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A tactical shooter is a subgenre of shooter games that cover both the first-person shooter and third-person shooter genres. These games aim to simulate realistic combat through slower-paced and punishing gameplay. This makes tactics, planning, and cooperation more important than quick reflexes, thus lending the tactical shooter subgenre its name.
The tactical shooter genre originated in the late 1980s, but was first popularized in the late 1990s with the releases of several successful tactical shooters. The popularity of the genre lasted until a decline in popularity in the mid-to-late 2000s, following the discontinuation or reboots of some tactical shooter franchises, and the successes of "arcade-style" action shooters that eschewed traditional genre aspects in favor of cinematic or audience-accessible gameplay. In the mid-to-late 2010s and early 2020s, traditional tactical shooters saw a revitalization following the successes of numerous titles.
Though they are often associated with shooter games featuring realistic gameplay elements—such as low time to kill, realistic and grounded settings, or accurate ballistics and details, seen in traditional tactical shooters such as Rainbow Six and Arma—the term "tactical shooter" may technically apply to any shooter game where tactical planning is emphasized in gameplay or an atmosphere of realism and accuracy is provided, such as Call of Duty and Battlefield. Tactical shooters involving military combat in a grounded and realistic setting are also sometimes known as MilSims.
According to IGN, tactical shooters "are about caution, care, cooperation, coordination, planning, and pacing. In these games, making decisive pushes, quick moves for cover, strategic retreats, and last ditch grabs at the gold are not only important to success, but balanced in such a way that they become enjoyable activities in play." David Treharne of GameSpew identifies four criteria for what qualifies as a tactical shooter: "[M]ainly you're looking for the use of: realistic constraints of player movement; realistically simulated ballistics and accuracy; squad based or multiple approach/style accessibility; and a low tolerance or low health realistic damage model. Basically, you usually move slower than most shooters, your accuracy is much lower and bullets drop over a distance, you usually have a squad to command, and all of you only being able to take two or three shots before dying."
Tactical shooters are generally designed around realism. A staple of tactical shooters is their low time to kill, where players and NPCs can be killed in a short amount of time or with very few attacks; for example, in many tactical shooters, being shot with a single bullet may easily be fatal, especially without proper equipment such as body armor or if the bullet is of a high caliber. Due to this heightened risk of being killed the individual heroism seen in other shooter games is drastically restrained, and players are forced to rely on military tactics and infantry tactics to succeed. Due to these realistic but punishing game mechanics, the genre's style of play is typically slower than other types of shooters. More caution and patience is required in tactics, such as methodically advancing through cover and concealment as opposed to running toward the enemy and shooting in the open.
Emphasis is often placed on realistic modeling of weapons and ballistics, and power-ups are often more limited than in other shooters. Weapons in tactical shooters are usually designed to be inaccurate while moving and more accurate while in crouching or prone stances. Jumping, which is seldom performed in real combat, is de-emphasized or even omitted in order to promote realism, though some games may offer limited climbing or vaulting mechanics. Many tactical shooters also feature "leaning", where the player can lean left or right to peek and fire around corners or behind cover without exposing the rest of their body to attack. Most tactical shooters have sight mechanics, where players are able to either "hip-fire" (fire without aiming the weapon's sights) which is less accurate but gives a wider view of the area; or "aim down sights" ("ADS") for better accuracy and (typically if the sight is a scope) increased zoom, at the cost of restricted view and camera sensitivity. To highlight their emphases on realism, tactical shooters tend to feature limited HUD elements compared to most other shooters, the extent of which can vary depending on the game, difficulty, or selected options, ranging from the absence of a minimap or health bar to the full or partial absence of HUD crosshairs and ammunition counters.
Some tactical shooters make use of squad-based tactics, where the player character (and occasionally even the enemy) is supported by a team of allied units, typically artificial intelligence. While early tactical shooters had simple AI allies who offered support fire, AI in later games has evolved with more complex squadmate responses such as suppressive fire mechanics. In games with sufficiently robust AI, the player character may be able to issue commands to AI squadmates, such as ordering them to breach a door, target an enemy, or clear an area of hostiles. Some games in the genre allow players to plan their team's movements before a mission, which the AI then follows independently. Some multiplayer tactical shooters allow other players to assist each other either in the same squad or occasionally even commanding their own squads, allowing human players to strategize and coordinate more effectively compared to the limited commands available for AI. Team tactics are emphasized in tactical shooters more than other shooter genres, and thus accurate aiming and quick reflexes are not always sufficient for victory.
