Know Your Genres: First-Person Shooters

Just what do we really mean when we talk about “game genres,” anyway? Sure, you’ve probably seen that “fans of the genre will enjoy this” phrase in umpteen game reviews, but the truth is that the most durable game genres have walked some long, ever-evolving, and very interesting roads over the past several decades. In this weekly series, Xbox Wire’s editorial team will break down exactly what shaped your favorite genres, why they’re so timelessly awesome, and where they’re headed – while providing you with some expert advice on the past and modern classics that you should check out!

This week, we’re covering the captain of the football team of video games’ high school: the first-person shooter. Beloved by everyone from e-sports fanatics to the geekiest modders to groups of friends just looking to get together and hunt each other for a while, the FPS has been a staple genre on both console and PC since the early days… and shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

The Past

While the 1980s had a few first-person games, most of these were of the tank-simulator variety, the most famous being the iconic Battlezone. Other first-person vehicle sims were popular in arcades, and even home computers, in the 1980s… but it wasn’t until the early 1990s that ancestors of the FPS proper began to take shape. It was actually a role-playing game called Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss that was among the first to showcase the technologies that would become key to the underpinnings of the FPS: fast texture-mapping with a first-person perspective, “2.5D” graphics (that is, two-dimensional graphics displaying linear perspective to create the illusion of depth in front of the player’s face), and equipped weapons front and center in the foreground.

In 1992, a small Texas-based company called id Software created a game called Wolfenstein 3D. Set in a vast, German castle during an alternate history of World War II, it pit private “B.J.” Blazkowicz against a massive Nazi army – and eventually Hitler himself. Largely credited with the popularization (if not the outright invention) of the FPS as we know it today, Wolfenstein 3D is responsible for many of the typical tropes of the genre’s early days: increasing weapon and enemy power to counter each other throughout the game, secret areas, extreme violence and gore, minimal storyline, fast pacing, and a shareware distribution model to increase accessibility.

While Wolfenstein 3D was considered revolutionary and genre-defining, it wasn’t until one year later that the FPS genre got its true killer app. The same company, id Software – having polished up and learned from the template it built with Wolfenstein 3D – released a new shooter, this one set on Mars, instead of in a German castle.

Doom is one of the most important FPS game of all-time, and it always will be. It not only improved on Wolfenstein 3D in every way. It added verticality to its predecessor’s fairly flat levels, and – crucially – it added the ability for multiple players to connect to a single session and compete against each other. Called “deathmatches” by Doom’s community of players, these proved so popular that an entire community spun off around just playing and mastering the multiplayer areas of Doom. Multiplayer has since become integral to every major FPS franchise, but Doom also innovated in other ways. It was graphically ahead of its time with advanced lighting and shadows, it featured complex and clever level designs that worked both in multiplayer and single-player to provide challenges, and it integrated humor into its blood-‘n’-guts horror in a way that would feel right at home in an “Evil Dead” film. Doom was, in all respects, ahead of its time.

Doom proved to be a cultural phenomenon. It, of course, spawned countless imitators. Among the best of these were Marathon (the first really excellent FPS on the Apple Macintosh system, by a small team of developers from Bellevue, Washington called Bungie) and Duke Nukem 3D (a highly polished, highly humorous game, generally considered the last of the great “2.5D” FPS titles).

In 1996 – the same year that Duke Nukem 3D came out – id Software, ever pushing the envelope of the genre that it created, released what would go on to become another one of the most important FPS game of all time: Quake. Unlike many of the most popular shooters that came before it, Quake used fully three-dimensional polygons, rather than two-dimensional sprites and the illusion of linear perspective, to create a three-dimensional game space. As a result, maps were much larger, deeper, and more vertical. The gameplay was different, too: Players would need to use their now-ubiquitous mice to control their aim, rather than relying on their arrow keys and a healthy dose of auto-aim. FPS gaming would never be the same; from then on, precision was the watchword in multiplayer.

Like Doom before it, Quake spawned a cultural shift. Multiplayer groups who would meet regularly and practice, then play each other in tournaments, began to spawn. They called themselves “clans” for some unknown reason, and the name stuck. Then the tournaments became official. Since Quake demanded powerful 3D resources, it helped to drive the market for the fancy new 3D graphics hardware that had become available to PC gamers (and was being incorporated into home video game consoles as well).

