Before we knew what to name FPS games, we called them “Doom clones.” id Software’s groundbreaking work sparked a phenomenon when it began to circulate as shareware over 20 years ago, and since then shooters have propagated through mods, experimentation, LAN parties, co-op, esports, and singleplayer masterpieces.
Guns and enemies are their bread and butter, but we don’t think of our favorite shooters simply as outlets for simulated violence. We celebrate the way they test our minds and reflexes, the personal stories they generate, the captivating worlds they’ve founded, and the social spaces they provide for lighthearted bonding or hardcore competition. Here are our favorites FPS games to play right now.
Singleplayer FPS games
We recommend the following games for anyone who wants to sit alone and blast monsters or other deserving bad guys. They may include multiplayer modes, but we chose these games and put them in this section because we think they offer the best singleplayer campaigns around.
Release date: 2018
Developer: David Szymanski
Link: Steam, GOG
One of our highest-rated shooters of 2018, Dusk is a riff on classic FPS games, with clear influences from Quake, Doom and Half-Life. If you worried first-person shooters had gotten too slow since the '90s ended, this is probably the game for you. Set across three campaigns, you'll play with a fun and often ludicrous armoury—the Riveter, for example, which launches exploding rivets at your foes. It's more than just a throwback, though, filled with memorable, varied levels and a genuinely good little horror-themed story.
Release Date: 2016
Developer: Respawn Entertainment
Somehow Titanfall 2's campaign ended up being the star of the show for us, despite a host of high-value multiplayer options as well. Development of the game's single-player was treated like a game jam of sorts, where different members of the team would pitch their ideas for what a singleplayer Titanfall 2 idea level look like. The end result brings a really curious mix of thrilling platforming challenges, one-off level-changing tools and even puzzle elements, alongside BT, a charming mech pal who's like having a giant talking metal dog.
Release date: 2011
Developer: People Can Fly, Epic Games
Bulletstorm is an incredibly well-made score attack shooter that’s a little different than everything else on the list. The energy leash, the ability to kick enemies and the fast player movement give you plenty of scope to put together cool, flashy combos and to use your armory creatively. The sweary, deliberately immature script, put together by comic book writer Rick Remender, matches the over-the-top action perfectly. It's available in an upgraded Full Clip Edition on Steam, complete with optional embarrassing Duke Nukem appendage.
Release date: 2017
Developer: Arkane Austin
Prey's 2017 reboot from the minds behind the Dishonored series is a modern immersive sim classic. Leveraging the greatest ideas from its System Shock predecessors with modern sensibilities and Arkane's incredible eye for aesthetic design, Prey is a dense, lethal playground for experimentation and discovery. Locked door? Well, you can repair it yourself, or force it open, or scrounge through an office for a key, or warp into a coffee mug and roll through a crack in the window, or shoot a Nerf dart through that same crack to press a button that unlocks it from within.
The latest Prey is Arkane's greatest expression of its "Play it your way" mantra and can be enjoyed through numerous playthroughs as a result.
No One Lives Forever
Release date: 2000
Where many classics play better in our memories than on our modern PCs, No One Lives Forever holds up brilliantly today thanks to the garish ‘60s art direction, a fine arsenal (from a petite .38 Airweight with dum dum rounds to lipstick grenades and a briefcase missile launcher), as well as remarkably sophisticated AI. Monolith wraps it all up in endlessly inventive level design and writing so consistently hilarious that it created its own genre—the comedy FPS—and hasn’t been outdone since. If only there was an easy way to download it on digital platforms today.
Metro Exodus trades the claustrophobic Moscow subway tunnels of Metro 2033 and Metro: Last Light for a mix of open and linear environments across an unexpectedly lush, living Russia. It's still the same shooter at its core, though, with horrific enemies, boisterous comrades, loud, crappy guns, and the best Eastern European post-apocalypse this side of Stalker. But what really makes it work is its heart. The men and women you travel with are as rough and rugged as they come, but they have a genuine love for one another that transcends the rote camaraderie of most shooters, and one of the game's most memorable moments isn't an action sequence (although there are plenty of those) but a mournful, introspective wedding song about the loss of innocence during a time of war.
