The First-Person Shooter is one of the most popular genres in the world. It’s what most people think of automatically when they think of “video game” in their heads. The perspective is instantly understandable and translatable to any gamer, for this is how we experience the world in our real lives. The genre is also known to be violent and over the top, nothing is more personal than shooting a gun at close range from this perspective, and has garnered its own set of controversies as a result. Even if a gamer only plays a single game, it is likely that the game in question is an FPS, if it’s not an MMORPG. This list is a look at the top ten best single player campaigns in this genre. These campaigns are far more than just a glorified tutorial for the multiplayer that’s so often the focus of these games, and deliver the most memorable moments of gameplay.
Disclaimer: I purposefully avoided FPS games that included heavy RPG elements, as this starts to blend the genres together. The games on this list are primarily focused on combat of one form or another, versus any kind of overarching system.
MOHAA has aged poorly compared to other games on this list, but this game was the pinnacle of the WW2 FPS at its release. A straightforward campaign from the U.S. perspective follows a soldier’s exploits in multiple theaters, ranging from the deserts of Africa to the beaches of Normandy. Weapons are period appropriate and have unique sounds, including the infamous “PING!” of an M1 Garand firing its last round. What MOHAA does great is in its sprawling levels across varied environments, and by the end of the game you truly feel like you’ve been fighting a long, drawn-out campaign to defeat the Nazi threat. There are plenty of action-packed set pieces as well, which undoubtedly laid the foundation for FPS campaigns for years to come. However, there are some low points of this campaign, such as a bombed-out city infested with snipers that will test any gamer’s patience, especially when dealing with the foggy graphics. Nevertheless, MOHAA is worth a look, considering how influential it is in the FPS genre as a whole.
Metro 2033 (2010)
Metro 2033 is a desperate struggle for survival in the musty depths of a Russian metro system, and for that, I adore it. In the wake of a devastating apocalyptic nuclear war, humanity’s last survivors are trapped in underground habitations, fending off raiders and mutants alike. The storyline is not as simple as it initially appears, but what Metro does better than any other game on this list is in its immersion. The first person perspective is already the best at capturing this sensation, but Metro 2033 takes it to another level, having the character manually checking the time left for an air filter, reading objectives through holding a physical journal lit by a nifty bullet lighter, or wiping blood and visceral from a gas mask. There are times playing this game where I felt as if I was suffocating in real life, desperate for green leaves and blue sky in the oppressively dreary and horrific surroundings. Metro 2033 isn’t for everyone though, as it is quite difficult to play due to the scarcity of the ammunition and the ruthless AI of the enemies, but for those willing to suffer a bit and soak in the atmosphere, there is nothing quite like exploring the irradiated wasteland in this excellent FPS.
F.E.A.R. (or First Encounter Assault Recon if you want to be silly) is probably the strangest game on this list. Mixing slow-motion gunplay with creepy Japanese style horror is something that shouldn’t work at all, but by some miracle, it does. I’ve played every game in the series, from the original game with a group of friends crowding around a MacBook in a dark dorm room, to a drunken regrettable night of F.E.A.R. 3 co-op where we completed the entire campaign in just a few hours. The first game is still undoubtedly the best of the bunch. Unlike the other games on this list which tend to be heavily story driven, F.E.A.R. is a relatively sparse linear shooter that takes place mostly in very boring office environments, with some cheap jump scares thrown in. However, what elevates this game is its incredible A.I. in the enemies you face. There has already been plenty written on this topic (http://alumni.media.mit.edu/~jorkin/gdc2006_orkin_jeff_fear.pdf) and for good reason too. Having to fight against smaller groups of enemies allows them to dynamically react to your positioning and actions, and their loud banter (“COVER ME I’M GOING TO THROW A GRENADE”) adds to a feeling that they are a real group of elite soldiers tasked with taking you down. The only thing the player has as an advantage over the competent AI is the slow-motion mechanic, which allows precise shooting and slick melee jump kicks. The particle effects have aged well, bullets churn up paper, debris, and watching the explosion of a grenade warping the air in slow motion is still undeniably cool. If exploring a scary environment while acting out the lobby scene in the Matrix sounds like a good time, F.E.A.R. is something that shouldn’t be missed.
