Call of Duty is the best-selling video game franchise in history that has nothing to do with Nintendo and isn’t Tetris. So it’s the fifth, basically. The franchise has sold over 250 million games, making it 50,000 times more popular than Jesus’ patented fish loaves and infinitely more successful than this comparison.
To mark the upcoming release of the latest instalment, Infinite Warfare, Zatu Games casts its eyes back over the FPS genre at a few of the slightly less gargantuan, more obscure, and often strange titles that also give you a gun and a pair of eyes.
Released by Ubisoft in 2003, XIII is an FPS with a unique style. The game shakes up the classic ‘hero wakes up with no memories on a boat/ in a bath/ in a car/ at a dementia clinic’ plot point by adding the option: ‘on Brighton Beach’. You play as Jason Fry, voiced by David Duchovny before casting big stars in games was really a thing, as he becomes embroiled in the aftermath of the assassination of the US President.
Despite slightly clunky gameplay (and Duchovny playing the protagonist like a man whose second lobotomy ran into complications), XIII succeeds on the strength of its art style and intriguing story. The game is cel-shaded, and plays up to its comic book aesthetic further with captions, onomatopoeia, and scenes laid out in panels like the pages of a graphic novel.
Set all this to a soundtrack that sounds as if James Brown scored a Bond film, and the whole thing is just, for want of a more sophisticated word, cool.
The TimeSplitters Series (2000-2005)
Not particularly obscure, but certainly strange and undoubtedly great, the TimeSplitters series is about a time war or something.
Its genius comes not from the story or even the gameplay (which is great), but from its incredibly odd core idea of forcibly shoving a load of disparate character archetypes, painted with brush strokes the width of the Danube, into the same game.
Overly archetypal characters are often seen as a bad thing, but putting the fate of the universe on the shoulders of a 60s hippy, a space marine who looks like Vin Diesel, a 1920s English explorer and that teenage girl from every horror film, all across multiple time periods, demonstrates something FPSs rarely have: a sense of humour.
Any semblance of story is, really, an excuse to put the player in vastly different environments across past and future, but it works so well, and Free Radical Design have so much fun doing it, that you find yourself wishing other games were this shamelessly upfront about it.
Plus, each title includes an ‘Arcade League’, in which the player must complete set challenges (usually shooting something, but well) which is even better than the actual game.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl (2007)
S.T.A.L.K.E.R., which stands for SomeTimes Acronyms LacK Essential Realism, is, as the title subtly signposts, set in the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. After attempts to repopulate ‘The Zone’ surrounding the plant are hampered by a second disaster, the area is overrun with twisted mutants.
As an FPS with RPG elements set in an irradiated wasteland, it’s easy to draw parallels between S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and the Fallout series. Where the former stands out is its survival horror gameplay and the sheer creepiness of the fact that its beautifully realised setting has its roots in the real world. The in-game city of Pripyat, for example, takes its name and layout from its real-world Ukrainian counterpart.
The story also involves amnesia, so add ‘in a desolate, irradiated Eastern-European wasteland’ to the XIII checklist above.
Superhot solves the single biggest limitation of situational awareness by stopping time, which is probably illegal. In an innovative take on the FPS, time only moves when the player does, allowing them to assess the lay of the land around them and figure out the best way forward.
A simple, tri-colour art style gives it a striking aesthetic, while the animation and slightly crystalline appearance of the characters make it reminiscent of that title sequence from Casino Royale in which Daniel Craig swans about with some playing cards.
There is some story gubbins too but really this is a simple, clever mix between an FPS and a puzzle game that succeeds on the strength of its core mechanic.
Of course, none of these can hold a monetary candle to the Call of Duty franchise, but in a genre with an increasingly uniform aesthetic, it's worth acknowledging those titles that manage to step outside it.