There have been many great first-person shooters in the last couple of decades, but what really makes shooters work — multiplayer-centric ones especially — is the quality of the levels.
We all have our favourites — maps almost feel custom-built for the way you like to play, whether it be the long-range havens with narrow corridors for snipers, urban environments with tonnes of nooks and corners for those with the twitch reactions, or skyscrapers and huge changes in elevation for those who like camping from upon high.
Here are seven of the best maps from first-person shooters over the years. I’ve gone back in time for this, because I find the real gems are the ones that stand the test of time, the levels that are so good that they get ported or re-made down the road.
Badlands, Team Fortress 2
Team Fortress 2 was so well designed that it would have been a hit no matter what, especially with Valve’s excellent shipping of The Orange Box. But what really helped TF2 along was that it had a ton of outstanding maps over its lifecycle, some from the start of launch and others later on.
Badlands is my pick from the franchise, one that still holds up relatively well today and much better than some of the original maps that TF2 shipped with (like Dustbowl). It’s still relatively well balanced and enjoyable to play today, although your experience could vary wildly depending on the skill level of who you’re playing with/against. Another favourite in the early TF2 days was the introduction of Gold Rush, one of the first payload maps introduced. It hasn’t quite stood the test of time, but many an excellent memory was forged 12 years ago on that sandy arena.
Nuketown, Call of Duty Black Ops
Certainly not one of the most balanced multiplayer maps of all-time, but definitely one of the most iconic. Nuketown is one of the most legendary maps in any FPS for free-for-all, fast-paced deathmatch, and naturally it was automatically ported over into Call of Duty Mobile.
A simplistic testing ground that served as cannon fodder for massive killstreaks, Nuketown is one of those levels that you could replay again and again and again. There’s a legion of vastly better options for more serious and more balanced play though: Carentan from COD 2, Backlot from COD 4, Crash, Terminal from Modern Warfare 2, World at War‘s Castle, MW2‘s Favela, London Docks from COD: WW2 or Array from Black Ops.
Stonehenge, Starsiege Tribes
I’m adding this one as a personal indulgence, because Stonehenge was the map available in the Starsiege Tribes demo many moons ago. You could load it up and play bots and a bit of LAN multiplayer, and I spent countless hours and weekends smashing bots with my brother.
It was a magical experience playing this in a full server, albeit one that not a lot of Australians got to appreciate at the time. Tribes never had the biggest fanbase, particularly compared to Quake or Counter-Strike in Australia. There was no game like Tribes at the time. There still isn’t. And part of that was the sense of scope and scale players saw when they booted up Stonehenge for the first time.
It’s a real shame this game wasn’t more successful than it was. If only Tribes Ascend had panned out differently.
Lockout, Halo series
Lockout is my favourite Halo map of all time.
When you think of solid, competitive Halo maps, they tend to fall into two categories: assymetric or symmetric.
Lockout is a map that somehow manages to play to those conventions, but subvert them in interesting, unique ways.
Because technically Lockout is probably a symmetrical map. But it’s also assymetric in many ways. There are two distinct bases in Lockout — the battle rifle side and the sniper rifle side. But the multiple different routes and avenues between those two bases makes Lockout unique. There are countless ways for sneaky players to infiltrate the enemy stronghold and dismantle them. It’s a map that requires thought, rapid-fire speed-chess style thought.
It’s also a map that encourages innovative means of traversal — there’s a tremendous abundance of routes players can take, which allows players to surprise opponents. But, conversely the map is cleverly designed to allow smart players to evade and escape attackers.
The end result: a tremendous game of cat and mouse that relies less on the accuracy of the player’s shot than it does your ability to outsmart your opponent. I love it.
This entry courtesy of Mark Serrels
Backlot, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
The colour scheme won’t win any awards, and new players were often caught off guard by grenades being lobbed sky high from the various spawn points. But Backlot’s real value was its versatility.
It was a remarkably open map for attackers and defenders, offering plenty of angles and corners at A for those with rifles and SMGs. The right side of the map also had long straights for snipers to thrive, and the long hallway at the far edge of the map allowed someone to scope into A while still contributing to the defence of B.
But many of the chokepoints around A and the middle of the map were quite tight, tight enough for a single smoke to give plenty of cover for an agile team. Getting the bomb down was the real difficulty of the map; like most shooters, it wasn’t uncommon for the defending side to win 8 or 9 rounds in the old MR12 format.
Backlot never pinned players back though: regardless of where you were, and where you wanted to hit, players always had options. And like any exceptional map, it was just as much fun in a public server as it was in an organised match — although Call of Duty 4 was unusually blessed with many decent battlefields in that regard.