- Half-Life 2 (2004)
Everybody’s favorite mute theoretical physicist returns in one of the most hyped sequels of all time. If Half-Life 1 set the standard for what FPS games can be, Half-Life 2 practically redefined the gaming landscape as a whole. The Source engine is still used in very popular titles to this day. While looking quite dated by today’s standards, it still offers plenty of believable physics-based puzzles and satisfying ragdoll effects. The shooting in this game is serviceable, and isn’t anything special in it of itself, but what elevates this experience is the strength of the characters, writing, art direction, and the inclusion of the gravity gun, one of the most enjoyable and iconic weapons in any video game. I have yet to play another title that matches the visceral sensation as slicing a column of zombies in half with a table saw blade, or bashing a combine soldier in the face with a floating toilet. The storyline takes place across many different environments, often interspersed with exhilarating vehicle sections and thrilling set piece moments. While not perfect, there’s no denying that Half-Life 2 is a stunning achievement in level design, game mechanics, and world building, and something that fans of the FPS genre should play.
- Dying Light (2015)
Generally speaking, first person and platforming mechanics do not mix well. While the perspective is great at creating immersion, it’s also limited, making careful jumping difficult and frustrating. However, Dying Light manages to pull it off effortlessly, making the player an agile parkour zombie slaying machine, all from the first person perspective. The platforming is easy to understand and intuitive, I often feel constrained by other FPS games after playing Dying Light because of the great freedom of movement this game provides. This is the only game on the list where not much shooting happens, since the scarcity of ammunition puts a heavy focus on melee combat. Firearms are also balanced due to their noise actively drawing zombies to your location, making them a tool only for desperate situations. Zombies are a ubiquitous enemy type in video game and tend to be incredibly boring and dumb, being little more than easy fodder. However, in Dying Light they are a genuine threat, and there is a strong focus placed on avoiding enemies instead of actively fighting them. There are human enemies as well, which are far more challenging due to their ability to dodge attacks and chase after the player. The general mayhem and fun of the daytime sections are broken up by a terrifying night, when buff, threatening zombies chase down the player across the impenetrable blackness of the dark sky. Dying Light is a fantastic and empowering experience which manages to inject life into the dull zombie game formula.
- Wolfenstein: The New Order (2014)
The ancestor of all modern shooters returned in a big way in 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order. After series protagonist B.J. Blazkowicz is knocked out in a late WW2 final assault, he wakes up 14 years later to a changed world. The Nazis won, the Beatles are singing in German, Manhattan is a nuclear wasteland, and Swastika flags are flown in every country of the world. Instead of a U.S. Army, there is nothing but a small insurgency against the world’s new masters. This narrative is well executed and shows a hopeless group of rebels fighting for little more than a dream of a world that no longer exists. There’s nothing much fighting for, but our hero B.J. doesn’t know any other way to deal with this other than to kill Nazis and keep killing Nazis until there are none left. It’s a dramatic shift in tone that makes The New Order truly memorable, a hopeless world where actions feel futile against the Nazi overlords. The campaign is full of well written characters and takes place across diverse and surprising environments. Gameplay is gloriously violent, with varied weapons that can be dual wielded with alternate firing modes, and an intelligent cover system means that peeking around corners is smooth and easy. Wolfenstein: The New Order manages to make what was old feel fresh again, and is a fantastic Nazi killing simulator.
- Halo: Combat Evolved (2001)
Regenerating health, Xbox live multiplayer, and easily accessible grenades. These are just a few of the mechanics that the Halo series has pioneered over the years, and there are slivers of Halo’s DNA in many modern FPS shooters today. What distinguishes Halo’s gameplay from the games on this list is the slower, methodical pace to the gameplay. Enemies are clustered in groups of distinct types, ranging from fodder Grunts to shielded Elites, and managing your own health and positioning while shooting away gives Halo a tangible and special flow to how firefights play out. Master Chief’s slow movement and powerful melee strikes make the player feel like a heavily armored tank, which was definitely intentional. The campaign takes place on a gigantic alien ringworld artifact, and is full of surprises and mystery throughout, especially in this initial entry into the series. Despite some heavy backtracking and dull moments in the campaign, Halo: Combat Evolved is still absolutely playable, even 17 years after its initial release.
