There’s nothing better than a game that understands how to make the long tradition of digitally gunning down bad dudes feel fresh and entertaining.
A truly great shooter has more going for it than imaginative weaponry or a rollercoaster of a story. It’s a game that houses a vision of something we haven’t seen before and then executes that vision with a startling amount of grace—well, at least for a genre that revolves around eviscerating foes with bullets.
These games are, in my opinion, the best shooters of the last ten years.
10. ‘GEARS OF WAR’
Hard to believe this one is almost a decade old. Responsible for just as many fond memories involving late night multiplayer trash talk sessions as it is for the now somewhat grating gaming industry trend of gritty dudes shooting other dudes from behind cover in bleak worlds, Gears of War’s influence cannot be denied.
Even now, nearly nine years later, the first game in the series is more satisfying to play than the majority of contemporary shooters thanks to the meaty feedback the game provides when you disembowel a foe with your gun’s chainsaw attachment or stomp in their heads. Gears of War may be a game that appeals to our baser instincts, but it’s hard to deny the brutish mastery of it all.
9. ‘FAR CRY 2’
Both Far Cry 3 and Far Cry 4 are imaginative, exhilarating games that take you to exotic locales—games that are focused on making the act of shooting another human being as fun and painless as possible. Far Cry 2 is the opposite of this design in nearly every way. Africa is not presented as a colorful continent filled with gorgeous vistas. Instead it’s a dusty hellhole with jungles pushing you down narrow walkways; it’s a place that’s out to kill you from the get-go, infecting you with a disease that cripples you throughout the rest of the game. Malaria will cause you to freeze during gunfights and if that’s not bad enough, guns are prone to jamming, there are no crosshairs to make it easier to aim, and the act of simply moving from place to place is confusing thanks to a messy navigation system.
Shooters are almost always about tangling with death but Far Cry 2 goes beyond that. You roll around in the awfulness of death and lap it up like a dog drinking from a toilet bowl. Everything you do in the game results in people dying—f not by your own hand, then by the far-flung ripples of your actions. Far Cry 2’s brooding obsession with how death will eventually swallow up everything—and there’s no amount of bullets or money that will prevent it from finding you too—has earned it a place as one of the greatest shooters ever made.
As the strongest exclusive to launch on the Xbox One, the multiplayer-only Titanfall earned the love of a loyal fanbase enamored with its giant mechs and parkouring pilots. It’s a bit of a shame that now, a little over a year and a half later, the servers are mostly deserted and it’s hard to find a game where a few dedicated experts aren’t tearing everyone else to shreds. Still, Titanfall is, at its core, simply one of the best shooters because it nails something that most other games in the genre just don’t understand: movement.
It’s delightful just to run around in the game, leaping from wall to wall, hijacking Titans or bringing the mechanical beasts to their knees. Developers Respawn seemingly accomplished the impossible: striking a balance and making it just as fun to play as a human as it is stomping around in a mech. Hopefully the next game in the series will have some sort of single-player component that helps keep it alive and worthwhile for newcomers to experience even years after the game’s been released.
7. ‘MAX PAYNE 3’
Max Payne, cribbing hard from John Woo flicks, has always treated violence as a ballet, encouraging you to leap around in slow motion with guns blazing. In Max Payne 3 our protagonist has ditched wintery New York in favor of working as a hired gun for some sketchy rich family in São Paulo. Things soon go sour and Max finds himself squaring off against an entire of army.
The shooting mechanics of Max Payne 3 are second to none and are also impressively realistic. Max will carry around a shotgun or rifle in his free hand when he’s using his sidearms—as opposed to having it magically strapped to his back—and miscalculating a jump will result in Max slamming into a wall and becoming stunned for a few seconds, leaving him vulnerable to enemies. Gunfire often chews up your cover so there’s no real way to be safe. You just have to move constantly and hope your aim is true. It’s frustrating initially but once you get a hang of how to use Max’s movements to your advantages you can pull off dazzling displays of gruesome yet cathartic violence.
6. ‘CALL OF DUTY 4: MODERN WARFARE’
Hardly a series that needs introduction, Call of Duty shifted from World War II to a post-9/11 setting in 2007 and nearly every military shooter since has chased after it or responded to it in some way. It’s not difficult to see why. Few single-player campaigns are as well-built and -paced as Modern Warfare, with you playing the part of six different soldiers during a worldwide terrorist hunt. In one level you’re fighting inside the cargo hold of a sinking battleship, in the next you’re tracking your quarry in the Middle East. The story itself isn’t so bad for Tom Clancy fan fiction and games are still stealing tricks from Modern Warfare when it comes to designing interesting first-person sequences.