The game's setting and scope are usually reflected in the game's level designs and mechanics. For example, in SWAT 4, the player leads a modern-day SWAT team against criminals and terrorists in an East Coast metropolis; therefore, it follows that most levels in the game are inspired by the urban and suburban regions of the Eastern United States, with most levels set indoors, and most level layouts and gameplay focusing on the close-quarters combat that SWAT teams specialize in; thus, the game features equipment that work within the game's setting, such as door wedges to seal doors to prevent ambushes, and tasers to stun and arrest enemies. The setting itself defines how "realistic" the game may be: a game depicting modern warfare set in the present may use modern combat tactics with realistic weapons, while a game set in the near future or a different universe may incorporate elements of science fiction and use fictional or theoretical advanced technology, while still using generally realistic or sensible combat tactics. The setting may also determine what mission objectives the game may feature; for example, the SWAT, Counter-Strike, and Rainbow Six series each depict counterterrorist tactical units, and therefore the mission objectives seen in most of their games are centered around the typical duties of those units, namely eliminating or apprehending terrorists, rescuing hostages, and defusing bombs.
Tactical shooters often feature a wide variety of weapons modeled on actual firearms. The weapons featured often depend on the setting, but are generally intended to suit the period and (e.g. a game set in World War II would feature period-accurate weaponry and lack modern weapons such as the M16 rifle). Ballistics are often simulated, as are elements of authenticity such as recoil, motion blur, ear-ringing from explosions, and the feeling of being suppressed. Some developers of tactical shooters may hire technical advisors from military, law enforcement, or firearms specializations to ensure accuracy in in-game depictions.
However, simulating actual combat is often sacrificed in favor of balance as well as playability. There may be considerable modifications to in-game weapons and ballistics compared to real life, deliberately done to ensure game balance in multiplayer PvP or competitive modes. For instance, tactical shooters with notable competitive scenes such as the Counter-Strike series typically allow the player to survive multiple bullet hits to the torso (ignoring the bullet resistance of different types of ballistic vests) and even more to the legs (rarely armored in real life), while registering an automatic kill for melee hits to the back (whether punches or knife stabs) and headshots (regardless of weapon caliber, impact point, or whether the target is wearing a combat helmet).
In contrast to run-and-gun shooters such as Quake which allow players to carry full arsenals, tactical shooters place considerable restrictions on what players may be equipped with, requiring players to carefully select their weapons, equipment, and inventories accordingly. The typical loadout setup used in tactical shooters is that of one "primary weapon" (traditionally a long gun such as a rifle, shotgun, submachine gun, or light machine guns) and one "secondary weapon" (traditionally a sidearm such as a pistol, though some games may also include compact shotguns and submachine guns such as the Mini Uzi or Serbu Super-Shorty). Grenades of both "explosive"/"lethal" (such as frag grenades and Molotov cocktails) and "tactical"/"non-lethal" (such as stun grenades and smoke grenades) varieties, and equipment such as medkits, are often under their own slots and are typically used with a single input as opposed to individually equipping and using them. Melee weapons such as combat knives and bayonets may also have their own slot, though this is typically only in games featuring close-quarters combat where their use is relatively likely; in games with more distant or firearm-based combat, such as Arma 3, melee weapons are unavailable. Rocket launchers and grenade launchers, occasionally having their own "launcher" slot, may have varying focuses compared to their "general purpose" depictions in arcade shooters, such as dedicated ATGM and MANPADS launchers, or underbarrel anti-personnel grenade launchers that can be equipped on some rifles and carbines. In many instances, the player's selected class affects what weapons are available to them; for example, a "rifleman" class may only have rifles and carbines as their available primary weapons, with other weapons such as machine guns, shotguns, and launchers only accessible to other classes.
In most tactical shooters, the basic weapon and equipment slots are the extent of the player's inventory; however, in some more expansive games, such as the Arma series, individual items such as magazines for equipped weapons are carried in the player's inventory, which must be managed to mitigate its effects on the player character's weight. Carry weight is often a game mechanic in tactical shooters, increasing with the weapons, armor, or items on the player character, which affects movement speed, stamina, time taken to aim down sights, and the ability to focus while aiming. The weight mechanic forces players to properly manage their inventory and choose whether they value mobility, effectiveness, or protection, preventing "jack-of-all-trades" loadouts where one player can carry everything they need with little issue. In most tactical shooters featuring a weight system, weight is always a present factor that must be dealt with; however, in some, such as the Counter-Strike series, weight only applies to what is currently equipped—so, for example, a machine gun would be "heavier" than a knife, despite them both being in the player's loadout at the same time—meaning ways around weight restrictions may be found, such as equipping light weapons to move around.
Many tactical shooters (especially those released during and after the 2010s, when rail systems became increasingly common on most firearms) feature varying degrees of weapon customization. In most modern tactical shooters, this is limited to the addition of firearm attachments such as a variety of scopes, holographic sights, laser sights, flashlights, foregrips, and suppressors. In less-grounded shooters, weapon customization may extend to stylized weapon camouflage skins and keychain-style "charms", while in more realistic or comprehensive shooters, individual components of the gun itself such as the barrel shroud and stock may be customized or replaced (as seen in Escape from Tarkov). In games where weight is a factor, the player's equipped attachments may add to their character's weight.
