On the hunt for the best FPS games on PC? It's no easy task. For more than two decades they've have been the driving force of the games industry, letting us travel from the depths of Hell to the outer reaches of space, taking a detour through underwater cities and civilisations in the sky.
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In no particular order, these are best first-person shooters on PC that you should already be playing. Some are old, some are new, all are great.
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 CS:GO? 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. It includes automatic matchmaking, guiding you away from the dedicated servers that made the series what it is today. And there are ranks, giving the elitists a visible badge for their dedication, alongside medals for veterans.
I you're just getting started, why not take a look at our CS:GO tips?
Want more? Here's our CS:GO review.
PlanetSide 2 creates scenes that are like nothing else in gaming. Watching thousands 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 is 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 skydived 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 walls to his death.
It’s a game that rewards teamplay: groups of friends joining together to complete one objective at a time. Squad play, and later outfit play, will see you returning night after night. Few games can create the sense of brotherhood that runs through every attack in PlanetSide 2. And as a bonus: it’s free to download and play.
Check out our list of the best free Steam games for more titles like PlanetSide 2.
Want more? Here's our PlanetSide 2 review.
A mute physicist called Gordon fights transdimensional aliens and soldiers while at work, and the rest is history. A history of Valve time, a massively successful sequel, and lots and lots of waiting. Half-Life started PCland’s obsession with Valve, and for good reason. Its premise is silly and its protagonist is unconventional (and absent a voice), but it’s also a triumph of level design where each map is distinct and deadly and horribly devious, creating the real antagonist of the game: Black Mesa itself.
17 years after it first appeared, the corridors, traps and pitfalls of Black Mesa remain great achievements; their seemingly endless nature imprisoning our pal Gordon as he goes through trial after trial on his quest to escape his place of work. And let’s not forget about the NPCs. Your AI CoD buddies might be handier in a fight, but the scientists and security guards of Black Mesa are the real heroes of the genre. They’re Red Shirts, every one of them, destined to die embarrassingly – but they also sometimes have guns, and when they do die, they handily highlight a threat that you might want to avoid.
There’s an elegant simplicity to Half-Life. The game never takes cutscene breaks, there’s very little exposition, and for most of the game players are – like Gordon himself – utterly in the dark. Despite aliens and shady conspiracies, the real driving force is something more primal: survival and escape.
It's so good, in fact, that Half-Life ruined videogames for our Phil entirely.
So much more than an evolution of its superb predecessor, Half-Life 2 is frequently hailed as the greatest FPS, and indeed game, of all time. Such accolades are not undeserved, either. The long awaited sequel was hugely ambitious, developed by a considerably more confident Valve.
Everything is bigger this time around: the environments, the enemies, the story – it’s a blockbuster, but a smart one. Some of the original Half-Life’s subtlety and thoughtfulness gets lost, but Half-Life 2 brings so much more to the table. Decent AI companions; real characters who exist to do more than die comically; physics that transform the world into a seemingly real, tangible place – it was a gargantuan step forward.
And once again, Valve works magic with the environments. Despite often being larger and more open than Half-Life’s, they are still crafted with the same care and attention to detail, and importantly they remain extremely memorable, from the haunted streets of Ravenholm to the ominous Citadel, standing over City 17 like a steel and glass tyrant. Age may have worn away some of the sheen, but it remains a striking, compelling FPS.
Rainbow Six Siege
It’s expensive, it’s multiplayer and it’s not the Rainbow Six you remember – yes, Rainbow Six Siege will sometimes make you feel a bit sad, but if you cheer up a wee bit you might also notice that it is absolutely brilliant.
Every moment of Siege’s boxed-in battles is fraught with tension and danger, from when you start scouting an area with your drone, praying your enemies don’t spot it before you can find the hostage, to that final attempt to save the day by shooting down walls and smashing through the ceiling.
It’s a psychological battle as much as it is a series of gunfights, a game about manipulation and control as you attempt to make your foes react in specific ways while you try to keep your own team working together. And you never feel safe. An attack can come from anywhere, usually everywhere all at once, and after all these years of feeling safe behind a wall, Siege’s destructible environments might just break you.
Left 4 Dead 2
Left 4 Dead 2’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.
Even though zombies are a dime a dozen and Left 4 Dead 2 has been around for a good long time, the tension, level design and countless mods ensure that it remains a compelling romp, perfect if you’re looking for some four-player co-op.
It may have inspired elements of other co-op games, like Killing Floor and its sequel, but only Warhammer: End Times - Vermintide has really attempted to replicate the whole of Left 4 Dead. It’s worth a look too, switching zombies for giant ratmen and modern America for a gothic fantasy city.
Want more? Here's our Left 4 Dead 2 review.
