In my recent review of the No One Lives Forever series, I made the comment that those games were among my favorite first-person shooters of all time. That's how I felt when I first played them ten years ago, and replaying them a few weeks ago reminded me of just how much fun they remain, even to this day. That got me thinking: where would I actually rank them among the dozens of FPS games I've played in my lifetime? Thus, after some thought and consideration, I came up with this list of my top ten favorite first-person shooters. Spoiler alert: No One Lives Forever and Doom will be somewhere on this list.
The games that made it on to this list, as well as their relative rankings, are based on the following criteria: (1) How good do I feel the game is, (2) How much of an impact did the game have on me as a gamer, and (3) How interested would I be in replaying the game right now. I also wanted to include only games where FPS gameplay is the primary, defining element; a game like Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines would rank higher than a lot of games on this list, but it's an RPG first and foremost, so I had to exclude it. And as much as I wanted to include Metroid Prime, it's really not an FPS at its heart, even though FPS gameplay is a major part of it. Spoiler alert: Vampire Bloodlines and Metroid Prime will not be on this list.
Released in 2004 by People Can Fly, Painkiller is a rare game where "style over substance" actually works in its favor. While the industry was shifting towards more realistic military and special forces shooters like Call of Duty and Rainbow Six, in which players had to think about things like cover, positioning, and suppressing fire, while fighting against squads of other armed humans, Painkiller rose from the ashes of an older generation of shooters like Doom and Quake, which were all about putting the player in outlandish environments to run around frantically murdering demons and monsters by the hundreds with an arsenal of powerful guns.
Painkiller was a reminder of just how much fun an FPS can be when it focuses purely on the frenetic action. It deliberately eschewed all of the modern FPS trends like cover systems, escort missions, and vehicles in favor of embellishing the core experience with unique weaponry, varied enemies, and exotic environments, while emphasizing a much faster pace of run-and-gun shooting. I mean, the shotgun causes ridiculous knockback on enemies and can be alt-fired to shoot a freezing blast that encases enemies in ice, which then shatters if you hit them again. The chaingun alt-fires rockets. There's a gun that shoots giant wooden stakes that pin enemies to walls. Another gun shoots shurikens and lightning. It's an immensely satisfying game, just on a purely mechanical level, and the visual design of the enemies and environments lend it a lot of fun flair.
(1) How good is it? Painkiller is possibly the best "old school throwback" FPS I've played, that came out after the heyday of shooters from the mid-to-late 90s. It's tremendous fun when you just want to shut your brain off and release some cathartic tension shooting tons of dudes.
(2) How much of an impact did it have on me? Not a lot, I suppose, since it deliberately tries to mimic older games, but it did show me how much fun a game can be when the development team gets creative and breaks out from the cliche FPS standards, in terms of its utterly unique weaponry.
(3) How interested would I be in replaying it right now? Honestly, I've played it enough times over the years that, if I wanted to play a game like this again, I'd rather try something I haven't already played. While I probably won't be replaying it any time soon, I can almost guarantee I'd get hooked and play it all the way through if I were to start it up again.
#9: Perfect Dark
Rareware's 2000 followup to GoldenEye, Perfect Dark took the successful formula of GoldenEye and improved it in every way: better enemy AI, better level design, more weapons, more unique weapons, more enemy types, and vastly expanded, fully customiz-able multiplayer options, complete with bots. Perfect Dark packed so much extra, higher-quality stuff into the lauded GoldenEye experience that it actually required the 4MB expansion pack just to run the game. It was, in essence, a perfect (spiritual) sequel to an already-legendary game.
Perfect Dark was one of the first games that I ever became truly obsessed with; I played it for several hours every day, meticulously working through the main campaign on all difficulties and frequently dabbling in its other modes (like cooperative and counter-operative). But mostly, I played the hell out of the multiplayer, feverishly working on different achievements to unlock extra options and customizations, and convinced all my friends to come over as often as possible to play it. When I couldn't play with other people locally, I participated in an online role-playing game on GameFAQs, called the Perfect Dark Battle Arena, which became the basis of a lot of my online friendships in the early days of mainstream home internet access.
(1) How good is it? I think Perfect Dark is easily the best console FPS of its generation. It wasn't until the following generation of consoles that FPS games really took off, and Perfect Dark still rated highly compared to newer games coming out in the years following its original release. I still feel like it's a better game than Halo in a lot of ways.