Spider Crossings (q3wcp9), Quake 3: Arena
It feels remiss to pick only one of the sensational capture the flag maps in Quake 3’s long, long history, but the one that never feels stale even to this day is Spider Crossings. It’s the default CTF map in Quake Live now, although I remember enjoying it back when you had to install the Threewave mod for Quake 3 (along with the Orange Smoothie Productions mod, or OSP, for competitive play).
There’s an incredible amount of room in Spider Crossings, something best epitomised by the centre area that has two jump pads and a X-style crossing above the chaos below. It’s a haven for those skilled with the railgun, whether it be in the centre or around the flag spawns.
It’s not such a gargantuan level, however, that players can be pulled out of the action. It’s incredibly well designed and as far as Quake maps go, it’s probably on par with Aerowalk for popularity. I’m still a little partial to Japanese Castles (q3wcp1), but there’s no denying Spider Crossings’ exceptional design.
Strike at Karkand, Battlefield series
The Battlefield series has had difficulty making a clean break from Karkand, and with good reason. It’s been a staple of the gargantuan squad-shooter franchise since Battlefield 2, and it’s been reused in many titles since, even making an appearance in the futuristic Battlefield 2142.
Good maps are all about options and shifts in gameplay, and it would take too many paragraphs here to detail how each of the various capture points and chokepoints are vulnerable (but not terminally so) to various weaponry, vehicles and infantry movements.
Because of the way Battlefield plays out, it’s much better shown than explained, so here’s a video that will give you a rough idea.
Inferno, Counter-Strike series
When you think Counter-Strike, chances are you think of Dust 2, or Dust in general. The colour scheme certainly fits the era, but perhaps what’s so special about Dust 2 is the way it bucks the Counter-Strike trend. It underwent substantial changes for Counter-Strike: Source that were largely upheld in CS:GO, but even still it remains one of the few maps that are generally favoured for the attackers.
But as fun as this, there’s one that has always been better balanced, one that has always produced more interesting shifts in the meta and one that has always been more meaningful over the game’s life: Inferno.
It’s so good that it even became a staple third-party map in Call of Duty 4, when the PC community was struggling to keep it alive following the release of Modern Warfare 3. But it’s still one of the most important maps in the CS:GO cycle — although it’s dropped out of favour a touch — and it’s equally as fun to play in deathmatch, matchmaking, random public servers and organised games, more than a decade on.
2Fort, Team Fortress
It’d be remiss not to at least touch on perhaps the most iconic class-based shooter of all time, and you can’t touch on that without going back to one of the game’s absolute classics: 2Fort.
2Fort has existed in some shape or form since the Team Fortress mod for Quake was around. That mod never had any official maps, but the community quickly made it so and 2Fort was and has been inextricably tied to every release of Team Fortress ever since.
It’s got everything you could want, with plenty of room for all of the classes to contribute in some meaningful way. The layout has remained largely untouched as well, with perhaps the major change in Team Fortress 2 being the inclusion of the alcove in the centre that scouts and other classes can run along (while also providing limited shelter to medics and heavy players running underneath).
Facing Worlds, Unreal Tournament series
Thanks to PC Gamer for the downsampled image — there were others, but this was far too pretty to go past.
You know, I tried to think of other maps. I actively avoided writing about Facing Worlds for as long as possible. What Call of Duty 2 maps stood the test of time. Carentan (or Chinatown, as it was remade) was pretty good — how about that? I had a little debate in my head about the merits of picking Anzio over Avalanche for Day of Defeat — both excellent, excellent maps, although Day of Defeat wasn’t held in quite as high a regard.
I even had a discussion with others in the office about picking Morpheus, another Unreal Tournament map that plays a lot better than Facing Worlds. Campgrounds 2 from Quake 3 certainly is worthy of a mention, as is Q3DM17, the classic space level that shipped with the test version of Quake 3.
But there isn’t anything quite as memorable, a map so synonymous with a game as Facing Worlds. I still don’t think it plays that well — good snipers can absolutely dominate, and when they don’t it’s generally because everyone is translocating every two seconds to dodge enemy fire.
When you think of Unreal Tournament, or the Unreal series in general, the first image that comes to mind is the shot of those two towers with the planet in the background. It might even be the most iconic image any map has ever created — and for that alone, despite all its other flaws, Facing Worlds has to be mentioned.
There was plenty of other maps that were worth talking about, and plenty others that I have warm memories of. Terminal from Modern Warfare 2 was an absolute blast across a multitude of game modes; Aerowalk remains perhaps the best map for 1v1 duels in any shooter I’ve ever played. Medal of Honor’s iconic Normandy level wasn’t as great as a multiplayer map, but it was a cracking way to start a campaign, and Valley from Enemy Territory: Quake Wars left an impression that I still remember to this day.
What are your favourite levels from multiplayer shooters?
This story has been updated since its original publication.