Since then the series has bounced around in various universes and remained mostly entertaining but it’s a bit of a shame that the sturdy, impressive architecture that props up 4 was traded away for the sake of yearly sequels, almost guaranteeing we’ll never have a Call of Duty as great as this one again.
“But you don’t shoot anyone in Portal, how is it a shooter!?” you might ask. Well, that’s kind of the reason it’s so great! You have a gun that you use to solve puzzles instead of shooting people and it’s still fun and challenging as hell.
That in itself is its own kind of achievement, as is the game’s wicked sense of humor. It’s nearly impossible to not crack a smile when passive-aggressive, slightly homicidal computer GLaDOS says “The Enrichment Center once again reminds you that android hell is a real place where you will be sent at the first sign of defiance.”
Bulletstorm is a nasty little game filled with crude humor and lots of guts, but beneath all the juvenile stuff is a surprisingly poignant story about a terrible man realizing how awful he is and slowly but surely making an honest attempt to be a better person. I mean, this particular journey towards betterment includes killing a lot of people, but it’s still a story that mostly works if you can brush that minor detail to the side (you are playing a first-person shooter after all).
Beyond the engaging story, Bulletstorm is also just loads of fun to play, boasting an amusing combo system that lets you freeze enemies and throw them into spikes and off cliffs for points that are used to upgrade your weapons, which are all rather ridiculous in a way that recalls the overpowered lasers and cannons of Unreal Tournament. If you like your shooters old school goofy with a little bit of heart and a lot of raunch, Bulletstorm’s the way to go.
3. ‘KANE AND LYNCH 2: DOG DAYS’
Okay, hear me out first, all right? Yes, the first Kane and Lynch was abysmal and, yes, the sequel received, uh, less than favorable reviews. However, Kane and Lynch 2’s crime wasn’t that it was a terrible game; it’s that it was a game doing strange experiments with form and theme in a series that no one expected or wanted such experimentation from. In a sense, Kane and Lynch 2 is the Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge of first-person shooters.
The combat is shaky, making it nearly impossible to hit enemies without wasting tons of ammo destroying stores, gas stations, and malls in the process. The game looks ugly. Its protagonists are ugly, but then again violence is an ugly thing. Kane and Lynch are glorified henchmen whose only method of problem-solving is shooting things, and everything awful that happens in Dog Days is a result of their inability to be anything other than violent monsters. This is not a fun game. It’s a bleak, uncompromising odyssey that should be played by anyone curious about the storytelling potential of shooters.
2. ‘METRO 2033’
Metro 2033 takes place two decades after a series of atomic explosions has reduced Moscow to an apocalyptic wasteland, driving people to live in the underground metro stations. The survivors break into various groups and wage war against one another over supplies while radioactive monsters enter the fray from time to time as well. In this world, conservation is the name of the game and it’s what keeps the smarter underground dwellers alive.
Metro 2033 not only has a rich, haunting world but the gunplay is top notch, especially if you select Ranger difficulty. Ranger makes it so that both you and your enemies deal ridiculously high amounts of damage to one another; on this difficulty ammo becomes scarcer, so it’s to your advantage to waste no shots and, if you’re skilled enough, to sneak by enemy encampments and avoid conflict altogether. 2033 also throws another wrench into the typical first-person shooter formula by making ammo a currency that can be used to buy items, yet another encouragement to play smart and be resourceful instead of trying to murder everything in the room.
1. ‘WOLFENSTEIN: THE NEW ORDER’
Wolfenstein: The New Order is simply the best first-person shooter of the past 10 years. MachineGames, comprised of developers who worked on both The Darkness and The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, took one of the oldest first-person shooter franchises and revitalized it by turning a goofy sci-fi concept on its head and crafting a bleak world filled with characters in search of hope and redemption.
Sure, the pathway to all that involves killing countless Nazis, but The New Order makes it work nonetheless, presenting emotional stakes and then mining them for all their worth while simultaneously finding a smart balance between the fast-paced arcade style of older first-person shooters and the RPG-lite qualities of contemporary ones. Guns are ludicrously powerful and fun to use while the health system, which only regenerates every 20 points of health, gives the player a bit of breathing room while encouraging them to move out of cover. The optional perk systems also offer achievement-locked skill boosts for those who want some extra, rewarding challenges.
The New Order is ultimately a game about transitions, both thematically and mechanically, and serves as a great example of just how far shooters have come and, in some of the gamer’s weaker tone deaf moments, how far they have to go.
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