more: Gaming Made Me: Quake, Quakeworld’s scrapped free to play 1996 business model, Arcane Dimensions is Quake rethought for 2016, Quake is 20 today
3. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow Of Chernobyl [official site] (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.
Where can I buy it? It’s on Steam and GOG.
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
2. Half-Life 2 [official site] (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.
Read more: Everything I’d forgotten about Half-Life 2, Half-Life 2’s Missing Information, The Boy Who Stole Half-Life 2, Half-Life 2 Episode 2 review
1. DOOM [official site] (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 any 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 model 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. You don’t just play DOOM – you live it.
Notes: Try Brutal DOOM. Play Demonsteele. Play any of these. Watch John Romero’s commentary. Take selfies. Play DOOM (well, DOOM II) in a browser. Play DOOM in Garry’s mod. Live DOOM.
Where can I buy it: On Steam, on almost any platform known to humanity, or just grab the original shareware.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Everything else on this list.
Read more: 20 Years of Doom, Raised By Screens: Doom, Video(game) Nasties Saved My Life, How Doom Got Me Suspended, Dad & Doom, A People’s History Of The FPS: The WAD
Aka ‘games which were in the 50 back in 2017 but got bumped out for something else this time’. We still like ’em loads, though.
Zeno Clash [official site] (2009)
Developer: ACE Team
As far as first-person games which lean towards fisticuffs are concerned, the gloriously weird, wonderfully physical Zeno Clash remains the one to beat. A sort of boxing game structured around a fantastical quest, it’s as weird as it is beautiful, and as tactile as it is fanciful. The fights are hard and crunchy, the opponents by turns ridiculous and terrifying, and all told it’s a true original. Zeno Clash punches far, far above its modest weight, and while the shooting aspects are comparatively thin if that’s what you’re after, the consistent level of invention and combat which makes it almost impossible for me to not bust out stereotypical action praise like “bonecrunching” is more than worth the trade-off. I’m not sure I can name a more chilling boss-foe than Father-Mother, either.
Notes: There is a Zeno Clash 2, which attempted a whole bunch of interesting stuff and was a much-expanded experience, but it fell a long way short of being as fresh and startling as its precursor. Never take your eye off developers ACE Team, however.
Where can I buy it: Steam, essentially.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Man, even the idea of suggesting there’s anything quite like Zeno Clash feels offensive. On the most superficial level, Beast Boxing Turbo will let you indulge a sick love of punching weird creatures in the face, though.
Read more: The art and evolution of Zeno Clash, Zeno Clash review
Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory [official site] (2003)
Developer: Splash Damage
Publisher: Activision Blizzard
The grandaddy of the objective-led multiplayer matches which are popular in many of today’s online shooters, but Splash Damage’s spin-off from Return To Castle Wolfenstein has a rare focus on escalation and push-and-pull team battles that the unlock-focused mania of many latter-day alternatives has thrown out with the willy-waving bathwater. Sure, you rank up in Enemy Territory, but you rank up within the match, for the sake of the match. Military shooters – at that point tending to favour a World War II setting – were popular but staid scoreboard affairs, which W:ET turned into micro-action movies starring a cast with diverse class abilities and set within interlinking missions. Hugely ambitious as online shooters go, but unlike its follow-ups Quake Wars and Brink, it didn’t have eyes bigger than its stomach – its raw essentials of team-based, classed-based combat are pristine.
Notes: Bot mods abound if, quite understandably, you find the idea of wading into its long-standing community to be rather a fearsome one. Depending on your choice of server, you can also play matches with XP deactivated or made semi-persistent between campaigns.
Where can I buy it: It was and is free, so all you need do is go here and download it.
What else should I be playing if I like this: There’s Team Fortress 2 if you want a manic, comic take on teams and classes, though its unlocks are a whole other world of dedication and expenditure. Or there’s latter-day Battlefields for a more military-focused but modern-day take on things, and at a far more dramatic (but maybe more impersonal) scale.
Read more: The Splash Damage story
Tron 2.0 [official site] (2003)
Developer: Monolith Productions
Publisher: Disney Interactive
Back before Daft Punk had even dreamed of sampling Jeff Bridges’ friendly growl, Monolith’s cyberspace shooter was more Tron than Tron. Mixing the iconic style of the 80s movie – Lightcycles, disc battles – with far more substance, thanks to the logical freedom of actually being a game world, plus having far more real-world technological concepts to call upon in its metaphorical depiction of a digital place. Of course, there’s the distinctive black’n’neon look of the thing too – it’s important to remember that Tron 2.0 was a rare lighthouse of colour amidst what was then a sea of brown shooters, and even to this day the 80s-vision-of-tomorrow style keeps it looking fresh. With downtime conversational sections and a skill tree thrown in, plus a superbly substantial multiplayer Lightcycle mode, Tron 2.0 did far, far more than such a fundamentally silly film possibly deserved. Be warned: annoying platform sections, though.