(2) How much of an impact did it have on me? Of all the games on the list, Perfect Dark had the greatest impact. I played it religiously back in the day, and it was the one game (after Doom) that really sold me on FPS games. Furthermore, my time with the Perfect Dark-themed online role-playing game helped hone my creative writing skills tremendously. Or at least, got me started down that path.
(3) How interested would I be in replaying it right now? Very little. I played the hell out of this game back in the day, to the point that I still remember where to find all the hidden cheese easter eggs. I feel like there'd be nothing new remaining for me to discover, but really, I just have no desire to go back to that archaic N64 controller. Perhaps if I had an Xbox and could play the remastered version on XBLA.
#8: Borderlands 2
Released in late 2009, right when Call of Duty: Modern Warfare fatigue was just starting to set in, Borderlands was a breath of fresh air in an industry that was becoming a little too enamored with the "gritty realistic military shooter" fad. Borderlands offered something completely different: a semi-open world with RPG-style quests and character progression, and a Diablo-style loot system wherein enemies randomly dropped weapons with randomized stats and effects. It was a great idea that was, admittedly, a little stale and repetitive, but that didn't stop me from becoming addicted to the leveling and loot systems, grinding out hundreds of hours across multiple characters and replaying it in new-game-plus mode, trying to hit the level cap and acquire all the best legendary loot.
Its sequel from 2012, Borderlands 2, was a major improvement in basically every way. It was as a sequel should be: retaining all the best elements of the original game, while polishing up its rough edges and adding some fun new features to the mix. Borderlands 2 added a lot of variety to Pandora's wastelands, both visually and mechanically, and tightened up the quest structure and main storyline so that the pacing flowed at a much more engaging clip. But as with the first game, the thing that kept me coming back to Borderlands 2 for 339 hours across multiple characters and playthroughs, was the thrill of joining up with a bunch of different friends to work through the main campaign and to tackle tough epic bosses together, in addition to leveling up to try out new skill combinations, and constantly finding newer and better weapons to play with. Plus, the games actually have a fairly old-school vibe to their combat, which makes the action fairly intense and exciting.
(1) How good is it? Borderlands 2 stands out mainly for its uniqueness, more so than its overall quality. Each of its primary elements (open-world exploration, randomized loot, RPG-style character progression, FPS combat) has been done better in some other game, but Borderlands 2 is a rare combination of all of those elements where everything just meshes into one solid, coherent experience.
(2) How much of an impact did it have on me? I don't think I ever experienced any grand revelations playing Borderlands, apart from the realization that variable reinforcement can be tremendously addicting, hence why people get addicted to gambling so easily. Being one of the most recent games on this list, my tastes and interests were already developed by the time I played it.
(3) How interested would I be in replaying it right now? I sunk so much time into Borderlands 2 (it's currently my second-most played game on Steam) that I'm basically worn out on the idea of playing the series any more -- hence why I never felt any interest in The Pre-Sequel. That said, I don't have much experience playing some of the other classes, so it could be fun to give them a shot some time further down the line, in a few more years.
#7: Killing Floor
Man, that cover does nothing to impress upon you what kind of game Killing Floor actually is. That's a shame, but I guess box art wasn't much of a consideration for a game whose main selling platform was on Steam. Killing Floor -- a co-op shooter in which you fight against waves of increasingly-stronger genetically-altered zombie-like specimen known as "zeds," stopping at a trader between rounds to buy better and better weaponry before facing the boss at the end of the final wave -- began in 2005 as an Unreal Tournament mod, and found its way to a stand-alone commercial release in 2009. Developer Tripwire Interactive continued to support the game for years after release, updating the game with new weapons, new classes, new maps, new enemies, and even a new game mode.
Killing Floor was consistently one of Steam's most actively played online shooters over its lifespan, and even though the release of Killing Floor 2 has drawn a lot of the playerbase over to the newer game, a lot of people are still actively playing KF1. It's no wonder, because the gunplay in KF1 is top notch, with the heavy recoil animations, sound effects, and looking down the 3D model of the gun as you line up shots (along with the satisfying crunch and pop, followed by a spray of blood when you decapitate an enemy) making it feel like you're firing actual guns with realistic weight and response. That wasn't the only thing that kept me playing for 700+ hours over the span of five years, though -- it was also the game's rewarding difficulty progression. As you leveled up your perks, you got stronger and gained new passive abilities, which allowed you to move up to higher difficulties where the challenge got even stronger, and where you had to learn different tactics and work together as a team much more closely to be successful.
