Before there were MMOs, there were FPS games. The RTS, RPG, and FPS made up the trifecta of PC gaming for years before brave developers set sail for the undiscovered country of massively multiplayer games. FPS games have had a major influence on the world of PC gaming over the years. We’re going to take a walk through the past and look at how some of these titles, and some of their mods, shaped today’s gaming world.

Wolfenstein 3D

Who could discuss FPS games without paying homage to the father of the genre, Wolfenstein 3D? This is the game that gave rise to the whole Doom series and defined a genre around itself as it went along. Wolfenstein didn’t break rules, it made new ones. In a lot of ways, the game was like the particle physicist that just couldn’t make his math work, so he invented a new relativistic property to handle the problem.

Wolfenstein 3D

Each and every man under my command owes me 100 Nazi scalps. And I want my scalps.

Shareware wasn’t something that had caught on until id Software used the concept to promote Wolfenstein. In the years after the method proved so enormously successful, even internet companies started distributing free versions of their software. The system of distributing shareware has changed a little over the years as the process morphed into things like open betas, demos, and trial accounts in various games. These more modern terms all have shareware as a common ancestor.

Another innovation from Wolfenstein was the concept of player level design and mods. The idea sort of developed out of nowhere as addicted gamers tried to help each other maintain their FPS high. When id Software rolled out Doom and Quake in later years, they specifically designed the games to be “level-creator-friendly.” Now, years later, we have Steam releasing entire development packages to their fans; several FPS games have mods that are more popular than the game itself was; and Cryptic Studios took a successful crack at having their users create their content for them in Star Trek Online.


2008 arrived and a company called Crytek produced Crysis, which featured North Koreans and aliens, two of my favorite targets. Ironically enough, the amount blood shed by North Korean Generals in Crysis wasn’t repeated until the rise of Kim Jong-un four years later. (Pretty sure there’s an alien involved in that particular situation, as well.)

While the game itself was pretty good, it’s actually the Crysis Engine that earns this title a place on our list. CryEngine was initially developed for the game Far Cry, but the second version of the software really took gaming to a new point after Crysis. Several mods began springing up around the game, and one of the biggest was the MechWarrior: Living Legends mod mentioned in my Preview of MechWarrior Online. MechWarrior Online itself, and several other newer games, are also picking up the CryEngine terrain modeling.


Terrain modeling took a huge step forward when Crysis hit the market.

The ability to create large maps and significant ease with which mods were able to create new maps in Crysis really sets it apart from its peers as a game that has gone on to have far-reaching impact in its genre. The game’s engine is even being used to model environments space, which is something that I doubt any player of Crysis ever thought about while they looked around at the beautifully done island landscape in the game.

Battlefield 1942

Perhaps the biggest FPS hit to come out in the last decade was Battlefield 1942. Two expansions - and a host of mods later - the Origin re-release of the original game for free is getting a solid amount of activity. When Battlefield came out, it was one of few games to allow players to engage in large combined-arms conflict against each other using a wide range of naval, land, and air units and an array of infantry kits.

Battlefield 1942

I can’t launch BF1942 without singing to myself a little, "Wherever there's trouble, over land and sea and air, GI Joe is there!"

Probably the most unique thing about the original Battlefield was the number of mods that came along after it. I know, it seems like there’s a theme to this article, but mods are a great gauge of a games success; just look at Minecraft. By Battlefield 1942’s second year, there were more people playing modded versions than playing the vanilla game, and that’s not something any of the subsequent iterations in the series ever managed to repeat. Years later, I took a break from playing Battlefield 2142 (a really long break) to scratch my WWII itch and I found a large number of 1942 servers fully populated and running some of my favorite mods.

The freedom to employ a huge number of the tools found in World War II and re-fight a significant number of the biggest battles was the obvious draw of this very addicting game. It was fun and fast-paced, while still having enough complexity not to be completely monotonous. The folks at DICE really managed to create something special with Battlefield 1942, which makes it all the more painful that they would slip back into more Call of Duty-style game play (Call of Duty didn’t make this list, you might notice) for Battlefield 3.


Arma may not have been on your radar until recently with the release of the DayZ mod, but the game has been around for a number of years, and it’s been one of those games that pushed the bounds of what’s supposed to be possible in the standard FPS. Where BF1942 was all about fast-paced game play and constant action, Arma focused more on realism. The mods that followed enhanced the already complex and very solid mechanics of the Arma games.

Arma 2 boasts maps over 200km² and the word is that Arma 3 will have maps twice that size. Like the Battlefield franchise, Arma allows the player to experience combined arms operations, only with a lot more focus on realism. Arma 2 was realistic enough for a clip from Arma to make it into a British television network’s special about IRA and Libyan terrorism. A lot of FPS games have tried to capture realism over the years, but very few have managed it quite as well as Arma.


Arma gave us not only realistic graphics but also realistic mechanics, which that means there are no lone wolves in this game. At least no successful ones.

As with the last several games, Arma comes with its share of mods, the most recent and popular being DayZ. But another important mod for the game is the Warfare mod, which adds features like player-built bases and player-controlled AI squad mates. Ever want to roll with a whole company of tanks? Spawn your own and take the field. Since even a single tank in Arma takes at least two players, and really needs three to be effective, the additional AI made a great game better and showed the power of player-controlled henchmen in an FPS. That’s something other FPS games would be very wise to pay attention to moving forward.


No look at revolutionary FPS games would be complete without mentioning PlanetSide, and I expect everyone would be completely shocked if I, of all people, left it off. PlanetSide came out a decade ago and its impact on both MMOs and FPSs is still felt. While the game itself wasn’t exactly massively successful financially, it did well enough, and it invented new rules and standards by which other games are judged by.


Just one platoon in PlanetSide was more than most games would allow in an entire match..

Before PlanetSide, there were very few games that really grasped the concept of battles on a massive scale. Several MMOs, like Dark Age of Camelot, had appeared on the market and demonstrated that players had a clear desire for large-scale battles, but no FPS had really stepped up to the plate with a plan to provide it other than perhaps World War II Online.

PlanetSide’s second big accomplishment was the establishment of persistence in FPS games as more than do-able. The success of the game was due in large part to the hordes of FPS fans who wanted a game that was easy to get into, required a minimum amount of time at any sitting, and still gave players the feeling that they were having some lasting impact on the world after they logged out. Unlike other FPS games, where players fight over a few hundred square meters over and over, PlanetSide players fought for control of entire continents as battle lines surged back and forth over time.

The last years of PC gaming before Planetside had seen a small increase in the number of players allowed to play together at any given time in FPS games, but after PlanetSide that number started growing by leaps. FPS titles start boasting larger maps and greater numbers of players almost immediately and now, after nearly ten years, there are still a very few that can come even close to the numbers that the original PlanetSide could handle.

Sadly, no mods for PlanetSide, though. I should point out that PlanetSide 2, while not exactly allowing mods, does have significant hooks planned to allow a large amount of external development by fans.

But Wait, There’s More!

Well, okay, not really. At least, this is the end of our list. It’s most definitely not the end of the list of epic FPS games that have hit the market over the years. We’ve taken a short look at some of the best, and examined how they, and their mods, have helped to shape the industry as it moved forward. The last several years have really been good for FPS games, and the coming release of PlanetSide 2 and Arma 3 should help to continue that trend. There are a lot of fantastic games that didn’t make the list this time, but these were some of my favorites. What are some of yours?

Last Updated: Mar 13, 2016