Trying to find the best first person shooters on PC is no easy task, for more than two decades PC FPS games have been the driving force of the games industry. They let us travel from the depths of Hell to the outer reaches of space, taking a detour through underwater cities and metropoli in the sky. They are the best of all the games.
In no particular order, these are the fifteen best FPS games I think most demand your attention.
Team Fortress 2
Team Fortress 2 is perpetually changing. It is a class-based first-person shooter in which angry cartoon men capture briefcases, escort bombs and stand on nodes. It’s fundamentally brilliant, easily one of the best games on PC. But it has been, is, and will be much more.
TF2 (as it’s known to its friends) began it’s protracted life as a realistic modern day shooter, before vanishing. Nine years later it emerged from the rabbit hole, wearing 60s spy costumes, evil genius coats, doomsday devices and an eternal war between the Red and Blu corporations.
In the six years since its been updated relentlessly: adding new maps, modes, features, fittings, mod support, and even a sideline of (quite excellent) comics.
The fundamentals remain the same: you pick a character from a cast of nine, and take your place on a team. Modes include capture the flag, and King of the Hill, but we suggest you try Payload: in which a team drives a bomb forward on a rail track, while their opponents desperately attempt to hold them back.
The changes developer Valve have made since launch have shredded the original class boundaries. New items and weapons have dramatically expanded a player’s abilities. The Demoman started life as a defensive, mine-laying Scotsman who would fill corridors with explosives and draw players into his traps. Now, with broadsword and shield in hand he can charge out on the front lines, cleaving snipers in two. A sniper would have once stood at the back, taking potshots with his rifle. Now he can choose to play on the front lines, popping out from corners and firing arrows into groups of players. You will see a Heavy retreat from battle, clutching a sandwich in his massive Slavic hands.
Yet, with all the changes, it’s still fun to play in TF2’s initial roles. Ambushing players from behind, routing an entire team with your flamethrower as a pyro will never, ever get old.
There’s a further wrinkle. Hats.
TF2 is now free to play. It is an essential non-purchase. It is also filled with frippery. New weapons are earned through play or available through purchase. Cosmetic items: uniforms and joke badges are also available. Collecting hats, TF2’s least useful but most compelling purchases, can become a real drag on your wallet, as can opening crates - locked boxes containing randomised items that cost to open.
TF2’s continued success is remarkable. A multiplayer PvE Horde mode, named Mann vs Machine makes for a great LAN party co-op experience. Crafting: building items from your duplicates will fill your time outside of battles.
Yes, it’s silly. Yes, the battles of Team Fortress 2 can seem incongruous paired with the silly hats that fill the game. But TF2 proves serious games can make you smile.
Left 4 Dead (1 and 2)
The silent ones always die first. In most shooters you can share a server with 30 other players and never utter a word. Left 4 Dead is different. Surviving Left 4 Dead’s relentless, fearless, terrifying zombie hordes demands tight teamwork between you and three friends.
Left 4 Dead’s zombies aren’t like other zombies. They crash over you like waves, crawling up walls and leaping across gaps. They’re accompanied by specials: highly evolved undead that force you to work together. A smoker will drag you off into an alley with its long tongue where you’ll be mobbed by common undead. A hunter will pin you to the asphalt before tearing out your throat. A boomer will charge right into your face and explode, drowning you in green gloop.
There are two Left 4 Dead games and we recommend you buy them both (there’s a bundle available on Steam for a much reduced price). The first has four sets of levels set in a US city during a night outbreak. It is a better recreation of a typical zombie survival fantasy. Left 4 Dead 2 has tech and design improvements (including a drama inducing weather system and a new special zombie) but most of the levels are set during the day, and it just doesn’t inspire the same set of scares. Both are eminently moddable (we recommend the Helm’s Deep mod, for starters) and have still thriving communities.
You’ll come to Titanfall for the Titans themselves: tanks on legs that fall from the sky like bricks, then get up and shoot like they’re regular old army guys. But you’ll stay playing for something far subtler: the incredible sense of speed and power you still feel when running around on foot.
Titanfall is a strange, brave first person shooter that easily outclasses the FPS games that spawned it: namely Call of Duty.