2033 and Last Light are smaller and much more linear than Exodus, but their portrayals of a slow, stoic struggle to survive in a genuinely awful wasteland are still well worth playing too.
Release date: 2020
Developer: Crowbar Collective
Half-Life: Alyx's level designer only played around five hours of the original Half-Life before dropping it for fan remake Black Mesa instead. And for good reason. What started as a mod homage to the original game blossomed (very slowly) over 15 years into a full blown reinterpretation. Built in Source, Half-Life 2's familiar physics make for more complex puzzles and explosive combat at a much larger scale. The early chapters of Black Mesa actually feel like the world-rending, panicked disaster the low-poly original was gunning for. It's a goddamn nightmare, and that's all before getting to Xen, a total reimagining of Half-Life's worst bits. Xen is practically its own game now. Using the long jump module to fly around lush alien rainforests and through Vortigaunt labor camps is thrilling, tragic, and awe-inspiring. Xen feels truly alien, and fully integrated with the greater Half-Life mythos. It's as creative and surprising as anything Valve would make themselves. Black Mesa is canon.
Release Date: 2007
Developer: Irrational Games
BioShock's greatest asset is its setting, and what Rapture provides from its ruined eden are enemies that are hysterical, tragic figures. One encounter with a Splicer or a Big Daddy can arc from curiosity, to sympathy, and then swing into full-on fear and violent panic. One of the best things Irrational does is imbue its monsters with terrifying sound design: the psychotic speech of Splicers, the fog horn drone and steel steps of the Big Daddies. The claustrophobia and anxiety Rapture throws at you gives you permission to fight recklessly, tooth-and-nail with powerful plasmids and upgraded shotguns as a way of getting revenge on the horrors that haunt you.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat
What’s most refreshing about Pripyat is how much trust it puts in you to figure out its brutal setting yourself. In The Zone, standing next to the wrong pond might be all it takes to kill you—it’s the genre’s capital city of death, populated with zombies that carry guns, invisible humanoid Cthulhus, and horrifying walls of energy that emanate “nope” in a mile-wide radius. It’s a game blissfully low of exposition and hand-holding, making each time you escape alive feel earned. GSC’s compromises between realism and playability are smart, and excellent ballistics modeling and tracer effects bullet make for gritty firefights. It only improves with mods.
You don't have to be a fan of Hexen to enjoy pinning enemies to walls with spikes hurled from a morningstar. Amid Evil is a throwback to certain FPS classics, but not a nostalgia trip—its low-fi temples, absurd bosses (the space worm fight is something else), and mythical weapons are all great in their own right. The hard mode is just about perfect as far as FPS difficulty levels go: fast and challenging, but never hopeless, especially because you can go super saiyan when you collect enough soul juice.
Release date: 2005
F.E.A.R.’s supernatural encounters are somewhat segregated from its shootouts. One moment you’re a time-slowing, slide-kicking SWAT superman, the next corridor you’re peeing your pants because an eight-year-old ghost is lurking in your hallway. That pacing empowers and scares you, a feat for games that combine action and horror. The creepiness that permeates everything works with F.E.A.R.’s outstanding weapon design, clever enemy pathfinding, and dimly-lit offices that are simultaneously unsettling and cathartic to blow apart in slow motion.
Release date: 2016
The satanic first-person time attack game does nothing to explain itself, dropping you into a flat hellplane where you stave off waves of demons of increasing number and difficulty. It initially comes off as a stylish ode to ‘90s FPS games and arcade shooters like Robotron or Geometry Wars, but unlike those games, Devil Daggers isn’t intent on leaving you smiling. It’s bleak in its presentation and unforgiving in its play. One hit from a stray demon, and it’s over. Even surviving a minute is quite the testament.
Because Devil Daggers concentrates so intently on spatial awareness and aim, it can leverage every aspect of its design in crucial ways. For example, since the first-person perspective means you can’t see what’s behind you, learning specific demon sounds and relating their position to where you hear them is a skill essential to success. A single run can take anywhere from five seconds to five minutes (if you’re a god), which is a short enough cycle to learn how specific demons behave, how firing modes affect mobility, spawn patterns—it’s the kind of game that you can see the shape of within a minute of play, but one that hides a ton of depth in its focused design.
