Before we dig into 2016, let’s review 2015. Let’s revisit The Verge’s list of best games of last year, and the only traditional first-person shooter that made the cut was The Taken King, an expansion to 2014’s Destiny. Fallout 4 is on here, too, which is a role-playing game, albeit one with plenty of guns and opportunities to shoot people in the head. So our favorite shooters were an add-on and RPG: not a good year for the genre.
For comparison’s sake, we jotted down a list of shooters we considered for our Best of 2016 list, and we have five choices: Doom, Overwatch, Battlefield 1, Superhot, and Titanfall 2. If we expand our scope to include role-playing or stealth first-person games, then I’ll tack on Dishonored 2 and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. The list doesn’t include Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, easily the best entry in the franchise in years, or small and enjoyable one-offs, like the retro-gritty Devil Daggers. Gory shooters like Killing Floor 2 and Shadow Warrior 2 didn’t win us over, but were notable — and may have connected with me in a less crowded 12 months.
The best shooter of 2016
Plante: We’ll get to the critically frivolous but conversationally fun question of whether or not this was the best year ever for first-person shooters. But first, let’s savor this year on its own terms. Did it feel uniquely dense with great stuff? And of all these games, which most stood out for you?
Sam: Yeah, it really did, and no one was more surprised by that than me. Destiny and Titanfall aside, I’d kind of written the genre off in recent years, as linear Call of Duty-wannabes dominated the market. But this year, the release calendar was inked with fun surprises. Every developer, it felt like, was making a serious effort to differentiate themselves.
Doom is probably my overall standout, a game that almost no one was expecting to turn out as well as it did. I compared it to Mad Max: Fury Road in my review, and I think that holds up — both are ferociously stylish and created with a view to trimming off as much fat as possible. Both were nearly lost in years of development hell. Both were flashes of life in genres that had practically flatlined. Doom is so confident in the fundamentals of its update to FPS action that it’s happy to have you do nothing else for the entire game.
Titanfall 2 is the other game I’d single out, because its campaign mode came out of nowhere and is Nintendo-like in its devotion to wild invention around every corner. Given that this is the sequel to a multiplayer-only game made by the creators of Call of Duty, I honestly expected the campaign to be phoned in, an obligatory series of missions to appease potential buyers. But it was by far the biggest surprise of the year for me.
And while I don’t think it’d make a top five for me, I also want to mention Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst. It’s a game that, design-wise, zigged where I would have prefered it zagged — I don’t think it gains anything by going open-world — but I was so happy to revisit this franchise. This year we saw a lot of games that probably wouldn’t have existed without the original Mirror’s Edge. Almost all the best first-person shooters of the year share the same relentless focus on deconstructing how you move through a space, usually with a unique hook like sliding or double jumping, running on walls or slogging about in your mech. The result is a more varied slate of FPS games than any other year that comes to mind.
What was your favorite twist on the template? I loved Doom’s rhythmic approach to old-school action, where the actual shooting was as simple as you could imagine but the depth was all in the risk-reward of chaining melee attacks to keep your health up.
Plante: Am I cheating if I say Dishonored 2’s level design? It was the most interesting thing I saw this year in a first-person game that allowed you to fire a gun. That’s enough to make it a kind of, sort of first-person shooter, right?
Anyway, playing Dishonored 2 was the first moment I can remember that I paused a game and wondered how the people made what I was seeing. Video game architecture doesn’t need to obey the laws of physics, and Dishonored 2 took advantage of that freedom. The centerpiece is a mechanized house that, with the flip of a switch, rebuilds itself room by room. With a careful leap, you can enter the space between the walls, and see how the mansion-sized contraption operates. On a purely technical level, it’s stunning. That it fits into the narrative so well is gravy.
I suspect folks will say Dishonored 2 isn’t an FPS, so speaking to something more traditional, if you can call it that, Superhot is my pick. When you move, the world moves. Simple enough. But Superhot performs its trick so well that you easily overlook the tremendous polish that went into the final product. The game teaches you a concise and easy-to-read visual language, one that takes an incredibly difficult premise (outnumbered and vulnerable to a single shot, annihilate swarms of overpowered baddies) and turns it into a tough but fair series of challenges.
The lasting appeal of the headshot
Plante: Before we go too much further, I do want to talk about what remains the heart and soul of the genre: what makes the headshot so enjoyable and central to shooters? The conceit of the first-person shooter genre sounds, particularly when you say it aloud, crass. Adventure games turn environments into puzzles, sports games adapt the play or the management of professional sports, and racing games, they let you race. Obviously. Shooters are games in which you fire a weapon at another character’s face.
I know that’s reductive, but I don’t think it’s unfair. For all the creative variety we’ve seen this year, and over the past decade, the first-person shooter is infatuated not just with the act of shooting, but targeting humanoid heads. It’s sick! It’s also fun!
What makes the headshot so pleasurable that it can support an entire genre? I’ve wrestled with the question as long as I’ve played mature games. So since I was, what, maybe 11. Back then I told my mom violent games don’t cause violence; I still haven’t found evidence to make a connection between how we play and how we behave. But that hasn’t made it any easier to explain my love of a genre that is, frankly, weird and more than a little grotesque. The specificity of the violence (kill shots to the face) and the amount (literally hundreds if not thousands of targets per games) is unlike any other entertainment I enjoy. My favorite heroes of violent films and TV show heroes can’t compare to my kill count in a single Call of Duty.
The question really set camp in my brain this year, one of the best years for the genre, if not arguably the best. I’m not here for puritanical finger wagging, but I do want to talk frankly about why we find it pleasurable — so much so that we spent a combined hundred hours this year blasting off the heads of soldiers, space aliens, and robots. Why do you find it fun? Is my anxiety off-base?
