Anti-Valentine reviews PC games and writes about the video game industry.
Even though it wasn’t the first FPS game to ever be released, it’s the one that many remember and still play to this day. Its simple pick up and play, run ‘n gun action made it an instant classic. It was also the first FPS to feature a wildly popular multiplayer mode, and its soundtrack remains one of the best metal romps in memory, inspired by tracks from the likes of Pantera, Slayer, and others.
The game spawned Doom II: Hell on Earth and Final Doom—the latter being really more of a commercial standalone expansion. Fast forward about a decade later and Doom 3 and its expansion Resurrection of Evil were released. In 2016, the Doom reboot became one of the hottest reboots in history.
Today there are plenty of mods for the original, including Brutal Doom and Project Brutality, both of which bring the 25-year-old demon slayer into the 21st century with new animations, weapons, and a horde of other features.
2. Duke Nukem 3D
While many games in the early and mid-’90s were merely regarded as Doom clones, Duke Nukem 3D broke out of this mold and became a wildly successful game in its own right.
It was based on the original series of platformers bearing Duke's name, from the early ’90s, so it already had a somewhat established fan base. DN3D added a lot, not only to the series, but also to the genre—like underwater environments that the player could swim in, an actual voiced main character (although not the first, since Dark Forces' Kyle Katarn came before him), and plenty of interactivity in the game’s many varied levels, as well as adult content not seen before in any game.
It also had a memorable soundtrack, which was worked on by Bobby Prince from Doom, as well as Lee Jackson. And while they may have been similar in gameplay, the OST to this game was radically different from its progenitor, bringing an epic sense of near Hollywood-tier action to a game from 1996!
The game was so popular that it spawned a number of expansion packs, digital re-releases, a sequel, and console exclusive spin-offs over the years, as well as many mods and map packs created by fans. To date, it's probably the only game in FPS history whose community rivals that of Doom.
3. Jagged Alliance 2
Out of all the turn-based strategy games I’ve played over the years, including the XCOM and Fallout games, this one is the best bar none. It even involves some roleplaying and a whole lot of micromanagement that will get the most anal-retentive nerd hot and excited.
There are also plenty of mods for it, one of the most infamous being 1.13, where you can tweak the game to your heart’s content, making it as easy or as hard you wish. It also adds plenty of weapons and mercs from previous games in the series. Or if you want, you can also try something like AIMNAS which changes a lot of the maps and makes the game even more challenging.
One of the best features of the game, compared to later JA reboots and remakes, is that all hirable mercs have their own unique look, personalities, and quirks. It’s the perfect balance of a serious game but with a lot of humour thrown in without overdoing it. It feels like it could be a really popular b movie action flick.
4. Thief II: The Metal Age
First-person shooters had been through a revolution in the late 1990s. Story became a "thing" in games like Quake 2, Unreal, and Half-Life. But this game dared to take things even further. It was an FPS, but without guns. Instead, you had an arsenal of blackjacks, swords, and bow and arrow. But often, the less bloody, yet more challenging way of getting through the game was to ghost it—to get through without anyone knowing you were ever there.
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Now, The Metal Age is the sequel to The Dark Project, but I feel that The Metal Age was overall better than its predecessor—it looked better graphically and had better level design. I had a lot more fun playing the missions in this game than the one before it. Plus the great dialogue, voice acting, sound design, and soundtrack made this game one of the gems of the early 2000s.
Thief: Deadly Shadows fell short of the mark, looking and playing like a dumbed-down version of its older brother, doing away with series mainstays such as the rope arrow and replacing it with the much less useful climbing gloves. It was obvious that it was a game designed around the limitations of the Xbox console.
The reboot that arrived had a look inspired by Dishonored, a different voice actor, shockingly bad AI, and few new innovations to really keep players engaged. Having played it, it felt like a flop and was not even close to the majesty of the original games.
5. System Shock 2
The first game was already ahead of its time and went largely ignored for nearly the first 20 years of its existence. What saw its rise to fame was not only the Enhanced Edition on Steam and GOG, but also the still-in-development System Shock reboot, and even the long-awaited indie-developed System Shock 3. All of these made people more interested in the origins of the series—one that some call the spiritual predecessor to the likes of BioShock.
System Shock 2 is the peak of the series so far, and one of the earliest FPS/RPG hybrids, released in 1999. You had options when it came to character progression such as your favoured skills, and how you went about levelling them up. Most of the game takes place aboard a starship that has been overrun by strange mutant creatures, and a rogue AI.