- BioShock (2007)
A steampunk spiritual successor of the System Shock series, BioShock incorporates light RPG elements with a heavy emphasis on shooting and magical powers. Even though it’s been more than a decade when I first played BioShock, I can still remember the sensation of dread and wonder as I explored the crumbling city of Rapture. Without the shackles of government and ethics, Rapture’s citizens are free to advance technology as far as one is willing, and unsurprisingly everything goes to shit. Experimentation of a new resource called Adam has caused the majority of the population to lose their minds, lusting after Adam the same way junkies crave narcotics. BioShock is still a beautiful game despite its age. The colorful electric lights and art deco-inspired interiors are in a state of disrepair, sprouting leaks as the thousands of pounds of pressure from the ocean above begins to seep in through the cracks. BioShock excels in telling a compelling narrative set in a mysterious backdrop, but also manages to be a fun and strategic shooter as well. In addition to period-appropriate firearms, there is also a plethora of magical and elemental abilities, leading to a pace of combat that is unique. These elemental abilities are also affected by the environment as well; electric attacks conduct across puddles, and fire attacks ignite oil slicks. The player’s tactical consideration and its hauntingly beautiful world add up to an experience that FPS fans will enjoy.
Even Call of Duty’s detractors have to admit that Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was something special. It set the template for what Call of Duty multiplayer looks like today, and was popular enough to create a revolution in multiplayer games across all genres. However, part of the reason CoD4 was beloved was due to the excellent single player campaign. Jumping from World War 2 into the modern era, CoD4’s single-player campaign follows a similar template in jumping between the perspectives of soldiers of different nations. Sneaking around as the British S.A.S. is a very different tonal shift from the explosive action-packed assault as the U.S. Marines. While the storyline is filled with Tom Clancy-esque tropes of geopolitical strife, the cinematic storytelling and visceral action is something that we’ve never seen before at this level of detail in a video game. It is also one of the few Call of Duty campaigns that knows the importance of pacing, punctuating all-out firefights with quiet moments and the infamous, dimly uncomfortable AC-130 gunship sequence. Every game in the series since is in some way trying to recapture the brilliance of this offering, and as a result, many feel like pale imitations of the real thing. Despite being a game that’s mostly about pointing and shooting, the moment to moment gameplay is smooth as butter; snapping into iron sights and gunning down a target hasn’t deviated much from the mechanics in this title. This game, for better or worse is an important part of gaming history, and deserves to be played by all fans of the genre.
- Doom (2016)
Despite being the newest title on this list, I have no doubt that Doom is one of the greatest FPS games of all time. Unlike Doom 3’s focus on a slower-paced horror experience, Doom returns the series to the past, presenting a violent, fast-paced FPS more in line with its initial 1993 offering. Playing as an unnamed but incessantly angry space marine, the story is light on content but bursting with charisma, self aware of its own ridiculous premise. Monsters from hell have taken over Mars, and there’s plenty of shooting that needs to be done. Thankfully, the shooting in Doom is some of the most gratifying that you can experience in a video game setting. The wide selection of weapons offer a broad range of options to fight the demonic hordes. Compared to Wolfenstein: The New Order, enemies use projectile weapons that can be actively dodged, so Doom actively encourages you to keep on the move, weaving in and out of enemy fire while focus firing at the biggest threat. This intense and fast paced gameplay is a deadly dance, playing much more like a spectacle fighter than a standard FPS. The much maligned “Glory Kill” system actually adds to this sensation, as enemies can be ripped open to provide health, leading to interesting tactical considerations during battles. You’re not hiding in cover like in most FPS games, you are actively running into the fray, spraying bullets and tearing enemies apart until the floors are slick with the blood of a hundred demons, which is possibly the pinnacle of video game enjoyment. Special mention needs to be given to Mick Gordon’s soundtrack, which dynamically creates a thrilling industrial metal soundtrack that never gets old. Doom is a work of digital art.
First Person Shooters are so common that it is difficult to know which ones are considered to be the best of the best. This is my own personal list, and not a definitive truth by any means. Since many of these titles tend to be older they are often found in gamer’s backlogs, so why not try out some of these timeless classics?