(1) How good is it? I've played a fair amount of online shooters over the years, and Killing Floor is one of very few that managed to hold my attention for any serious amount of time. It still holds up pretty well, and is a great way to pass some time and blow off some steam (or a zombie's head).
(2) How much of an impact did it have on me? Killing Floor was one of the first games I ever played where I actually felt like I was looking down the sights of an actual weapon, instead up just lining up some kind of overlay on my target. It made it difficult for me to appreciate how the guns felt in a lot of other shooters.
(3) How interested would I be in replaying it right now? I've been playing Killing Floor 2 on and off since April 2015, while it goes through Early Access, and I still occasionally boot up KF1 for a match, because some of the mechanics from that game are actually better than what's on offer in KF2.
#6: No One Lives Forever
I'm lumping both of the No One Lives Forever games into this slot, because it's too difficult to pick just one, and because they complement each other so well that, if you're going to play one of them, you should really also play the other. Released in 2000 and 2002, the NOLF series follows secret agent Cate Archer attempting to thwart a villainous criminal organization from rising to power in the 1960s. The games are heavily story-driven, and offer a blend of stealth gameplay and action shooting, with a lot of fun spy gadgets and occasional vehicles thrown into the mix. As a spy, you spend the bulk of the game breaking into secured facilities, searching the environment for intelligence items, and fighting the badguy's henchmen.
The NOLF series does a really good job of making you feel like a spy, with all of its highly thematic objectives: blending in with civilians on the streets, meeting up with informants, going undercover to interview a suspect, attending mission briefings and debriefings, visiting Santa's workshop to get your new spy gadgets, etc. The level design also offers some of the most unique and memorable level sequences of any game, ever, with you skydiving out of an exploded airplane and battling henchmen to get hold of a parachute, scuba diving through a wrecked freighter fighting off sharks with a harpoon gun, riding a rocket up to a space station, breaking into a laser-secured vault, and so on. And, as story-driven games, the NOLF series (the first one in particular) has one of the more engaging stories of any FPS.
(1) How good is it? No One Lives Forever is like a blend of Half-Life, GoldenEye, and Deus Ex, all considered to be some of the best FPS games of their time, and NOLF ranks right up there will all of those games. It's actually better than them in some ways.
(2) How much of an impact did it have on me? This was one of the first PC-exclusive shooters I ever played. I don't think No One Lives Forever brought anything new to my experiences as a gamer, but it was one of the game series that helped convert me into a PC gamer.
(3) How interested would I be in replaying it right now? I literally just replayed both games in this series, so I don't think I'll be playing them again any time soon. But, the fact that I replayed them so recently, and enjoyed both games immensely nearly 10 years after playing them originally, says a lot in their favor.
#5: System Shock 2
Hailing from 1999, System Shock 2 is one of the oldest games on this list. It is, essentially, the grandfather of FPS-RPGs, and it established a lot of techniques that would become common place in science fiction and horror games for years to come. In System Shock 2, you play a military soldier on board the Von Braun, an experimental faster-than-light space ship setting off on its maiden voyage. You go into deep space hibernation and wake up some time later, after some kind of catastrophe has struck the Von Braun, killing most of the crew and turning many of them into mutated alien hybrids. With the ship falling apart, its security systems working against you, and the remnants of its mutated crew mindlessly roaming the halls, you have to find a way to stop the catastrophe, and find a way off the ship.
What made System Shock 2 such a momentous game, besides its great space-horror atmosphere, was its inclusion of RPG-style leveling systems and skills. You were rewarded for completing objectives, solving challenges, and exploring hidden areas of the ship with cyber modules, which you could spend at stations on the ship to improve your hacking abilities, your weapon proficiency, your ability to modify and repair equipment, or even your psionic abilities (which function like magic spells in a fantasy game), among other skills, in addition to increasing your stats like your strength, endurance, agility, and so on. With its emphasis on open-ended character development, it was one of the first FPS games that was designed to allow for multiple ways to solve a problem, which is a large part of what makes it so satisfying and rewarding to play, because it offers players a lot of meaningful choices that will alter the way the game plays out.