Wolfenstein: The New Order
Before Doom, there was Wolfenstein 3D. Id’s alternate history World War II2 shooter was the start of something special, a love affair with looking out of the eyes of men with big guns, and while it would eventually be overshadowed by Doom, the series just keeps on truckin’.
The New Order feels like the product of an alternate history where the FPS genre didn’t make a thousand little deviations. It’s what you maybe imagined shooters would be like in 20 years time when you first played Doom or Wolfenstein 3D: blisteringly fast, pulpy, gory, and utterly focused on making you feel as powerful as Zeus. It’s a game that lets you dual-wield rocket launchers. That was reason enough for us to hail it as one of the best games of 2014.
It doesn’t feel old just because it’s so true to its roots, however. It’s shiny and pretty and there’s a modern – and not obtrusive – progression system, the option to sneak through entire levels, and an, albeit thin, narrative that pushes you forward if, for some reason, the opportunity to shoot sci-fi Nazis isn’t enough for you.
Want more? Here's our Wolfenstein: The New Order review.
Team Fortress 2
Team Fortress 2 is perpetually changing. It’s a class-based affair 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. It’s also a game that’s evolved a great deal since it launched and now contains mountains of user-created content, maps, modes and, of course, hats.
The changes 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 to 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 advance, popping out from corners and firing arrows into groups of players.
The fundamentals, however, 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.
Want more? Here's our Team Fortress 2 review.
This is where it all began. Not just the popularity of the FPS genre, mods, 3D graphics and over-the-top violence, but PC games as mainstream entertainment. Doom’s importance can’t be overlooked. A couple of years ago, it celebrated its 20th birthday, and we couldn't help waxing nostalgic, remembering Doom 20 years later.
Its legacy is obviously important, and for a considerable length of time corridor shooters were simply known as ‘Doom clones’, but behind this legacy is simply a great game, worthy of celebrating regardless of all the great things it pioneered.
Wildly diverse enemies, all plucked from the bowels of hell; big, satisfying guns that make you sprout testicles all over your body; devilish labyrinths bursting with secrets and monsters – it has all the ingredients we still want from our shooters, absent the decades of baggage they now bring with them.
And it’s not some nostalgia-draped artefact that we’re just rolling out because of fond memories. Doom is still a whole heap of fun today, in great part thanks to a community of modders that continue to breath life into a game that’s older than a lot of people who are playing it.
Call of Duty 2
Call of Duty 2's The End of the Beginning mission 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, a World War II shooter that remains unsurpassed.. That drive into El Daba – with every ally named and every tank titled – lets you know that you are 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 it’s you who is leading the charge and taking ground, not your allies, but the NPC soldiers help bring the battlefield to life, having their own little battlefield dramas. And what battlefields – haunting ghost towns, the frozen desolation of Stalingrad - that stick in the mind even now.
For all its spooky girl ghosts, F.E.A.R. is a lot 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 faces of your foes. If we were privy to views outside of the protagonist’s 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. The feel of F.E.A.R. 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.
Epic had made a name for itself the previous year, in a time when shooters were dominated by id, with Unreal, but it was with 1999’s Unreal Tournament where Epic earned its grand moniker. Tournament had the same core concept of Quake Arena but offered an alternative for those looking for a few more frills.
Its weapons are exciting: there’s the BioRifle, for instance, which weaponises toxic sludge. You can even charge it up and release a great bulb of the stuff, using it as a gelatinous landmine. Then you’ve got your delightful Redeemer, a rocket launcher that flings a thermonuclear warhead at your enemies. And there’s the Ripper, which fires saw blades that bounce round corners. Each gun has to be mastered because they all have their separate strengths and alternate fire modes.
The levels are just as worthy of note. Tournament’s maps are 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 mid-air, spraying their gore through the sky.
Epic's working on a new Unreal Tournament, looking to e-sports for inspiration.
Battlefield Bad Company 2
Bad Company 2 gave terrain destruction a purpose. Destruction became something creative. And, sadly, since then even DICE have struggled to replicate what it 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.
Visually, it means that each map tells a story. You can see on Port Valdez where one side have breached the wall of the construction yard offices to seek respite from the defenders’ mortar strikes. On Valparaiso you can see where commandos on the charge slashed chain link fences open with their combat knives to get at their enemies’’ MCOM stations. In Battlefield, unlike other shooters, you feel like you’re making an impact on the world.
Ah, Deus Ex. More of a stealth FPS/RPG hybrid and one of the best cyberpunk games on PC, it’s still more than deserving of a place on this list, as even 15 years on it’s a joy to play and one of the best games ever devised.
We could expend a great deal of energy reminiscing about the dramatic narrative that weaves themes of conspiracy, terrorism and transhumanism together with intriguing characters a believable dystopian future. Equally, we could go on and on about the breadth of character customisation, letting players hone shades and trenchcoat wearing J.C. Denton into a cybernetically enhanced soldier, expert hacker or a ghost, lurking in the shadows. But what we really want to discuss is the incredible level design.