Devil Daggers may not have an explosive campaign or a cutthroat multiplayer mode or a huge arsenal of fun weapons, but it embodies what makes shooters so great in a dense package: Pointing and clicking demon skulls out of existence.
Release date: 2020
There's a big barrier to entry since it's VR-only, but despite only having three guns to choose from Half-Life: Alyx is an exciting and at many times utterly frantic shooter. As headcrabs scuttle, zombies lurch, and antlions charge, you'll have to physically pop fresh clips into your pistol and jam shells into your shotgun—sometimes in near-complete darkness. Learning to perform the actions smoothly takes time, and they're put to the test regularly as swarms of monsters and Combine soldiers come at you from all sides. Weapons are upgradable so you can eventually add a grenade launcher to your shottie and a hefty magazine expansion to your pulse pistol for expelling long bursts of fire—positively cathartic after being careful with your ammo in the early sections of the game.
From claustrophobic horror-filled tunnels and basements to the wide-ranging firefights on the surface, Alyx is a heart-pounding and (if your hands didn't both have controllers in them) nail-biting experience. With its extremely likable characters (including Alyx herself, of course), new enemy types and old favorites, and an absolutely gorgeous setting and intriguing story, Alyx is an excellent blend of the joys of earlier Half-Life games and the intricacies of VR.
Wolfenstein: The New Order
Release date: 2014
This big, silly revival of Wolfenstein has inventive level design, a daft but entertaining story based on an alternate WWII history, and guns that feel amazing to fire. It also made dual-wielding an exciting idea for the first time in about a decade. You battle boilerplate robo-dogs, you fight Nazis on the Moon.
The feel of the machine guns and shotguns is spot-on. The former Starbreeze leads who formed MachineGames reinterpreted Wolfenstein in a way that made it exciting and new both for the series’ existing audience and for those gamers coming in fresh. This big, chunky shooter is so much more than just a retro pastiche, offering variety and production values you rarely get to enjoy in singleplayer games these days. The sequel is good, but we prefer this game—play it first.
Doom and Doom 2
Release date: 1993
Developer: id Software
Wolfenstein 3D preceded it by a year, but Doom is in the DNA of everything here. It’s the progenitor of moving, aiming, and shooting things that hate your health bar in a 3D environment. Hunting for access cards and thumbing walls with spacebar doesn’t have the appeal today that it did in 1993, but Carmack’s technical feats (like creating height differences in a 3D environment, a totally new concept at the time) and well-animated sprites help Doom hold up as an agile, colorful, essential shooter that happens to be the foundation for every other game here.
Doom and Doom 2 have also been elevated by the modding community. More than 20 years later, they’re still going strong. You’ll find new weapons, new campaigns and total conversions that let you be everything from a pirate to a cartoon square. Even John Romero is still releasing maps.
Release date: 2020
Developer: id Software
This one's for all the extreme pointers and clickers out there. We recommend Doom 2016 as a warmup, an introduction to the faster pace and health-giving systems like Glory Kills that encourage aggressive, reckless play. Because Doom Eternal moves much faster, with added mobility like the dash and the ability to swing from monkey bars, and it squeezes every vital resource with an iron grip. Health, armor, and ammo deplete faster than ever—arenas are bigger and filled with more demons overall—making for a more desperate, stressful shooter than the series' past. It's a sweatfest, one that tasks you with juggling eight guns, their multiple alternate firing modes, a chainsaw, a sword, a flamethrower, grenades, Glory Kills, Demon Punches, dashes, and more, some of which are the only means of returning those vital resources to you. You're constantly riding the edge of death, bouncing in and out of the action to get shots in and stock back up on whatever resource is hurting the most, hopefully, before it's too late.
And that's all before Eternal introduces melee enemies that force you to completely reconfigure age-old shooter habits into something like a reserved Dark Souls in the middle of a traditional arena hellstorm. It's a lot. A lot of a good thing.
