Tactical shooters can be truly amazing games; intense tests of tactical planning, execution, and coordination, in a more high stakes real-time shooter game format, not giving you time to pause and think things through. Scenario planning and execution is what sets this genre apart from other shooters. “Tactical shooter” is a term that is used too loosely in the gaming industry today. In this article we will introduce you to some serious tactical shooters, and explore the endangerment this genre currently faces.
Compared to tactical shooters, the opposing type of shooters are those filled with entropy. Entropy describes most of the Battlefield franchise, especially all of the recent ones. Entropy is the nature of Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch modes with lots of players. It is even inherent to Battlefield’s Conquest mode and modes that strongly resemble it like Territory in Rising Storm/Red Orchestra 2 as well as Domination mode in Call of Duty. Yes, even Rising Storm/Red Orchestra 2 can hardly be called a tactical shooter. Join any server and you will see how entropic it is; players running around everywhere with only the most basic coordination thanks to the presence of a commander (something that was only recently reintroduced to the Battlefield franchise).
In Battlefield’s Conquest and Red Orchestra’s Territory modes, the goal is to hold more points (small areas on the map) than the enemy. Two teams of players spawn on opposite sides of the map, with capture points being in between, so each team will generally pursue them linearly. A player in the role of commander tells the team which points to pursue (the exception being all Battlefield games released after Battlefield 2142 and before Battlefield 4, since these had no commander mode). So there is some loose suggestion of tactics here, but let’s examine this further; the commander tells the team what point to pursue, but how they get there is a matter of sprinting around in no formation whatsoever. And there is the source of entropy and lack of tactics in these games, that along with the fact that this game mode (Conquest in Battlefield, Territory in Rising Storm/Red Orchestra, Domination in Call of Duty) is too simple to be very tactical.
Battlefield does have a much more tactical mode though, and it is called Titan in Battlefield 2142, and Carrier Assault in Battlefield 4 is inspired by it.
As you can see, this game mode is far more demanding of team coordination and tactics. Many steps have to be performed together in order to win the match by bringing down the enemy’s Titan. You can’t just shoot it down or anything, as it has a powerful defensive shield and it’s massive. Even boarding a Titan is a process and first requires neutralizing the shield, which requires controlling missile systems on the ground.
The battle will be fought on one or both Titans and also on the ground to control the missile systems. Balancing where to go at different times adds tactical complexity. Fighting your way through an enemy Titan is also not a straightforward process but an actual procedure.
All of these elements add a type of complexity that is logical and increases teamwork and tactics. That is the difference between tactical Battlefield (Titan) and not so tactical Battlefield (Conquest and Rush). Then there is Project Reality mod for Battlefield 2, which has spawned a recent game called Squad.
And this is just the beginning of the article using a common, popular example. As far as tactical shooters go, Battlefield 2142 on Titan mode is still entry level. Other specific examples will follow on the next pages. But just see this Battlefield example and ask yourself if you see games like this thriving today. You do not, especially when you consider the other positive attributes of Battlefield 2142 like its free customizable dedicated server included with the game, and its moddability, both of which are also totally removed from the franchise.
The games presented on the next pages are all easily obtainable and playable today on modern systems. We want to introduce you to amazing tactical shooters, and we hope you give them a try. None of these games have any issues supporting modern systems and large resolutions (2560 x 1440 144 Hz tested for all, 3840 x 2160 tested for some).
Release Date: 2013
Platforms: PC / Linux / Mac
Genre: FPS / TPS (Single Player, Co-op, and PvP)
Developer: Bohemia Interactive
Publisher: Bohemia Interactive
The Arma franchise is as tactical as a shooter gets. They stem from the Virtual Battlespace simulators made by the same studio. Arma is a streamlined version. Despite that, Arma 3 is not just a mere shooter. It is a military simulator platform, having as much content and mechanics as multiple games. Launch day reviews do not even cover Arma 3 anymore; we wrote one, but it is too outdated now as the game has over doubled in size in official content, and it is infinitely bigger when considering unofficial content (mods).
Showcases menu, which are designed to showcase a specific aspect of the game (or mod). Only one shown here is from a mod, the rest are official.
That’s not even showing the Scenarios and Campaigns menu. The game has multiple full fledged campaigns now, one from the base game then several DLC add their own. Most single player mods are Scenarios, so you can have nearly an infinite amount of them.
