The first-person shooter barely existed before the early ’90s. It was an oddity in an industry dominated by platforming and role-playing games, and no one could have predicted just how much things were about to change. From Wolfenstein 3D to newer games like Deathloop, first-person shooters have seen enormous success, and for many of them, that comes down to a great single-player campaign. Sure, multiplayer is great too, but playing through a story through the eyes of a badass shotgun-wielding hero is tough to beat.
There have been a lot of great first-person shooter campaigns over the years, but only a select few rose to the top. These, in no particular order, are the best FPS campaigns of all time.
Picking just one Halo campaign to include on this list? Were it so easy… but Halo 2 remains a masterpiece close to two decades after it released. That’s astounding when you consider that a huge chunk of the game had to be cut in order to get it out by the end of 2004, leading to a cliffhanger ending that became a running joke–of course, the sequel is available now, making it significantly less frustrating.
Halo 2 succeeds the way almost all great FPS campaigns do: subverting expectations. Just like how Halo: Combat Evolved made a sudden pivot to the Flood, turning into something of a horror game in the process, Halo 2 made an even bigger change by introducing the Arbiter as a playable character. A huge portion of the game is spent playing as this Covenant outcast, and the game’s exploration of the aliens’ religious zealotry puts the war in an entirely new context.
It seemed like a hopeless task to reboot the Doom series, which had been dormant for more than a decade and had been usurped in popularity by gray-and-brown military shooters. But that’s exactly what id Software did, reviving Doomguy from his long slumber for one of the best first-person shooter campaigns of all time. Showing an active disregard for nitty-gritty story details (our hero literally punches computers rather than listen to long-winded explanations) the game tasks you with ripping and tearing every demon you come across. And you are a very good listener.
What makes Doom so effective is that, just like the 1993 original, it doesn’t want you to hide behind walls and fire a shot every now and then. Instead, via a mix of powerful melee finishing moves and different ammunition types, you’re encouraged to sprint all over the map as you blast the Hellspawn standing in your way. It’s something Doom Eternal also did a few years later, though that game’s increased focus on lore may not be everyone’s cup of demon blood.
Wolfenstein: The New Order
Wolfenstein: The New Order
Another first-person shooter franchise previously developed (but not created) by id Software, Wolfenstein was handed off to Machine Games following the lackluster 2009 game simply titled Wolfenstein. Machine Games didn’t outright reboot the series, but it transformed it so radically that you can basically consider Wolfenstein: The New Order to be a fresh start. Set in an alternate history where Nazi Germany has won WW2 and is in control of much of the world by the 1960s, the game tasks BJ Blazkowicz and a ragtag gang of resistance fighters with killing as many fascist monsters as possible.
But that isn’t what made The New Order so revolutionary. The reason its campaign worked was the quiet and character-building moments in between all that carnage and violence. BJ finally feels like a real person, balancing his desire to rid the world of all Nazis with his caring, soft-spoken attitude toward good people. Not everyone can have a happy ending or live to see a beautiful day, but the heroes among us work to make sure most of us can. An excellent sequel followed, but it was The New Order’s touching final moments that cemented it on our list.
Part first-person shooter and part puzzle game, Superhot is one of the most creative games released in the last decade, and that extends to both the gameplay and the narrative structure in its campaign. In each level, time only moves when you move, enabling you to think through seemingly impossible combat situations and handle them with John Wick finesse. Grab a baseball bat, throw it at an enemy so he drops his gun, grab that gun, duck, and then fire it at a target across the room. In standard shooters, doing that is practically unfathomable, as only one bullet kills you here, but Superhot isn’t a standard shooter.
Superhot would probably get a spot on our list from that action alone, but Superhot Team didn’t stop there. A bizarre cyberspace story told through an IRC-like chat between several hackers drives the game forward, and it’s just as interesting as blasting seven baddies before they can react. If the original isn’t enough, a completely separate game called Superhot VR is available, as is the standalone expansion Superhot: Mind Control Delete.
Virtual reality games have come a long way since the super-short glorified tech demonstrations we were getting just a few years ago. Valve believed very strongly in the technology, bringing Half-Life out of hibernation for a prequel game. Half-Life: Alyx is a full-fledged Half-Life game focusing on Alyx Vance, taking place between Half-Life and Half-Life 2.
Its world-building is as excellent as you’d expect from the Half-Life series, but especially with a high-end VR device like the Valve Index, it offers interactivity and immersion beyond what almost any other game has before. Despite its limited potential audience because of the PC requirement, those who have played Half-Life: Alyx are almost universally positive on it, and it managed to take home GameSpot’s Game of the Year award for 2020 as a result.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007)
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
The Call of Duty series had been gaining steam by 2007, with Call of Duty 2 in particular being a must-have game on Xbox 360. No one could have predicted how enormous it would get, however, and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is the primary reason. The game’s campaign mode featured a mix of all-out action and carefully paced stealth missions, with memorable characters like the mustached Captain John Price and central villain Imran Zakhaev.
There isn’t a bad mission in the Modern Warfare campaign, but one stands above the rest: “All Ghillied Up.” Primarily designed by Mohammad Alavi, the stealth sniping mission is a masterwork in atmosphere and “less is more” game design. Many attempts have been made to top it in the Call of Duty series over the years, but none have ever managed to do so. And at this distance, they’d also have to take the Coriolis effect into account.
Titanfall was one of the biggest early games for the Xbox One, and its mix of brilliantly smooth on-foot shooting and mech action was novel and exciting. But rather than include a real campaign mode, it attempted to tell a story using a series of multiplayer matches… to mixed results. It was obvious that with a real single-player campaign, this was a universe Respawn Entertainment could turn into something very special, and that’s exactly what happened with Titanfall 2.