That’s purely thanks to just how exciting every match in Titanfall feels. Players can run across walls, double jump between buildings, turn invisible, “rodeo” Titans by riding on their cockpit, even treat their Titan as an angry pet, running at your heals in Guard Mode.
But it is relatively deep: as players level up, new equipment unlocks demand players make considered tradeoffs. Do you equip your Titan with a nuke that goes off on destruction, or fit it with a faster reload? Should you take a homing missile launcher into battle to concentrate on Titan kills, or take a weapon that can also damage the human pilots?
It is a small game compared to Call of Duty: there’s a limited number of maps and no real single player game to speak of, outside of an extra set of voice overs that constitute the “campaign”.
It’s easy for PC gamers to be cynical about Titanfall: it is a mega-budget FPS marketed as a console exclusive. But not only is it better on PC; it’s one of the best shooters available on our platform.
Id’s shooters dominated the 90s. Wolfenstein and Doom in the first half, and then, in 1996, Quake ushered in an era of gun violence in full 3D. Quake II followed and then, slated for release in 1999 to close out the decade, id announced Quake 3: Arena. A multiplayer focused grudge match, singleplayer was dropped in favour a set of arenas for players to endlessly fight each other and bots to their hearts’ content. Arena was to see the decade end firmly in id’s pocket. But then Epic happened.
The studio had made a name for itself the previous year with Unreal but Epic became, well, epic with Unreal Tournament. It had the same core concept of Arena but it equalled or bettered id’s game in all respects.
Tournament’s weapons were simply more exciting: there was the BioRifle, for instance, which weaponized toxic sludge. You could even charge it up and release a great bulb of the stuff, using it as a gelatinous landmine. And there was the Ripper which fired saw blades that bounced round corners. Each gun had to be mastered because they all had their separate strengths and alternate fire modes. In comparison, Quake’s were largely rehashes of other id games.
Then there were the levels. Tournament’s maps were filled with mad architecture, making each memorable. There’s nothing quite like leaping in low gravity between the three stratospheric towers in DM-Morpheus, particularly if you can gib someone in midair, spraying their gore through the sky.
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive
Playing Counter-Strike for the first time is like diving into a modern warfare meat grinder. You will face players who have been prowling versions of these maps for more than a decade. You will die to snipers with tens of thousands of kills notched into their Scout. You will be punished: sitting out the rest of the round while you rue your mistake.
Why, then, would you choose to play Counter-Strike? Because working your way up to the top of the leaderboards is an achievement; a reward earned through patience, skill and muscle memory. And it has some of the best level design in games. There’s a reason why, even today, you will servers running ancient maps like Dust2 day in, day out.
But Global Offensive is a modern game: and brings modern ways of playing. It is now partly funded through the sale of cosmetics and weapon skins, like Team Fortress 2 above. It includes automatic matchmaking, guiding you away from the dedicated servers that made the series what it is today. There are ranks,giving the elitists a visible badge for their dedication, alongside medals for veterans.
The result is that Counter-Strike is back on form.Global Offensive has brought a whole new set of players, leaders, teams and modders. The community is thriving. A decade on, Counter-Strike is more popular than ever.
Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Vegas 2
The joy of Vegas 2 comes from its toolbox of guns, grenades, and attachments. Many of them are crap. But that’s part of the fun.
In Vegas 2’s Terrorist Hunt mode, you and your friends are presented with multiplayer maps filled with terrorists, and left to your own devices. With friends, this is just a sublime playground. You can play it as it’s meant to be played: in teams, efficient and careful, communicating and pointing out targets and clears.
Those times you agree to play the game seriously, kitting yourself out with gear optimised to the level ahead of you, a hush descends on the room. You work as a team, calling out intel to one another,and set up cover spots from which to flank the terrorists. You draw them out into a killzone with feint advances. Smoke grenades are used judiciously to mask your infiltration. There’s a satisfaction to clearing a room with a friend in Rainbow Six that other games can’t touch.
Or you can find your own fun: playing it with new sets of constraints. I’ve played games where we use shotguns only, snipers only, or pistols only. Games where we used light machine guns and weren’t allowed to stop shooting except to reload. And games where we weren’t allowed to look outside of our sniper scopes.
