Whenever a new first-person shooter releases, we pick up our conversation around PC Gamer HQ about what video game guns we love most. How did Far Cry 3’s bow compare to Crysis 3’s? Which game has the best Magnum-style revolver in a game? We’re continually interested in the design of the ballistic and energy weapons we bring into shooters—the mechanics they’re imbued with and the particle effects and animations that express their personalities.
As celebration of the inventive designs and as a representation of our collective tastes, we’ve assembled a list of the best video game guns. See the criteria list below to get a sense of how we judged; if your favorite rifle or SMG isn’t here, lobby for it in the comments. We’ll update this list over time as we encounter guns we like in new FPSes, or as we revisit old games that spark new opinions.
• How fun the gun is to use today is weighted higher than its historical impact (both of which are weighted higher than nostalgia). Rocket jumping grew popular in Quake, but if we were to recognize Quake’s rocket launcher as one of the best guns ever, are we celebrating how fun the gun is to use or just its cultural significance?
• Aesthetic considerations: firing animation, reload animation, death animations, muzzle flash, texture quality, sound design• Must be a weapon: the Gravity Gun (Half-Life 2) and the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device (Portal) are gun-shaped devices that we love, but in the interest comparing apples to apples we’ve excluded them from consideration
10 - Stake Gun (Painkiller)
Painkiller’s primitive level and enemy design establish it as a dead-simple shooter, but the Stake Gun’s spot on our list is owed in large part to the slapstick death animations it triggers. Each enemy is an opportunity for morbid gymnastics. Clipping a ghoul in the ankle might cartwheel it head-over-heels; a monster impaled near a wall is sent accelerating backward, stapling it against the surface; some body shots simply deconstruct the enemy into a pile of gore.
It’s a slow-firing, lightly curving projectile, and shooting it while side-strafing occasionally makes you feel like psychic Robin Hood. The reload animation is terrific, too: the release tray flexes backward, and you hear the sound of a door locking as a new stake curls around the right side of the gun.
9 - Stickybomb Launcher (Team Fortress 2)
It’s a trampoline. It’s a trap-setter. It’s a slingshot for air-detonatable, spherical C4. Among TF2’s dozens of weapons, the Demoman’s default is our favorite for the creative play it facilitates. Its various balancing limitations (a maximum of eight active bombs; a 0.92-second arming time for each bomb; a charge mechanic that determines shot velocity; a slow, one-bomb-at-a-time reload) means it takes restraint to operate. But in the hands of a patient player, it’s a devastating deterrent that can make opponents avoid bottlenecks completely to avoid getting blasted.
Scoring airshots with it is an act of 3D algebra on par with Tribes, but we particularly cherish the moments where we’ve mined a capture point, ran away, spotted the enemy’s colors overtaking the abandoned point on our HUD, and then blindly blown our stack to trigger a multi-kill.
8 - Zed Eradication Device (Killing Floor)
This insane, sci-fi Swiss Army knife comes courtesy of the gunsmiths at Tripwire. Originally designed for an adversarial game mode that was cut from Killing Floor where one player would control zeds, Tripwire President John Gibson says “the model and the animations sat around for a couple of years before we resurrected them.” The Z.E.D. was recently added as part of Killing Floor’s 2012 Twisted Christmas event—to unlock the ability to buy it from the weapon trader, players had to collect 16 weapon pieces on a low-grav Moon Base filled with murderous gingerbread men and other conscripted holiday horrors.
It’s a compliment to say that the Z.E.D.’s over-the-top design wouldn’t be out of place in Unreal Tournament: it’s an Alien-style motion tracker attached to a plasma rifle on top of a stasis beam on alternate fire that’s evocative of the Proton Pack in Ghostbusters. The firing spread of the plasma bolts is just inaccurate enough to feel satisfyingly messy, and a laser sight paints a green bead on Killing Floor’s monstrosities.
7 - Particle Cannon (Wolfenstein 2009)
We like to believe that the Particle Cannon is actually just a firehose hooked up to the Ark of the Covenant. The gun feels like a faucet for liquified, otherworldly power, a theme throughout Wolfenstein, and it’s a great example of the fun that can arise when a single-player shooter hands you something overpowered.
After a short spin-up time, a zig-zagging splurt of unholy turquoise flicks out of the barrel, cueing a banshee screech. A lot of the fun is owed to Raven’s expressive death animations: even a splash of PC energy dissolves Nazis instantly, and without interrupting their momentum.
6 - AWP (Counter-Strike)
Counter-Strike doesn’t have a story, but it does have a villain. The AWP is the grim reaper of Valve’s shooter series, the only gun in the game that can eliminate you with a single body shot. No weapon has maintained the social stigma that the AWP has, but it isn’t just its reputation that brings the AWP onto this list (if it were, the damned G3 SG/1 autosniper would be too). Aurally the AWP stands out among all other sounds in Counter-Strike, a nail-in-the-coffin thud that echoes for a second and a half. Arguably no other weapon alters player behavior as significantly as the AWP does based on it sound; it’s a reminder of what an achievement it is to create something that feels powerful every time you pick it up but without unbalancing a multiplayer game.
