Published January 13, 2015
This week, a little game called "Halo 3" is making its way into stores. And while it's expected to break all kinds of sales records, it's only one of a series of recent releases that have redefined the shoot-'em-up genre.
The three-dimensional shooter has come a long way from the simple run-and-gun action of 1993's "Doom."
Today's finest shoot-'em-ups incorporate elements from other genres, including stealth ("Splinter Cell"), role playing ("Deus Ex") and squad-based tactics ("Gears of War").
It's hard to deny the visceral kick of blowing up monsters with a grenade launcher. The following games go a bit beyond that simple thrill — in one case, at least, offering one of the most moving experiences you'll ever have in a video game:
— "BioShock" (2K Games, for the Xbox 360, $59.99): This extraordinary adventure is so complex that describing it as a shoot-'em-up almost seems like an injustice.
But you will be unloading a lot of ammo here, whether from an impressive array of weapons or from the biological "plasmids" that let you shoot fire, electricity or other substances from your fingertips.
It's all very slickly executed, and the action would be impressive enough even if it wasn't attached to such a gorgeous package.
"BioShock" takes place in an undersea city called Rapture, built in the 1940s by an egomaniacal industrialist named Andrew Ryan.
By the time you arrive in 1960, however, Ryan's would-be Utopia has degenerated into a nightmare, populated by murderous mutants, deadly robots and a mysterious family of young girls called the Little Sisters.
Every detail of "BioShock," from the art-deco design of Rapture to the evocative soundtrack of period hits, has been lovingly crafted to create a world unlike anything you've ever seen before. And the plot is unusually sophisticated, requiring some tough ethical choices and delivering a doozy of a plot twist about two-thirds of the way in.
Future shoot-'em-ups — even "Halo 3" — are going to be hard-pressed to meet the high standards of this masterpiece.
Four stars out of four.
—"Metroid Prime 3: Corruption" (Nintendo, for the Wii, $49.99): When it debuted in 2002, "Metroid Prime" was hailed as the thinking-man's shooter.
Yes, it had all the gunplay you could hope for, but you also needed to use close observation and logic to make your way through the game's tricky environmental traps.
And it continues in that tradition. Once again, bounty hunter Samus Aran is chasing down the Space Pirates, a race of lobstery aliens who are spreading a toxic substance called Phazon across the galaxy.
Early on, Samus is infected with Phazon, which gives her extraordinary powers but can kill her if used too much.
Samus' mission eventually leads her to the source of Phazon — and to a confrontation with her evil doppelganger, Dark Samus.
While Nintendo's two "Metroid Prime" GameCube titles were excellent, the franchise thrives on the Wii.
You use the Wii nunchaku to move around, and point the Wii remote at the screen to aim and fire; the control scheme really draws you into the action.
With its smooth blend of action, puzzles and epic boss battles, its' one of the most satisfying Wii games yet.
—"John Woo Presents Stranglehold" (Midway, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99): Hong Kong director John Woo redefined action movies with his cult classics "The Killer" and "Hard-Boiled."
"Stranglehold" is a sequel of sorts to "Hard-Boiled," reviving Chow Yun-Fat's Inspector Tequila in an over-the-top war against the Hong Kong mob.
The most enjoyable feature of "Stranglehold" is its mimicry of Woo's cinematic style, from Tequila's ability to wield two pistols at once to the appearances of doves in the middle of firefights.
Tequila is also frequently diving under or sliding across tables; if you execute one of these moves while shooting you go into slow motion, making it easier to pick off your foes.
The plot of "Stranglehold" is little more than an excuse to send Tequila on a rampage, and the mayhem gets repetitive after a few hours.
Still, Midway has effectively translated the feel of a Woo movie, mixing Tequila's superhuman acrobatics with lively, chaotic gunplay.