Shooters saw a bit of a renaissance in the late ‘90s and early 2000s and their popularity only increased from there. Some of the biggest franchises today are first-person shooters as a result of these innovations. The FPS games that I am interested in talking about here though are the ones that were able to create memorable experiences in their single players. What are they remembered for and why?
How do they utilize their perspective, music, and shooting mechanics to engage the player? These are the elements that make an interesting first-person shooter single-player experience, and these are the games that I think are the best representations of the genre today.
Call of Duty: Black Ops
Call of Duty: Black Ops was a surprise with how interesting the single-player turned out to be. With the rise of online multiplayer and MW1 and MW2’s popularity, it felt like Black Ops might not try as hard with its single-player and focus on the multiplayer experience but that wasn’t entirely true.
The game delivered the best twist in all of Call of Duty and arguably one of the better ones in gaming. You play as Alex Mason for the majority of the game and meet an old friend while in prison: Viktor Reznov.
Renov will play a key role in the events of the story but not the ones that the player perceives for the majority of the events because it turns out that Mason had been brainwashed in prison to assassinate Kennedy.
However, Reznov, being the GOAT that he is, reprogrammed Mason’s brainwashing to assassinate Dragovich, and this is part of the reason that Mason thought he was seeing Reznov participate in later events. The twist combined with the regular Call of Duty action that hadn’t jumped the shark yet was what made Black Ops such a fantastic fps and one that is still worth revisiting today.
The end of an era. Though Bungie would continue with two more Halo games after Halo 3, this one always felt like the conclusion and one that hit such a high mark for the series.
The levels were varied with great corridor shooting levels with interesting combat scenarios like “Crow’s Nest,” great vehicle levels like “Tsavo Highway,” and fantastic levels that did both like “The Ark.” The story wrapped up nicely and could have been left as is (not that I am complaining about more Halo).
Levels gave players a lot of different options to tackle different scenarios like when the scarab comes crashing down on “The Storm.” The player can either take out its legs with a missile pod or a mongoose with a marine holding a rocket launcher.
Maybe they will choose to take the elevator up and hijack the scarab that way. This variety in ways to approach situations in the game is what makes Halo 3 such a great experience to play to this day. I’m still learning new ways to play and it’s been 14 years!
Would you kindly hear me talk about BioShock one more time? It’s almost not fair to put BioShock in the same category as many of these other games because it just feels like a fundamentally different game.
The design philosophy is from a different time with a few modern enhancements to make it more engaging. What I mean by that is that it’s Half-Life but with superpowers, upgrades, audio recordings, and underwater instead of physics labs.
The philosophical questions that the story poses and the elements of horror that stem from them are part of the reason that many people still return to this game. It all feels so fully realized and, besides some slight aging in the textures, many of the game’s mechanics still feel modern and fresh.
I just wish there would be a new entry already: there’s so much potential for new stories somewhere in this terrible universe.
Wolfenstein: The New Order
Speaking of terrible worlds that pose horrific questions, what if the Nazis won WWII? That’s what Wolfenstein: The New Order does but with the fantastic elements that could be seen on any American propaganda poster: complete with an overly buff guy with a habit of making emotional monologues related to the events that he is seeing and being utterly unstoppable Nazi killing.
Seriously, this guy gives Master Chief and Gordon Freeman a run for their money for the stuff he overcomes. He was in a coma for 14 years and started fighting the second the situation called for it.
The dude is one dedicated war hero. The gunplay is fun and fast, but it can slow down in moments where you want to try your hand at stealth which has its own satisfying takedowns. Though The New Order can be a little ridiculous at times, it’s still a good time and one of the best continuations of a classic series.
Did someone say continuing classic franchises? Nobody expected 2016’s Doom to be good, let alone one of the best games of the 2010s, but we live in that timeline. Doom surprised everyone with a totally modern take on the shooting mechanics of doom with beautiful arenas to run around taking out demons to a killer metal soundtrack.
