What list would be complete without a nod to a franchise that has firmly established itself in gaming history? Surprisingly enough, I decided to prefer Halo: Reach over the original Halo game. The reasons for this are somewhat contextual: in my opinion, the potential of Halo: Combat Evolved wasn't fully realized in Halo 2 & 3. Though the sequels' multiplayer is considered top-tier, I felt like their campaigns started to become too straightforward and at times gimmicky for my tastes.
Reach's slogan about how we already know the outcome is part of its appeal. There's something appealingly Norse about soldiering on (no pun intended) knowing that the core characters are ultimately doomed. There's an interesting dramatic irony between the character holding the gun and the player holding the controller, and it's something I think Reach balances rather well in its storytelling.
To top it off, Reach boasts breathtaking graphics, with attention to detail from everything from the sweeping landscapes to the attention paid to the combat environments. The biggest thing Reach can boast over Halo 2 and 3 is the part where I give a damn. For God's sake, Reach has normal people. Civilians, even! It's not just a Spartan running around Futuristic Environment Number Four shooting Alien Group Number Four Hundred and Fifty-Seven.
Oh, this computer-roasting little gem. I picked it up recently after realizing two very important things: first, that I now had a computer capable of rendering the brilliant graphics and intricate environments; and second, it was on sale.
I picked it up expecting nothing more than another Master Chief experience. You know what I mean: up against insurmountable odds, being shot from all angles with every kind of weaponry imaginable and charging through it to punch the enemy in the dick with a rocket launcher on the sole merit of being Master Goddamn Chief.
I was absolutely delighted when Crysis made a point of reminding me of a very important fact, a fact that Halo had mostly spoiled me from: bullets hurt. I could leap clear up to the roof of a hut, dash through the jungle at breakneck speeds, and even go invisible, but if I stood around and got shot for more than two seconds I would be loading at my last checkpoint before I could say "Maximum F***!!!"
The firefights in Crysis require a great deal of planning, positioning, and creative approach. At one point it took me double-digit tries to clear out an enemy base--combat takes constant reevaluation and snap-decision making if you're going to succeed.
The story makes for a great variety of environments that keeps gameplay refreshing throughout the campaign. The environments are pushing free-roaming and are in no way forgiving: slip up and you'll fall, hurting yourself, alerting enemies, and looking like a colossal moron in the process. There's also no convenient radar feature on your nano-suit, meaning you could be sitting on a Korean soldier like a lawn chair and you wouldn't know it until he starting complaining or you bothered to look down.
The game keeps up a good progression of difficulty, starting with basic Korean troops and quickly moving you into player-versus-vehicle combat. In one of my favorite moments of the game, you're suddenly asked to night-fight against Koreans with nano-suits. Imagine a less flawless Master Chief being asked to fight against five or six of himself without warning.
When you finally get to the alien bits it's yet another refreshing scene change and introduces a new level of difficulty. The boasted zero-gravity environment is less about combat and more about atmosphere--the area is erratic and undeniably creepy, and once you make contact with the aliens you'll be floating around paranoid for the next thirty minutes.
The protagonist is your archetypal silent figure, and if the game falls short it's in the fact that it takes very little time to explore any of the supporting characters. Still, I felt the incredibly balanced gameplay and near-perfection of the game's overall design picks up the slack of its time for character development. Overall, Crysis is a game that knows what it's doing throughout.
Yes, even I'm a bit surprised. The reason I've placed MW2's campaign above the previous two games is mostly because it either capitalizes on the things I liked the most about the previous games, or it solved for failings that I felt these games had.
The best part about MW2 is that the protagonists are constantly acting or being interacted with. The sections starring Task Force 141 have a commanding sense of brotherhood. The characters are incredibly well-voiced and feel as much a part of the action as the player does at times. Something I appreciated was how helpless you were at times, being dragged along by your teammates when it all became too much. I always feel like moments of frailty--however brief or unimportant the game might make them seem at the time--are the key to really immersing someone in the story.
The other sections of the campaign revolve around James Ramirez, who is fighting on the home front as Russia invades the United States (spoilers!). Though the voice acting is still superb (and recognizable), there are fewer named characters in this section and the direct character comradarie doesn't compare to the 141 sections. However, these parts of the campaign make up for it with their setting.
It's not just about fighting in the Capitol Building or around the other landmarks of Washington. The most emotional moments involved fighting in suburbia, shooting out of a parodied Burger King, sprinting, gun in hand, across parking lots. Modern Warfare 2 takes war and shoves it in your face, dragging you through not only the most exotic environments the world has to offer, but the most personal.
I have to admit, this one holds its place mainly for nostalgia purposes. Created by Interplay in the early 90's, Descent revolutionized the FPS scene with a hovering ship capable of moving in any conceivable direction. The game was standard DOS-level graphics, comparable to Doom and other games in the franchise. Its sequel, Descent II, was more of the same.
Then in 1999, Interplay released the third installment of the Descent series, upping the ante with well-rendered 3-D environments, outdoor regions, and more intelligent AI.
