Looter shooter is a relatively new term for a genre that’s been bubbling up for years, a slightly clumsy term that nonetheless manages to precisely evoke the most important pillars of the thing it describes. While looter shooters as a hybrid are still a pretty fresh cocktail, we’ve already been spoiled with a number of really great entrants, games that prove conclusively that replacing that Diablo flaming greatsword of the owl with a giant rocket launcher of flesh gibbing was one of the best ideas in the last two decades of game design.
The grandfather of the looter shooter genre, the Borderlands franchise is the template from which a genre was born. While there were a handful of games that mixed firefights and loot prior to the first Borderlands, none that did it nearly so well, or created such a high-octane mix of pure, pleasure center tickling gunplay and gratifying fountains of shiny, beautiful loot. The key to Borderlands success was not just the countless guns on offer, or the plethora of fantastical beasts on which to test them, but how many of those guns were truly satisfying, and felt truly unique, to fire.
Borderlands 2, much more successfully than the Pre-sequel, took those elements of best-in-class shooting, weapon variety, and enemy design and refined them to a razor’s edge. While the writing and humor are an acquired taste at best, the gameplay, the sense of scale, and some of the most lively and worthwhile DLC offerings of all time make Borderlands 2 not just the best looter shooter of an age, but one of the greatest games of all time.
Like some of the best games in any genre, Warframe has borrowed a proven formula and expanded it in fascinating new ways, taking the time to explore what it means to be a space ninja and committing the resources to experiment with collecting and customizing, shooting and engaging in combat, and building a highly specialized warrior in any way a player could possibly imagine. Digital Extremes has crafted a game where grinding is an art unto itself and the hundreds of firearms one earns, collects or buys are always center stage. With an excess of customization to a player’s frame, combat style, or weapons damage types, Digital Extremes has exploded the envelope around a simple gameplay concept and blew it out to wild new extremes.
Not only does Warframe manage crisp, responsive shooting and hand-to-hand combat in a cooperative PvE environment, it offers spectacular feats of aerobatics and lightning quick traversal, players dashing through the air and sprinting up walls to land flurries of deadly blows with their shining blades or fire hails of killing projectiles from their alien-looking sidearms. Add in the oceans of loot and customizable power armor (the eponymous frames) and the open world of the Plains of Eidolon expansion, as well as the staggering flood of activities and quests and diversions, and Warframe is an incredible proposition, particularly for the low, low price of absolutely free.
The Division is the perfect archetype for the games-a-service business model we see replicated with increasing frequency as this decade draws to a close. It’s a game that started a bit light on content and compelling modes that has grown exponentially over time to be a sprawling experience with a nearly unlimited ceiling in terms of potential playtime.
As a looter shooter, it captures the key elements every success in this genre focuses on, solid gunplay and a plethora of goodies spilling out of dead enemies. But it also expands on the core formula in some interesting ways, like the multiplayer dark zone with its risk/reward mechanic of gathering large amounts of precious loot before extracting while presenting an ever more attractive target to rogue agents. The Division takes steps in some interesting, bold new directions while remaining grounded in the concepts that make looter shooters so popular in the first place.
One of the most contentious games of this generation of consoles, the original Destiny was nonetheless an undisputed success, and executed well on the the most important core gameplay elements. Destiny 2 cored out those central elements and built an even sturdier chassis around it, a larger world bristling with more to do, see, shoot, and loot.
The gunplay remains some of the best available anywhere, and the selection of shiny weapons to crave and obtain and exotic destinations to scour has grown impressively. While it’s hardly a game without flaws, it’s telling that the people that complain most vocally and frequently about Destiny 2’s shortcomings are also its most hardcore fans, players with hundreds or thousands of hours under their belt saving the last human city from the dark beyond the stars.
Shadow Warrior 2
Surely the most underrated looter shooter released in the last few years, Shadow Warrior 2 is an odd beast but one that’s powerfully addictive for those of us with an insatiable appetite for fragging and looting. With its combination of whacky, potent guns and badass, mystical melee weapons, its deep systems for buying and crafting and upgrading a huge number of items and abilities, and its requisite candy colored loot drops, Shadow Warrior 2 was the most surprising (and surprisingly satisfying) game I played in 2016. With more content packed in after launch, the game is even more robust and replayable at launch. If I would guess which games would be least likely to produce a sequel I got incredibly addicted to, the original Shadow Warrior would be near the top of that list, but Shadow Warrior 2 shattered expectations and left me eagerly anticipating developer Flying Wild Hog’s next effort.
With the massive success of the Fortnite battle royale mode, it’s frequently forgotten that the game launched as a blend of looter shooter and cooperative multiplayer, more cartoonish tower defense than PUBG imitator. But that original template, now dubbed Save the World Mode and seeming more like a legacy mode and an afterthought with every fresh million Fortnite hauls into Epic’s bank account, was actually a huge amount of fun, an idea that got better with persistent updates.
Tower defense is a proven if well-mined genre, and using it as the bedrock for a loot filled survival/mining game is a recipe with incredible potential. Scrapping cars and buildings, constructing sprawling bases, and finding color coded weapons and traps is just as fun in practice as it sounds on paper. Here’s hoping the battle royale fever doesn’t lead to Save the World tumbling into abandonware territory.