Notes: You should probably grab this unofficial patch and hi-res mod too. The latter also fixes up multiplayer functionality, amongst a whole bunch of other goodies.
Where can I buy it: It’s on Steam, otherwise you’ll want the second-hand market.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Deus Ex: Human Revolution has a certain Tron style, parsed through a gold filter, plus it expands massively on the conversational and skill tree elements. Or there’s indie platform-puzzler Sp.A.I., which packs in plenty of cyberspace-themed hacking and shooting.
Read more: Retro: Tron 2.0, another retrospective
Descent [official site] (1994)
Developer: Parallax Software
Rewriting what we thought possible back in the mid 1990s, this six degrees of movement spaceship shooter was really in 3D – not Doom’s cheaty 2.5D deal. We felt motion sickness. We had to grow new fingers to maintain all the keyboard controls with this newfound Z-axis. And we loved it, became adept at it, shooting virus-infected enemies and rescuing hostages, before belting it out of the centre of whatever it was we were about to blow up. Descent still feels like it’s asking just that little bit too much of us even today, which is exactly why it’s still so loved.
Notes: The source code was released a few years later, leading to a number of more modern ports. DXX-Rebirth is probably the current leading light, and also offers a similar remake of Descent 2. You’ll need original files for Descent/Descent 2 to get it working, though.
Where can I buy it: Steam or GoG, or you can settle for the free shareware version.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Miner Wars 2081 had a crack at a similar six degrees concept in 2012, and involved former Descent audio staffers too. Alternatively there’s the Descent: Freespace series, which shares the IP but not the setting or mechanics, other than the whole being in a spaceship thing – it’s more of a fully-fledged space sim.
Read more: The RPS Book Club For Games: Descent, Gaming Made Me: Descent
Keep turning pages for our postscript…
“Deus Ex should be number 1.” You’re probably right, but you’re also wrong.
“What about System Shock 2?” I think ‘FPS’ sorely undersells it, don’t you? Also, rubbish shooting. We adore it, and have included it on other lists, but this is not the right place for it.
“What about Duke Nukem 3D?” The first level’s incredible, the rest is not and it’s sure as hell not as funny as it was in the 90s.
“What about (this mod)?” I really do think mods deserve their own list at some point. Watch this space, probably.
“What about Mechwarrior?” I very nearly stuck one in, but ultimately they lean too far into simulation – specifically, how you move.
“What about stealth games?” They got their own list.
“What about Portal?” Yeah, tough one. I mean, you do have a gun at all times, it is your primary means of interaction, and you even get to ‘kill’ some robots with it. But I decided it was a puzzle game more than anything else. Maybe the best puzzle game?
“What about SHOGO?” It’s number 51.
“What about Blood?” It’s number 51.
“What about Return To Castle Wolfenstein?” It’s number 51.
“What about Wolfenstein 3D?” It’s number 51.
“What about Kingpin?” It’s number 51.
“What about all the other Call of Duties?” They’re number 501.
“What about GTA V now it’s got a first-person mode?” That’s a very good point. Er, 51?
“What about Daikatana?” Yes, yes, very funny.
Nothing’s going to make people fight more than a list of the best of the games about fighting people. I’m well aware there are so many others I could have included, some where I’ve flexed the definition too much or not enough, and that the emphasis has come down hard on mainstream games (as, like it or not, a good shooter usually requires a big budget). Please suggest additions and alternatives below: the point of this whole exercise is to help people find new games to play, not to browbeat anyone into accepting The One Objective Truth. By sheer coincidence, this list does happen to be The One Objective Truth, but that’s by the by.
The Complete List
Alrighty, Cheaty McCheatpants, if you don’t want to read about why we chose what we chose, here’s the TLDR for you:
2. Half-life 2
3. STALKER SOC
5. Devil Daggers
6. Left 4 Dead 2
10. Far Cry 2
11. Doom 2016
12. BioShock 2
13. Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds
14. Planetside 2
15. Battlefield 1942
16. SWAT 4
17. Battlefield Bad Company 2
18. Quake 3 Arena
19. Superhot / Superhot VR
21. Natural Selection 2
22. Alien: Isolation
23. Unreal Tournament 2004
24. Wolfenstein II: New Colossus
25. Call of Duty 2
26. The Chronicles Of Riddick: Assault On Dark Athena
27. Rising Storm
28. Halo: Combat Evolved
29. Star Wars Jedi Knight – Mysteries Of The Sith
30. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
31. Far Cry 4
32. Shadow Warrior 2
33. Star Wars: Republic Commando
34. Arma 3
35. Rainbow Six Siege
37. Aliens versus Predator
38. Titanfall 2
39. The Operative: No One Lives Forever
40. Team Fortress 2
41. Wolfenstein: The New Order
43. Metro 2033 Redux
44. Dishonored 2
45. Call of Juarez: Gunslinger
46. Serious Sam HD: The First Encounter
47. Star Wars: Dark Forces
50. Day of Infamy
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