All Arma games are playable in single player and co-op, but many custom game modes exist to bring PvP and perhaps even more. They feature a scalable squad command system that expands beyond merely commanding a squad. The amount of content the Arma games bring is unparalleled in the shooter genre; gigantic open world maps, so many character models and clothing, armor, equipment, all kinds of vehicles including UAVs and drones, and all of this is amplified greatly when you factor in the massive expansions and mods.
Arma 3 is the latest iteration of the series, and is mechanically superior to its predecessors in every way, and the 3D editor is another one of its biggest improvements. While the game released in 2013, its constant updates keep it alive and up to date. These days it averages around 30,000 – 35,000 players daily, and these constant updates also include significant engine updates.
Other things that helps Arma 3 as a tactical shooter are the extensive game and difficulty customization options. Only the former is shown in the screenshot below, there are too many of the latter to show in one nice screenshot (dozens).
Not to mention character customization is industry leading for a shooter…
While we list only Arma 3 in this article, the previous Arma games are worth buying if you are a huge fan of the franchise, since you can import most maps, models, and items from the previous Arma games into Arma 3. One of my absolute favorite maps in the franchise is in the first game, but it is easily playable in Arma 3 just by creating a mod folder in Arma 3’s directory and dragging and dropping the content into it.
Arma’s gameplay scalability puts it above every other tactical shooter in many ways. Essentially everything you can do in every Ghost Recon game, every SOCOM game, and most other tactical or just military shooters you can do in Arma. You can play solo, with a squad under your command, or command companies, or go all the way up to commanding divisions on the map screen. If you are partial to tanks, you can play as a tank driver or tank gunner in various positions. The attention to detail in vehicle operation approaches simulator level. A tank driver is not a gunner, military vehicles require multiple operators.
The same level of detail applies to its UAVs, helicopters, fixed wing aircraft, boats, and submarines. Yes, Arma pretty much has it all, especially Arma 2: Combined Operations with all DLC as well as Arma 3: Apex Edition with the rest of the DLC (although some of the Arma 3 DLC is overpriced). But again, newcomers to the franchise should start with Arma 3. The only real reason to get the previous Arma games is to bring their content over into Arma 3. They don’t have spectacular campaigns, although Arma 2’s is fun nonetheless.
Arma 3’s campaign is the biggest and most detailed, and it comes with some smaller scenarios as well. The Apex expansion brings another large scale campaign. Every Arma game has an easy to use editor but Arma 3’s is better than ever since it supports 3D visuals now and resembles a full SDK built into the game. Like many of the most tactical shooters, Arma is very much about creating scenarios, planning them, and then playing them.
Crysis / Crysis Wars
Release Date: 2007 / 2008
Genre: FPS (Single Player and PvP)
Publisher: Electronic Arts
With Crysis we are not at all referring to its single player portion. The tactical portion of Crysis and Crysis Wars is the multiplayer component, specifically Power Struggle mode. You still have your Nanosuit and a surprisingly steep learning curve, although that’s not the source of the tactical nature of the game mode. These videos explain it better than any words.
There are some very vague similarities to the aforementioned Titan game mode in Battlefield 2142. In both, the goal is to destroy the enemy’s headquarters (the HQ being the Titan in BF2142). To do so is not straightforward but involves capturing and holding several key points on the map. Titan is much simpler though, since all the points you must hold on the map are identical; missile systems to destroy the enemy Titan’s shield, and if the shields on both Titans are destroyed then you can forget about the missile systems and the ground map entirely.
But Power Struggle? A similar goal, but far more interconnected objectives creating tactical complexity that only twp other PvP shooter franchises can match (hint: they are both featured in this article, one of which is on the next page). To destroy the enemy HQ, you must utilize weapons of mass destruction; the TAC Launcher (handheld nuclear weapon), one of two TAC Tanks (nuclear tanks), or the Singularity Tank. These are not all available on every Power Struggle map by default, but many modded servers including the ones I used to run made it that way.
How do you acquire weapons of mass destruction? You must build them in the Prototype Factory, when the Prototype Factory has accumulated 100% of its possible alien energy capacity. But by default, the Prototype Factory has no energy going to it, so it’s at 0%. To bring it up to 100%, you must capture and hold alien energy sites; the more you hold, the faster energy accumulates. What isn’t mentioned in the above videos is that there is a server option that makes it so purchasing weapons of mass destruction at the Prototype Factory has an energy cost, and lowers energy. And remember: if the energy is below 100% (by default, this can be configured by the server admin) then you cannot build weapons of mass destruction. This means that holding alien energy sites is important even after building a weapon of mass destruction, since it takes more than one nuke to destroy the HQ.
