This year has been a fine vintage for first-person shooters. We've seen a wide variety of games, each uniquely excellent in its own way. I thought I'd take a look at the very best ones and discuss how each one brings something different to the table.
Plants Vs Zombies: Garden Warfare
Notable for: Humor; Gardens vs Graveyards is one of the best FPS game modes this year; Highly customizable characters; Balanced gameplay; Easy to play – but still highly competitive
Play it because: You want a break from the super-serious FPS games and just want to have some really good fun
The first major shooter of 2014 was this lighter, more comedic take on the genre. In a way, it's not quite an FPS – it's a hybrid. When you're on the move, you can see your character from a third-person perspective, but once you start shooting, the view moves in tightly and you're essentially staring down the barrel of your gun in a more typical FPS style. That helps the game feel and play very much like a first-person shooter, and that's why I'm including it here.
The reason why I liked it so much was that it really felt like a breath of fresh air for the FPS genre. Both plants and zombies feature the same four classes – a basic shooter, close-quarters specialist, suppressing fire expert and healing type. There are further variations on those themes in terms of types of weapons, and each can be customized and upgraded by using the random loot cards you get from winning games.
PvZ: GW's multiplayer modes are all excellent, but what stood out for me is the Gardens vs Graveyards mode. This is basically a take on Conquest and Rush from the Battlefield series, where one team is attacking a series of objectives that the other team defends. Matches are set against the clock, which is reset every time an objective is taken – or results in a win for the defenders if that doesn't happen. The maps are all very well designed, with choke points that create really intense and fun battles.
Ultimately, PvZ: GW gets my vote as one of the best shooters of this year. As I said when I reviewed it, " in some respects, it's the antithesis of the pinpoint shooting and fast maneuvering typical of "serious" shooters that flatter the skilled and punish the inept. PvZ: GW slows things down, requires a little less precision, and gives you more room to move and time to breathe. Some will call it dumbed-down, but I don’t think it is at all. It feels more like a level playing field where you don’t have to be superhuman to make great shots, and where everyone stands a chance to be a hero. It’s not like skill has been removed from the game – good players will still prevail. It just makes things more competitive and fair."
Who doesn't want that from an FPS – even when it isn't quite one.
Notable for: Big, open maps; Titans, of course; A range of interesting weapons built to enhance specific playstyles; Exceptionally dynamic gameplay; In-built challenges that disrupt routines and deliver gameplay variety
Play it because: You want to feel like a superhero, and like a game that enables you to build around your own playstyle
Titanfall arrived in March on a wave of hype that was so huge, it made us all wonder if it could possibly deliver. But it did – just. What it didn't deliver was a single-player mode. Instead, Titanfall concentrated on doing one thing – multiplayer – and doing it well.
Featuring gameplay that turned players into Parkour-ing athletes, one of Titanfall's best features are its controls. The way that they respond to inputs and environmental positioning essentially smoothes out movement, and helps make running and jumping across hazards and obstacles a near-seamless experience. Of course, you can still get snagged on things, or misjudge jumps – but if you're close enough, the game is forgiving and will keep you moving forward. A brilliant idea, because, a little bit of assistance here and there helps keep you in the game – and essentially flatters the player, and who doesn't like that occasionally?
Packing tactical items that make you feel like a superhero, Titanfall brought a huge degree of dynamism to the FPS genre. Indeed, it's hard to go back to the older boots-on-the-ground shooters after this and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, because the freedom of movement both these games offer make the older ones feel limited and clunky. Titanfall stands out in particular because it also includes its eponymous Titans to add more variety to the gameplay. Initially there were concerns that they would be overpowered, but actually, they fit into the game very well, and have their own strengths and weaknesses.
Speaking of which, the selection of guns is also very well balanced. They're all designed around playstyles, so that they favor certain types of tactical play. This is another boon, meaning that there's not really a "win" gun in the game. The best gun is the one that best suits your playstyle, whether that's suppressing fire, standing back and picking off enemies from a distance, or running and gunning for close range combat.
A special mention has to go to Titanfall's maps, which are generally more open and offer more potential for ranged combat than most FPS arena games. This helped Titanfall offer something a little different, and again, helped it find its own space in what can often feel like a crowded and all-too-similar FPS landscape.
Wolfenstein: A New Order
Notable for: Massive, sprawling storyline; Creative and entertaining weaponry; Bonkers set-pieces; Terrific alternative history design that features many neat touches
Play it because: If you want to enjoy the best first-person shooter storyline of the year, step right up
Wolfenstein: A New Order is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. It's a rollercoaster ride that has its highs and lows, and its rough and smooth patches. It features some fabulous set pieces, and some supremely intense battles, but mixed in are areas of frustration, and irritating fetch quests that are sometimes mind-numbingly dull. And underpinning the ride is one of the most serpentine, outrageous and epic first-person shooter storylines of all time.