I’ve had more fun playing Terrorist Hunt with a Skorpion (I swear, inside that gun’s a tiny person throwing BB pellets, not a complex mechanism of gunpowder and brass) and breaching charges than with the entire arsenal of most shooters.
It’s just a brilliant team shooter. And as you blow your way through a room, thermal goggles highlighting targets, your rounds barely missing the stunned hostages, you’ll wonder why Vegas 2 doesn’t include a button purely devoted to fist bumping.
Planetside 2 creates scenes that are like nothing else in gaming. Watching hundreds of virtual soldiers, infantry leading the charge, futuristic tanks shelling from afar, and mini-fighter jets buzzing the area, you will catch yourself and marvel at what gaming is capable of. Then, you take a tank bolt to the face.
Planetside 2’s three way futuristic warfare a war-story generator. Like that time you pushed forward at the head of a column, only to meet an ambush. Or the time you sky-dived out of a Galaxy aerial transport onto the top of a tower. Or the time you baited an enemy strike fighter into a dogfight in a twisting canyon, only for him to bounce off the canyon walls, to his death.
It’s a game that rewards teamplay: groups of friends joining together to complete one objective at a time. Squadplay, and later outfit play, will see you returning night after night.
It’s not that Planetside 2 doesn’t have problems. You will hear complaints that the factional warfare becomes meaningless, or that there isn’t enough variety in what you do, day to day. But take a step back, and just look at what you’re playing.
Few games can create the sense of brotherhood that runs through every attack in Planetside 2. Bonus: it’s free to download and play.
Battlefield: Bad Company 2
Bad Company 2 gave terrain destruction a purpose. Destruction became something creative. And I think that since then, even DICE have struggled to replicate what Bad Company 2 achieved.
On maps of constantly shifting geography and terrain, players have to use canny tactics to gain an advantage. A single Rush game springs to mind: where the defenders destroyed a concrete wall that would normally cover the attackers advance. The now open space meant snipers could take out any attacking infantry that try to take ground. Working together, the attackers rallied and used vehicles to form a barricade in place of the destroyed wall.
Granted, the new wall was technically one now made with bricks packed with petrol tanks but it got the job done.
Visually, it means that each map tells a story. You can see on Port Valdez where attackers have breached the wall of the construction yard offices to seek respite from the defenders’ mortar strikes. On Valparaiso you can see where attacking commandos slashed chain link fences open with their combat knives to get at the defenders’ MCOM stations. In Battlefield, unlike other shooters, you feel like you’re making an impact on the world.
The change meant Bad Company 2 felt like a huge leap forward from Battlefield 2. It’s a leap that neither Battlefield 3 or 4 have managed to match.
I’ve played a lot of the new Battlefield games and destruction in those matches has only made things messier, more confusing. In Bad Company 2 it gave players choice and they used it, that’s why I think it stands above its bigger, better-looking siblings.
Stranger danger. Two words as applicable to toddlers as to zombie survivors.
It’s an old mantra that’s been used to scare kids out of their minds for decades. Thing is, in the real world most people you meet in the street aren’t going to kill you for a can of tuna. In DayZ, everyone you meet has that potential.
Turns out that makes for an exceptionally compelling game.
Meeting someone on the virtual zombie infested island of Chernarus is a nerve wracking experience. They may have food to trade, they might want to team up, they might be about to draw on you. There are a lot of ways to die in DayZ, and you don’t have to be outright killed in a firefight to be scuppered. Even if you’re only winged in a scuffle you can bleed out so every encounter is a risk.
With death meaning a complete restart, a loss of all your gear, and your clumsy demise announced to the entire server, each encounter carries more meaning than most shooters.
But DayZ is more than relationships. It’s freedom. DayZ is a shooter where you can spawn and immediately run to the nearest forest where you can spend the rest of your game life feeding off the land and occasionally scavenging food from a small village, never coming into contact with another player. You could become a lone bandit, searching the land of Chernarus to jump fellow survivors, stripping them of all their possessions. Or you can try and create a safe zone where players can trade peacefully, making yourself the governor of your own stronghold in the centre of the apocalypse. There are no rules in the game that reward this behaviour, you simply do what entertains you.