(1) How good is it? The fact that I played it for the first time a mere year ago, and that it checks in at number five in this top 10 list, should say enough about how good I feel System Shock 2 is. This ranking isn't inflated by nostalgic memories or anything -- I just feel like it's a legitimately good game.
(2) How much of an impact did it have on me? Like with Borderlands 2, I played this one so recently that it had no chance to influence my tastes or interests in games. I wasn't that fond of the BioShock games to begin with, but after playing System Shock 2 I'm more convinced than ever how thoroughly mediocre they really are.
(3) How interested would I be in replaying it right now? I just played it for the first time a year ago, so I'm in no rush to play it again. However, there was a lot of content I missed out on in my first playthrough, so I'd be eager to try different character builds and see how the gameplay changes.
Monolith earns special recognition as the only developer with two games on this list: No One Lives Forever, and FEAR. Released in 2005, FEAR is a visceral FPS with psychological horror elements. You play as the nameless point man of a special forces group known by their acronym FEAR, which supposedly stands for First Encounter Assault Recon, on a mission to retrieve and/or eliminate an escaped research subject named Paxton Fettel, who took telepathic control of a group of super soldiers and is now loose in the city. Two things set FEAR apart from the bulk of other FPS games; one is its "reflex time" feature, which lets you slow down time to fire bullets with pinpoint precision a la The Matrix or Max Payne, and the other is its moments of scripted horror, when the pointman experiences frightening hallucinations or is attacked by Alma, another escaped research subject with psychokinetic and telepathic powers.
The horror sequences in FEAR were some of the most unnerving and, at times, startling moments I'd ever experienced in a video game. Things like walking down a hallway, and suddenly finding yourself in another hallway with blood pooling up on the ceiling, or having Alma suddenly appear behind you as you descend a ladder, were really creepy at the time. It's hard to feel truly scared during these moments because you're usually not vulnerable to anything -- they're just weird things happening around you -- but they create a great atmosphere for the game and do a good enough job of putting you a little on edge. The combat, meanwhile, is still some of the best I've ever experienced in a FPS. The enemy AI was really advanced for its time, with enemies moving intelligently throughout the level trying to flank you and flush you out with grenades or pin you down with suppressing fire. This, combined with the level design, ensured that you could save the game before a fight, play it two or three different times, and have vastly different outcomes. This lent the game a strong tactical feel to it, while the slow-motion bullet-time effects were just downright awesome.
(1) How good is it? Few games I've ever played have had gunfights as good as the ones in FEAR, which are both mechanically and aesthetically satisfying, offering a lot of atmospheric punch with clever enemies and level design that encourages you to think and use the environment to your advantage.
(2) How much of an impact did it have on me? As with NOLF, FEAR was one of the first PC shooters I played when I bought my first PC, and I was blown away by how much smarter and more sophisticated it felt compared to anything else I'd played at the time. Plus, it was, at one point, one of the scariest horror games I'd ever played.
(3) How interested would I be in replaying it right now? Of all the games on my list, this is the one I'd like to replay most. I've replayed everything else at least once before, but I only ever played FEAR once in 2006, about a year after it was released. Hopefully I haven't become so jaded by horror cliches that I would still be able to appreciate its atmosphere and scary moments.
Released in 1993 by id Software, Doom was the game that basically created the first-person shooter. There had been other games before it, certainly (namely, Wolfenstein 3D the year prior, also by id Software), but it was Doom that popularized the concept of "modern" FPS games. It was Doom that became the basis on which virtually all FPS games in the years to follow would model themselves, spawning years upon years worth of "doom-clones" before Half-Life came along in 1998 and changed the formula. Doom's place on this list is partly out of respect for its historical context, but I played it a lot as a kid in the mid 90s, once in high school, and once again in college, and I feel like it's held up tremendously well every time I've played it.