But as a package, Wolfenstein: A New Order delivers. Its world is stunning. As I said in my review, "the scope, the sheer attention to detail, and the imagination that has been put into everything from its architecture, clothing and engineering to its ambient styling is outstanding. It can be fully appreciated by anyone who knows nothing about the subject matter that inspired it, but if you do know your history, you’ll recognize and geek out over all sorts of buildings, items and machines that the Nazis had planned to build when they'd conquered Europe, but for obvious reasons never did."
Despite some annoying flaws, occasional fiddly control issues when trying to interact with objects, and some bumps in its story, Wolfenstein: A New Order is a seriously gory, highly entertaining, and very rewarding game. It didn't quite hit the ridiculously high bar it sets for itself, but it doesn't really matter in the end. It's a great single-player shooter, warts and all.
Notable for: Beautiful environments, Complex PvE gameplay, RPG-like leveling and character customization
Play it because: You want an epic PvE experience
The Destiny Hype Train pulled into town in September, and while it didn't exactly blow us away, we did nevertheless appreciated the game's many strong points.
One thing you can't fault the game for is trying to be all things to all people. It has a solid PvP mode, it can be played as a single-player campaign, or a multiplayer game – and it also features dungeons and raids. In other words, it's a large-scale MMO that packs plenty of things to do.
I jumped back into its PvP a couple of days ago, and off the back of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, it feels far slower in terms of its pacing. The action is still fast when it comes to facing off against other players – it's just that the movement and jumping feels considerably more steady than COD: AW's high-speed, kinetic gameplay. Ultimately, it's not the best PvP action around, but it's plenty good enough – just a notch or two behind the likes of Titanfall and Advanced Warfare.
Where Destiny is strongest is in its PvE. The game's environments look gorgeous, and even if they sometimes feel inert when you actually explore them, they nevertheless ooze atmosphere. One thing we did criticize Destiny for is its over-reliance on bullet-sponge bosses. Sometimes fights do seem overly protracted. However, if you don't mind pouring magazine after magazine of ammo into its denizens, Destiny offers plenty of challenge, and the fact that it's being supported by some comprehensive additional content also helps maintain the feeling that this really is the premier FPS MMO – even if it doesn't always hit every target.
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare
Notable for: Exceptionally slick multiplayer modes; Buttoned-down gameplay; High-speed action; Great customization features
Play it because: You want to build up your character into one that fully reflects the way you play
Advanced Warfare had a lot to live up to when it arrived in November. Just how would Sledgehammer's take on the series fare against the pace set by Respawn's Titanfall earlier this year? While the latest COD is fairly short on out-and-out innovation – and reinventing jumping as "verticality" doesn't count here – what it sets out to do, it does very well indeed. Ignoring the game's fairly overblown, but decent enough single-player campaign, Advanced Warfare's lasting appeal lies – as it always has – in its multiplayer mode.
Here's it's largely business as usual, with its fundamental gameplay tightened up, and an extremely macro customization system in place to help players refine their avatars so that they augment their playstyle. The other addition to the game which works very well are loot crates that contain a variety of items, from weapons and one-off bonuses to clothing and gear to kit out your avatar. The end result of this is a game that feels extremely addictive: individual rounds are fast and furious, and the potential for a crate of loot being delivered to you helps maintain that one-more-go feel.
After playing both at length, I think Titanfall has the edge in terms of feeling more original and packing newer and more novel features. Advanced Warfare's gameplay feels slightly tighter and more intense, but lacks true originality. Those loot crates are seriously addictive, though. Ultimately, Advanced Warfare and Titanfall are the same kind of dish with very different toppings – and you can't go wrong with either.
Halo: The Master Chief Collection
Notable for: Enormous volume of content; Being the definitive set of Halo games; Very well executed (multiplayer launch issues notwithstanding)
Play it because: You want to relive the glories of the Halo past, but better looking, more refined, and occasionally nicely remixed
While it launched with almost game-breaking multiplayer technical issues, The Master Chief Collection is finally settling down to a point where it can be appreciated for what it is: and that's a smorgasbord of single and multiplayer content that's been beautifully reworked by 343 Studios.
Jeremy recognized that in his review, stating, "The sheer amount of content available here, and the effort that's been put into reworking them, goes above and beyond anything I expect from the increasingly rapacious games industry, where nickel-and-diming players into submission has become the order of the day. There's a lot of great old content on this disc, but perhaps the best blast from the past is that this anthology feels generous and complete — a real rarity."
What's been interesting to me – not having really played any of these games much the first time around – is seeing how the series has evolved over time. The earlier games feel slower and steadier, and definitely have a throwback feel to them – but they still hold up well today. It's just great to be able to sit down and appreciate these games almost as historical artifacts.
As Kat said in her second opinion to Jeremy's review, "Ultimately, however, 343 Studios and company have done about as good a job as they possibly could in putting this package together, even going so far as to dig up maps from the PC version of Halo: CE for inclusion in the multiplayer. In every way that matters, The Master Chief Collection exceeds expectations, and that can be said for both the single-player and the multiplayer."