Conventional wisdom, and a couple of throwaway comments on our recent Halo Anniversary podcast Issue, say that after Rare’s 1997 Bond smash and before Bungie’s 2001 game-changer, there weren’t any first-person shooters worth playing on console. It was that stage of the cycle where ‘current gen’ consoles were ageing and PC’s were outstripping them in terms of grunt. Mouse-and-keyboard jockeys were enjoying the likes of Valve’s multi award-winning Half-Life, Rebellion’s thrilling Aliens Vs. Predator and Ion Storm’s genre-defying RPG hybrid Deus Ex running at glorious resolutions with silky frame rates, meanwhile was there really nothing of any quality on console with which to sate an itchy trigger-finger (excluding the, then fashionable, on-rails light-gun shooter)? Although we’re now back at that same point in the technology cycle, barely a month goes by without at least a couple of first person shooters being released for 360 and/or PS3. Even the less capable Wii is host to a handful of semi-competent examples of the genre. Is it conceivable that non-PC gamers suffered a three year long shooter drought at the end of the ’90’s? Well, I’m not going to lie to you; it was slim pickings. However there were a few, and I played them all.
Turok 2: Seeds of Evil (N64, 1998)
Ok, a terrible example to start with. Acclaim’s N64 (near) launch title Turok: Dinosaur Hunter came with a hefty price tag and unrealistically inflated review scores due to technical competence and a lack of competition. The claustrophobic, frame-rate saving fog made which the already maddening pixel-perfect platform sections insufferable was exacerbated by infinitely re-spawning enemies. Together these undesirable elements conspired to more than mar the impact of the fundamentally sound shooting and imaginatively over-the-top weapons. A year and a half later developer Iguana released this sequel to inexplicably rave reviews. Optionally utilising the newly released 4MB Expansion Pak for a ‘high resolution’ mode (which in fact only served to aggravate existing frame rate issues, despite the reappearance of that fog), the patience-sapping re-spawning enemies were still present and if anything the levels were more vast and less well signposted than in the first already sprawling game. Yet still the accolades rolled in: a prestigious ‘9’ in EDGE magazine (since repeatedly acknowledged as a mistake), 5 stars in Next Gen, and 9’s on IGN and Gamespot. The sequel featured some strong visuals, cool weapons – including the infamous cerebral bore – and improved enemy AI, but the game was fatally undermined as an enjoyable experience by the aforementioned flaws. A diverting, if short-lived, split screen multiplayer suite – which twelve months later was expanded into a standalone release: Turok: Rage Wars – wasn’t enough to make up for the disappointment of the main game.
Quake II (N64, PSone 1999)
Now we’re talking. A PC port, of course. Well, yes, but not a straight or perfunctory one. Two quite different conversions by separate developers: Hammerhead for PlayStation and Raster Productions on N64. The 32 bit game was a technically impressive interpretation and even incorporated an entirely functional four player game via multi-tap and split screen. Compromises were made, levels were re-jigged and sections linked by tunnels to mask loading plus of course resolution was lower than the original PC incarnation. However the game played superbly, and Hammerhead even included support for the PS Mouse to facilitate an authentic experience. Unlike its SNES predecessor, the N64 was never granted a mouse peripheral (to my knowledge), but its controller – as ably demonstrated by GoldenEye – was a decent match for a PC set-up with it’s fine analogue stick and directional ‘C’ buttons mimicking WASD. Raster’s 64 bit version was graphically fine (with optional Expansion Pak support) and featured entirely different levels and maps to the PSone game as well as four player death-matches with no multi-tap peripheral required. Most importantly, as with the PSone version it played an exciting, immersive game as you battled the Strogg hordes.
Alien Resurrection (PSone, 2000)
The Alien franchise had already been surprisingly well served up to this point with a large number of decent titles including a tremendous 8 bit strategy/survival horror outing (1986), outstanding run & gun Alien3 tie-ins on the 16 bit consoles (1993), Alien Vs. Predator (1994) on the Atari Jaguar and Alien Trilogy (1996) on the PSone and Saturn. Not to mention a couple of memorable coin-ops from Konami (1990) and Capcom (1994). Argonaut (perhaps best known for 16 bit StarGlider, Star Fox/StarWing on the SNES and popular but rubbish platformer Croc: Legend of the Gobbos on PSone) knocked it out of the airlock with this fps/survival horror fusion. Arriving three years after Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s much reviled movie, Argonaut’s Resurrection – despite grainy environments, blocky Aliens and minimal draw-distance – evoked all the tension and dread of the earlier movies that was missing in the fourth film in the series. Via impeccable sound design and the drip-feeding of scares, ammo and save points this offered an almost unbearable edge-of-the-seat experience. The game even supported the excellent PS Mouse and d-pad combo interface for an improved gameplay experience. Sadly, what could and should have been a far better looking Dreamcast conversion was canned due to the commercial failure of that machine. This remains arguably the definitive interactive Alien experience and is perhaps closer to EA’s Dead Space (2008) than anything.
Perfect Dark (N64, 2000)
GoldenEye’s successor is largely well regarded but perhaps not remembered with the same affection as 007’s game. Despite some inventive new weapons (Laptop gun, Farsight), Expansion Pak support and a more comprehensive multiplayer component, missteps manifesting in some sloppy level design and the unwelcome inclusion of a couple of types of alien species soured the experience for many. Almost three years had passed since GoldenEye and in a post Half-Life world PD seemed a touch retrograde even to console-only owners, with its Lego-esque environments, grotesque characters and choppy (to put it kindly) frame rate. However there is still a belting game in here for both the solo player or a group of ‘frenemies’, which can now be enjoyed in HD and at budget price via the Xbox Live Marketplace. This remains a greater investment than the poor 2005 Xbox 360 sequel Perfect Dark Zero.
Quake III Arena (Dreamcast, 2000)
Finally then, another Quake game, another PC port. This conversion by Raster was close – real close – to its big PC bro, offering mouse and keyboard support not to mention actual, proper online death-match play via the DC’s built-in 33.6 kbit/s modem. Admittedly over telephone line the game was prone to a wee bit of lag, but you learned to compensate and it was easy to get into a game. You could even manually choose your server and shoot it out cross format with PC owners. Again this port offered lower resolutions and fewer frames per second than a top PC could provide you with, but for the relative price (£200 for a Dreamcast, £1000+ for a high end PC at this point), it was churlish to complain. This was the premium online shooter on any console for quite some time. Of course over a decade later you can now play what is, to all intents and purposes, the same game via browser or XBLA, but back at the turn of the millennium this was exciting stuff; ginger baby steps towards a gaming revolution that wouldn’t fully get under way until Halo 2 on the Xbox some four years later.
So conventional wisdom is, as ever, based in truth but fails to tell the whole story. The above were some excellent games, and particularly essential for those of us who had fallen in love with the FPS genre via the likes of Williams’ PlayStation Doom conversion (1995) and Lobotomy’s forgotten classic Exhumed (a.k.a Powerslave) (1996) but couldn’t afford a capable PC at this time. I needed these games to feed my blood lust, and that they did, admirably so.