Happily for anyone looking to play their way through history's greatest hits, it's easy to track the category's growth and development by looking at major inflection points in its advancement. Following, we take a closer look at 10 games that shaped the genre, changing the face of gaming forevermore — each well worth checking out if you haven't already given them a frantic button-mashing try.
Doom (id Software/GT Interactive Software)
OK, so maybe sci-fi run-n-gun masterpiece Doom — among the first titles to put 3D gaming on the map way back when it debuted in 1993 — technically wasn't the first game to bear the title “FPS." But as any true PC gamer knows, it was definitely the title that initially helped bring the genre to mainstream prominence, inspiring legions of players to make the jump to console from computer along the way. Building on everything spiritual predecessorWolfenstein 3D did well (i.e., close-quarters combat, unexpected thrills, and sudden, shock-induced trigger-mashing spaz-outs) and amping up the adrenaline factor several times over, it remains a pleasure to play to this day. Credit stunning design, novel play, and an especially inventive retinue of fang-faced demons to send screaming back to hell, all of which helped define one of gaming's most influential titles for an entire generation of enthusiasts. Making players feel vulnerable, desperate, and truly in danger, it was also the first shooter to have its source code publicly released, inspiring gamers to develop an endless array of mods which kept it feeling fresh and relevant years after its initial release. Few games have rivaled its thrills or originality to date: a point evidenced by the fact the series is still going strong, and about to get yet another reboot this year. Needless to say, we can't wait.
Shogo: Mobile Armor Division (Monolith Entertainment)
Once upon a time, first-person shooters were largely brainless exercises in plugging holes in buddies' heads. Shogo: Mobile Armor Division aimed to change the experience on multiple counts, offering a smarter, more story-driven approach to running and gunning. Unique in that it combined "on-foot" FPS action with combat in anime-style bipedal mechanized robot suits — and made both experiences (and a strong supporting tale behind them) possible via relatively straightforward and intuitive controls no less — the title effectively demonstrated that genre offerings couldn't be so easily pigeonholed. Interestingly, the title was also notable for adding a mission-based structure to play and for ranking among the earliest shooters to give players options and choices that would determine the final outcome of the game — influences that would trickle down to many a game that followed.
Released in 1998, Half-Life was a game changer for the FPS genre for a myriad of reasons — not simply for introducing players to the opportunity to beat the living crap out of headcrabs using a handy crowbar. First, the title offered the kind of rich, atmospheric storytelling you'd previously only have expected from games in other genres, to the point that it actually opened with a lengthy introduction that provided far more background and plot detail than any prior shooter. Second, and more importantly, it also provided a many-layered gameplay experience and environmental backdrop that favored in-game encounters over simple chances to blast slavering alien mutants into chunks of otherworldly meat. Third, the title received several expansions, essentially foreshadowing and helping to usher in today's now-insatiable demand for downloadable content (DLC). And finally, Half-Life's source code allowed small game developers and startups to build on its software backbone to craft their own unique games, resulting in notable successors such as Counter-Strike and Day of Defeat. A true classic in every sense of the word, Half-Life marked a turning point for the FPS category — future games were forced both to up their production values by several orders of magnitude and to bring something new and unique to the table with each new release.
Quake III: Arena (id Software/Activision)
Sure, there were multiplayer shooters before Quake III: Arena, but few proved worth remembering once id Software's frenetic trigger-mashing masterpiece arrived on the scene. A follow-up to previous games in the series (both classics in their own right for introducing the world to true 3D action, and the virtues of owning high-end graphics cards), Quake III was focused almost entirely on head-to-head online action. Stripping away what were then genre nonessentials (including characterization and storytelling) and doubling down instead on adrenaline-pumping action, it helped refine shooting, strafing, and fragging to a fine art. While the game's minimalist design may seem at odds with today's more grandiose outings, it served at the time as an ideal background for convincing players to finally embrace high-speed internet connections, while also offering a definitive range of modes to school oneself on, including deathmatch, team deathmatch, tournament, and capture the flag. Although the title would face stiff competition from Unreal Tournament — the single best-looking FPS title the world had seen to date, and an arguably equally deserving contender — its staunch focus on arena-based play proved a prescient look into the future of the genre.
Call of Duty 2 (Infinity Ward/Activision)
Granted, you could just as easily give the nod here to the original Call of Duty, which will go down in history as one of gaming's most important releases. But the second installment in the popular fire-and-forget franchise really helped blow the doors off the genre, cementing the series' status as one of the field's premiere outings. Returning to the brand's familiar World War II setting, only upping the visual ante as you bazooka and machine-gunned your way through Hitler's henchmen, Call of Duty 2 offered a rich narrative that allowed the player to take part in a single-player campaign spread out over three stories with a total of 27 missions. Instead of playing as a single character, though, the player participated as the star of three different stories, by turns a Soviet, a British, and an American soldier fighting against the Nazis. In addition to the title's compelling single-player mode, multiplayer also proved a strong draw. Call of Duty 2 still remains a highly recommended play today, courtesy of a number of engaging multiplayer modes — not to mention the at-the-time stunning ability to allow up to 64 players to blow smoking holes in one another's fatigues at the same time.