Technically, those are the only elements required to finish a match of Power Struggle. But if you ignore all the other ones; the tactically positioned spawn bunkers, war factories, naval factories, and aviation factories, then the opposing team will use them to their advantage and unleash tanks, helicopters, VTOLs, boats, and hovercrafts on you, while spawning closer to all of these objectives via the spawn bunkers. In other words, holding at least some of these key locations is a must, although not every map has all of those.
The maps are mostly large (many are similar to Battlefield maps in scale) and there are 10 Power Struggle maps by default (15 Team Deathmatch/Deathmatch maps for what it’s worth). Much more have been made via mods of course, and Crysis Wars does have a fully functioning auto downloader.
Even nuking the enemy’s HQ isn’t simple on every map. Most maps require you to get rather close to the enemy HQ to get a decent shot on it, close enough to be in range of the HQ’s automated defense turrets. Unfortunately, by default in Crysis Wars those turrets are invulnerable, but many servers change that with mods.
You are not just holding meaningless locations to accumulate points in Power Struggle. Everything has a purpose and everything contributes to the end goal, and it is up to your team to pursue the right objectives at the right time. A good, competitive Power Struggle match will last anywhere from 90-150 minutes on larger maps, and 60-120 minutes on smaller maps. This is just average, so they can be longer or possibly shorter. I have had stalemates last for well over 3 hours, but they were phenomenal matches.
The only other PvP shooters that can compare to these in tactical complexity and required coordination are Natural Selection and Tremulous (including Gloom, the mod it indirectly stems from). There are no others, and unfortunately Natural Selection 2 is the only one with a serviceable amount of players these days. You can still get into a populated Power Struggle match a few times a week, but no more than that.
Natural Selection 2
Release Date: 2012
Platforms: PC / Linux
Genre: FPS / RTS (PvP)
Developer: Unknown Worlds Entertainment
Publisher: Unknown Worlds Entertainment
Based on a Half-Life mod released way back in 2002, Natural Selection 2 is the epitome of modern day PvP shooters. Still updated constantly to this day, the amount of content it has absolutely blows away modern AAA shooters like the Battlefield and Call of Duty games even with all their DLC, and all of Natural Selection 2’s major DLC was free and just came as patches really. New maps, structures, engine updates, and more all for free.
Natural Selection 2 is the most tactically and strategically complex PvP shooter in the world, outdoing its predecessor and the very similar Tremulous, and also surpassing Power Struggle in Crysis and Crysis Wars. Two teams as usual, and the goal is to destroy the enemy’s HQ once again, although in this game you can build additional HQ’s. Where does the complexity come from here? Take a look.
So each team is fundamentally different mechanically. Each team requires a commander, who plays an RTS rather than an FPS. Alien commander must spread the alien infection in order to build alien structures, while Marine structures require power, keeping a symmetrical design. Balance is superb, although changes a bit with most patches. Endless gameplay variety, with different “classes” so to speak; different roles for Marines and different alien life forms with unique mechanics. Not everyone is offensive.
The maps are large complex facilities, so it is important to have a good commander who utilizes the map and resources wisely, giving out sound orders to build the right structures in the right places. Resource points are gained by non-commanding players by completing objectives and killing enemies. They are spent on technology to upgrade your equipment and structures (and life forms when playing as aliens).
Unlike Power Struggle however, it is theoretically possible to bum rush the enemy HQ right at the start, and win the match in a few minutes. It’s not going to happen though. Considering this, the wisest course of action is to at some point build additional HQ’s for your team and fill them with another commander. Pro tip: don’t play commander if you’re a noob.
A good, competitive match with intelligent players will typically last around 30-50 minutes. The special purposes of every structure, commander responsibilities, and unique class mechanics make this the most tactical and strategic PvP shooter ever made.
Credit to SilverChaos for uploading this video.