And if that is creating your own bloodsports then so be it:
Call of Duty 2
The End of the Beginning starts with you in the back of a flatbed truck driving into El Daba, Egypt. Dust fills your view, kicked up by Greta Garbo, the tank in front. A plane streaks by overhead, pouring out smoke, before crashing into the desert floor. The soldier behind you, Pvt. MacGregor, ducks for cover and puts a hand to his tin helmet. You pass through the city gates just as a minaret near the city centre explodes into brick dust.
It’s the detail that hooks you in this, what is clearly the best Call of Duty game. That drive into El Daba - with every ally named and every tank titled - I was a part of something larger. That sense carries into the genre-changing mechanics of the game. Enemy spawn points mean you are forever under pressure to advance. You can’t sit in cover shooting nazis till their numbers depleted, the only way for relief is forward.
It feels like you who dictate the charge and take ground, not your allies.
Though, your allies are with you every step of the way. Your advances are the signal to the AI to move up to their next holding position. There wasn’t the follow icon it’s so easy to take the piss out of today. Yes, looking at it now, it’s obvious to see the seeds of the current Call of Duty games, where you are always waiting for the AI to act for you, but in Call of Duty 2 those mechanics were empowering.
The Citadel awakening is an image that will never leave me. The tower’s klaxon yawns spreading over City 17 as its gears grind and extend the building up into the sky, reaching out to find you, the one free man who disturbed its sleep.
Half-Life 2 is a game for the egocentric. The world Valve created is all about the player. Its characters profess they’ve waited for you. It’s architecture reacts to you. A whole army begins searching for you the moment it learns of your presence. This is true of all games, of course. If not for you who else are they for? But Valve got something right about you that other developers don’t.
What you think you want won’t entertain you and even the things that do thrill you will become boring quickly.
With Half-Life 2, Valve proved their mastery of timely variety. Just look at the game’s opening levels. You’re released into a train station of a world you barely recognise before being funnelled through a city of housing estates and police brutality. Climbing upwards you reach a rooftop respite with which to see the size of City 17 before falling back down into the guts of the metropolis. Passing through Kleiner’s lab you’re reunited with your crowbar, led into the sewer network, and a few physics puzzles later given a hovercraft. Hot Tail it out of the city to the rebel base, catch your breath for a second, and then Ravenholm.
The whole thing takes two hours.
Valve throw you in at the last possible point in the game’s story and they move you onto the next stage as quickly as possible. The economy of design is breathtaking.
There’s so much more that can be said about Half-Life 2: its AI, artwork, level design, writing, and soundwork are all phenomenal. Then there’s the mod scene, which is still thriving today. The fact that its engine, which is almost ten years old, is at the heart of blockbuster games, like Titanfall, that aren’t even out yet is a testament to the technical quality of the game. And the way the internet reacts every time Valve utter the word ‘three’ is a testament to the game’s legacy.
Far Cry 3
Ubisoft haven’t let a little thing like realism get in the way of their jungle shooter and for that I love them.
In Far Cry 3 you play as a wayward dude-bro, captured on a tropical island. Your job is to escape, with your friends and sanity intact. It is an open, chaotic and beautiful world to explore.
What’s admirable is the amount of work Ubisoft have done to make the silliness into a coherent game. Over every hill is an activity that is a joy in its own right. There’s hunting a different species of endangered animal to craft your next indulgent accessory. Or there’s another outpost where you must massacre each and every occupant, either yourself or by breaking open the conveniently placed wild animal cages. Or there’s a new radio tower for you to scale, giving you a view over Far Cry 3’s beautiful, colourful island.
To get along with Far Cry 3 you are forever making small mental leaps. It takes two bears to craft a heavy duty munitions satchel. I get that you need a tough satchel to carry that much ammo but... two bears? That’s just silly, Ubisoft. I like that that little oversight of logic was allowed into Far Cry 3. I like, too, that the game’s skinning animations shows you taking the animals organs, not its skin. Oh, and tribal tattoos give you superhuman abilities.
Far Cry 3 is an extremely silly game. Wonderfully so.
