2016 was a terrible year in many ways. The world lost what felt like a disproportionate number of its creative legends, and as time ticked by it kind of looked like they were perhaps peacing-out from a planet that seemed more intent than ever on tearing itself apart.
It’s appropriate, then, if wholly coincidental, that 2016 was also one hell of a year for the first person shooter genre. Things kicked off early with the surprise-hit Superhot, heated up with the even bigger surprise that the reboot of Doom was actually awesome, and by the time it was done even one of the better Call of Duty games in recent years felt a little like a sidenote.
Indeed, it was a great year for looking down polygonal gun barrels; it was particularly great because it seemed to shake up the default format that has been the standard since Modern Warfare released at the end of 2007. Heck, it even reached back far enough to shake up some of the things that Halo standardised. Hopefully 2017 will continue this trajectory, but just in case it doesn’t, well… there have been some pretty great shooter campaigns released over the past decade or so. Many of which have been partially forgotten because, I dunno – people are dumb? It’s probably some other reason. Like an autonomous tentacle trying to take over the world.
These are some highlights. Some are probably even available on Steam!
Haha. There. I mentioned it. That game that took the concept of sparing the life of young girls or killing them and tried to frame it as some kind of moral conundrum. Boy, that’s about on par with the Megaton bit in Fallout 3 now I think about it.
In all seriousness, Bioshock is pretty good, and its plot-twist is neat. But maybe not quite that great?
And thus the list begin in earnest. It’s a fun fact that the first two Resistance games are actually kind of bad. Just thinking about how dumb, but how impossibly crack-shot the AI in those games is still makes my body threaten to produce an ulcer.
I disliked the first two games enough that, come time for a monthly comment on new releases in a 2011 issue of the magazine, I made some snarky offhanded comment about Resistance 3. If I recall correctly, David Wildgoose was the only one who had anything nice to say about the PS3 exclusive. In hindsight, he was probably the only one who had actually played it at the time.
Unlike its predecessors, Resistance 3 is excellent. It got rid of some visual quirks such as the oftentimes mind-braking baked-in lighting from the second game, but more importantly it improved the AI and introduced health kits. Health kits represent something of a theme with many games on this list – that some of the things that the FPS genre left behind weren’t left behind because they were wrong, but rather because everyone was too busy copying the other thing that the new hotness did.
In the case of health packs in Resistance 3, they do wonders for the game’s pacing and the intensity of the combat. Smart placement of health items really is an art, and for the most part Resistance 3 nails it. It also nails diversity and seems to borrow liberally from the likes of Half Life and Halo with regard to its mission variety and design. There's even split-screen co-op! It never finds an identity as strong as either of those games, but it does do a pretty great job of taking some of their better bits and sewing them into a new game. Shame that options for playing it today are limited.
The Darkness probably suffered because of its demo. From memory, it consisted of three vertical slices, all of which were perfectly fine in the final game, but all of which were frustrating to a player not yet trained in how to approach playing The Darkness.
See, while technically a first person shooter, to approach The Darkness like you would its ilk is a great way to die a lot. Fortunately, this is easily picked up on if you play the game from the beginning. The secret in question? You do have guns, true, but The Darkness is really best approached as a really-quite-fucked-up superpower simulator.
Learning to make use of the Darkness that is the game’s namesake is, appropriately, essential. The Darkness takes the form of a voice in your head and a couple of eel-like tentacles that can be used to either sneak into small places or tear mobsters limb from limb. The voice acting of these things is genuinely creepy, and your reliance on them in gameplay adds considerable weight to the game’s more emotional moments. Emotional moments that actually succeed at what they set out to do. In general, for that matter, the storytelling is actually good.
To this day, this game still has the greatest loading screens conceived. Seriously. They actually add to the feel and character of the game.
The Darkness was released on 360 ahead of PS3, so you should be able to give it a crack on XBox One via backwards compatibility, except that you can’t because it isn’t supported. And to think I was worried about that bit in the intro about some of these games having being kind of forgotten was just filler text.
Time for something recent, if only because this piece needs a thing that people can reasonably be expected to be able to play.
Shadow Warrior is a mercifully not-so-racist reboot of an actually-quite-racist shooter from the mid-’90s. Our happy reboot also got a sequel late last year that, while quite well reviewed, has also ended up a little beneath the radar. It’s possible that this year’s console release of Shadow Warrior 2 will help that, but it’s unlikely. After all, as anybody who has already played the 2013 release can attest, the game is fast and requires reaction times that are incredibly difficult to maintain without a keyboard and mouse.
Seriously, this game is intense, loaded with some actually useful power-ups, and equipped with a sword that is actually more badarse than every gun in the game combined. It takes a short while to get to grips with all this – the sword is horribly dangerous to wield early in the second stage thanks to all of the cars scattered around which it causes to explode, and the menu system could be more intuitive – but once it clicks, this is a riot of a cheesy action game.
It’s self-aware, too, which helps a lot, but still doesn’t prevent the story from becoming literal nonsense. Please leave a note in the comments if you managed to figure out just what the hell was going on.
Not that story is what you came here for. You came for the best swordplay in a first person game, some also pretty good shooting, levels that actually facilitate and reward exploring, high calibre arena combat and a lead character who sings along to ‘The Touch’. It also has medkits, which seems to be a trend with excellent and under-appreciated first person shooters.
Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Dark Athena
Escape From Dark Athena is a pretty good game, well worth playing. But the real reason this game is on the list is because it also conveniently includes a polished-up version of the previous Riddick game, Escape from Butcher Bay and, my word, was that game ever something special. Still is.
It probably helps that Butcher Bay got a fresh lick of paint in this 2009 release, because that one dates back a good five years earlier, which might be enough to influence how easy it is for some to get into now.