Left For Dead 2 (Valve)
Imagine being hunted through the streets by hordes of walking corpses hungry to take a bite out of your cranium. Like a living horror film, Left for Dead 2 invites you to survive a zombie apocalypse, only with an interactive twist — drawing upon cooperative play elements, you'll have to work as a team if you and your associates want to survive this waking nightmare. Essentially a straight-to-DVD film come to life, the game — based around surviving surprise encounters with the walking dead — features four unique colorful characters, five chapters to explore in an extensive co-op campaign, and a timed mode that lets you test your survival skills. What's more, there's even a unique versus mode that allows up to four players to become the "infected" (aka zombies) and hunt innocent human survivors. Perhaps what's most notable about the title, though, is its “AI Director 2.0" artificial intelligence system, which procedurally spawns enemies based on players' performances, adding to the challenge when you appear to be winning, thus ensuring that every game offers new nightmares to encounter.
Battlefield: Bad Company 2 (DICE/Electronic Arts)
Battlefield 1942 introduced players to the concept of grand-scale multiplayer military combat action, making vehicles an integral part of play, while later successor Battlefield 2 made squad-based play all the rage, winning legions of loyal fans for this all-star franchise along the way. But it was series spin-off Battlefield: Bad Company 2, which paired a strong solo campaign to go with all that explosive head-to-head online action, that truly helped popularize mass destruction from the first-person standpoint. While a variety of run-and-gun games such as Red Faction and the original Bad Company offered the ability to blast holes in walls, what really set Bad Company 2 apart was its updated Frostbite 1.5 play engine. Using it, players could literally bring the house (and many other buildings) tumbling down before their eyes, leveling the playing field like gaming fans had never seen before. Still a hoot to breeze through if you're into causing chaos, a Vietnam War–focused expansion pack also comes recommended to check out, letting you blow things up while partying like it's 1969.
Far Cry 3 (Ubisoft Montreal/Ubisoft)
Stunning first-person shooter Far Cry (all about grand-scale, open-world, covert-ops-themed shoot 'em up action set atop the backdrop of a remote archipelago's lush environs) helped marry the idea of your usual bullet-spraying escapades with a living, breathing world to explore and play in. Unsurprisingly, sequels such as Far Cry 3 only took the concept further, introducing worlds that have become steadily more detailed and expansive. In the third installment of the popular franchise, you'll visit a tropical island seemingly soaked in gasoline, where weapons and explosive combat encounters abound, while also enjoying role-playing-style game elements such as experience points, skill trees, and even a crafting system throughout. Options to employ stealth also allow players to perform melee attacks and take cover behind objects, adding a further sense of realism to the outing previously uncommon in the genre. Numerous outcomes and endings also add to the title's signature replayability, making playing the title every bit as enjoyable an experience today as it was when it was first released back in 2012.
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (Hidden Path Entertainment/Valve Corporation)
Counter-Strike has long been the gold standard when it comes to online tournaments and competitive FPS gaming. (Fun fact: more than $7.5 million in prize money has been awarded at tournaments based around this game.) So it's no surprise that in 2015, WME/IMG and Turner Broadcasting announced the launch of a televised Counter-Strike: Global Offensive eSports league (the ELeague), which will make its debut on TVs nationwide later this year — marking yet another major coup for what already clearly ranks among gaming's most celebrated franchises. Built for serious competition, the latest edition is a title you'll want to be playing if winning matters, and it clearly shows across a variety of all-star in-game modes. What's more, this latest version of Counter-Strike (another must-see exercise in helping spec ops teams take down terrorists across the globe) continues to wow with its razor-sharp play, slick visuals, and irresistible multiplayer mayhem. What can we say, man? If you love FPS action, you'll definitely want to lock and load.
ARMA 3 (Bohemia Interactive)
There's no current shortage of modern warfare–themed shooters that take an insanely over-the-top approach to in-game combat. But it's precisely this kind of bombast — sometimes better suited to low-budget action films than video games — that ARMA 3 is designed to fight back against. An open-world military "tactical shooter" that mixes FPS play with third-person gaming elements, it not only provides a massive sandbox of arms, vehicles, and encounters to enjoy, but its more than 40 weapons and 20 vehicles (hint: try the tank or helicopter) effectively provide a massive toolbox to pull from when looking to create new adventures. Wildly intense, gorgeously detailed, and designed to satisfy even the most demanding of military buffs, it's a surprisingly detailed counterpoint to typical FPS outings that nonetheless makes blowing opponents away in increasingly spectacular fashion seem casual and effortless.
By Scott Steinberg
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