An Incomplete History of the FPS

by Taliesin Coward

Ah, the First-Person-Shooter (FPS). One of the most controversial and popular genres on computer. Like it or not, this is the genre which drives and showcases what PCs are capable of. If you want to see the cutting edge in graphics, AI and physics, this is where you’ll see it. In this article, we’ll take a brief (and necessarily incomplete) look at some of the history and development of the genre.

The FPS is inextricably linked to id Software. The grand-daddy of this genre was id Software’s groundbreaking 1992 game Wolfenstein 3D. Smooth and fast, the focus was squarely on gameplay. The story was minimal, with players tasked to reach the level’s exit by fighting their way through hordes of Nazi soldiers. Though it had 3D in the title, it was not truly a 3D game. While the environment was 3D, everything else was composed of 2D sprites. The game engine (the engine powering the game) – revolutionary at the time – also couldn’t cope with more than one plane (so no stairs or multi-story buildings). Also, there were no ceilings or floors (these were just coloured ‘empty space’ to speed up rendering), there was no lighting (everything had a fixed brightness) and corners only came in the right-angle variety.

DOOM, released in 1993 (also by id Software) really kicked the genre off. It didn’t mess with Wolfenstein 3D’s successful model (simple, fast gameplay and minimal story), but rather improved upon it. Enemies were more varied and complex. Levels could now have stairs, multiple tiers, slanted walls, and different lighting (introducing players to the terror of a dark room filled with demons). DOOM is also notable for inventing the deathmatch (the mainstay of online competitive play). Such was its impact, that for a time FPS games were simply known as ‘DOOM clones’.

id struck again in 1996 with Quake. Originally intended to feature a character wielding a hammer – no guns at all – id changed their mind and reverted to the tried and true FPS scheme. Quake was the first truly 3D game, and all 3D games, at some level, share their DNA with the technology powering Quake – including the nifty trick which means the computer only renders what the player can see (saving resources and increasing speed).

Come 1998, and Epic publishes their 3D FPS, Unreal. Whilst both Quake and Unreal are, by today’s standards, fairly ho-hum, Unreal was the first game to give Quake a run for its money, and introduced the Unreal Engine. Now in it’s 4th version, the Unreal Engine can be found powering literally hundreds of games.

1998 also sees Valve release Half-Life. Running off a heavily modified version of the Quake Engine, Half-Life breaks the mould and becomes critically acclaimed for its cinematic storytelling (and possibly shares the blame for game designers forgetting for a period that they’re making games, not ‘interactive experiences’).

1999 sees the birth of two of the great FPS arena games. Unreal Tournament, and Quake III: Arena, the latter being the first game to feature curved surfaces. Totally doing away with story, these focus on pure, twitch and instinct based FPS gameplay. Though dated, these remain two of the greatest games of their kind. While id largely ignores the FPS arena genre, Epic goes on to launch Unreal Tournament 2, Unreal Tournament Champions, Unreal Tournament 2004 (one of the best), Unreal Tournament 3, and recently a free-to-play relaunch of Unreal Tournament featuring their latest and greatest graphical engine, the Unreal Engine 4.

2002, and Dice releases the first of the Battlefield games, Battlefield 1942, where up to 64 players can take part in pitched team battles over huge maps. Unlike Quake III: Arena and the Unreal Tournament series, gameplay is less about speed and more about tactics.

2004 and id Software are back with DOOM 3, a relaunch of DOOM. Unlike the original, more emphasis is placed on atmosphere and ‘boo, gotcha’ scares than pure gameplay. The id-Tech 4 engine powering DOOM 3 featured a unified lighting system (instead of specifying the brightness of an area, an actual light-source needed to be present, and the shadows cast by these resulted in some truly memorable set-pieces and hair-raising gameplay) as well as per-polygon hit detection. To explain, most games used what is known as a ‘hit-box’ – a ‘box’ is drawn around a character, and any shot intersecting with that box is counted as a hit – which is why in most games you can aim between an enemy’s feet and still hit them. Per-polygon hit detection means that, even if your shot is only one pixel off target, it still misses. In other words, DOOM 3 was also an abject lesson in just how rotten your aim really was.

Horror remains the order of the day, and in 2005 F.E.A.R. is released. This was most noted for its AI. Enemies would flank, run away and ambush (indeed, one of the only ways to survive a pitched fight was to listen to their shouted communications).

Sci-fi returns to the fore with Crytek’s 2007 game, Crysis. This was fun. Players are cast in the role of Nomad, a soldier wearing a ‘nanosuit’ which, depending on how you route the energy, can give increased armour, super-speed, invisibility, or super-strength (one of my favourite ways of dealing with an enemy jeep was to stand invisibly by the side of the road, and, as it drove level, to quickly switch to strength and hit the car at just the right angle to flip it). Popular enough to spawn two sequels (which sadly didn’t quite live up to the first) it was lauded for its vast, open island, intelligent enemies, and stunning graphics. Crysis also introduced the CryEngine – an engine which is currently seeing increasing use by game developers.

In 2013, amid cries that FPS games are becoming stale and ‘samey’, Far Cry: Blood Dragon is released. An ‘80s, retro, sci-fi neon-inspired take on the FPS, Blood Dragon is shamelessly tongue-in-cheek, poking continual fun at the conventions of the genre (from the inane tutorials – press ‘jump’ key to jump – to the overall lack of story or basic plausibility). Despite this (or maybe because of it), it’s one insane, enjoyable romp, and is definitely one of the most styled (and stylish) FPSs around.

The last entry in this article (we could keep going but we’ve got to stop somewhere) is 2016. After many years of so-so shooters (with only the odd blip-on-the-radar like Far Cry: Blood Dragon) and an emphasis on multiplayer games, the singleplayer FPS returns with a vengance. Respawn Entertainment release Titanfall 2, which features a compelling story, some of the best movement mechanics, and innovative level design seen to date. Also, id Software return to their roots with 2016’s relaunch of DOOM, also called DOOM, which perfectly captures the fast, aggressive gameplay and feel of the original. ■ 

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