2017 is a nice time for enthusiasts of first-person shooters. Quake comes back with a Champions subtitle and probably an extra-edgy tone (where is Bones, though? Nothing’s edgier than a gun-toting skeleton). Unreal Tournament is also ready to take the long-abandoned throne, although curiously this year’s UT dropped the number from its title. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being the fourth core entry in the series.
The classic first-person shooters steadily come back, hot on the heels of outstanding DOOM, which was in turn preceded by Wolfenstein: New Order.
But for every legendary franchise that’s coming back there are dozens of games that have been largely forgotten. What follows is a handy and brief list of first-person shooters you may have missed. Their cool gimmicks make them worth checking out, even if the games themselves aren’t necessarily the greatest achievements of the genre.
Singularity is a curious game, and its gimmick isn’t even unique within the scope of this article, but it makes up for it with sheer corniness of its plot and setups.
The protagonist is a soldier (of course), the antagonists are Russians (why not), it’s all set on an island (how convenient), and the plot revolves around time travel and time manipulation. Oh, and there’s a mysterious, dangerous, and powerful…ous element, called Element-99, or E99. Sounds like food additive, but I don’t mind, it’s in line with how unashamedly ridiculous the entire thing is.
Thankfully, the gameplay can largely keep up with whatever silliness the plot throws at us, and that’s mostly because of the TMD: Time Manipulation Device. With it you can create bubbles of frozen time, change an object’s age from “still in its packaging” to “older than dirt” on a whim, and even shift your enemies along their evolutionary line. How doesn’t reality collapse from all of this? I don’t know, time magic, I guess.
You’ll use your TMD to solve puzzles (which have a bizarre and troubling fascination with boxes), participate in set-piece sequences utilizing the island’s uncertain position in time…
It’s a lot to take in, the game knows this, but seems mostly interested in taking you for a ride whenever you aren’t doing the rather standard-fare shooting bits.
If it sounds like late 80s/early 90s action flick (possibly starring one of the following: Jean Claude Van Damme, Kurt Russel, Arnold Schwarzenegger), it’s pretty much what the game seems to be going for.
Singularity is worth checking out if you can get your hands on it and don’t mind having important-sounding science mumbo-jumbo in place of actual plot.
|Genre||Action & Shooter|
Prey is an example of how a game can take eleven years in development and not end up universally despised when it launches. Take notes, Duke.
Prey did some things, and many of these things were good. We could end the description here, but that’d be hardly helpful or informative, so brace yourselves.
The first thing to know about Prey is that it sort of did portals before Portal. Sure, they were static gateways rather than dynamically created violations of physics, but the core idea was there. Seamless transitions between portal A and portal B, and being able to see your character thanks to the portal were a given. The portals even looked very similar, with shape and even colours being rather similar.
Does that mean Portal ripped-off Prey? Not really, unless you also think Need for Speed ripped off Road Fighter (Google it), because this is the level of expanding on an idea we’re talking about. But Prey should get the credit nonetheless, for being a pioneer.
It did some other cool things, too. Like the spirit walk (Tommy, the protagonist, is a Cherokee Native American, so he obviously has some spiritual abilities) which could be used to pass through otherwise immovable obstacles like force fields. It wasn’t quite Raziel’s wraith form (Soul Reaver 1&2, LoK: Defiance), but it was rather neat nonetheless. Especially since, much like Raziel’s it prevented Tommy from dying if you played your cards right.
In Prey once your earthly form gets ripped to shreds by enemy fire, Tommy (or, more accurately: Domasi Tawodi) is forced into spirit realm where for a brief time he can shoot some color-coded wraiths to regain health. Shoot enough of them and you are once again among the living. This idea cuts down on loading times and preserves the gameplay flow, which is always a good idea, even if it could lead to some exploits and general disregard for your character’s safety.