The Signal From Tölva
Release date: 2017
Developer: Big Robot
This deliberately slow-paced and engaging FPS has shades of Stalker with a gorgeous sci-fi open world that's based on concept illustrations by former Rockstar artist Ian McQue. You hijack a surveyor drone, investigating the signal in the title, and fend off other robot factions as you explore the planet's surface.
Later in the game you get to command other surveyors, too, who can help you in combat. The unusual and memorable setting, combined with great sounding and feeling guns, makes this one of the more notable recent cult hits on Steam.
Co-op FPS games
You don't necessarily have to play all these games with a group, but they're better that way. Buy a copy with a friend—or maybe 20 friends depending on the game—and do a bit of bonding by graciously showing them where bottles of pills are and yelling at them when the bullheadedly dash into the next room before you're ready.
Halo: The Master Chief Collection
Release Date: 2019-2020
Developer: 343 Industries, Splash Damage, Ruffian Games, Bungie, Saber Interactive
There's a good reason to play every Halo game, whether it's 5 or 10 or 20 years old. That reason differs from game-to-game, though there's still nothing else in the FPS world quite like Halo's big, sandboxy levels. But each has a unique draw: in Halo 1 it's the pistol, a sublimely overpowered hand cannon and more-or-less the only weapon you need in multiplayer. And multiplayer itself is still really fun, a throwback to the LAN days of hour-long CTF matches and ridiculous vehicle physics. In Halo Reach, the 4-player co-op campaign and wave-based survival mode Firefight are perfect with friends.
Thankfully, Microsoft made the wonderful decision to bring the MCC to PC, where they'll be playable and moddable for years to come. With Halo 4 added toward the end of 2020, the full collection is finally complete on PC. But that doesn't mean 343 is done improving the package. The studio is still adding maps and quality-of-life features like crossplay with PC and Xbox.
Deep Rock Galactic
Deep Rock Galactic is what happens if Left 4 Dead's zombies were giant bugs and its maps were fully destructible playgrounds. As professional mining dwarves armed to the teeth, up to four players delve deep into procedurally generated caverns to complete all sorts of mission types. Sometimes you're mining for a specific mineral, other times you're building pump networks, but all the while the looming threat of bug hordes persists. Maybe the most surprising part of Deep Rock is how good the guns feel and how well the four classes synergize together. Bug carcasses audibly crunch under the impact of my Engineer's shotgun and bugs scream as they're lit ablaze by the Driller's flamethrower.
Procedurally generated games have a habit of feeling samey after a while, but Deep Rock is the rare exception. With a healthy variety of mission types, no shortage of goals to work toward (new weapons, perks, abilities), and more post-release support in the works, it's a shining example of how to do co-op shooters right.
Warhammer: Vermintide 2
Release date: 2018
Warhammer Fantasy is a perfect backdrop for Left 4 Dead’s ideas, as it turns out. Vermintide 2 is a fully cooperative FPS where you and three friends axe, arrow, magic, and sword your way through a variety of Warhammer baddies. The sequel ramps things up significantly from the 2015 original with more weapon types, enemies, and a new progression system centered around fairly generous loot boxes. It's intensely satisfying melee combat on a scale you just can't get anywhere else, especially in the comfort of a four-person party with friends.
Release date: 2013
Developer: Bohemia Interactive
Arma 3 is about scale and detail together: it’s not just a snapshot of a battle, it’s the whole thing. It’s the realistic reloading, the helicopters that almost require real-life helicopter pilots to control them, and the damage you sustain from taking an enemy shot. No other first-person shooter offers a simulation on this level, with such high production values.
Bohemia has built on Arma 3 with the excellent Apex expansion, too, which adds Tanoa, 100km2 of gorgeous tropical landscape to navigate. It was one of Evan's personal favorites of 2016, and Andy Kelly even created his own Olympics-style events in Apex using Arma 3's Zeus mode. It's an essential add-on.
You can even drive go-karts in Arma 3 at this point. What's not to love?
