Game genres go in and out of fashion all the time, but for nearly 30 years, first-person shooters have been one of the industry’s most reliable sources for blockbuster experiences that often help dictate the future of the medium.
There’s no one element that makes FPS games so brilliant, and that is, ironically enough, exactly what makes them brilliant. The history of the genre is written by developers who used a certain point of view and a gun or two as the basis for a variety of experiences that continue to surprise us even after we told ourselves that we’ve seen it all.
Those are the games we’re here to celebrate today. The best first-person shooters ever may have inspired each other, but each ultimately brings something special to the table that helps it stand out among some considerable competition. Many offer something different, but the one thing that most share is the feeling you get just from hearing their names.
Before we dive into the list, here are a few notes about the criteria used to make these selections.
- Defining a first-person shooter can be tricky. An FPS must obviously have a first-person perspective and shooting, but when in doubt, we looked closely at the “shooter” part of the equation. The more a game emphasized shooting/combat as a core part of the experience, the more likely it was to be considered part of the genre.
- How “fun” an FPS game is ultimately determined whether it was selected and how it was ranked among the rest, but innovation, historical significance, and longevity were all used as prominent “X-factors” to determine rankings.
- Single-player only and multiplayer only FPS games were not necessairly faulted for lacking either mode. However, special consideration was given to games that did both well.
Superhot is one part puzzle game, one part FPS, and one part cinematic gunfight simulator. This unique shooter is built around the ability to slow down time by standing still. Taking a moment to survey the situation is the key to victory, but only speed will save you in this impossibly stylish and devilishly difficult game.
Definitely play Superhot in VR if you ever get the chance to do so, but there’s no bad way to play one of the most creative and engaging FPS games ever made as well as one of gaming’s most potent shots of pure adrenaline.
2018’s DUSK may be a tribute to several genre classics that came before it, but the way that this game so perfectly recreates the feeling of playing those games rather than how so many of them actually play today strangely elevates it above many of those FPS pioneers.
Even people who usually don’t like the “find the key, labyrinth levels, blistering pace” style of FPS game that DUSK pays homage to often find themselves hopelessly addicted to this game’s airtight mechanics, exceptional pacing, and how it reminds us that, above all else, game are meant to be fun.
23. Metro 2033
Metro 2033 owes a debt to some games that came before (including S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, which many members of the Metro 2033 team worked on), but when it comes to this style of atmospheric FPS game, it may still be the very best.
Metro 2033 embraced its survival horror concepts in a way that even the incredible entries into this series that followed were never quite able to recreate. The atmosphere in this game is so thick and intimidating that it can make you feel like your gasping for air as you play it, which makes it that much more impressive that you’ll feel consistently compelled to push forward no matter how daunting things become.
22. Borderlands 2
While I feel like the original Borderlands is honestly kind of underrated in the grand scheme of the franchise, it’s hard to deny that Borderlands 2 is when this series really found its footing and remains the game the Borderlands franchise is chasing to this day.
Not everyone was a fan of this game’s humor, but that desire to go this far over the top is arguably the reason why Borderlands 2 so confidently combined the best aspects of co-op games, looter RPGs, and first-person shooters. From its base campaign to its incredible DLC, this is still one of the best FPS adventures you can share with friends.
21. Far Cry 2
As the Far Cry series (and the FPS genre) continues to “evolve,” it’s easier than ever to appreciate Far Cry 2 and how so many of the things that this game was initially criticized for now feel like a breath of fresh air.
Far Cry 2 is a hostile game that is constantly trying to kill your through disease, often uncontrollable fires, a lack of resources, aggressive enemies, and a lingering bleakness that only grows more powerful as you begin to understand its story and world. It’s an oppressive game that forces you to think on your feet in ways that few other FPS, open-world, or survival games have ever equaled. I’d say I miss this Ubisoft, but honestly, this was a bold and brilliant experiment even for that studio’s glory days.
20. Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus
I think the best compliment you can pay Wolfenstein 2 is to say that Wolfenstein: The New Order exceeded nearly every expectation possible and not even that game could prepare us for the places this sequel would go.
Wolfenstein 2 is the greatest tribute to excess this side of a cocaine party on ‘80s Wall Street. Just when you think you’ve seen the most shocking thing this game will do, it finds a way to up the ante time and time again. It certainly doesn’t hurt that it also improves the surprisingly tight action mechanics that helped make its predecessor such a sleeper hit.
19. Team Fortress 2
It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to say that nobody thought Team Fortress 2 was going to be a success. Actually, many people at the time expected it to be a very good game. Yet, few were prepared for just how engaging TF 2 would be and how its growth would change the video game industry forever.
Look beyond the ways TF 2 controversially moved us towards the “games as a service” era, though, and you’ll find that it’s simply one of the most mechanically enjoyably multiplayer FPS games ever made as well as a testament to the ways that personality can turn an already great game into something magical.
18. SWAT 4
What separates SWAT 4 from so many incredible tactical FPS games that came before and after? If I had to attribute this game’s brilliance to any one thing, it would have to be “level design.”
SWAT 4 uses its somewhat unusual premise (compared to other tactical FPS games) as the basis for some truly creative missions that somehow make seemingly common environments more compelling than even some of the most elaborate fantasy worlds. From infiltrating a cult leader’s camp to descending into the basement of a serial killer’s home, SWAT 4 constantly finds new ways to use its incredible tactical gameplay to surprise you.
17. The Operative: No One Lives Forever
It’s true that No One Lives Forever’s seemingly permanent residence in licensing Hell has only amplified the voices of those who call this 2000 FPS game one of the best ever made, but that doesn’t mean that Monolith’s spy shooter doesn’t deserve all the praise it gets.
The thing that impresses me most about NOLF all these years later is that it’s actually a comedy game. While being a genuinely funny comedy game is usually an accomplishment in and of itself, NOLF goes one step further by also offering one of the most creative and engaging FPS campaigns ever crafted. This game holds up favorably under even the most discerning design analysis, but its most lasting legacy is the smile it puts on your face.
16. GoldenEye 007
Perfect Dark may technically be the better game, but if innovation, historical context, and fond memories are all tie-breaking “X” factors, then GoldenEye 007 absolutely deserves a spot on any list of the best FPS games.
A million words have rightfully been written about what GoldenEye did for console FPS games, but I don’t know if it’s possible to praise this game enough for the ways it celebrated the unique joy of local multiplayer or the surprising strength of its single-player campaign. Some at the time may have written GoldenEye off as a lesser version of the best PC FPS games, but the years have been kind to the purity of this experience.
15. Battlefield: Bad Company 2
Bad Company 2’s multiplayer is chaotic, creative, memorable, addictive, and all of the other things you associate with the Battlefield series’ legendary multiplayer at its very best. What separates this game from the other amazing entries in this franchise, though, is the strength of its single-player campaign.
Bad Company 2’s loving embrace of destructible environments is perfectly complemented by an often dark sense of humor that you rarely see in military shooters. It’s hardly a surprise that some Battlefield fans are still chasing the high they got from playing this game for the first time.
14. Halo 3
Halo 2 was an incredible game that changed the console FPS landscape forever, but it was also a game plagued by development issues that led to an unforgivable crunch period, a campaign that fell well short of its potential, and some notable balance problems. Your fond memories of that game are well-deserved, but when it comes down to it, Halo 3 offers a more complete experience.
Halo 3’s incredible multiplayer is arguably the perfect version of Halo‘s legendary multiplayer and the kind of competitive game that’s easy to miss at a time when there are so few titles that try to do what it did. This brilliant sequel’s campaign also felt like a proper send-off for the series (even if it ultimately proved not to be), while Halo 3’s Forge mode brought the creativity and longevity of the PC mod scene to Xbox 360 gamers everywhere.