But once you do get into it, Riddick could be rendered in blocky VGA and still keep its hooks in you. Just so long as shadows are clearly defined and highlighted – Riddick isn’t a stealth game, but by George does it still make great use of sneaking. It also makes pretty great use of exploring and occasionally talking to other characters. Although it’s easy to think otherwise from a glance, Riddick isn’t a game about straight-up run and gun murder (not that those can’t be good: see previous entry). This is a much smarter beast.
Riddick also represents excellent bodily awareness, something that first person shooters to this day typically flirt with at best. Whatever the reason for this not catching on, it’s a shame, as the sense of physicality here really helps create the illusion that you are Vin Diesel, which is a goal I thought more manly-men shooty games would aspire to.
Mercifully, this one is easy to acquire through legal means on PC. You can’t play it on XBox One because argh.
Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath
I might be cheating here. I might even be cheating in more than one way. The original 2005 release date on this one pushes it a mite past the (admittedly loose) decade old guidepost and, really, you do spend a lot of time playing this one in a third-person perspective.
One might even say you spend most of the time playing from the third-person perspective. But you sure do shoot from the first-person hip a lot, and this one has been re-released with some extra polish a few times since it’s XBox debut (somehow, I ended up playing it on Vita). The shinier pretties eventually got patched into the PC version, too.
Stranger’s Wrath takes an offbeat Western world full of offbeat critters and offbeat characters and pumps it full of offbeat gameplay ideas. It’s firearms, for one, are hardly conventional – did we mention offbeat critters? Well, you’ll be loading them up and shooting them, and they are far too creative to be written off as different types of bullets with googly-eyes attached.
There’s a lot of baiting enemies to lure them out, a good whack of advantage if you can be stealthy at times, as well as some pretty well-done platforming. It doesn’t hurt to have a third-person camera option when that’s required.
Stranger’s Wrath is widely available, most easily through Steam, although you can even play it on your phone now (please don’t play it on your phone).
Hell yeah! Let’s kill some dicks! Honestly, Bulletstorm went and hurt its inclusion here with the announcement of the ‘Full Clip’ edition or whatever when it was officially unveiled at that show about Mountain Dew or something late last year, but it does prove that Gearbox (the game’s publisher) is at least able to recognise a great shooter to release (as opposed to its disastrous taste in choosing which troubled shooters to ‘rescue’).
Being packed to the gills and probably out the butt with tough guys that use tough guns and smoke tough cigars, potty-mouthing, and a scoring system that actively rewarded gratuitous violence, it initially comes as a surprise that Bulletstorm wasn’t a hit. Look a little deeper and a few plausible reasons bubble to the surface: its scenery isn’t greatly diverse, but it is covered in sun-baked colours rather than just rusted greys; or maybe it's because its primary hook (killing guys in stylish ways) requires a different kind of spatial awareness than most shooters.
The most plausible reason, however, is something that a shocking number of American outlets seemed to miss (or at least fell on the side of uncertain towards): Bulletstorm is absolutely, totally and without question self-aware. Those dick jokes aren’t trying to be tough, they’re actively trying to be stupid. And they mostly succeed, and in the process kind of mock some larger trends in the genre and perhaps a sizable percentage of it’s perceived player-base as well. Great for those in on the joke, terrible for sales.
Or maybe it just happened to be campaign-focused at a time when perk-driven multiplayer was still an exciting new thing. Whatever the case, Bulletstorm is fantastically fun, bombastic and actually quite brutal in the ways it asks creativity of its players. Like Shadow Warrior, no gun is the star of the show here, although in place of a sword is a tethering leash that you acquire at the beginning game. This whip (erm... leash) fast becomes central to everything that makes this game unique and more exciting than it would be otherwise. Whoever thought a giant, overpowered electronic whip would be a cool idea for an action game?
The aforementioned Full Clip edition isn’t far away now, but even the standard version still looks and runs great on PC, and is likely much cheaper provided it hasn’t been pulled from electronic stores to force people to buy the newer one.
Wolfenstein: The New Order
The newest game I’m going to put here, and the biggest surprise of 2014. That is, until you realise that the developer, Machine Games, was birthed by ex-Starbreeze staff (see: The Darkness, Riddick). These guys have become almost as big a theme in this list as health packs.
Speaking of which, Wolfenstein totally has those! Not only does it have health packs – it has armour, too! It’s delightfully retro in this way, which is appropriate considering that the lineage of this one is the game that kicked off the entire FPS genre back in 1992. although there is a modern concession in the form of health being broken into blocks that regenerate to the nearest twenty percent. This turns out to be a clever compromise.
It’s perhaps not surprising that Wolfenstein also allows its lead, BJ Blazkowicz, to not only carry more than two weapons at a time, but in fact carry two of each weapon at a time so that he can dual-weild them. This is the reboot of the mecha-Hitler game after all; of course its hero can spend literal years as vegetable in a wheelchair and still emerge fully ripped and can carry a Santa-sack of firearms and explosives around, presumably, in his pants.
Far more surprising, however, is why he was wheelchair bound in the first place. When it comes to action and character stamina, shooters have to be inherently unrealistic, but for what it is worth Wolfenstein was a shocking triumph of storytelling. Its alternate history of robot-Nazi occupation, as dumb as it sounds, feels real to the characters that inhabit it, and those characters are oddly likeable. Never mind that it also deals with a sexual relationship arguably better than any other high-budget game released in the previous few years. Which is just nuts. I mean, it’s freaking Wolfenstein!
This one is very affordable on PC, and copies of the cross-gen console version can probably be acquired fairly cheaply, too.