Release date: 2017
Bungie proved its talent for weapon and encounter design in the Halo series, but Destiny 2 fits those guns into a dazzling new sci-fi setting with RPG elements and a strong reliance on fighting for fresh loot. The community has struggled to get on board with Destiny 2's new seasonal structure, but if you're a new player there are hundreds of hours of great missions, much of which you can access for free.
Competitive PvP is fairly decent, but Destiny 2's very best missions ask six players to come together in meticulously designed raids—part puzzles, part shooting challenges. As you earn power levels, you earn a huge collection of beautiful sci-fi guns, many with pages of backstory attached. Destiny 2 still needs to prove itself as a long term prospect as a living game for really devoted hobbyists but, moment to moment, it's a beautifully designed FPS that still feels amazing a thousand hours in. We've should know; several PC Gamer staffers have spent more time than that shooting aliens across the solar system.
Release Date: 2005
Developer: Irrational Games
Enemies aren’t enemies in SWAT 4—they’re suspects, and they’re innocent until they try something stupid. Unlearning your instinct to shoot first is an initially uncomfortable but ultimately rewarding experience in SWAT 4 because it’s one that demands playing deliberately—dealing with civilians commingled with bad guys takes coordination in a way that’s comparable to Arma. That’s doubly-true in SWAT’s five-man co-op, where the mechanics for gathering information (like a fiber-optic camera), securing rooms, and breaking down doors come to life when paired with voice communication.
SWAT 4 is finally available digitally, too, after a wait of years. You can pick it up for a reasonable price from GOG.com and play it on Windows 10 right now. To celebrate its re-release, Andy took another look at it in 2017.
Release date: 2012
Developer: Gearbox Studios
With the ideas that drove its predecessor validated by strong sales, Gearbox had the resources to pour production value into the second coming of its silly, more-is-more approach to a grindy FPS. Yes, there are a hojillion guns, but we’re more enamored with the way BL2 embraces its colorful, sci-fi setting to create unconventional enemy designs. Bandits scream, limp, kamikaze, and sputter last words. The Goliath subverts your years of training, counter-intuitively going into Hulk mode when you headshot it. Mutated pests swoop, leap, burrow, and shield their vulnerable spots. Polished, playful, and our favorite antidote to military shooters that take themselves too seriously.
Borderlands 3 may be newer and shinier, but we preferred the romp across Pandora in Borderlands 2, and it has the advantages of being cheaper and playable on any modern PC.
Release date: 1999
Developer: Sven Co-op Team
If the original Half-Life was a network of bizarre TV shows that you could channel surf between, it’d look like Sven Co-op. The years-long effort of a group of modders, Sven is 32-player cooperative Half-Life played on dozens of crazy, homemade maps. With the right group of friends, it’s a calamitous and hilarious mashup of Half-Life’s blocky cast of monsters, scientists, and security inside ever-stranger worlds. One .BSP, you’re inside a technicolor playground populated by Teletubbies, another you’re in a Mega Man homage, a secret military base, or Egyptian pyramids where you throw grenades at Anubis himself. Download an assortment of weird maps, hop in Discord with five or six of your buddies, and lose yourself in hours of retro-weirdness, laughter, and awkward platforming.
Release date: 2018
Developer: New World Interactive
An outstanding co-op FPS for blasting waves of bots, Insurgency's mission structure produces a ton of tension. Everyone on your team has a single life, but dead teammates respawn if an objective gets completed. This setup creates some brutal indoor defenses where two or three remaining players cover doorways as seconds tick down, trying to pick the right moment to reload without getting caught with an empty rifle. A points-based gun customization system allows for genuinely different playstyles, and Insurgency's spasmodic bot AI makes enemy soldiers easy in some moments, but unpredictably deadly at others. Alongside the great Killing Floor 2, this is the best wave-based cooperative FPS you can play.
Left 4 Dead 2
Release date: 2009
It’s insane how much mod meat has grown around the bones of Valve’s co-op shooter. Twelve years later, L4D2 remains an overflowing fountain of free content. Forget the stock characters (although, how could you?): Download skins and play as The Joker, Princess Zelda, and a bipedal velociraptor. Skip Valve’s campaigns: fight zombies in Helm’s Deep, in a meticulous 12-map recreation of Silent Hill, in levels from GoldenEye or as you and your survivor mates try to build and launch a rocket.