The game features incredible atmosphere and tension, helped immensely by a great soundtrack, lovely sound design, and first-class voice acting.
It also influenced titles like Deus Ex, Dead Space, and Doom 3. Many tried to emulate its subtle use of sound to invoke dread in the player, much like its Dark Engine cousin Thief had done the year before.
6. S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl
This title was in development hell for a number of years until it finally saw the light of day in 2007. It was initially meant to arrive in 2003 after development began in 2001, and a lot of the promised features, like driveable vehicles, third-person camera view, realistic physics, and more were missing. And the maps looked very different from what we’d been given a glimpse of in earlier build versions.
Still, the game introduced a more open level design approach to the first-person shooter genre. Gone were the cramped corridors of games that had come out in more recent years or those that had a more linear design. SoC let you go about the game at your own pace. You could run side quests and do other things like hunt, find and sell valuable artifacts and even sell weaponry—all things that would give you more money to buy yourself better equipment to make your stay in the zone of Chernobyl more bearable, or at least make it so you would survive longer.
The player had more control over their level of progression. If they put in the effort, they could get better weapons and equipment earlier on. In fact, it's mandatory. Otherwise, if you go into the harder sections of the zone against tougher enemies, you are sure to fail.
The many mods for this game and its sequel, Call of Pripyat, have since reintroduced a lot of the cut features, as well as bringing even new ones to the fray.
7. Fallout: New Vegas
If there was one complaint I had about Fallout 3 it’s that it felt kind of sterile. You’d have a hard time making a case to support the same opinion about New Vegas though. Created by Obsidian, including people from Black Isle who worked on the original Fallout and Fallout 2, this game is what Fallout 3 should have been but wasn’t.
It had lots of guns, lots of content, plenty of interesting places to visit, and the DLC was worthwhile, adding many new things into the game too. The game had an overall more balanced feel to it, and combat felt better. You could utilise ADS, or iron sights on most weapons, something lacking in F3, so you didn’t have to rely on VATS as much, and in fact doing so was discouraged as damage taken in VATS was heavily increased.
The writing, characters, and dialogue were better too. The only real let down is that it used the same Gamebryo engine as F3. Besides that, it had character, charm, and atmosphere—something I always found that F3 lacked. Some people complained about the palette, but there are mods to fix it.
In fact, modders created a Tale of Two Wastelands to import F3 into FNV, and they’ve even been hard at work at making a Fallout New Vegas mod for Fallout 4—that’s how much FNV was and is adored.
8. Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines
This is easily one of the best RPGs I’ve had the pleasure of playing, probably only behind FNV, if I were to rank them in order. As an unwilling member of a vampiric society, you, as a fledgling, have to learn the ropes and master your skills in order to make it in a new dark world. A world where you can’t trust anyone, whether they’re human or not.
Some have described the game as being akin to something like Deus Ex but with vampires. You have hubs where you can travel back and forth, running side quests and quests that follow the main story, meeting unique characters, all of whom have their own personalities and secrets to hide.
You can choose how you wish to approach various tasks. You can go in guns blazing, or you can take a less direct approach, use stealth to slip by, or use blood magic to confuse your enemies, turn them against each other or kill them without even being near them. Or you could just use charm, seduction, and intellect to get your way.
9. Red Alert 2
I'll admit that I haven't played too many strategy titles over the years. I tend to stick with the major series which all originated back in the 1990s—Command & Conquer, StarCraft, and Red Alert.
Dune II was the first RTS made by the now-defunct Westwood Studios, based on the movie by David Lynch which in turn is based on the classic novel by Frank Herbert. It became the template for strategy titles that were to follow what with its harvesting of resources, base building, and seeking out the enemy and destroying him.
Red Alert followed in its footsteps a few years later and saw not the three houses that had been present in Dune II, but the Allies and Soviets that existed in an alternate reality of sorts where WW II never happened, because Einstein had traveled back in time and eliminated Adolf Hitler merely by shaking his hand.
While Red Alert was great in its own right, the sequel, Red Alert 2, was glorious, and no doubt the peak of the series. It had much of the original game in it, but it was filled with a campiness that was unique to this title, not just in its acting, often visible in cutscenes between missions but the industrial soundtrack by Frank Klepacki in the background contributed to the overall feeling as well. Even units that were fresh out of the barracks had character.