The AWP has long been a lightning rod for “camper!” accusations, but it’s by no means an easy gun to operate. Because its accuracy gets inconsistent as soon as you start to move, being a great AWPer demands reflexes, discipline, and intuition. Learning to snap-fire with the AWP and use it outside areas that suit sniping are two of Counter-Strike’s toughest skills.
5 - Fusion Mortar (Tribes: Ascend)
Parabolic-firing guns fill a special space between luck and skill. In a game, using an indirect-fire weapon usually means your shot is traveling for a longer amount of time than something shot from a rifle. Inside the airtime between firing and impact is the same pleasure and uncertainty we experience when admiring a three-point shot in basketball.
There are plenty of grenade launcher and mortar-style weapons in gaming, but the Fusion Mortar is our favorite because Tribes’ high-speed player movement raises the skill required to operate it. Splattering the flag carrier in Tribes takes a ton of intuition and spatial awareness and an ability to read terrain. And when the the shell hits, it splashes like the Incredible Hulk cannonballing into a swimming pool full of Ecto Cooler.
4 - Bastard (Metro 2033 / Metro: Last Light)
The Bastard earns our praise mostly on the merits of its visual design. It eats ammunition like a death typewriter, chewing horizontally through 5.45x39mm rounds stacked into an open magazine. In a game where ammo and money are one in the same, it’s so clever to be handed a gun that makes you watch your bank account empty as you fire it.
Even outside Metro’s economic conceit, it’s a compact, elegantly cobbled-together apocalypse rifle, built like a STEN or an WWII SMG that’s been shot out of four or five owners’ hands and modified along the way before finding its way to you. It’s pornographic against the odds of its rusty setting.
3 - HV Penetrator (F.E.A.R.)
The Penetrator can be seen as the automatic cousin of the Stake Gun: it’s a bolt-firing rifle that staples grunts to the environment. The killing shot donates its momentum to soft targets, sending them accelerating to the nearest surface, and that includes ceilings and floors. But F.E.A.R.’s terrific ragdoll, tough AI, and slow-mo mechanic make it the perfect conduit for all the Alma-induced stress the game throws at you. It feels like firing a Tommygun filled with rebar.
2 - Railgun (Quake III)
Like Quake Tres itself, the Railgun represents competitive FPS in its purest form. If we stripped it of its already modest aesthetics (a hair-thin particle effect and a minimal animation that signifies that the Rail is ready to fire again), we get a gun that’s the essence of marksmanship: connecting a line with a point. It’s an infallible beam weapon that shoots perfectly straight at infinite speed and deals 100 damage 100 percent of the time. The only variable in play is the skill of the player wielding it.
Outside its context, the Railgun probably wouldn’t be as interesting: it’s basically a hitscan, scopeless sniper rifle. But Quake III’s level layouts (firing it in Q3DM17 feels like skeet shooting), its carefully-set sight lines, and players’ speedy movement all reinforce its role as the ultimate twitch rifle. Wielding it applies an immediate pressure to be accurate and thread the needle.
1 - Flak Cannon (Unreal Tournament)
Bulky, barrelless, and painted in hard hat yellow, the Flak Cannon looks like a sci-fi construction tool. When you pick it up, there’s a high-pitched squeal of servos and machinery waking up. Each shot animates a piston that feeds a new shell into the chamber, and the spherical shells it fires, each the size of a personal pizza, actually have a smiley face stamped to the front.
The Flak Cannon is practical and absurd, and it’s the most fun gun we’ve ever shot. On Mouse 1, it kicks a spread of shrapnel nuggets that ricochet off hard surfaces but dig into opponents like shuriken thrown at cake. The polygonal flak particles are big enough to see individually, making each shot a source of honest feedback. When flak leaves the cannon, it glows molten then dissipates slightly as the particles cool, an effect that conveys that you’re putting something hot and lethal in the air. Imagine how fun skeet shooting would be if you could see each individual, glowing pellet traveling downrange, and iterate your shots based on that information. Tiny variations in the way the flak spreads feel just irregular enough to create feelings of surprise, like misting another player when you catch them with every particle at medium range.
The Flak Cannon is also our favorite example of secondary fire ever, with the parabolically-flung bomb on Mouse 2 being a perfect complement to the shotgun spread of the primary fire. It’s a gun that suits the level design of UT ‘99, working perfectly in short corridors and usually well when you have the high ground. Flak Cannon duels feel like tennis, with both players doing frantic footwork as they trade volleys.
Here's the whole list—when we make changes, we'll note them here.