I played the hell out the shareware version of Doom back in the day. I was only about six or eight at the time, so I recall mostly playing on easy ("I'm too young to die") and enabling cheats like invincibility, infinite ammo, and unlocking all guns, so I could go around blasting everything in sight with the rocket launcher or BFG. I also remember being amazed at all the hidden areas I'd sometimes stumble into, and went out of my way trying to find new secrets. As the oldest game on this list, you can definitely tell how much it's aged -- crummy keyboard controls and no vertical aiming stand out worse than the pixellated 2D sprites -- but it's still a highly functional and enjoyable game, even to this day. I didn't play the full version with all three original episodes, or the sequel Doom II: Hell on Earth until much later, and I had a blast going through all the new areas without the benefit of nostalgia.
(1) How good is it? Objectively speaking, Doom is probably the worst game on this list because of its age, but it was the best thing you could possibly ask for back in 1993. The fact that I still enjoyed playing it in high school and college should speak volumes for its overall quality.
(2) How much of an impact did it have on me? Doom was probably the first non-educational video game I ever played, save for maybe X-Wing. It gave me frightening nightmares as a kid, and yet I still eagerly came back to play more of it the next day. The fact that it's so high on my list is mainly because of the impact it had in getting me started with video games.
(3) How interested would I be in replaying it right now? Like others on my list, this is a game that I've replayed so many times that I don't feel like there'd be much point in doing so. Doom II is much less fresh in my mind, so I could possibly see myself replaying the sequel sometime in the near future.
#2: Deus Ex
Considered a spiritual sequel to System Shock 2, with its blend of FPS and RPG gameplay and its cyberpunk theming, Deus Ex was released in 2000, having been developed by many of the same people who worked on the System Shock series. In Deus Ex, you play as JC Denton, an agent for an anti-terrorism organization known as UNATCO, who's been augmented with cybernetic enhancements. After preventing a group of terrorists from blowing up the statue of liberty, you proceed with the rest of your mission assignments and eventually discover that your older brother Paul, a fellow augmented UNATCO agent, has been working with the terrorists all along. You soon realize that you're part of a widespread government conspiracy, and can trust no one but yourself in bringing it down.
Deus Ex was my introduction to the FPS-RPG hybrid. I was already a fan of both FPS games and RPGs, so it was a great pleasure to see the two genres blended together. A first-person shooter with a great story and emergent gameplay that let you decide how you wanted to play the game, with stat point allocation and active skills? It was phenomenal. The RPG system alone offered a lot of potential replay value, with you being able to focus on different skills and take different augmentations that would alter your gameplay, but the game also had branching paths and decisions built into the level design and story -- you had a completely different experience if you took the rooftops to the NSF compound instead of the alleys, for example, and the story and gameplay scenarios changed slightly if you killed or let certain NPCs live. And I'll never forget that moment when I realized the game had actually betrayed me, that the game had been playing me for a fool all along, when I walked out of the Majestic 12 prison facility and found myself at the locked door in the UNATCO headquarters. That was just masterful storytelling.
(1) How good is it? Deus Ex feels a little clunky these days, and there are times, particularly early on, when the RPG mechanics clash with the FPS mechanics a little too strongly. But the amount of interesting, meaningful choices you have in this game is absolutely astounding, while the story and immersive atmosphere make it one of my favorite games of all time, regardless of genre.
(2) How much of an impact did it have on me? Quite a lot. As my introduction to FPS-RPG hybrids, it was Deus Ex that made it so difficult for me to appreciate simpler FPS games.
(3) How interested would I be in replaying it right now? I replayed Deus Ex (for the third time, I think) a few years ago in anticipation of Human Revolution. I probably wouldn't want to play it again for a long time, because I've played it enough at this point that I think I'd just be repeating a lot of the same decisions. If anything, I'd like to give Invisible War a shot.
#1: STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl
Released in 2007, STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl is an open-world post-apocalyptic FPS with RPG elements, set in the irradiated zone around Chernobyl, following a fictitious second nuclear blowout in 2006. As a result of all the nuclear emissions and lingering fallout, the Zone, as it's known, has developed all kinds of scientific anomalies -- small pockets of space that defy the natural laws of physics, that contain things like intense gravity wells or electrical storms -- and has even mutated most of the local wildlife, even bestowing psychokinesis, mind control, and powers of invisibility to some of its more monstrous mutants. The only people who go into the Zone are scientists looking to study the anomalies, or treasure hunters known as "stalkers" who wish to profit off the rare Artifacts, which imbue their carriers with special traits like increased health regeneration or an electromagnetic field that can reduce the impact of bullets or grenade shrapnel.