But strip away all the humour, and you had a very addictive, balanced game that was just a joy to play. In my mind, it was miles better than Red Alert 3. It was the first game in the series—and perhaps any RTS at that time—to utilize naval warfare
10. Half-Life 2
Where the original game was part of the new revolution in first-person shooters which took place in the late 1990s, HL 2 led the charge for games that were part of the evolution in FPS titles in the mid-2000s.
It had competition with the likes of Doom 3 and Far Cry, both released before it in 2004, but Half-Life 2 was hyped like virtually no other game at the time, and it lived up to a lot of that when it finally came out, six years after the first game.
It didn't have the best graphics, but its use of technology was astounding, with AI and interactivity with the environment being taken to the next level. The game often required the player to use physics in order to solve puzzles in between combat sections. Half-Life 2 was a well-paced FPS title that alternated between action and exploration—something that contemporary titles lacked, and future games failed to emulate.
Its story and characters were also memorable, some of which had been encountered in previous titles in the series, and also appeared in later episodic installments, namely Episode 1 and Episode 2. Half-Life 2 was one of the first games to explore this distribution model alongside fellow source engine game SiN. It promised new content more frequently than having to wait for entirely new installments. Even though it flopped, it was a novel idea in theory.
The source engine used in HL 2 lead to a remastering of several other related games which were often developed by smaller studios employed by Valve, like Counter-Strike, Day of Defeat, and several others. The engine was also used to power popular games like Team Fortress 2, Left 4 Dead, Portal, and even the excellent Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines.
11. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2
Where the original was merely a game, the sequel represented an entire culture, with a fresh soundtrack, locations based on real-life spots, and not to mention the key ingredient, fun, which was brought to us in the form of skateboarding. Plenty of skateboarders that I knew got their start into skating through this game, and while the thought now of grinding endlessly along telephone wires and the like seems ridiculous now, it was the most amazing gameplay to be had at the time.
Being able to spend money earned in-game on new boards as well as stats to level up a skater's abilities added some replay value and roleplaying as well, seeing as you could have your own custom skater and watch as their career progressed, winning competitions being key to your success.
The highlight was finishing the game with a pro skater and being able to unlock real footage of pros in action. That bonus content, which would probably have to be paid for nowadays in the form of DLC, made THPS 2 one of the greatest experiences.
You could also play around with the level editor and make your own skateparks and try them out.
This was the pinnacle of the series, and even though some sequels like THPS 3 and THUG 2 weren't terrible, I think the perversion of Jackass started to ruin the game, particularly in career mode. The latter was only really enjoyable in classic mode, which was a return to form.
12. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
The Grand Theft Auto series had been around for a few years by the time GTA III was released. Only die-hard fans would have played the games that came before it—GTA III was likely the introduction to the series for many gamers.
It was a decent game in its own right, although I felt that it almost like a lampoon of The Sopranos—a popular TV series that ran at the time. There was a character by the name of Tony Cipriani, an obvious reference to the show, and there were even characters voiced by actors who had starred in the show as well.
As the game progressed, Claude, the main character, was known to switch to other gangs. I just found it to be a bit disorienting, and the experience wasn’t helped by having a silent character either. It just felt like a decidedly stupid design choice and made him look like nothing but a tool, with no opinions of his own. So story-wise, the game was a let down for me.
Vice City rectified this problem by having Tommy Vercetti voiced by Ray Liotta, but the game took a lot of inspiration from the likes of Scarface. It was a step in the right direction, though.
San Andreas was the best GTA out of the original three, and some maintain it’s the best game in the series to date. It felt like more of an original production instead of something that was merely a spoof of a famous TV show or movie. It’s not like San Andreas wasn’t inspired to some degree by the culture of the early 1990s, but the fact that Rockstar brought on some allegedly real-life rappers as consultants, as well as voice actors, meant the game had a more legitimate feeling than previous outings in the series. Something that more recent ones, like GTA IV failed to do. In fact, GTA IV felt cartoonish compared to San Andreas which was a slick game indeed.
It improved on Vice City by allowing CJ to swim, and it added a roleplaying element to the game by allowing the player to improve his character’s stats by practicing various skills, like shooting. And while there were gangs as before, in this game, CJ had very strong ties to Grove Street, and didn’t switch allegiances. Though he might have formed alliances with some gangs in order to take on other gangs in Los Santos and San Fierro.
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