13. Titanfall 2
Before you decide to be too hard on those who can’t stop talking about Titanfall 2 and refuse to stop begging for a proper sequel, consider that Titanfall 2 may just be one of the most complete FPS games ever made.
Titanfall 2’s multiplayer arguably realizes the considerable potential of its predecessor, but it’s Titanfall 2’s campaign that often inspires fans to scream at you to drop everything and play this game. Few games from even the golden age of FPS campaigns rival the ambition and creativity of Titanfall 2’s narrative, and fewer still have nearly as much heart.
I’ll leave the “Is BioShock a first-person shooter?” debate up to you and instead focus on how BioShock used the core concepts of a first-person shooter to elevate the art of video game narratives through the often-overlooked benefits of environmental storytelling.
BioShock’s story and world explore the dark underbelly of the entire first-person shooter concept. Are our actions our own, or have we been forced into the perspective of a largely helpless instrument? BioShock may have followed in some pretty big genre footsteps, but that strangely makes it all the more impressive that it’s often seen as the definitive experience in this particular subgenre.
11. Quake 3 Arena
Many who doubted that Quake 3 could abandon the single-player campaigns of its predecessors and sell itself based solely on the appeal of its multiplayer deathmatch modes were typically silenced the moment they played the game and experienced its exhilarating speed.
Quake 3 emphasizes speed in a way that few games before and fewer since ever dared to. Slowing down is often a death sentence, but what’s really impressive about this shooter all these years later is the surprising depth of its seemingly arcade-like gameplay and how it challenges you to master a series of mechanics that are often tragically underutilized in modern multiplayer gaming.
10. Unreal Tournament
It’s still incredible to think that Unreal Tournament and Quake 3 were released just weeks apart, and it’s even more incredible to think that Unreal Tournament arguably beat Quake 3 at what some considered to be its own game.
Putting aside that debate for the moment, let’s just come together to praise Unreal Tournament for its mechanics, visuals, modes, weapons, and, most importantly, arguably all-time great multiplayer map design. This is simply as satisfying and intense as PC multiplayer shooters get.
9. Doom (2016)
It’s easy to forget now, but there was a time when most people were expecting Doom to be one of 2016’s great disappointments. Not only was the Doom franchise on the ropes at that time, but this game’s rather disappointing multiplayer beta left some fearing the worst
Instead, Doom turned out to be arguably the best first-person shooter of its era. Even if you were an optimist who predicted the ways Doom would so successfully harken back to the breakneck pace of the best games in this series, you probably couldn’t have guessed the ways that this game’s amazing soundtrack, humor, and genuinely incredible storytelling would effectively combine the best of retro and modern FPS games while raising the bar for the genre.
8. Call of Duty
With all due respect to the Medal of Honor franchise and its many great installments and lasting innovations, it’s a testament to the quality of Call of Duty that it offered such a definitive WW2 shooter experience that you now have to remind people that Medal of Honor was even a thing.
The Call of Duty team went for broke with this one and somehow found a way to turn the most intense moments in Medal of Honor: Allied Assault into an entire FPS campaign. Call of Duty challenged every perceived technical limit of its era and boasts level/campaign design that you could argue has never been bested.
7. Left 4 Dead 2
Left 4 Dead wasn’t the first game of its kind, but the co-op zombie shooter tapped into something that many of us never knew we wanted. Its blend of almost arcade-like action, incredible level design, cinematic presentation, and near-perfect difficulty made it an instant addiction for millions.
Well, Left 4 Dead 2 was all of that and more. It’s certainly the best game of its kind, but in the grand history of FPS games, the thing that really sets Left 4 Dead 2 apart is how easy it is to return to it all these years later and how the desire to play this one with friends just never seems to go away.
Released at a time when multiplayer FPS games were supposed to be as fast as possible, Counter-Strike bucked nearly every genre trend by forcing players to embrace a methodical form of gameplay where just a couple of bullets could determine a game. It was the kind of bold experiment that could only have come from outside the industry, and it was absolutely brilliant.