Sam: Well, I’d say that it’s not necessarily about the gore, as Superhot demonstrates — these games work just as well when you’re shooting abstract silhouettes that shatter into a million pieces. And despite the often gratuitous ultraviolence, I think the FPS is more potent than any other format; it feels like there’s less between you and the game when you’re viewing things through your character’s eyes. The direct call-and-response of the aiming and shooting is both inherently satisfying for the player and creatively freeing for designers, who can do pretty much anything they want inside that framework. I think it’s just that this year we’ve seen more studios exploit that potential after what felt like a long period of stagnation.
A renaissance for the single-player campaign
Plante: The only thing more surprising than first-person shooters having a moment was that quite often players were as interested if not more interested in single-player campaigns. For years, my Twitter stream was polluted by think pieces telling developers to abandon the classic campaign, usually directed at Battlefield creator DICE. But this year the studio nailed the campaign for Battlefield 1, largely thanks to a simple trick: instead of one, 9-hour slog, the single-player mode was spread across a handful of short stories that could be gobbled up faster than a romantic comedy and a bowl of popcorn. Each of these vignettes builds on an idea: you’re a fighter pilot or you man a tank or you just put on a boatload of armor and wield a horrifyingly large machine gun. Each is distinct and memorable, and what you do feeds into each particular story. Which is to say you don’t have that cognitive break in so many other action games, you know, when the hero is good at literally everything, so long as it involves killing.
Titanfall 2, also published by Electronic Arts, took a different route but with a similar purpose. Its campaign is a mad dash through what feels like four or five different shooters. We get the on-foot soldier carnage one moment, and the heavy robot battles the next. But the stages themselves are unique: one has you warping through time to navigate a science laboratory, another plays with perception as you rotating suburban homes inside a colossal automated factory that constructs entire towns. Both games understood the need for variety. They’re both extremely competent when it comes to the feedback of firing a gun, but they’re memorable because they aspire to do more — and largely succeed.
Sam: I agree. Titanfall 2 and Battlefield 1 are both games that I would absolutely recommend, even to someone without any interest in multiplayer (I can say that because I’m one of them). Even Call of Duty, a series that I have sporadically tried and failed to enjoy for around a decade, turned in its most ambitious campaign in recent memory with Infinite Warfare. It’s a little clumsy next to Titanfall 2, but it’s a dramatic improvement and the effort is appreciated.
I’m curious as to why this might have happened all this year across the industry. It feels like a movement that’s really fundamentally altered the strategy around AAA games, which aren’t known for taking huge financial risks. Why do you think all these companies decided it suddenly made good business sense to focus on the traditional solo player, after years of pushing online as the future?
Plante: My best guess is reach. AAA games cost tens — sometimes hundreds — of millions of dollars to produce. They need massive audiences to justify that cost. At the same time, multiplayer games are becoming more popular, and in turn, more competitive. So folks who don’t have time to learn the strategy of a multiplayer shooter, memorize multiplayer maps, or synchronize with friends online need to be approached with something else. In recent years, single-player campaigns felt like obligatory add-ons to win over this audience that, I’m speculating here, is largely grown-ups with busy schedules and limited free time.
A ton of market research and consultancy bills go into blockbusters games. I truly believe the creators of Battlefield 1, Titanfall 2, and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare know who plays single-player. And I think it shows in their design: all three favor short, episodic bursts. The writing is concise, the stories are on par with B-level cable television, and the themes are a bit more mature than the ra-ra war stories and juvenile kill parades of the past.
Do the stories reach the genre highwater mark of Portal 2? Not really. But they’re as good (if not as original) as BioShock or Half-Life 2, beloved games with stories that, looking back, are messier than our rose-tinted memories suggest.
The genre’s best year ever?
Plante: Okay, I think saying BioShock and Half-Life didn’t tell flawless stories invulnerable to time means we’ve approached the big question: Was 2016 the best year ever for first-person shooters?
Sam: Maybe it wasn’t the best in terms of impactful insta-classics. 2007 had BioShock, Call of Duty 4, Halo 3, and S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl; 2004 had Half-Life 2, Halo 2, and Far Cry. My own nostalgia-fueled pick would be 1999, when Quake III: Arena and Unreal Tournament went head-to-head in a bloody deathmatch that I still can’t quite decide who won. There was also Aliens versus Predator, System Shock 2, and Team Fortress Classic.
Apart from Overwatch, I’m not sure that many of the games we’ve discussed will be “unforgettable.” But in terms of breadth and diversity of design? I think 2016 wins in a landslide. It’s a year that stretched the potential and possibilities of the format, making me feel optimistic for a style of game that I was sure had left me behind.
Plante: Yeah, ironically what I find most appealing about first-person shooters in 2016 is how the fun extends far beyond the shooting. Battlefield 1’s vehicles, Dishonored’s stealth, and Titanfall 2’s momentum are what I remember best from the dozens of hours I put into those experiences. Even very blunt, very violent games like Doom and Superhot were as fascinated with movement as they were with gunplay. That seems to be a theme in every great year for the genre. Yes, there’s a standout shooter that “feels” meaty and percussive and competitive and fast, like Unreal Tournament or Call of Duty 4, but then there’s System Shock 2, Far Cry, BioShock, and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. — games that expand the genre from its run-and-gun origins.
Did we have that weird, genre-stretching game this year? Maybe it was Dishonored 2 or Superhot. Or maybe the best year for shooters will be 2017, when we get our hands on Prey. The game lets you turn into a coffee mug. Now that’s the future!