Doom Guy sprinting around the levels jumping from one balcony to another while bashing in a demon’s skull, and shotgunning several others on the way is just one of the most cathartic experiences.
The story is nothing special, and the objectives are classic Doom keycard fetch quests, however, the combat is why people play Doom, and the combat feels smooth and refreshing. You do feel like a badass even on higher difficulties.
You won’t be hiding behind corners trying to pop shot your way through Hell. No, you need to go in guns blazing, ready for whatever the demons have in store for you.
I will defend Bulletstorm to my dying breath. This game was slept on when it was released, and I feel people are still not giving it the recognition that it deserves. Bulletstorm took the FPS genre and made it a unique score attack game.
The object was to kill with style to rack up points using the “energy leash” to control enemy movement, but the player can also use an assortment of weapons, environmental toys, and slides to take out enemies in a way that would make Borderlands’ characters smirk with satisfaction.
It was a joy to play a game with such a unique premise, and the style points added a lot of replay value to the game. Scanning an area making notes of the spike walls, explosives, and giant wheels made me realize I was playing this game differently than other shooters.
I was paying a lot more attention to the layout rather than adapting on the fly like I do in most shooters. Just trying to outdo my previous scores was enough for me because the story wasn’t too much to write home about, but like Doom, the core of this game lies in its gameplay elements.
It’s easy to forget about GoldenEye; it did release over two decades ago. However, it still stands as one of the most impactful and memorable FPS games on a console.
The levels have secrets to uncover, and each difficulty raised the combat difficulty and mission objectives’ complexity. You never see that anymore, and it was something that shocked me when I was revisiting the game recently.
I had forgotten how the developers challenged you in more than one way. While some of the story beats are a little cringy at this point, there are some that stand the test of time like seeing Bond jump off the dam in the first level or crossing rickety bridges in jungles while being shot at by unseen enemies. It was a game that was ahead of its time, at least for a short while.
Titanfall was a surprise hit that took over the multiplayer space and quickly died off, but a follow-up was inevitable. For the sequel, Respawn decided to take out all the stops and try their hand at making an immersive single-player story that explored more of the dynamic between the giant titans and the humans that piloted them.
And while the multiplayer did okay, it died out quickly, arguably due to the games that were released at the same time.
But the story is what people still talk about this game for. The game was fast, intense, and emotional and has set a new bar for the single-player content in sci-fi shooters (looking at you, Halo).
Titanfall’s mechanics of agile pilots, and unstoppable titans translate really well to the single player and shows that the original game could have had something like this if Respawn could have put more development time into it.
Battlefield: Bad Company 2
I am not a massive fan of modern shooters. The genre has been beaten to death, at least from my perspective, but Battlefield: Bad Company 2 introduces something that all the other modern shooters are too scared to include: humor.
Humor combined with Battlefield’s tendency to design realistic conflicts and setpieces makes for one of the most ridiculous takes on the genre to date. There is something to be said when RPGs are flying, and pilots can shrug them off because they say they are the “cheap Russian” models.
Bad Company stars a gang of misfits who somehow find themselves in some of the most dangerous parts of the war, and they are making the best of it (sometimes).
They goof off, they show fear, and they can act like people might under such stressful circumstances. They are real people (who could probably use a little more training). Not the idealized ones in Call of Duty or Wolfenstein, and there is something special about that.
I didn’t play Half-Life when it was first released. I was just a kid, but I did play through its sequels and played the original when I had the means to do so. Despite playing newer games like Halo, BioShock, and Half-Life 2, I was still impressed by what Valve was able to do in 1998.
It’s immediately apparent where many FPS games get their inspiration to tell their stories from. Half-Life wrote the book on immersive environmental storytelling. The combat still feels pretty good too, surprisingly, and you can run around the maps shooting the aliens and mutants with pinpoint accuracy.
The minor platforming sections haven’t aged well, but I think in this case, they can be forgiven because everything else still holds up after over 20 years. Gordon Freeman was a hero for the nerds of the ‘90s who had never had a smart protagonist to play as. He became the nerd’s Tom Cruise.