For 25 years, the first-person shooter has been a fact of life. Though some examples exist before this point in time, most would agree 1992’s Wolfenstein 3D cut the ribbon on this genre. And, for the most part, FPSes haven’t really changed all that much. Sure, they’ve become a bit more sophisticated over the passing decades, but their focus remains the same. Namely, killing everything in your path with a deadly arsenal that conveniently fits in your pockets.
FPSes don’t necessarily need to take this specific form, though. Some developers look at this genre as more than just a chance to turn the player into a floating gun. Dishonored 2 stands as the latest example of these divergent FPSes, but it didn’t just emerge from nowhere. Over the course of time, creations like it proved first-person shooters can be just as shooty as they are thinky.
Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss
On the PC, role-playing game largely took the form of a first-person experience, so something like Ultima Underworld amounted to an inevitability. Releasing the same year as Wolfenstein 3D, Underworld offers the same exploration of cramped corridors, but in more of a fantasy context. Though you’ll never set foot outside of a dungeon, this Ultima offshoot adds a great deal of depth to the FPS.
Think of it as a sort of predecessor to Skyrim. You have your standard experience points, classes, skills, spells and tons of items and equipment. It may look primitive today, but FPS fans of 1992 simply hadn’t seen anything like it before. And if you can’t get over Underworld’s old-school aesthetic, its Kickstarted spiritual successor should emerge in the not-too-distant future.
Ultima Underworld also features the work of Warren Spector, a legendary designer who contributed to every game on this list. As far as thinky FPSes go, he’s practically the godfather.
At this point, System Shock’s popularity pales in comparison to its spiritual successor, BioShock. But this RPG/FPS hybrid definitely left a mark in history with its forward-thinking ideas. Ultimately, it feels like more sophisticated sci-fi version of Ultima Underworld, which makes sense since it comes from the same development studio. It features the same degree of depth and customization, with the added bonus of a more interesting story told through non-linear gameplay.
13 years later, BioShock would go for a more traditional FPS approach, but it still shines with System Shock’s essence. Any game that involves wandering around in a post-catastrophe scenario—while reading the final messages of the departed—owes a lot to this classic.
Thief: The Dark Project
Anyone who fell in love with the Dishonored series should definitely find Thief appealing. And no, I’m not talking about the 2014 reboot that failed to win many people over. The original series, which stretched from the late ’90s to the early ’00s, set a new standard for FPS action. Thief also marks the beginning of BioShock creator Ken Levine’s career in gaming, the game’s elegant design definitely shows off his talents.
Instead of tasking you with approaching enemies directly, Thief instead prioritizes stealth above all else. Dishonored creator Harvey Smith never worked on this series, but his own creation bears a strong resemblance to the influential Thief games. If you dig Dishonored’s focus on fooling guards with a collection of items and abilities, taking a trip back to Thief could be worthwhile. Thankfully, as with every game on this list outside of Ultima Underworld — which currently lives on Good Old Games — you can easily download a copy on the cheap from Steam.
While many of the games on this list found new life through spiritual successors, Deus Ex remains relevant nearly two decades after its debut. And with good reason. Despite its age, all of the freedom found in the recent Deus Ex games is also present in the original. Modern games have done a great job of spoiling us, but back in 2000, you could only find this sort of depth in hardcore RPGs. Needless to say, Deus Ex made a huge splash with the sheer amount of ways it allowed you to approach objectives. Based on your character build, you can either go for a sneaky, hacky strategy, or rely on more in-your-face tactics. But regardless of your preference, every mission contains several possible outcomes.
What’s most impressive about Deus Ex can be found in just how little the series has changed over the years. Sure, Human Revolution and Mankind Divided might be a little more elegant, but both games draw upon the original’s fundamentals. If you’re a fan of the new games and haven’t played the debut, it shouldn’t take long to adapt to its clunky ways.
For more info on the latest thinky FPS to hit the market, check out our full Dishonored 2 review.