The First Person Shooter is one of the leading genres in video games today, with games like Call of Duty and Halo having bigger releases than movies like The Dark Knight and Harry Potter. The genre has evolved tremendously since 1996 when Duke Nukem 3D released, and has left one of the milestones of the genre far behind.
FPS games were first popularized in 1992 with the launch of Wolfenstein 3D, or Wolf. Gamers played as a grizzled American POW battling his way through a Nazi fortress, facing guard dogs and Gestapo alike, ending in a gunbattle with Hitler in a robot suit, carrying two machine guns.
The extravagant tone of that first game defined the genre, and the race to be bigger and better is one of the reasons why the genre could be headed for some serious problems, as developers start to run out of spectacle.
In 1993 though, getting bigger was no problem at all, and Doom’s release added a lot of technical polish to Wolf. The real revolution though was in the adding of a mode they called ‘deathmatch’, a term that became so popular that today every FPS ships with a deathmatch mode.
In this game type, instead of gunning down the computer enemies that were incredibly limited in their intelligence, you could face off against other gamers and a strong community built around the game.
Duke Nukem 3D released in 1996, and was the last of the sprite based greats. The game had an offbeat sense of humor, glorying in and mocking at Americana all at once. So for example, the game ended in a pitched duel that took place on a football field, with cheerleaders of course!
A few months after Duke, Quake released, and the landscape shifted immediately. Games had been in mock 3D, with sprites that could be viewed from a few limited angles only, but Quake was the first game with 3D, polygon based, visuals instead.
Half Life then released in 1998, and brought in a sudden revolution. The era of the smart shooter had begun. There was a coherent story, and the enemies weren’t going to stand and shoot at you until they died. Instead, they took cover, worked in teams and generally made life miserable. Already, Duke’s world seemed dated, and this was one of the many reasons why the series was delayed, as it tried to play catch up.
Also, in 1999 Unreal Tournament and Counter Strike released. The two were multi-player arena shooters, where groups of people would connect their computers and play against each other. While Unreal carried on in the tradition of the testosterone drenched space marine with implausible weapons, Counter Strike gave us a pitched battle between military and terrorist forces, using real guns.
These two schools of thoughts continue even today, with the leading franchises of Gears of War and Call of Duty having a similar divide, but before either of those came, one more game was due, and it changed everything.
In 2000, the first Halo game was released, and not only was this game the most successful FPS on a video game console, it also brought changes which have stuck to the genre. Halo made it near mandatory to have large spaces where players could approach the enemy in a variety of ways, allowing more tactical play. They successfully integrated vehicle segments and then went and made them completely optional, which added a lot of variety to the game. Most important, they took away the health bar, and introduced the concept of regenerating health—take a beating too quickly and you’re dead, but if you can back off, you’ll get better.
These changes prompted far more tactical play, and faster, more enjoyable sessions, and the imprint of Halo is still visible on every game today, including Duke Nukem Forever. And while Duke tried to borrow from every game that followed it in 1996, the net result was a game that has been left behind by the evolution of the genre.
The timeline of FPS games:
Inventing the Genre - Wolf 3D (1992)
Deathmatches - Doom (1993)
3D objects - Quake (1996)
Smart AI, Story - Half Life (1998)
Multiplayer - Unreal Tournament/Counter Strike (1999)
Console, vehicle, wide maps, regenerating health - Halo (2000)
Cover shooter, tactical play - Gears of War (2006)
Brilliant scripting, smart AI, amazing spectacle - Modern Warfare (2007)