Every map represents a complex sandbox ripe for experimentation. Every combat encounter has the potential to play out in remarkably different ways, should you actually participate in said encounter rather than slinking past it. Secret paths, hidden caches, informants waiting to be bribed and confidential information opening up new routes and options litter levels, ensuring that when players discuss their experiences, it’s like they are talking about different games.
Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II
The original Dark Forces is an excellent Doom clone, a mad dash across countless Imperial complexes, shooting hordes of half-blind Stormtroopers, but its sequel is something different entirely. Dark Forces II throws in a lot more plot, more environments, moral choices and, most importantly, lightsabers. It's one of the best Star Wars games on PC.
It was in the expansion, Mysteries of the Sith, where the lightsaber combat reached its zenith, however. This was and still is the best lightsaber combat in any game, which also made for some fantastic multiplayer brawls.
Surprisingly, for a shooter of that time (it first released in 1997), Dark Forces II and its expansion were blessed with pretty good plots, complete with delightful but cheesy FMV cutscenes. It also fleshed out Kyle Katarn, giving him an important place in the now defunct Expanded Universe.
“Can it run Crysis?” was once the benchmark for gaming PCs. With its exceptional graphics and physics, Crysis was an unbelievably striking, realistic game… if you could run it with all its bells and whistles. At launch, most of us couldn’t, but damn did it look pretty even if you had to make some sacrifices.
Sometimes it seems like that’s Crysis’ legacy. But aside from its great looks, it shouldn’t be forgotten that it was also a fantastic shooter. This was a sandbox FPS at a time when they were rare, full of reactive AI enemies, hidden alien threats, all contained inside a gorgeous tropical playground. It was, essentially, a new Far Cry with super-soldiers and aliens.
Decked out in a nanosuit, players are given a whole island to experiment on, with their super strength, sneaky cloak and enhanced speed. It promised mountains of emergent gameplay, and it delivered. The series continues to raise the bar in terms of graphical fidelity, but sadly the gameplay peaked with the original.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: 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 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.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’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, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. goes on around you, without you. You’re a spectator and a participant, not a protagonist.
Far Cry 3
Far Cry, as a series, had always embraced change. Everyone single one of the games is an open-world shooter, yet they all stood apart from each other, tackling different themes and varied geography, at least until Far Cry 4, the series’ latest entry. By Far Cry 3, the sandbox elements had been polished until they were blinding, and we were left with a vibrant playground that we could conquer with our dragon’s hoard of weapons.
One moment you’re diving off a boat to hunt sharks, the next you’re infiltrating an enemy outpost with nothing but a bow and a couple of molotov cocktails, and then it’s off to a cliff you go, for a bit of one-on-one time with a hang glider or the wingsuit. There’s masses to do, both important and diverting.
And there’s an interesting story underneath this. With Far Cry 3, Ubisoft Montreal subverted colonial fiction, skewering it while also taking some shots at its legacy of entitled western holiday makers. It didn’t always work, and sometimes it maybe got a bit too close to simply mimicking colonial fiction, but it’s bold for a triple-A shooter to attempt to say anything at all.
Quake III: Arena (Quake Live)
It’s hard to say the word purity without sounding worryingly like a white supremacist or a Victorian lady, but that’s what Quake III: Arena is. No, not racist or Victorian. Pure.
Quake III: Arena is not fancy, and even at launch it was even, dare we say, predictable, taking what was great about Quake and squeezing it into a multiplayer arena. But it’s also slick and fast and polished and thrilling and addictive and… just great. Crazy, hectic, frenetic awesomeness. And it’s lived on and on, and might just end up outliving us all.
You can still buy it and find games running, or there’s the once-F2P, now just cheap option: Quake Live. The latter has more life in it, and it’s optimised for modern machines, so if you’ve got a hankering for some fast-paced gun murder, then this one’s probably your best bet.
It’s time to get serious, because we’re in military simulator territory now.
Gosh, Arma 3 is intimidating. It’s a complex, sometimes bewildering, military sandbox that often feels troublingly real. This is a game where you’re less likely to wax on about mowing down hordes of enemies and more likely to bemoan your frequent deaths at the hands of enemies you didn’t even notice.
In your average shooter, you might feel tense because you’re surrounded by a dozen enemies all trying to shoot your head off, but in Arma, things are a lot more tense when you can’t see anyone. It’s a big open world out there, and death could be waiting just over that hill or in that house a mile away.
Arma 3’s real strength, however, is that it can be anything. The game is really just a gargantuan set of tools for creating worlds, scenarios and battles. Multiplayer survival sandboxes, combined arms warzones, racing games, helicopter death matches, underwater adventures – it would be hard not to find a home in one of the game’s many mods and worlds.
And that's your lot! Let us know what you think of the list and if we've missed any of your favourites.