Release Date: 2013
Platforms: PC / Linux / PlayStation 4 / PlayStation 3 / XBOX One / XBOX 360 / Nintendo Switch
Genre: FPS (Single Player and Co-op)
Developer: Overkill Software
Publisher: 505 Games
Another extremely tactical co-op shooter, particularly on harder difficulties. PAYDAY 2 is the opposite of the SWAT games. You play as the criminals. The game demonstrates brilliance on some of its missions, but all of them are a tactical challenge. You play as criminals undertaking various kinds of heists; robbing banks, robbing jewelry stores, transporting drugs, much more. The variety ensures that this game always provides different types of tactical challenges.
Many missions (most robberies) can be completed either stealthily or not. Stealth is a bigger challenge—I would go as far as saying that PAYDAY 2 on harder difficulties is the hardest stealth game ever made. But it is more rewarding both figuratively and literally, as you can get bigger payouts this way. The video at the top of this page shows a stealth run of one of the biggest and best heists PAYDAY 2 has to offer.
Going loud is the other option. Guns blazing, but then you have to deal with endless waves of police reinforcements and running out of ammo. PAYDAY 2 has class based gameplay, and it is important to make your team consist of all classes. Redundancy is generally not ideal. Each class results in fundamentally different gameplay. Masterminds buff the team and are the best for intimidation, Ghosts are stealth specialist with appropriate equipment, Technicians are best for picking locks and using various technological equipment, Enforcers are combat experts, Fugitives are survivalists (the least important class to have). The skill trees for each class are deep.
If one little thing goes wrong on harder difficulties, the entire heist can be botched. Just watch the video above, it is obvious how tactical this game is. You have to be mindful of civilians, security guards, security cameras, and much more.
Mission to subdue a serial killer in SWAT 4.
Release Date: 2005
Genre: FPS (Single Player and Co-op)
Developer: Irrational Games
Publisher: Sierra Entertainment
The SWAT franchise bears some resemblance Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six, but smaller in scale as all the missions are local to a state, and many are domestic in nature, whereas Rainbow Six is an international counter-terrorist team.
You command a small team of SWAT police in hostile missions, usually hostage rescue. It lacks variety compared to Rainbow Six, given the local setting. But the randomized missions, various types of equipment (e.g. optiwand, various types of grenades, door wedge, nonlethal weapons) keeps things interesting every time. Not only do you get special equipment, they aren’t all contextualized in their use. You can freely equip everything, from the lockpick to the door wedge to the optiwand, and the optiwand is not only for looking under doors but it can mirror around corners too as you can use it freely! A level of attention to detail in gameplay mechanics only seen in PC gaming, and rarely at that.
The mechanics of this game are just brilliant. As with Rainbow Six, nobody is a bullet sponge which raises the stakes; everyone can die in an instant. If you accidentally kill a civilian you fail immediately, as expected. In single player you also fail the mission if your character, the commanding officer, dies. This is unlike Rainbow Six in which you do not control a central character but can switch controlled characters at any time.
The squad command system is the best of its kind, far surpassing all of the Rainbow Six games. It is optimized for mouse use, being not a rotary wheel but a list. The amount of commands is perfect, not one thing is missing, making the Rainbow Six games seem shallow in this regard (Arma 3 and perhaps its predecessors are the only other shooters so complete in this regard). Sure, you can order your squad members to stack up at a door, open and use any grenade and then clear, breach and clear with C2 breaching charges or a special breaching shotgun, the usual. But you can also order them to provide covering fire in a specified direction, perform all methods of object interaction you can do (e.g. use optiwand under door or around a corner, lockpick a door, zipcuff a suspect), anything and everything. While your squad is only 5 total (including the player), it is split up further to provide additional control: two AI members are on red team, two are on blue, so you can split them up. This applies to multiplayer as well although the player count is 8 instead of 5 (it should be 8 in single player but unfortunately this cannot be changed).
Some missions have sniper support, allowing you to bring up a picture-in-picture in-game window showing the sniper’s perspective through their scope. Snipers announce when they see a target or see you. At any time you can bring up their viewpoint, and at any time you can control it! They will not take shots on their own, you must take control and do it. Likewise, red and blue team each have a video camera which you can bring up in separate viewports, so if you split your team up you can see what they see. Again, the attention to detail here is just incredible, and the AI surpasses all Rainbow Six games.
The game prioritizes nonlethal approach, and on Hard difficulty and above it’s hard to pass a mission at all when killing suspects. This is a problem sometimes; I have gotten point deductions for “Unauthorized use of deadly force” when killing people who were shooting at me. The cause for this was the fact that I didn’t stop to yell at the suspect to drop his weapon, but he was already firing at me so I prioritized shooting back.