Another fun thing Prey did were gravity twists, letting you often walk on the walls and ceiling as if they were floor. It wasn’t used to the full imaginable extent, true, but having your perspective and sense of “up” shift rapidly was a doozy, albeit possibly vertigo-inducing.
The designs weren’t anything to write home about, being a popular for a good while blend of organic material with technology, but they were entertaining enough and served their purpose in creating alien, bizarre locations. The exploding bugs you could prime by tearing their legs off were especially entertaining.
Prey was a lot of fun despite some flaws and ultimately underutilizing its great ideas, so it’s a shame the sequel never came, getting canned midway through development. Although Arkane Studios’ Prey looks great and will likely be well-worth playing once it comes out, it’s a brand new IP carrying a very old title.
|Genre||Action & Shooter|
TimeShift can be considered a precursor to Singularity, since it introduced time-manipulation on personal level three years before Singularity launched. This time instead of a gruff soldier’s adventures on a weird island we got a story of split timelines and time-suit-wearing scientists.
It attempts for a slightly more serious tone, which doesn’t necessarily always work in its favour, but like Singularity it has its gimmick, which makes up for the narrative’s shortcomings.
One of the fun things *this* time-bending first-person shooter does is rewinding time. You know Overwatch, unless you spent last year under a rock or something. You know Tracer and her time-wibble-wobbler and that she can go back three seconds, even from the brink of death. Well, TimeShift did it first. Say, you got a sticky grenade planted on your face. You can use your time-suit to turn back time to un-plant the grenade and save the bulk of your health. You can also create bubbles of nigh-frozen time, which allows for shenanigans not unlike what we could do in Dishonored years later. A crossbow with explosive bolts, for instance, synergises really nicely with localised slow motion.
There are also obstacles to clear using your time-skills, although the challenge element is largely removed, because your suit’s AI helpfully picks the right skill to do the thing. What is it with scientists having a fancy and useful AIs in their supertech suits? Some fast-closing doors, spinning fans, why be fast and agile when you make time locally pass at the speed of frozen molasses. ‘Work smarter, not harder’ and all that.
Interestingly, the time-related effects are colour coded for your convenience. Usually you’d expect bullet time-like effects to give a greyed-out colour palette, but here? Nope. Depending on the direction in which you make the time move, the affected area can turn blue, white or yellow.
What’s even better, is that TimeShift even had multiplayer utilising the time-bending mechanic thanks to special grenades.
TimeShift undeservedly got forgotten by most, even as they Bend Timed away in Dishonored and Recalled Tracer years later. Sure, the storytelling is pretty jumbled and the anonymous character won’t work for everyone, but if you’re looking for some time-bendy shooter with solid physics (for the time), TimeShift is a good pick, even if it’s age show.
|Developer||People Can Fly|
Now that’s the stuff. An upcoming remaster/expansion subtitled “Full Clip Edition” is as good an excuse to include Bulletstorm here as it’s genuinely entertaining gameplay mechanics are. But first things first.
The protagonist is one Grayson Hunt, whose name and voice actor (always amazing Steve Blum) show him clearly as a grizzled man not to be messed with. He is a leader of a foul-mouthed (seriously, to say the game has a potty mouth is an understatement) crew of fellow ex-soldiers, who flipped their former employer a bird and now fly the outer regions of the galaxy in a rusty and rickety space ship, oddly not named Serenity. Sounds cool, if not exactly original, and the general storyline follows suit, with some really fun, impressive, exciting moments, even if you’ve seen it all before. The kicker? Gameplay is a total effin’ blast! Let the awesome Miracle of Sound express in a song what this game is about:
Most shooters give you some guns and just sort of lets you loose, not really giving you a chance to do anything interesting with them. Not so in Bulletstorm, where “Skillshots” are tied to pretty much everything in the game. What are Skillshots? Short version: they are ways of using your anti-gravity boots, environment, an energy leash and an arsenal of weapons or manoeuvres to kill enemies in the most creative way possible. There is a total of 135 Skillshots, some of them general, others tied to a specific weapon, and they can be mixed for bigger point rewards. And some of them are pretty gruesome. Take for instance “Mercy” which involves shooting an enemy in the nuts and “mercifully” kicking or shooting his head off. Which mixes nicely with the Headshot skillshot. The only limit is tied to charged shots, special secondary-fire options often drastically changing how a weapon works. Skillshots tied to them can only be completed with the associated gun.
