The first person shooter is one of the most venerable and overcrowded video game genres in history. Did anyone raise the bar on FPS games in 2016? Let's find out.
The challenge of developing a first person shooter is that players have been there and done that so many times already. The FPS genre is defined by franchises like Battlefield and Call of Duty that recycle the same formula year after year, and that repetitiveness can shed a negative light on other shooters.
FPS design is not stagnating, however. Three first person shooters in 2016, in particular, showed how new life can be bred into favorite worlds. These games showed us how shooters can spark cultural phenomena and how a fantastic FPS can still manage to slip past your radar.
Battlefield 1 is a step backward in time and design for developer EA DICE and publisher Electronic Arts. It harkens back to the good old days of Battlefield 1942, the original game in the franchise, and features the kind of environmental destruction that helps define the Battlefield franchise but has been missing from the game since Battlefield Bad Company 2.
Battlefield 1 may be the best entry in the franchise since Bad Company 2. Our only real problem is the atrocious wait and load times for Battlefield 1 matches. EA DICE still can't seem to figure out its problems with writing efficient, dependable netcode.
Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare's sci-fi setting may seem ridiculous when you consider that Call of Duty began as a series of World War II shooters. However, a Battlestar Galactica-type storyline mixed with hard sci-fi and infantry/pilot commandos like something out of Space: Above and Beyond make for a very fun and satisfying campaign.
Zombies mode in Infinite Warfare takes place in an amusement park and is a solid take on the venerable Call of Duty mode. Overall, Infinite Warfare's multiplayer is standard CoD, with the usual minor adjustments and additions made in each annual iteration of the franchise.
The consistent delivery of that "standard" CoD multiplayer gameplay is arguably what makes the franchise popular, but it does make Call of Duty multiplayer begin to feel long in the tooth. The strength of the total package is more important than any one mode where Infinite Warfare is concerned.
3. Titanfall 2
With a release date sandwiched between two other military shooters — Battlefield 1 and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare — Titanfall 2 definitely suffered for its horrible release timing. The game didn't receive as much attention as it otherwise could have, and absolutely, deserves.
In the original Titanfall, players could eventually unlock access to all upgrades for a Titan. In Titanfall 2, Titans are broken up into chassis types, and each chassis has a set of primary combat abilities that are not available to any other chassis type. Titanfall 2 also drops the Burn Card powerup system that made Titanfall multiplayer particularly interesting.
These are appreciable changes that may not be entirely welcome to Titanfall vets, but Titanfall 2 otherwise delivers an even better dose of what this franchise is all about, combining mech and infantry combat in a way not seen before in military shooters or mech sims.
Where Titanfall 2 is very different from its predecessor, however, is the inclusion of a single player campaign, and the story is good enough that we're not risking any spoilers. Suffice it to say that the campaign in Titanfall 2 is not something developer Respawn Entertainment simply tacked on following complaints about the lack of a campaign in Titanfall. Titanfall 2's campaign is extremely satisfying and worth the time to complete.
Overwatch had a huge advantage coming into the crowded FPS market: the loyalty and obsessive interest of Blizzard Entertainment's gigantic fan base. Blizzard, after all, is the progenitor of World of Warcraft, the MMO that helped define the modern genre; Starcraft, the game that arguably spawned the esports world; and the popular collectible card game Hearthstone.
So the FPS genre was Blizzard's to lose, and the developer did not miss with Overwatch. It is a veritable phenomenon, with cosplayers and fan artists flooding the web with content. The recent reveal that Tracer, one of the heroes of Overwatch is in a same-sex relationship with a woman has become a downright cultural event.
Overwatch is comparatively simplistic as a shooter. Most competitive FPS games feature multiple modes. Overwatch does not. Most competitive FPS games, even if they utilize class-based systems, allow for some modicum of practical customization beyond aesthetic choices. Overwatch does not.
That relative simplicity, however, is precisely what made Overwatch so popular. Blizzard was smart enough to target Blizzard fans, not FPS genre veterans, as its core player base. The gorgeous art, quality writing and silky smooth gameplay in Overwatch are all the usual hallmarks of Blizzard quality.
A lack of overly-complex systems and mechanics also makes Overwatch a prime candidate for eSports. One of the biggest problems with FPS games as eSports is the level skill it can require to simply follow the action as a spectator.
