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.
Release date: 2013
Developer: Tripwire Interactive
Rising Storm makes the act of putting bits of metal into men authentic with its fidelity, believable ballistics, and detailed damage modeling. It’s the only shooter we’ve played that conveys war’s ruthlessness, and as a result every kill feels earned through some combination of intuition, patience, and marksmanship. Tripwire’s rendition of the Pacific includes a set of diverse, island, beach, and jungle maps that each produce gritty, hard-won battles for territory and facilitate a feeling of freedom in a 64-player-sized battlefield.
If you want a more contemporary shooter with a higher playerbase, this year's Rising Storm 2: Vietnam is a fine follow-up, though the original just about has the edge for us.
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.
A brilliantly accurate sniper or perfect mid-air rocket intercept can certainly shift control of a point or payload, but Overwatch also heavily rewards team synergy, communication, timing, and map awareness. An excellent Symmetra, for instance, can spend all her time popping turrets into dark corners and putting down her teleporter and be an instrumental part of the team. Meanwhile, a speedy, warping Tracer can make a Symmetra’s life hell. There’s a counter to everyone and a huge number of playstyles are supported.
With a colorful, friendly design and cheerfully dumb characters, Overwatch has an absurd 30 million+ registered players across all platforms. The reveal of new heroes has become a massive event with weeks of build-up—few modern games generate this much attention, over a year after release. Even when its flaws nip us too hard and we quit grumpy that Mei can block a capture at the last second with a press of Q, we’re happy to have a game that’s brought our friends together as thoroughly as Team Fortress 2 did when it launched.
Unreal Tournament 2K4
Release date: 2004
Developer: Epic Games
There are lots of Unreals to choose from—including the new, crowd-developed Unreal Tournament—but UT2K4 is still our office favorite. We still enjoy playing instagib now and then, shocking ourselves with our own motor control, dancing around each other in extended duels until one of us connects. It's fast and loaded with fun guns—the Flak Cannon being one of the best of all time—and you can still find a populated server if you go looking. It's worth it.
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive
Release Date: 2012
Developer: Valve / Hidden Path Entertainment
The grandchild game has fully replaced CS’ parents at PC Gamer. 1,500 maps have been created by the community since GO added Steam Workshop support in February, 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.
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 six 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 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 amount 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.