Somehow, despite giving players so much freedom in multiplayer, the Titanfall 2 campaign manages to keep things focused without feeling restrictive. It delivers emotional and funny story beats between its human and robotic protagonists, it has all the big explosion-heavy moments we expect from a AAA blockbuster game, and it features some surprisingly great platforming sections. Its greatest moment comes during the level “Effect and Cause,” which uses creative time-travel mechanics to make morphing environments.
A “grown-up” shooter in an era when big-budget games weren’t often tackling particularly complex issues, BioShock remains an absolute classic for its stunning Rapture setting as well as its excellent character work. Yes, you still play as a basically empty vessel, at least until you learn a few bombshell secrets, but it’s everything happening around you that makes BioShock so masterful. Andrew Ryan (whose name is a very unsubtle take on Ayn Rand) created what was meant to be an Objectivist paradise, but it has turned into quite the opposite.
The combat itself features some neat twists in the form of Plasmids, which let you perform superhuman abilities while still firing a weapon. But BioShock isn’t a game you play for the combat, and it’s perfectly fine to turn that difficulty setting down if you want to get more engrossed in the world and the story.
The Metroid Prime series is a well-established classic at this point, with fans eagerly awaiting more news on the fourth game, but there was a time when it seemed like an oddity. How could you take a side-scrolling action-platformer and turn it into a first-person shooter? Was Nintendo just caving to the wider genre trends in the early 2000s to boost GameCube sales?
Of course not, because Nintendo has never really shown much interest in following the leader. Retro Studios’ Metroid Prime may have switched to a first-person view, but it was still a Metroid game through and through, complete with all the exploration and discovery fans expected. It just happened to have excellent first-person combat on top of that, delivering one of Samus Aran’s best adventures and yet another excellent 2D-to-3D transition for Nintendo franchises.
Metro Exodus is a wonderful single-player first-person shooter because developer 4A Games showed restraint in its world design. Rather than follow a mostly linear path like Metro 2033 and Metro: Last Light, the studio set Metro Exodus in several open-ended environments with certain optional objectives and secrets to discover. It did not, however, make the game a full open world, allowing for the story to keep its pacing and the focus to stay squarely on Artyom and his band of survivors’ journey through a decaying Russia.
Metro Exodus features a great mix of underground and above-ground exploration, often culminating in battles that you can just barely win with your rickety arsenal. It feels like the perfect evolution of the Metro formula, and one that cements 4A Games’ place as one of the best narrative-driven shooter studios in the world.
Far Cry 3
Far Cry 3
There’s an argument to be made for Far Cry 2 being included here given that Ubisoft has done the Far Cry 3 formula countless times since its release, but it’s hard to deny just how good Far Cry 3’s single-player story is. In what looks to be a tropical paradise, a group of privileged rich kids soon find themselves on the run from local crime lords, including the iconic Vaas Montenegro. His appearances, which are infrequent enough to keep him from overstaying his welcome, include tons of quotable lines and a knockout performance by Michael Mando.
Even without Vaas, however, Far Cry 3 remains a fantastic game because nothing ever feels like busywork. Even collecting animal skins for a new pouch is fun because bow hunting is a blast, and the story missions feature lots of big setpieces and a ripping soundtrack.
Despite feeling like a direct successor to Dishonored, which isn’t really a first-person shooter despite having a gun, Deathloop fits much more squarely in the FPS category. With an arsenal of powerful sci-fi weapons, including some that transform for better tactical opportunities, Arkane Lyon’s game encourages creativity in its shooting as much as it does in traversal and distracting enemies.
Deathloop lets you try nearly any combination of weaponry you want, and you’ll likely try a whole bunch of them because of the game’s structure–if you die, you’re sent back to the beginning of the multi-day time loop and must figure out a new strategy to make it further. It doesn’t feel repetitive, however, as you are almost never doing the same thing twice and eventually see a well-designed plan all come to fruition in gloriously deadly fashion.
Admittedly, this is a weird choice, but if you’ve played Crysis 2’s campaign, perhaps you’ll understand. Despite going for a less-open structure than the first game, Crysis 2 still manages to feel like a big, violent sandbox. There are almost always multiple ways to approach encounters, with the powered exosuit you wear offering stealth abilities as well as shock-and-awe power.
And for a series not known for particularly strong writing, Crysis 2 manages to offer a few twists throughout its short-but-sweet campaign runtime that each come at the perfect time. Crysis 2 certainly didn’t redefine the first-person shooter campaign like some other games on our list, but it’s a damn good example of how to do one well.
It’s really, really hard to balance an action-packed FPS game with horror, because the danger of running out of resources and being swarmed by monsters is at the heart of so many horror games. FEAR, short for First Encounter Assault Recon, sees a team of elite operators enter a facility where a mysterious force has already murdered a previous response unit. It turns out that you can still make a situation seem scary when you load your characters to the gills with weapons if you show what happened to a previous squad who had the same gear.
What makes FEAR effective, aside from some cool slow-motion abilities and its creepy atmosphere, is that it can catch you off-guard with how weird it is. Sure, you’re playing as a special operator with a bunch of guns, but this is not another corridor military shooter.
An early pioneering game in the immersive sim genre. Deus Ex is a first-person shooter that doesn’t need to be a first-person shooter. Its vision of the cyberpunk future is grim, but just because you have access to guns doesn’t mean that is always the best way to handle a situation. Talking it out or getting more creative can cause less collateral damage, but its emphasis on player choice means talking with your bullets is an option, too.
You can see Deus Ex’s influence in numerous newer games, and not just literal successors like Human Revolution and Mankind Divided. In most of these games, it’s really hard to not just go in guns blazing when things seem like they’ll take longer the “smart” way, and with the huge number of weapons to choose from in the original Deus Ex, it’s no exception.