You get points for various things like reporting to HQ when you arrest or kill or incapacitate someone, points for rescuing civilians and arresting suspects. The difficulty setting raises the total score requirement for passing missions.
One error can easily cause mission failure. The randomized suspect and civilian spawns (that is, random location and quantity) makes it so every mission is intense. A proper plan is necessary, although it only takes a few minutes to plan a mission in SWAT 4. You can choose your point of entry from several on most maps, and you can make your own custom missions as well. This is a trend in this article; the most tactical shooters let you plan first and then execute.
The flaws of SWAT 4 are minor. Movement is too slow particularly on stairs, guns are too inaccurate when moving, and there is no iron sight mechanic. But to this day it remains unrivaled. Rainbow Six is similar, but the first three games (the best of that series) are not really competitors as their scale is totally different. But we need the best of both worlds as far as mechanics goes, in proper successors to each. Unfortunately, all we have to look forward to is Ready or Not which is very far off.
Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six 3 Gold
Release Date: 2004
Platforms: PC / Mac / Mobile
Genre: FPS (Single Player and Co-op)
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal / Ubisoft Milan / Red Storm Entertainment
The first three Rainbow Six games are the most intense shooters of all time. They have the strongest consequences for tactical errors, therefore it is safe to say they are the most tactical shooters ever made. In Rainbow Six you play as an international counter-terrorism unit, rather than a local police force. The missions are much bigger than in the SWAT games, the gameplay encompasses much more and is more complex.
These games might have a steeper learning curve than any other shooter, and are thus the farthest things you can find from casual shooters. Playing them is a commitment.
Rainbow Six: Vegas and its sequel puts you in command of just two other squad members. Rainbow Six: Siege is 5 vs 5 in tiny environments. All three of those games are devoid of nearly every feature we’re about to go over in Rainbow Six 3, and also Rainbow Six 3 has many more guns than the others especially once you factor in mods. I only use the AllR6 content addons as far as new map mods go, and my game has 83 maps!
The enemy and civilian spawns are randomized on every mission, something SWAT also has but Rainbow Six: Vegas series doesn’t have.
So it is obvious that Rainbow Six 3, like the first two, is tactical like no other shooters. You don’t even control a single character; if you die, you immediately switch to another. You can also freely switch to any soldier on any other team you sent on the mission. You fail your game if all soldiers on your roster die. Guns are extremely lethal in this game.
This game also includes a real time contextual squad command system (although the interface for which and the mechanic in general is not as good as SWAT 4’s), the ability to choose between three rules of engagement which applies to all soldiers on your team (Assault, Recon, and Infiltrate), and some awesome and rarely seen gameplay mechanics like prone position, fluid movement (holding a key and then moving the mouse up will dynamically elevate your characters stance, moving mouse down will dynamically lower it, and moving it left and right will dynamically lean left/right), fluid door opening (mouse wheel can gradually open doors like in games by Frictional Games), and more.
Check out the multiplayer customization options. Once upon a time, this was the norm.
Also present in the game is the ability to make your own custom missions within the game, using whatever levels you have. It also has a full fledged SDK, and like many other games on this list it supports hardware accelerated 3D sound and EAX (Advanced HD) for superior sound that we no longer get in games.
Everyone playing this game should use Raven Shield 2.0 mod, and install the free Iron Wraith expansion which is not included with any copy of the game. To do so, follow this guide.
It is unfortunate that Rainbow Six 3 was the last of its kind. Nothing since has been remotely close to it. The complexity, randomized spawns, and the fact that it rarely takes more than 2 shots for anyone to die, are the reasons for this game’s unparalleled intensity. You can do everything you can in Rainbow Six: Vegas and much more in this game. Shooting mechanics are more advanced, no 100% perfectly accurate guns in this game, and the AI is superior as well.
Release Date: 2006
Platforms: PC / Linux / Mac
Genre: FPS (PvP)
Developer: Dark Legion Development
Think Natural Selection but more weapons for the humans, more alien classes although sometimes less variety within them, and much less constructs and no RTS style gameplay, and you’ve got Tremulous. It is a free open source game based on a mod from the same name, which is based on a Quake III mod called Gloom. They are essentially dead nowadays in terms of player count, but see for yourself and if that proves to be the case for you then play Natural Selection 2.