Competitive FPS games
The original Doom was a vital multiplayer game, but the campaign is what gets the focus today. So while many of the games on this list have some sort of multiplayer component, these are the games we specifically recommend for the competitive type that cares about the best mouse DPI.
Release Date: 2019
Developer: Respawn Entertainment
Titanfall 2 never really took off in the way it deserved to, so what a pleasant surprise for Respawn to release this battle royale game out of nowhere, and suddenly find a massive, willing audience. It incorporates a lot of what we love about the Respawn/Infinity Ward lineage of shooters, particularly the character movement and excellent guns. Its innovative ping system lets even shy players enjoy being part of a three-player team, and it earned an enormous 93% in our review, boasting a great, ever-expanding roster of heroes.
Rainbow Six Siege
Release date: 2015
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
A worthy successor to Counter-Strike that’s less about milliseconds and motor skills and more about patience, scouting, and blowing big holes in anything in your way. Siege is a five-on-five, attack-and-defend, competitive FPS with a short clock, relatively small maps, and a high-fidelity destruction system that rewards using your eyes and ears to determine where an enemy is. Each team is built from a growing roster of operators, each of which brings a different gadget, but despite these equipment gimmicks the focus is still squarely on tactical execution. You’re often fighting to control just one room, using gear and angles to take or protect the objective.
Although you may experience a hacker or two in ranked play, Ubisoft has generally done a terrific job of supporting the game so far, rolling out significant updates that have added new operators, maps, and addressed feedback from the community. Overall, we love the way that Siege’s systems (destruction, barricading, drones, cameras, deployable shields, and more) create a deliberate style of play.
Call of Duty: Warzone
Release date: 2020
Link: Official site
Call of Duty: Warzone accomplishes the challenging task of translating CoD’s traditionally frantic, close-quarters combat into a 150-player battle royale. Its first map, Verdansk, is a murderous wonderland of factories and skyscrapers flanked by steep mountains. Even better is Warzone’s simplified looting that ditches backpacks and lets you call in custom loadouts. A smaller emphasis on looting shifts the focus to twitch shooting skill, which is a refreshing change of pace for the genre. We also love the Gulag, a 1v1 fight club that gives every player a chance to earn a second life. As a standalone game, Activision is committed to keeping Warzone fresh with content for months to come.
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive
Release Date: 2012
Developer: Valve / Hidden Path Entertainment
The grandchild game has fully replaced CS’ parents at PC Gamer. Thousands of maps have been created by the community since GO added Steam Workshop support, and we’ve been playing non-stop since then. Those maps, and GO’s willingness to bend CS’ sacred aspects (like adding a set of stairs beneath the underpass on de_dust, or making a wider set of the weapons viable) have reinvigorated our interest in the series.
Updated shaders, animations, and player models provided a face-lift to Counter-Strike: Source, and the new guns (especially the magazine-fed MAG-7 shotgun) have grown on us. At some point, Demolition mode became our favorite way to play GO—its five-on-five, best-of-20-rounds format inside compact maps turns it into a concentrated, casually-competitive form of CS. Hardcore players of earlier versions will obviously stick to what they love, but it makes the most sense for new CS players to jump into CS:GO.
Release Date: 2017
Developer: Bluehole, Inc
The format of PUBG is so easy to grasp that it's no surprise it's sold millions of copies in Early Access. Players land on an 8x8km island and scavenge for guns, tools and other items in a large-scale battle royale, as the safe zone of the environment shrinks across the course of the game. Even in defeat, PUBG produces gritty stories of gunfights gone wrong or tall tales of vehicular stunts, mixing silliness with seriousness.
PUBG has added first-person-only servers in a recent update, and it's changed the game for the better. What was already a tense experience of hiding, spotting and ambushing is made more nerve-racking without the option to look around corners or get a better perspective of your surroundings with a third-person camera.