The STALKER series is easily one of the most atmospherically immersive games I've ever played. The Zone is a harsh, cruel place to be in, with the constant threat of anomalies ripping you to pieces, violent mutants trying to kill you, radiation poisoning and psionic emissions slowly weakening you until your eventual demise, and the occasional bandits who just want to steal your stuff. The fact that it's a somewhat open world, allowing you to explore where you want, with RPG-style quests, inventory, and character progression, along with a lightweight survival system that requires you to carry first aid kits, bandages, anti-radiation stims, and food with you everywhere you go (in addition to scrounging for ammunition when you inevitably run out, since all of your items have realistic weight and you can only carry so much when you set out from town), all makes you feel so heavily engaged in every moment of the game. The gunplay is a lot of fun, too, with realistic, meaningful recoil on weapons, in addition to things like bullet drop and bullet travel time, all of which makes hitting your targets a lot harder (and therefore more satisfying) than in most other games. More impressive than any of that, though, is how alive the Zone actually feels, with all of its unscripted events unfolding with complete disregard to your presence.
(1) How good is it? There's really nothing else like it. The only thing that comes close is Metro 2033, which is completely linear, and the modern Fallout games (3, New Vegas, and 4), which are more RPGs than shooters, and don't focus nearly as much on the survival-horror element. Short of the Gothic series, the STALKER games just might be my next favorite series of all time.
(2) How much of an impact did it have on me? I remember walking into a GameStop in early 2008, saw this on the shelf, brought it up to the register, and had the employee try to talk me out of buying it, saying that I absolutely needed to play Half-Life 2 instead. I'm glad I didn't listen to him, because while Half-Life 2 is fine and all, it's got nothing on STALKER. This was probably one of the most important games I played in college, in terms of shaping my identity as a gamer.
(3) How interested would I be in replaying it right now? Immensely. So much so that I installed the third game, Call of Pripyat, and have been playing it while working on this article. With the vast amount of mods (and total overhaul mods) available to all three STALKER games, I imagine there will always be something new out there for me to try, whenever I get the urge to play a STALKER game again.
As with any "best of" list, it's usually worthwhile to talk about games that just missed the cut. For me, these are two games I was considering putting on the list, but I just couldn't find enough room for them.
TimeSplitters 2 + 3
You may have noticed a few high-profile games missing from my list, that likely would have made it onto any mainstream "top 10" list. Games like Halo, Call of Duty, Medal of Honor, Battlefield, Counter-Strike, Quake, Unreal Tournament, Crysis, and Farcry (among countless others) were all left off the list because I just haven't played any of them. I've played various Halo, Call of Duty, and Medal of Honor games, but only in multiplayer mode, so I really don't have enough of a foundation with any of those games to rate them fairly, and obviously not enough experience for any of them to make the cut in my list of favorite FPS games.
The one omission that I feel somewhat bad about is Half-Life, because it's such a highly regarded PC game that it seems like sacrilege for me not to include it. But honestly, I was never that into Half-Life. I played it a little bit in the early 2000s and it didn't catch my interest enough for me to keep playing. Then I gave it another chance in college, playing it all the way to completion, but it felt a little too dated at that point to stand out, and the ridiculous architecture and level design annoyed me to no end. I played Half-Life 2 (and both of its subsequent episodes) shortly thereafter, and while they were fine games in their own right, I didn't feel all that impressed by them, and never felt the urge over the past 6-8 years to replay them. In short, they don't hold a special place in my heart like the games in my top 10.
One interesting thing to note about these selections is that very few of them are traditional, typical FPS games. Most of them are on the list because they have something else going on in them -- RPG mechanics in System Shock and Deus Ex, an open world survival element in STALKER, randomized loot in Borderlands, horror sequences in FEAR, stealth gameplay and gadgets in No One Lives Forever, and online coop and leveling in Killing Floor. Perfect Dark, Doom, and Painkiller are really the only "traditional" shooters on this list, and even then, Painkiller sets itself apart with its highly atypical weaponry and uber-ginormous boss fights. I'm not sure if that means I just don't care for "regular" shooters much, or if I just like RPGs and survival-horror games more, which therefore leads me to liking FPS games with those elements in them as well. I guess it's probably more of the latter.