As a game where you find yourself facing virtually exclusively nonhuman, robot enemies, Descent has never been a franchise interested in character development--or honestly, even character involvement. Though it would certainly be considered a failing trait in comparison to the First-Person-Shooters of today, Descent III existed in an era of FPS that used a thin blanket of storytelling over a ridiculously nifty waterbed of action-adventure. In that regard, Descent was a success.
The game represents a near-essay of transition in the gaming world. Though it still tended to follow a straightforward design of linear environments and occasional boss battles, Descent III made strong moves away from the truly rigid, A-to-B-to-C, Blue-Key-Red-Key system that many similar FPS games, including its own predecessors.
Descent III went wild in its attempt to create a broad array of weapons and enemies, and was a success in that regard. Enemies range from varieties of trooplike soldier robots, to bizarre gunslingers, to the disturbingly silent Old Scratch bots. Weapons from the short-range mortar, to clusters of homing missiles, and the vortex-opening Black Shark missile make gameplay interesting and entertaining in a way that only old-school First Person Shooters can deliver.
1. Half-Life 2
It comes as a shock to no-one that Half-Life 2 would top my list as the best FPS campaign I have ever played. Of all of the moments in First-Person Shooters that delighted or surprised me, I doubt if anything will ever beat those first moments of being plucked out of limbo and dropped into the heart of City 17--weaponless, helpless, friendless, and in total ignorance of how or why the world has fallen to the faceless and mysterious Combine.
You have nothing, not even the crude weapon of the crowbar that defined the encounters of the original Half Life. The only knowledge you can possibly glean is based off of what you can gather from your fellow new arrivals to City 17, and what you can see with your own eyes. The picture is a despondent one; this city, supposedly a surviving metropolis, is nevertheless dead. The streets and buildings are all but empty, and it seems clear that the Combine are shuttling people into the area in a measure that is less about promoting a vibrant metropolis and more about maintaining control over the hollow shell of a human population.
It's one of the best levels I've ever played. If you own a copy of Half-Life 2 and find yourself a good time away from your last playthrough, play that level alone. Remind yourself of how flawless every little tidbit and scripted event was: the chaos of running through the apartments with a police raid on your tail, running into the stairwell just as Combine come pounding up from the floor below and see you, the panic as you think you're completely trapped. It's one of my favorite levels of the game, and one of the best I've played in a First-Person Shooter.
The thing that best explains the appeal of Half-Life 2 is by looking at almost every other First-Person Shooter with appeal and realizing that Half-Life 2 either did it first, or did it best. Gordon Freeman is the most mute of silent protagonists, a trick used to make the player feel as though they 'are' the character. At the same time, however, Half-Life 2 contains such a rich cast of supporting characters (most important being Alyx Vance), that Gordon's character is powerfully defined over the course of the game--miraculously without the need for interrupting cutscenes, protagonist dialogue, or other common gimmicks used by other FPS games to force characterization. Even in the incredibly rare instances where you are not fully in control of your character (which is the closest to a cutscene the game dares tread), the events and minute control that you still have keep you from feeling as though your experience is somehow being 'interrupted.'
The second greatest appealing factor of Half-Life 2 is its atmosphere. Valve created a game with a number of different environments across multiple levels, always knowing how or when to pace events just right. From that first incredible level in City-17, the player experiences Gordon Freeman as a fugitive through the belly of the city's sewers and waterways. Ravenholm will forever be remembered by anyone who has played the game as a staple of chilling FPS environments.
Nova Prospekt is an incredible turning point in the game. Up until this point Gordon has spent most of his time running scared--he was helpless when he first arrived in City 17 and had to flee for his life to Black Mesa. He barely arrives before the Combine attack, and he is next forced to scrape by in the streets and mines of Ravenholm. He escapes the area to continue running, having to avoid Antlions and the like. Nova Prospekt is the point at which Gordon Freeman stops running and turns the tables in the Combine, assaulting their infamous prison alone in one of my favorite sections of the game--the steady beach assault, fighting ground forces while staying out of sight of the bunkers' searching turrets. Taking Nova Prospekt is the point at which Gordon becomes the 'one Free Man.' It is a powerful metaphor to destroy the prison of a fascist, militaristic government, and in my opinion it is this powerful act of defiance that sparks the revolution in City 17.
The game turns seamlessly from survival to warfare, creating memorable moments such as the great Strider battles. I mostly appreciate how the game still includes a great deal of atmosphere: as I fought it out with Combine forces, I at least felt a lurch as I realized that many of these torn-up battlegrounds were places I had been only days beforehand in Gordon's timeline of events. The swap from decaying city to damaged battleground is done beautifully and without fuss.
That perhaps is the key to enjoying Half-Life. At no point does Valve shove its little tricks in our faces and demand we worship how clever they are. It is clear that Half-Life 2 was crafted lovingly by a group of individuals who love games, and who included every layer, from the obvious to the subtle, in order to allow the player to discover for themselves all that the game has to offer. And when it comes to Half-Life 2, it's offering a lot.