Indeed, just one year later, in 1997, Rare – a British software developer – released GoldenEye 007 for the Nintendo 64. Generally seen as the first console-dedicated 3D shooter, it was way ahead of its time with some of its gameplay elements. It featured local multiplayer via split-screen (including multiple modes, rather than only simple deathmatch), different damage values for different areas of the body, and the incorporation of stealth gameplay into the action.

At the close of the 1990s, a couple of guys from the Seattle area calling themselves Valve Software took the Quake engine and completely revamped it, adding improved textures, killer enemy A.I., all sorts of new weapons, and (in a huge departure from the conventional wisdom of id Software and the FPS powers-that-be of the time) an elaborate plot. They called their game Half-Life. While it garnered virtually no pre-release buzz, it went on to become one of the most critically acclaimed, best-selling, and most beloved games of all time, not just for itself, but for its “mod-ability.”

The Half-Life engine was home to a series of customized single- and multiplayer modifications (or “mods”) that completely changed the look, style, and gameplay, often creating entirely different games that shared only the underlying engine and FPS ethos. Of these, the most important were Valve’s own Team Fortress, mostly because it gave rise to the much, much better Team Fortress 2 years later, and Counter-Strike, a mod originally developed by two unaffiliated programmers, who were then hired by Valve.

Counter-Strike remains one of the greatest and most influential multiplayer-only FPS series in history, and was one of the first, along with Epic Games’ Unreal Tournament series, to be placed into the burgeoning e-sports circuit, where players competed professionally for cash and prizes.

The Present

As the 2000s rolled around, the FPS genre became an honest-to-goodness staple in gaming. “Crossovers,” or hybrid-genres, began to show up on the scene. 1999’s System Shock II, one of the greatest games in any genre, combines the mechanics of an FPS with the tone of a survival-horror title and the core elements of a role-playing game, in a seamless whole. Medal of Honor and Call of Duty combined the epic scope of war games and history with the intimate mechanics of one man and his gun that FPS provides, for powerfully emotional experiences – and spawned dozens of sequels as a result.

And, as controllers for consoles got more advanced, shooters migrated more seamlessly to them. In 1999, the same Bungie that had made Marathon showcased a real-time strategy game called Halo at E3. A couple of years later, that game was revamped as an FPS, and showcased as a launch title for a brand new console called the Xbox. Combining the knack for storytelling of Bungie’s earlier title with accessible-yet-competitive multiplayer, and astounding graphical quality, it proved to be a runaway critical and commercial hit. Halo not only created a series of successful sequels in and of itself, but it definitely helped secure the success of the Xbox, too. A couple of years after that, a little game called Halo 2 did the same for Xbox Live.

The FPS genre has continued to grow and expand in the modern era. Open-world titles like Far Cry and Crysis have brought exploration and freedom of choice into the shooter world, while the BioShock series has challenged players with ethical decisions and deep, engaging plot lines. The venerable Call of Duty has reinvented itself on several occasions, the most famous being the release of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, a massive hit that saw the genre move from the fields of World War II to the deserts of contemporary conflict. Most recently, Destiny successfully brought the FPS genre into the massively multiplayer online space.

The Future

Of all the video game genres out there, the shooter is probably the healthiest. With big series from nearly every major publisher, gamers have tons of favorites to choose from. The rest of 2015 alone will see the release of Call of Duty: Black Ops III, the first game in that series to feature a fully cooperative single-player campaign. Also coming in 2015 is the hotly anticipated Star Wars Battlefront from DICE – and, come on, who isn’t hyped about Star Wars? And, of course, there’s Halo 5: Guardians, the latest and greatest in the aforementioned Halo series – this time pitting two groups of Spartan super-soldiers against each other in both an epic story campaign and a killer set of multiplayer levels.

Looking even further out, we’ve got Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, another of those awesome genre-hybrid shooters that allows you to choose your path through the game. Heck, it’s an FPS where you can literally not shoot anyone – that’s a pretty sweet twist.

And beyond that? Well: there’s Doom. Yes, that’s right: Bethesda, who now owns id Software, is putting out another Doom, and promises to make it the rootinest, tootinest, old-schoolenist shooter since the first one (and if you’ve seen the E3 2015 demo footage, you probably ought to believe the hype).

The future is bright in the FPS world – but then, the future is always bright when you’re staring at a muzzle flash.