Each Skillshot has a point value, and the more complicated it is, the more points it gives you. You spend points to buy weapon upgrades, ammo (and special ammo), perma-unlock weapons and improve the very handy Energy Leash. In other words: the more creatively you murderkill your enemies, the more ways of murderkilling your enemies you get. It even has an in-game explanation as a part of some special forces training program. Bulletstorm really is a little bit like a Tom & Jerry cartoon in M-rated shooter form.
It’s worth noting that this year sees a release of a remastered version, with better graphics and a special addition: Duke Nukem as an optional playable character in place of Grayson. Although Duke doesn’t fit in stylistically, thematically his presence is a bull’s-eye. Bulletstorm is already a thoroughly immature, potty-mouthed game full of crude humour. Duke’ll feel right at home, especially when dubbed by Jon St. John as the tradition demands.
Bulletstorm is definitely worth checking out if you’re looking for a creatively brutal game and you’re sure your ears won’t bleed when faced with a constant stream of often very elaborate expletives. It’s low-brow, yeah, but think about it this way: it’s just low-brow enough to give you an awesome 70s moustache as a result.
Oooh, ooh, almost forgot. One of the major characters in the game, Trishka, is voiced by Jennifer Hale. That’s right. Bulletstorm is filled by a dialogue between Wolverine (Steve Blum) and Commander Shepard. Listening to their interactions is pretty much as glorious, as it sounds.
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger
|Genre||Action & Shooter|
This is a curious little game that deserves a lot more popularity than it received. As a third sequel to the Call of Juarez series, it’s the second, after Bulletstorm (by People Can Fly), game on this list developed by Polish developers (Techland).
Gunslinger won’t win any awards for its gunplay (although it’s tight and very entertaining), or the visuals (although they are quite pleasant to look at). What earns it a place on this list is something BioShock did back in 2007, namely “gameplay and story integration”. But Gunslinger, thanks to its plot structure, can go beyond what 2K’s game could achieve in this category.
See, the protagonist of Gunslinger is Silas Greaves, an old bounty hunter telling a couple of saloon patrons about his many adventures. The thing is, he is an unreliable narrator prone to embellishing his stories to an infuriating degree. It’s a nice narrative frame, but it doesn’t stop at cutscenes, which is the best part.
Silas keeps telling his story even as you play the levels, and his audience keeps making comments, sometimes calling him on blatant lies mid-sequence. What happens then? The game changes in front of your eyes, sometimes rewinding completely, at other times enemies disappear or pop into existence in greater numbers. Sometimes, Silas gets distracted and the gameplay loops until he gets back to telling the tale.
Few games go so far out of their way to make sure the gameplay and story go hand in hand, supporting one another. Gunslinger is also a very tongue-in-cheek game, gently ribbing some of the genre’s clichés without repeating them, for which it must receive proper credit.
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is a little gem of a game, especially if you’re interested in the interplay of gameplay and story. Tight gunplay, great voice-acting, and pretty visuals complement the outstanding narration-gameplay. You should definitely check it out when you have a chance.
So there you have it, five half-forgotten shooters with gimmicks making them worth bringing back from the brink of oblivion.
They can be slightly wonky, or appear as such after a better part of decade, sure. As a counterpoint, allow me to paraphrase the most awesome chin in movie history: “Good, bad, I’m a game with something fresh”. Doing something original and interesting should not be forgotten, even if the production does not live up to the highest standards.
What other shooters do you think should have found their place on the list? Let us know in the comments.