Counter-Strike is arguably the greatest competitive FPS game ever made. Even in its early stages, it was an intelligently balanced multiplayer experience that required a unique set of skills. Remarkably, though, learning the ropes in this game rarely felt like a chore. It’s one of the most important FPS games ever, and it’s certainly one of the best.
5. Halo: Combat Evolved
It’s a shame that the “Combat Evolved” part of Halo’s full name is so often overlooked as that’s really the thing that separated this legendary shooter from nearly every FPS game at the time. The methods you use to battle Halo’s Covenant enemies may seem standard now, but the way this title forced you to carefully consider your combat tactics against truly intelligent A.I. opponents really did help change everything.
Then again, how can you fault anyone for mostly remembering Halo for its multiplayer? 16-player LAN matches may seem humble now, but the fact is that even the biggest online multiplayer games can’t quite match the feeling of experiencing Halo‘s local multiplayer at its biggest and boldest.
Nobody was really looking for a game like Half-Life in 1998. Honestly, few people at that time could have envisioned such a thing. In an era where FPS games were defined by their heavy metal style, B-movie campaigns, and deathmatch multiplayer, the idea of a first-person shooter with a story to tell and a world to sell that wasn’t constantly sacrificing action for narrative seemed impossible.
Do you know what’s really impressive, though? Half-Life didn’t just use the FPS format to tell an incredible story: it did it in a way that redefined what we talk about when we talk about immersion in games. Few developers to this day are able to replicate that style of storytelling, and even if they were, fewer still would ever be able to innovate the FPS genre quite the same way that Half-Life did.
The often-cited “godfather” of FPS games really needs no introduction. There’s a reason why first-person shooters were called “Doom clones” for years after this game’s release.
What’s truly amazing, though, is that Doom did things in 1993 that modern game developers still struggle to recreate. Even an unmodded version of Doom still has the ability to grab you by the throat and not let you go until you’ve seen the end of its brutal campaign. Doom was certainly the first in a lot of ways, but the thing that matters most may just be the ways it’s still the best.
2. Half-Life 2
It’s been said that part of the reason why Valve has hesitated to finish Half-Life 3 is that they reached a point where they felt like the expectations for the game had become unrealistic and detrimental. Well, you could argue that Half-Life 2 was released under similar circumstances. How do you make a sequel to one of the greatest, most innovative, and beloved PC games of all time? How would that game ever meet expectations?
Well, Half-Life 2 didn’t meet expectations: it exceeded them. Half-Life 2 didn’t so much blaze a path forward for the genre as it leaped into the air and landed somewhere other developers couldn’t quite see but desperately wanted to be. This is a nearly perfect single-player game that does things with pacing and level design that honestly feel even more refreshing all these years later given how many studios have strayed from the light of this title’s brilliance.
1. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
There are two eras of Call of Duty games, and each of them represents two distinct eras of FPS design. The first era (as represented by the first few Call of Duty games) was more about single-player campaigns and complimentary multiplayer options. The second era of the franchise focused on evolving a style of multiplayer that would turn this series into a global phenomenon.
Well, Call of Duty 4 is the game that bridges those two eras and somehow manages to feature arguably the best single-player campaign in FPS history and some of the best multiplayer in FPS history.
Even at a time when we were spoiled by incredible Call of Duty campaigns, Modern Warfare stunned people with its shocking story and brilliant missions (highlighted by the legendary “All Ghillied Up”). We didn’t know it at the time, but the game’s multiplayer would also go on to change competitive FPS titles forever and help turn this franchise into a multi-billion-dollar household name.
This is a complete FPS package that represents nearly everything we’ve ever wanted from this genre. It’s a true triumph that delivers in terms of multiplayer and single-player in a way that few games since have ever dreamed of attempting to replicate.