For all its rot about little girl ghosts and black book military outfits, FEAR was game closer to ballet than bullet horror.
Monolith created stages that simply breed action set pieces. Numerous walkways, balconies, and trenches mean you forever face enemies ahead, above, below, and behind you. Their positioning forces you to spin yourself through the air in slow motion releasing round after perfectly aimed round into the face of your foes. If we were privy to views outside of the protagonists head we’d be treated to scenes more graceful than most of what The Matrix had to offer.
The team proved themselves masters of empowerment. The bullet time system was just the start of it. FEAR’s gunfeel is unmatched. Not only does each weapon satisfyingly kick the screen and roar in your virtual grip but the toll your bullets take on the world is immense. Everything that can excusably explode does. Computer monitors and light fixtures burst into sparks and glass shards, stonework falls away in great chunks revealing the iron ribbing underneath, and bodies, well, the sight of a soldier disintegrating into wet chunks of gore is quite the thing.
Stalker: Call of Pripyat
There are creatures in Pripyat’s night that want to strip you of your skin and feed on your flesh. Most times you won’t see them, you’ll hear packs of them stalk by you while you lay down on the irradiated ground, hoping they don’t catch your scent. Those times you watch the night wearing night vision goggles you’ll see parades of odd beasts. Their joints popping unhealthily under their hides, mouths full of teeth and tentacles. What they were before the nuclear reactor broke down isn’t clear.
Stalker’s world is misery. Every building you come across is rundown, overgrown, and, if not abandoned, used by rough men who will kill you for insultingly little money. The plant life is all drab shrubbery and sick looking trees. It looks like a world suffering from a cancer.
The Zone wars with itself, regardless of what you do. Those nights when you sit back and watch the mutants prowl, you’ll see packs spar with one another, bandits chased down by psychically-powered beasts, or some poor stranger walk into an anomaly that disintegrates their flesh from the inside out. Unlike the ego-stroking of Half-Life 2 and other shooters, Stalker’s world goes on around you, without you. You’re a spectator and a participant, not a protagonist.
Certainly, Call of Pripyat is bleak, then. But among all this depression is a game that gives you few restrictions on your freedom. You can explore the place how you wish, you can ignore any sense of plot and simply walk from sector to sector, hunting out artifacts or assaulting bandits or searching for the sights of incredible beauty pockmark the landscape.
It’s a great loss that Stalker 2 was cancelled.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Following Deus Ex wasn’t going to be easy. It’s considered by many to be one of the key titles in PC gaming history. Good thing Deus Ex: Invisible War was released in the interim and lowered everyone’s expectations. By the time it got to Human Revolution, the first game to come out of Eidos’ Montreal studio, we simply wanted to be allowed back into JC Denton’s world of faceless corporations, bodily augmentation, and trenchcoats.
Call it a bonus then that Human Revolution was phenomenally good.
Eidos brought shooting to life in Human Revolution in a way Ion Storm didn’t manage with the original Deus Ex. Where Ion Storm loaded up the game with kit and skills and left the player to make do (which is an admirable development approach) Eidos Montreal created core, satisfying gunplay and cover mechanics and then built on top of that set of abilities from which combat choices emerged. You could put all your skill points into your military augmentations and literally become a human bomb, running into the centre of the fray and blasting shrapnel out of your skin. Or you could become invisible, a skill that let you flit across a firefight and reposition yourself behind your enemies. Or you could have it that when you jumped down from on high you’d be surrounded by an orb of orange electrical charge. That one wasn’t so useful but there’s nothing like announcing your presence as subtly as a supernova.
As entertaining as the shooting was, it really isn’t Human Revolution’s strong point. Simply spending ten hours in that world is the draw. It’s a beautifully crisp, technological future on the surface, a vision of what mankind’s future may become in the next century. Everything is plausible. But soon you’re drawn into corporation infighting and the moral implications of bodily augmentation. Gangs roam the streets ripping augmentations from their owners, either for ideological reasons or for profit. Workers feel they must augment themselves to keep up with their competitors, and they have to take loans from sharks to afford the upgrades. There’s a heart beneath all the hardware advancements.
This is by no means a definitive list, no subjective list can be. What would you have done differently?