Because Overwatch is relatively simple it is easier to learn compared to other FPS games, and that helps create a wider player base and larger audience for professional Overwatch play. Blizzard checked all the boxes with Overwatch. Not bad for a developer not known for making FPS games.
If we're looking for first person shooters in 2016 that played directly to and excited FPS veterans, Doom stands apart. The venerable franchise began at the dawn of the FPS genre and makes a very strong return with this reboot.
The original Doom had an almost-immediate sequel, Doom II, and then lay dormant until the previous attempt at a franchise reboot, Doom 3, that felt more like a horror game than a full-tilt FPS. Where Doom had come to embody the essence of the frenetic energy and chaos presented by the best FPS games, Doom 3's sedate presentation was a disappointment.
The new Doom takes any thoughts of subtlety and dispenses them with a chainsaw. It is loud, fast, and brutal. It eschews modern-day genre conventions like regenerating health and shields in favor of more challenging, old school FPS mechanics.
Doom favors open maps with reason to return and explore, rather than the disposable corridor-based level designs in many modern shooters. The industrial rock soundtrack is amazing and perfectly invokes the spirit of the original Doom by playing off the key themes at just the right times. Rarely do we see a reboot that so perfectly reflects the original game.
Considering Doom history in the FPS genre and its impressive resurgence in 2016 it easily took the top spot on our list. How could it not be?
Honorable mention: Battleborn
Battleborn, like Titanfall 2, is a victim of poor release timing. Battleborn and Overwatch were essentially competitors in the same timeslot, and Blizzard's popularity is tough for any studio to take on. Gearbox Software's MOBA/FPS hybrid Battleborn thus suffered in terms of media attention.
Battleborn is an unconventional FPS game that marries a co-op campaign with aesthetics and story that feel right out of Borderlands, to a multiplayer mode that has more in common with League of Legends than any first person shooter.
Played with friends, Battleborn is a lot of fun. Multiplayer Online Battle Arena games like League of Legends or DOTA 2 funnel combat into tight "lanes" that condense the action and make it easy to follow which team is winning or losing. Combining that easy-to-parse strategic play with the tactical chaos that is a first person shooter was a great idea, and that's the basic idea behind Battleborn.
Honorable mention: Far Cry Primal
Every year we can expect to be treated to a litany of franchise sequels and reboots in the FPS genre. Battlefield 1, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, a new Doom game and Titanfall 2 were all released this year. But one franchise sequel, Far Cry Primal, stood alone this year in doing something completely unexpected with the series.
Turok comes to mind as one of the few FPS franchises to embrace a prehistoric aesthetic, inasmuch as dinosaurs were some of your frequent enemies. Far Cry Primal actually takes place in prehistory and makes what might be the best use of the Far Cry formula yet.
Far Cry is what happens when a first person shooter meets Grand Theft Auto V. You can go where you want and do what you want in the open world of a Far Cry game. It is more or less an exercise in chaos as you stomp about the map undertaking missions and side activities, shooting people and blowing things up.
Some of the recurring side activities in Far Cry games like gathering medicinal herbs or hunting animals never made quite so much sense when you were running around with assault rifles and high explosives. The idea of playing as a caveman and doing the same things in Far Cry Primal fits better somehow.
The random violence of traversing a map to kill off enemies and seize their land also seems a little less ridiculous in Far Cry Primal. By creating an entire game that is preposterous itself, many of the silly things we accept in first person shooter games don't feel quite so silly anymore.
Honorable mention: Shadow Warrior 2
In Shadow Warrior 2 you play as a wanna-be ninja-slash-gunman who does odd jobs for the Yakuza, breaks into skyscrapers that look like something off the cover of a cyberpunk novel, and slashes monsters with his katana blade. Shadow Warrior 2 is a strange mix of high-tech and fantasy. The hero, Lo Wang, buys guns from an arms dealer who is also a demon. It's that sort of game.
Removing the theme and the samurai aesthetic for a moment, Shadow Warrior 2 is one of the smoothest shooters released in 2016. Swordplay blends smoothly with gunplay in combat that favors close quarters and brutally efficient strikes. The game is built around an RPG structure, like Borderlands, which leaves plenty of content to explore and opportunities to learn new skills and magic abilities.
Shadow Warrior 2 is currently available only on PC only but comes to consoles in early 2017. FPS fans on PS4 and Xbox One have something to look forward to.