What ever happened to arena shooters? We delve into the rich history of this beloved gaming subgenre, how its survived over the years, and what arena shooters look like in 2022.
First-person shooters dominated the 1990s PC gaming scene. Classics such as Wolfenstein and DOOM reached critical acclaim and defined the genre for future generations.
As the internet boom rolled out, developer minds started to focus on how this could change multiplayer. Thoughts of LAN parties and two players sharing a keyboard drip in nostalgia, but the arena shooter embraced online multiplayer.
Origins of Arena Shooters
PC gaming in the 90s was quite limited compared to the thousands of games on various stores we see today. It focused players on some critical titles for the arena shooter sub-genre—specifically Quake III Arena, Unreal Tournament, Half-Life Deathmatch and Counterstrike.
Whilst Quake II revolutionised online multiplayer, its sequel and Unreal Tournament took full advantage of it. The big appeal with arena shooters were frenetic, high octane deathmatches. Starting with the same weapon and no buffs, players would pick up more advanced guns, health, defence and damage modifiers found scattered across the map.
Quake III vs. Unreal Tournament
This fast-paced gameplay required skill and quick reflexes, the main pulls for arena shooters. Whilst Quake III Arena focused on multiplayer-only gameplay, Unreal Tournament took the best arena shooter’s crown for its time.
Still played today; Unreal Tournament featured more weapons, complete with dual fire options. For example, the now-iconic Flack Cannon fired white-hot scrap metal as a primary fire, with the secondary being a grenade launcher. It’s one of the best weapons in first-person shooter history.
UT featured pin-point gameplay. An announcer was present for all matches to highlight player performance. “Dominating” and “Killing Spree” would be heard for kill streaks, backed by a synth original soundtrack. It’s a visceral delight that stood out from the crowd, also creeping into pop culture, its influence is still felt today.
Arena Shooters: Reloaded
The amount of content in the game was genuinely unreal; it also provided much better value for players overall compared to its competitors. It featured more maps, modes, characters and weapons than other arena shooters with a decent single-player mode to boot.
Unreal Tournament also marked the birth of the Unreal Engine, a toolset that has gone on to power countless video games. However, the best thing about arena shooters like Unreal Tournament was their pick-up and play approach. With no levelling, skill trees or load-outs to think about, people could concentrate on improving their skills in a mostly even playing field.
Arena shooters started to phase out as players moved to team-based experiences with more mechanics and realistic presentation. Map design also advanced quickly in the 2000s, allowing players to experience multi-platform strategies that were a far cry from the corridor/big room combos of the 90s.
Games like Counter-Strike and Battlefield 1942 heralded a shift towards strategy and a more significant focus on teamwork. This transition would only escalate with the boom in esports scenes in the 2010s onwards. People wanted more from their games, and some titles did try to translate arena shooter mechanics into a more enticing format.
The Halo series initially did a great job of transplanting arena shooter gameplay into a new generation. The weapon selection, vehicles and map layouts felt like a natural progression of the genre. Teamwork felt key to capturing the flag and in deathmatches, with new modes such as ‘Grifball’ and ‘king of the hill’ offering more ways to play with friends than ever before.
Arena Shooter Crysis
Crysis is also another excellent example of using the arena shooter formula to introduce new gameplay aspects. The title’s multiplayer flopped due to poor net code and the limited amount of people that could physically run Crysis on PC. Using powers such as increased strength and invisibility shook up deathmatches, introducing new ways for people to play. With gunplay and presentation being on point, this should have been a coming of age title for arena shooters.
DOOM’s 2016 reboot was a great opportunity to revamp the sub-genre, given its shared heritage with Quake. Although it succeeded in some respects, there just wasn’t an appetite for it. It wasn’t until a few years before its release that tacked-on multiplayer modes were seen as an industry-wide plight. With DOOM’s multiplayer having been outsourced, there were concerns that Bethesda had included the mode simply to tick boxes on a checklist. That perception marred what was actually a fun and frenetic suite of online game modes.
Rise of the Hero Shooter
Hero shooters such as Overwatch and Paladins would carry the torch for arena shooters into the modern age. Although they have brought some pretty big deviations such as preset weapon loadouts, progression systems, and attack/defend game modes, there’s still a focus on quick, skill-based gunplay and memorising map vantage points.
This sub-genre of shooter, which also includes games like Valorant and Rogue Company, has taken hold thanks to their emphasis on team gameplay, something that wasn’t core to the original arena shooter experience.
However, that extra layer of strategy – especially when it comes to team compositions – make these games arguably more involving and engaging to watch. It’s no wonder why they boast such an esports following.
The future of Arena Shooters
With Epic still raking it in thanks to Fortnite, the chances of there being a new Unreal Tournament in the pipeline seem pretty slim. The company recently attempted to reboot the series with a focus on player-created content and assets. However, it’s very rare that we hear of any updates.
What about id Software and Quake? There’s definitely scope for Bethesda to resurrect the long dormant series (again) with modernised sensibilities yet sporting that same speedy gunplay, punchy weapons, and fluid movement. This would seem like an open goal if not for the fact that Quake Champions had tried to do the same not that long ago. There’s something else, of course. With Bethesda now owned by Microsoft, could this stop Quake from making a return? If that meant drawing away focus from the company’s plans for Halo Infinite then yes, probably.
Speaking of Halo Infinite, it’s one of the titles that brought arena shooters kicking and screaming into 2021. It has an unabashed classic style that, for many younger gamers, will be their first exposure to the genre. It’s facing fierce competition, however. Just when we thought traditional arena shooters were long done, along came Splitgate with its big killer twist, allowing players to create Portal-like gates during matches. Both games are currently free-to-play and have already massed millions of players between them. The stage is now set for a new generation of arena shooters and hopefully more will join them while other games look to reinvent the FPS in new and interesting ways.