December 7 2011
Ever since Quake started offering options for play over the Internet, multiplayer first-person shooters have been a dominant force in online gaming. Today FPS fans have a remarkable variety of settings and mods to choose from. These are the titles I would most recommend for the PC - the list is not based soley on the game's popularity. Hands-on experience, user feedback, and an active community are among the things I consider when compiling these lists. The emphasis is on current games for current computers, not classics that peaked before the turn of the century. They are ultimately just my opinion, so if you feel I've missed something, you're welcome to make a suggestion. If you're looking for free shooters like Quake Live and Team Fortress 2, they are on the top free online shooter list.
The latest addition to the Battlefield series has few rivals when it comes to spectacular graphics and environmental destruction. In this iteration they've brought back jets, 64-player maps on the PC, and several other features not seen in the franchise in a long time, such as deathmatch. Battlefield 3 is a very solid combined arms experience whether you just want to jump in and shoot some guys in the face, or you want to make the effort to get organized enough to work as a team. It has improved on its predecessor, Bad Company 2, and you'll likely get good mileage out of it unless you've completely had your fill of modern warfare FPS games.
Military shooters have become a staple of online gaming, and there seems to be another installment in the Call of Duty series every year now. Call of Duty: Black Ops is the 2010 addition, and once again it offers a robust multiplayer component along with the single-player campaign. Unlike CoD: Modern Warfare 2, the PC version of Black Ops has dedicated servers and it supports up to 24 players online (as opposed to MW2's 18). One new feature that is creating some buzz are the Wager Match modes, which lets people bet CoD Points on the outcome of a match. Along with the expected exotic locations and nifty new weapons, the option to play MP maps against bots has been added, and the ever-popular zombie mode makes a return.
Bad Company 2 is the first major Battlefield release for the PC since BF 2142. It features destructible environments that really take the action up a notch, and like earlier games in the series, it does a great job of catering to different play styles with the class system. Objective-based Rush mode and Hardcore mode are both nice additions. It encourages teamwork more than most shooters, and it stays pretty close to the proven Battlefield formula. Although I miss the 64-player matches and mods of the PC exclusive Battlefield titles, Bad Company 2 is an easy game to recommend.
World War II has been done countless times in the shooter, but Red Orchestra 2 does it with considerably more realism and depth than usual, in part because it is exclusive to the PC. There are robust movement controls including lean and prone, as well as a cover system, suppression system, and the ability to "blind fire." Ballistics and bullet penetration are also accurately portrayed. It falls nicely between the arcade-style Call of Duties and the hardcore simulation ArmA 2 approach.
Renowned for intense infantry combat, Call of Duty 4 brought the series into a modern warfare setting and quickly became the most popular online shooter of 2007. Multiplayer features received special attention in this release, which has a deep and very addictive persistent stats system that rewards players with upgraded skills and items as they gain experience. Call of Duty 4 also offers a robust variety of multiplayer modes and some of the best graphics in its class.
Modern vehicular combat is the focus of this popular Battlefield sequel, complete with guided missiles and artillery strikes. The Battlefield series has always offered a wide variety of vehicles like tanks and planes to take into the fray, as well as allowing you to fight on foot. New features in Battlefield 2 include built-in voice chat, a persistent player ranking system, and a commander position which introduces some unique tools to facilitate team organization. The graphics still look decent years after release, and it isn't very demanding on hardware by today's standards. People have also been giving some of the game's mods high marks.
The sequel to the hit horror-themed FPS Left 4 Dead, Left 4 Dead 2 features a new set of survivors and new melee weapons like axes, chainsaws, and (you guessed it) frying pans. It also has a new multiplayer mode called "Scavenge" and an improved AI Director. You'll fight your way through 5 campaigns set in the cities, swamps, and cemeteries of the Deep South. Left 4 Dead has been highly-praised both for its co-op play and its "Versus" mode, which puts one team on the zombie side.
As expected, 2011 saw yet another game added to the Call of Duty franchise. The formula that has been so successful in previous releases is alive and well in Modern Warfare 3, so you're forgiven if you're starting to find it hard to tell these games apart. Modern Warfare 3 is a complete package with 16 maps, nicely fleshed-out co-op missions, and a few new features like a ranking system for weapons. The game has dedicated servers for mulitplayer, but unlike Black Ops, they are not available for ranked matches.
Counter-Strike: Source is a complete remake of the beloved Counter-Strike mod using Valve's Source graphics engine. Originally packed with Half-Life 2, it can now be purchased separately either on disk or through Steam. Gameplay is quite similar to the Counter-Strike 1.6, and the most popular of the old maps have been redone, but of course, it looks a lot better. CS is still the darling of online shooters, with an enormous following and a huge number of servers to play on.
Call of Duty is well-known for its single-player campaigns, but it has also become a big multiplayer hit on both PC and console. Modern Warfare 2 adds more perks, more killstreak rewards, and new items such as the riot shield and throwing knives. Despite the high price, it might be higher on this list if not for one major drawback - there is no dedicated server support for the PC version. The game is limited to 18 players (9 vs. 9) connected through Infinity Ward's matchmaking service, and games are hosted on one of the player's systems, much like the console version.
Although it has been around for a long time, and it's actually just a free mod for a game that is even older, Counter-Strike 1.6 is still among the most popular multiplayer FPS games for the PC. This game lives on despite the release of Counter-Strike: Source and many much newer shooters, and continues to be a mainstay at pro game competitions. As has been the case for over half a decade, there's always a good game underway on a low-ping server nearby, not to mention plenty of fiercely challenging opponents.
More a simulation game than a shooter, ArmA 2 goes to great lengths to provide a high level of realism in both infantry and vehicular combat. Proportions are accurate and weapons are detailed replicas of the real thing, although the game uses fictional settings rather than historical ones. ArmA 2 has a very steep learning curve and a default configuration that dispenses with many FPS conventions. Coupled with a sparse GUI and a vast array of controls, the complexity of the game is too much for many people, while the hardcore fans wouldn't have it any other way. There are a variety of multiplayer modes including co-op, but the community is quite small, so finding the kind of match you're looking for isn't always possible. Try the demo before parting with your money. Combined Operations includes both the original and the Operation Arrowhead expansion.