5. Lightsaber (Jedi Outcast/Jedi Academy)

Star Wars’ lightsaber is possibly the most iconic weapon in all of fiction. But what earns it a place on this list is its implementation in Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast and its spin-off Jedi Academy, both of which include arguably the best implementation of melee combat in gaming.

It isn’t just how the lightsaber looks, sounds, or feels, although both games nail those elements of the design. Rather, it’s the way the games combine a fluid and dynamic combat system with a bladed weapon that is always active. In most melee combat games, the blade only “works” when you swing it. But with Raven’s Jedi Knight games, the lightsaber’s blade is always “sharp” (or hot, I suppose). Because of this, you can damage enemies without swinging it at all. Run up to a Stormtrooper and poke them in the head with it, and you’ll hear their armour start to sizzle. In other words, it’s exactly how a lightsaber should work.

The games combine this with a dynamic and detailed combat system more akin to a beat ‘em up than a modern third-person action game. You’re never locked into an animation. Players can jump around, backflip over one another, switch between multiple combat styles, and perform special moves. There are spectacular and thrilling lightsaber duels that are never the same twice. You could defeat an enemy with a perfectly timed swing of your lightsaber, or you could simply catch their foot as they attempt to jump over you, or have them run onto the point of your blade. It’s a masterful representation of Star Wars’ lightsaber, and remains one of the best examples of melee combat in gaming.

4. Railgun (Quake 2/3)

The weapon of choice for FPS surgeons, the railgun is synonymous with classic deathmatch FPS. Quake’s Railgun is a single-shot weapon that launches a small projectile at extremely high velocity. It’s a little bit like a high-powered sniper rifle, only without the scope. As such it requires patience, timing, and pinpoint accuracy to wield correctly.

The key to the Railgun’s success is its binary simplicity. You’ve got one, extremely powerful shot. If it hits the target, they’re dead. If it doesn’t, you’re probably dead. There’s no need to worry about ricochets or splash damage or fire-rates or target locks. It’s an all-or-nothing weapon; the gaming equivalent of putting everything on red. But with big risks come big rewards. You’re essentially drawing a straight line through a constantly shifting mass of variables, with opponents running, rocket-jumping, bounce-padding all over the place. Taking all this into account and still hitting your target is one of the most satisfying things you can do in multiplayer FPS. And that is what makes the Railgun special.

3. VK-12 Shotgun (F.E.A.R)

Frankly, I could have filled half this list with shotguns, there are so many fantastic examples to choose from. Halo! Half-Life! Bulletstorm! Doom! All superbly designed and wonderfully gratifying to use.

In my opinion, however, there’s one shotgun that stands head and shoulders above the rest – the VK-12 shotgun in the original F.E.A.R. F.E.A.R’s shotgun is so powerful, so ferocious, so spectacular, that you can play the entire game with it and never get bored.

Much of this has to do with how the shotgun fits into F.E.A.R’s broader play. Heavily inspired by the lobby scene from the Matrix, F.E.A.R is all about generating action-movie-quality gunfights. It combines a watery slow-motion with strong emphasis on particle effects, with blood, sparks, concrete and smoke flying around combat zones like confetti at a wedding.

In motion, F.E.A.R looks fantastic even today. Yet one problem with the game’s slow-motion play is that machine-guns become less satisfying. The whole point of an automatic weapon is its fire-rate, so when you slow that down, in play it loses a lot of its allure. The shotgun, meanwhile, discharges with a single, guttural blast that completely transforms the scene in front of it, putting massive holes in the scenery and sending enemies flying back, gun-firing in their spasming hand. If you’re close enough it’ll burst them entirely, turning them into a fine red mist.

In short, F.E.A.R’s shotgun is immense, and it really doesn’t get the recognition it deserves amongst gaming’s black tubes of death. That’s why I’ve put it here instead of more obvious choices.

2. Gravity Gun (Half Life 2)

The Gravity Gun solves a problem faced by all first-person shooters – namely what happens when the player runs out of ammo. Traditionally, the solution is careful dispersion of ammo throughout the game, combined with a single melee or rechargeable weapon that the player can use indefinitely.

Half-Life 2 has these things as well. But it also has another, much more entertaining solution. Why not let the player use anything as ammo? Enter the Zero-Point Energy Field Manipulator, which lets you pick up any object in the game world and launch it at an enemy with deadly force. Crates, barrels, rubber tyres, wooden planks, propane tanks, sawblades, other people’s grenades, even toilets can be turned into projectiles with Half Life’s 2’s brilliant, still-unmatched Gravity Gun.

Like Dark Messiah’s boot, the Gravity Gun encourages creativity and improvisation in a way that most shooters do not. It turns environmental objects normally present for decorative purposes into an active part of the game. This in turn transforms the way you view the world around you. Everything becomes a potential solution to a combat problem, and you always have a way out of a situation. All you need to do is think creatively, and it’s this which makes the Gravity Gun one of the best virtual weapons ever devised.

1. Flak Cannon (Unreal Tournament)

There are so many reasons why I think Unreal Tournament’s Flak Cannon is the best virtual weapon ever designed. Let’s start with the name. Flak is the stuff that brings down aeroplanes, and Unreal Tournament gives you a cannon that fires flak from your hip. Not just a gun, a whole damn cannon. That’s cool. I want to try that.

Then there’s the visual design. Like Dead Space’s plasma cutter, the Flak Cannon is not officially a weapon, but an industrial tool. It reflects this in its bulky aesthetic, the way its painted construction-site yellow, the way servos whirr and click as it loads a shell into place. When fired, flak is visible and glows molten hot. Not only does this look awesome, it provides clear feedback on where your flak hits.

Lastly, you’ve got its fire modes. The Flak Cannon’s primary fire unleashes a wall of shrapnel that’ll slice any nearby enemy into bacon. Flak also bounces off walls, meaning you can kill enemies via ricochet, and even fire the cannon around corners, bouncing flak off the wall like a weaponised snooker player. Meanwhile, the secondary fire launches an entire shell filled with shrapnel that bursts on contact, scattering flak in a wide circle. The shell also fires in a long arc, making it ideal for longer range kills, or even firing over obstacles.

These features make the Flak Cannon one of the most versatile weapons in gaming. In many ways it’s the antithesis to Quake’s Railgun. Whereas the Railgun demands perfection, the Flak Cannon rewards experimentation, of taking a punt and seeing what happens. It’s more fun than a bucketful of puppies and my choice for the best virtual weapon ever designed.

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October 14 2021 | 15:04