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Mini reviews of 4 innovative first person shooters

Video Games | Wednesday, January 25th, 2006 | 11 years, 10 months ago

Wolfenstein 3D by id Software

The great grandpa of first person shooters is historically important not only for spawning an entire genre of games and inspiring other genres to follow in suit, but for being a great game in its own rite.

This trend setter was not the first game to present the world through the eyes of the protagonist, but it was the first to do so in a fully animated fashion with 360° of freedom. The game’s “2½D” perspective (3D world, 2D sprites) plunged the gamer into a prison cell deep in the bowels of a Nazi castle with knife in hand and the body of a prison guard at his feet. Even in an age of simpler games, what further motivation is required to mow through the ranks of the third Reich? An arsenal of 4 firearms (conveniently using the same-sized bullets) with excitingly huge muzzle flashes and truly kicking aural feedback increased the gritty urgency of the experience, causing the player to gnash his teeth along with B.J.’s meaty noggin shown at the bottom of the interface in varying degrees of bloodiness.

Colourful VGA graphics and lots of digitized sounds and voices coupled with tight controls and a variety of enemies are what discern this game as a classic game for classy gamers.

Fun fact – The Wolfenstein 3D game engine was the first to be licensed to other developers.

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Final battle with General Fettgesicht ("fatface")

Doom by id Software

This is the one. The game I'm proud to call my very favourite of all time.

Doom is a superb game with insane graphics, perfectly balanced gameplay, impeccable controls, intense violence, and an incredible soundtrack. Though still a 2½D engine, Doom upped the ante by introducing multiplatformed planes (like multistory buildings and staircases), corners not limited to right angles, animated textures (like bubbling lava), quadrophonic surround (with a Gravis UltraSound audio card), and all kinds of innovations I'm sure I'm overlooking. This game's presentation was such a step up from the status quo that gaming magazines recommended Gravol to queasy players whose inner ears were fooled by the lifelike perspective.

Technical issues aside, the individual parts of this game were a wonder to behold. Character sprites were well animated, brightly coloured, and highly detailed. Level design was intricate and tricky, requiring players to find the corresponding switch or key that opened the next area. The art style was truly diabolical, depicting horrors such as skin-grafted walls, severed heads on pikes, rooms in the shape of swastikas, flickering and failing lights, and barren Martian skylines. Audio was equally frightening and foreboding, ensuring the phlegmy hiss of the cacodemon and the beastly howl of a zombified sergeant were equally as spine tingling as the silence of a long empty corridor. Last but certainly not least, the musical accompaniment was perfectly coupled to each level, upgrading the player immersion to full-on drowning suffocation in the forlorn, decaying hell of the game's martian space stations.

This game can still be purchased from major retailers and used game stores, and played in modern engines such as Doom 3 or modernized open-source engines like jDoom as well as many other handheld platforms. If you haven't played it you're missing out on video game history.

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Smiles for miles

Half-Life by Valve Software

A rarity in that it lived up to its self-inflated hype, Half-Life breathed new life into a genre rife with second-rate Doom clones.

It did so by awarding a persona and context to the protagonist, Gordon Freeman, the John Everyman of M.I.T. PhDs of Theoretical Physics. In a bold move, the game's introduction trapped the player in an autopiloted tram, slowly cruising through the Black Mesa science complex, simultaneously showing off the game's artful customizations of the Quake 2 engine while hinting that a world exists outside the player and his soon-to-be-acquired guns. That's what Half-Life brought to the table - a cohesive universe where battles were dynamic, and even scripted events were convincingly presented as unlikely coincidencesces. Part of the game's immersion can be attributed to the fact that there are no cinematic cut-scenes per se; story sequences were presented through Gordon's eyes in real time just like the rest of the game.

The story, while strong, does not overshadow the stellar gunplay. Half-Life was truly a thinking player's shooter - a chess of shooters if you will - requiring strategy, trickery, diversion, and improvisation to overcome the game's deadly arenas. In fact, on-the-fly thinking was required when replaying the same battle after repeated quickloads. The variety of foes terrific, keeping the player guessing who is friend or foe, and who is crucial or expendable. Typically dreaded jumping puzzles were actually a treat in this game, thanks to a great control scheme with a few new moves. Weapons were punchy and fun as well, with some twists like a laser-guided rocket launcher, and some innovations such as an arsenal of flesh-eating xenobugs.

It may seem a "me-too" shooter on the surface - a total conversion of a then-aging engine - but Half-Life introduced enough original twists that it truly stands in a class all its own.

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"I think I'm gonna need a bigger crowbar..."

No One Lives Forever 2 by Monolith Productions

The successor to many publications' "Game of the Year" and a real looker, NOLF2's tongue-in-cheek writing proved the genre's flexibility once again.

The original NOLF excelled not only in execution as a FPS title, but also in its mood, style, and witty dialogue. This sequel improved on the original in nearly every way with a breathtaking new game engine, lavish mod-style art motif, still-unsurpassed creativity in level design, and tons more hilarious banter by the game's roster of kooky characters. NPC actor and level design were particular shining points, sporting very fine detail with lifelike qualities and memorable uniqueness - what other game dares stage a boss battle in a tornado-borne trailer that flakes apart in real time, or a chase through the alleyways of Paris on the shoulders of a tricycle-riding Scotsman while pursuing a malcontent mime midget?

The game also introduced some gameplay improvements not so immediately apparent from the surface. In RPG style, skill points accumulated as objectives were completed and hidden items were found, which could be spent on any of the protagonist's numerous attributes. While this enabled the game to be played in a variety of ways (with force or with stealth, for example), it was a little strange that a spy should improve her abilities tenfold on a typical mission. Also, non-combat sequences, such as investigating the run-down Ohio home of a double agent, succeed in keeping the game varied and fresh.

A plethora of incremental improvements preserve this shooter's place in my innovative FPS hall of fame.

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A stealthy kill with shuriken yields ninja intelligence

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