One of the most popular video game genres of all time, first-person shooters are responsible for many technological advancements and boast quite a selection of classic titles which gamers love to this day.

But what are they all about? What makes them tick? Let’s take a look, shall we?

What’s a first-person shooter? At a first glance, it’s a simple question. These are games where you observe the action through the eyes of the player character as opposed to third-person games where you see your avatar from behind their back.

And as far as the shooting part is concerned, such titles must be concerned with gunplay (although melee combat might be featured in them as well).

Such a definition seems legit, but since the genre influenced the gaming industry as a whole and was in return influenced by other kinds of games, the evolution of first-person shooters is something worth looking into.

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Battlefield V Definitive Edition 2018-11-20 First-Person EA Digital Illusions CE

First-person shooter games come in all shapes and sizes

The genre really changed over the decades, so a game from 2023 is most likely going to be a lot different from one released in 1997, for example.

Let’s take a look at the shooters released throughout the 90s. Their staple features include:

  • Complex, often maze-like levels, which became more objective or story-oriented by the end of the decade;
  • A wide array of firearms, including traditional and science fiction-style guns, plus some melee weapons to help you out once you’re out of ammo (fantasy-themed shooters feature swords, spells, bows and the like);
  • Pick-ups scattered across the levels, such as med kits, ammunition, and various power-ups;
  • Puzzles, ranging from simple stuff like finding keys or pressing hidden buttons to something more sophisticated.

The so-called arena shooters, centered around online play and various solo and team-based modes, rose to prominence in the late 90s. Titles such as Unreal Tournament and Quake III: Arena ruled, but there were other popular multiplayer shooters, such as Team Fortress, Starsiege: Tribes, and Counter-Strike, which emphasized team play and objective-based modes.

Early 2002s were a time when World War II became a prominent theme thanks to the Medal of Honor and Call of Duty series. These were all about cinematic-tinged, objective-based, and mostly linear missions where you worked together with a bunch of AI-controlled allies.

Soon, FPS games dropped med kits in favor of a health regeneration system where you regain your HPs shortly after you stop taking damage. This is now a standard in the realm of action games, actually.

Carrying entire arsenals was no longer possible, as there were limits: usually 1-2 primary weapons, a sidearm and a bunch of grenades. Online shooters became bigger, with large maps and class-based gameplay. Examples include the Battlefield and Star Wars: Battlefront series.

Open-world, non-linear first-person shooters also became prominent thanks to franchises such as Far Cry and Crysis.

We’re also witnesses to the rise of an increasingly popular sub-genre of the so-called “retro shooters.” These are clearly love letters to the classics of the 90s, paying homage to them via their gameplay and visuals, although they usually blend their retro features with modern influences and fresh ideas.

First-person shooters are also often blended with other genres, such as RPGs, stealth games, slashers, and so on.

Which was the first FPS game ever released?

Contrary to a popular belief, Wolfenstein 3D is NOT the first-person shooter ever released. The genre actually dates back to the 1970s and games such as Maze War and Spasim. Other important titles, released in the 1980s and early 1990s, include Hovertank 3D and Catacomb 3-D. The latter is particularly important, as it introduced various features that became a staple of first-person shooters and was a landmark in graphical advancements.

Then came the aforementioned Wolfenstein 3D which became a smash hit and popularized the genre, leading to a whole slew of other, even more important and popular franchises.

Released in 1993, Doom greatly expanded upon the blueprint of Wolf 3D and introduced online multiplayer. Heck, it’s one of the greatest and most important games of all time! It also generated a lot of controversies due to its goriness and violence.

1995’s Star Wars: Dark Forces further expanded upon the formula of Doom by introducing objective-based missions, multiple-floor level designs, and the ability to look up and down.

Duke Nukem 3D dropped in 1996 and rocked the gaming world with its humor, machismo, and unprecedented level of interaction with the in-game environment.

But the real deal was Quake, also released in 1996. OK, Descent was the first FPS to feature truly-3D graphics and six degrees of freedom – and it was a great game, to boot.

Still, it is Quake which completely blew people away with its dynamic gameplay, technological advancements, and excellent multiplayer serving as a blueprint for this component in shooters even to this very day.

There’s a lot of other games and entire franchises which had a huge impact on first-person shooters: Half-Life, Marathon, GoldenEye 007, Unreal, Halo, and so on, but we won’t go into the details of these for the sake of brevity.

As you can see, while defining what a first-person shooter is seems quite simple at first, the genre isn’t homogenous and features a whole lot of influences from other genres. Modern shooters differ greatly in their structure and gameplay from the ones released in the 90s.

What doesn’t change about FPS games, though, is the fact that it seems to be an evergreen category that still remains popular and relevant to this day, which cannot be said about a whole lot of other genres, such as flight simulators or adventure games, which became niches despite their successes back in the day.