Release date: 2016
While similar to Team Fortress 2, Overwatch is far more generous. Some characters have a high skill ceiling, but Overwatch works hard to make you feel good whatever your skill is. Several characters can heal on their own, and one just effuses health to everyone around him. Others can make themselves invulnerable, or fly out of danger. ‘Eliminations’ flash across your screen whether or not you got the last hit, and even players of lesser skill have the opportunity to lay down an ultimate at the right time and be honored with a four-elimination ‘play of the game.’ It gives you chance after chance to be the hero your team needs, or at least score one clutch elimination.
With a colorful, friendly design and cheerfully dumb characters, Overwatch has an absurd 30 million+ registered players across all platforms. It doesn't have quite the same energy as it did a few years ago, when each new character reveal was a massive event, but Overwatch remains fun, accessible, and full of life.
Team Fortress 2
Release Date: 2007
It launched with six maps, four game types, and 26 weapons divvied up between nine classes. 358 patches later, Team Fortress 2 wouldn’t recognize its former self in the mirror. Its official map list has ballooned to dozens, drawing on endless community talent. It has a cooperative, wave-based horde mode against robotic doppelgangers. The Scout can quadruple jump, and the Demoman can now be specced into a lunging, medieval melee fighter. Each Halloween has introduced a monstrous boss NPC that opposing teams can beat up on for achievements or loot. Weapons are craftable, paintable, tradable, smeltable, giftable. Rockwellian, stylized helps it ignore its years of age.
TF2 continues to be Valve’s go-to guinea pig for experimentation, and through years of surgeries it’s charted new technical and creative territory by appending everything from a video highlight system, to a free-to-play business model, to in-game contests and player-created item creation (with profit sharing) to TF2’s skeleton. It’s a miracle the game not only survived those operations, but stitched most of them in so elegantly that we now consider features like trading and holiday events as inseparable aspects of TF2’s identity. More miraculously, it’s remained a shooter that can be played competitively and casually with equal appeal—in online leagues, at a LAN with a clan, with a beer, or cooperatively in Mann vs. Machine mode. It’s an unbelievable achievement for a shooter to be so inclusive, versatile, and retain a high skill ceiling over 14 years.
Multiplayer games aren’t known for their character development, but a portion of TF2’s longevity is owed to the ridiculous lore Valve has built up around its nine classes. Merasmus, the sorcerer boss that invaded the 2012 Halloween event, is the Soldier’s ex-roommate. A series of comics explain why the red and blue-colored mercenaries you play as are fighting one another. Lightheartedness permeates everything, and the humor does nothing to undermine the meaning of scoring an air-shot with the Soldier’s rocket launcher or chain-stabbing your way through half the enemy team as a Spy. The best maps, like pl_badwater, cp_gorge, and cp_granary, have a beginning, middle, and end, and are balanced despite their size and the number of different classes and weapons they have to accommodate.
Judged on its perfect balance between accessibility and skill, its longevity, inventive mechanics, visual design, and the absurd amount of content baked into it, we’d recommend TF2 to a friend before any other shooter. It’s had a rich, surprising history, and we fully expect to be playing it until the sun runs out of hydrogen.
Whenever we sit down to make ourselves feel important by listing games, our first step is settling on what the heck “best” means. In this case, we’re mostly concerned with identifying which shooters are fun now, today. Games—3D games especially—age. They’re products of the technology they were built on, and sanctifying Battlefield 1942 over Battlefield 1, for example, doesn’t help us help you figure out what games to play. If you've got a love of Battlefield 1942, which many of us also do, you already know what makes it great, and also that it isn't the best Battlefield for a newcomer to jump into right now.
For historical significance as the primary criteria, check out our list of the most important PC games. For this list, we aren't ignoring a game’s legacy completely—innovation and influence just has a lesser weight under our criteria. We’re also laser-focused on the things that make a shooter a shooter. We consider Fallout: New Vegas, System Shock 2, and Deus Ex to be must-play experiences, but do we celebrate them because they’re great shooters, or because they’re excellent story-driven games that happen to feature guns? Drawing these kinds of lines helps us provide a better service to you. Check out our list of the best RPGs for another big batch of recommendations.
Consider this a living list (most recently updated March 2021) which we'll continue to add to from the past and present as we play new games and revisit old ones.