Despite generally aiming for realism and accuracy, some tactical shooters, especially more action-oriented arcade-style shooters such as Call of Duty, tend to make exceptions with their weapon accuracy. "Akimbo" (dual wielding) of firearms is generally rare in tactical shooters, yet it still often appears in action shooters such as Call of Duty with weapons ranging from small pistols to long-barreled shotguns. The Desert Eagle, despite being unsuitable for actual military applications, is still frequently found in many tactical shooters as a high-powered handgun option. Outdated weapons such as the AK-47 are often seen in modern military service in some games, despite them being mostly replaced by then (the AK-47 in particular having been replaced in Soviet Army service by the AK-74 in the 1970s).
Features now common to the tactical shooters genre originated in the late 1980s and early 1990s, starting with Airborne Ranger (1987) by Microprose. Computer Gaming World compared it to the earlier 1985 arcade game Commando (a more typical action shooter of the period), but commented that it was "deeper and more versatile". The game featured a limited inventory which had to be carefully managed, a variety of mission types which often promoted guile over violence, and the impetus to plan ahead and outmaneuver the enemy—all of which are features common in the tactical shooter genre as a whole. Airborne Ranger was followed by Special Forces (1991), also by Microprose, which first introduced squad mechanics to the genre.
The next technical breakthrough came in 1993 with the release of SEAL Team by Electronic Arts. This game already offered many of the basic features associated with the genre, including utilizing support elements and vehicular units, and running a real-time simulated environment (with 3D Vector graphics) that reacts to the player's actions. Experiments in tactical shooter design were sparse over the next five years, and included Terra Nova: Strike Force Centauri, released in 1996—one of first 3D-rendered games with squad-oriented gameplay.
The first major successes of the genre came in 1998, with games such as Rainbow Six, Ghost Recon, and Delta Force, which are credited for defining and refining the genre. Other influences on the genre included games such as the SOCOM series, as well as the SWAT series, a tactical shooter spin-off of the Police Quest series of adventure games.
1998's Rainbow Six in particular has been credited as a revolutionary game which defined the conventions of the tactical shooter genre. The game was inspired by (and, before its connection with Tom Clancy's novel Rainbow Six, initially focused on) the FBI Hostage Rescue Team. The game was designed to emphasize strategy in a way that would be fun for players without the best reflexes. The series has since become a benchmark for the genre in terms of detail and accuracy.
Some of the most notable tactical shooters have been total conversion mods of first person shooter titles which have been released for free. Infiltration, a total conversion of Unreal Tournament (1999), has been described as "turning Unreal Tournament's wild cartoon action into a harrowing game of cat and mouse". Infiltration has been noted for detailed aiming system including hip-fire and sights while lacking a crosshair, different movement stances (running, walking, crouching, and prone, leaning around corners), and a weapon customization feature with a weight penalty. Counter-Strike (2000), a mod of Valve's Half-Life (1998), was the most popular multiplayer game of its era, in spite of the release of arcade-style first-person shooters with more advanced graphics engines such as Unreal Tournament 2003. One of the developers of the Half-Life expansions was Gearbox Software, who in 2005 released the game Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 (2005) that further defined the genre. Critics praised the game for not only adding realism to its first-person shooter gameplay, but also in its unique tactical gameplay that allows players to command soldiers and teams during combat.
By the late 2000s, arcade-style casual shooters such as Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007) began to prove more popular than classic-style shooters such as Quake and Unreal, although the field of true tactical shooters was largely neglected by developers since the mid-to-late 2000s. At that point, most tactical shooter franchises such as SWAT and SOCOM were discontinued, while developers such as Red Storm and Sierra went defunct or were absorbed by larger companies.
Even traditionally tactical shooter series like Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon drifted away from tactical realism towards cinematic action-centered themes, as can be witnessed by contemporary Rainbow Six sequels, which completely do away with the series' pre-action planning stage (last seen in 2003's Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield) and even the series' established counterterrorism setting as of Rainbow Six Siege (2015, in updates released later) and Rainbow Six Extraction (2022), and the futuristic settings of Ghost Recon: Future Soldier (2012), which offers invisibility cloaks and shoulder-mounted anti-tank rockets.
With the release of Arma 3 (2013) and later games like Rising Storm 2: Vietnam (2017), Insurgency: Sandstorm (2018), Squad (2020), and Ready or Not (2021) by the mid-to-late 2010s and early 2020s, the genre continues to enjoy a fairly large following as more and more games are released with tactical elements that incorporate magazine dropping and one-shot-one-kill paradigms.
Casual games like Rainbow Six Siege and Battlefield V have also demonstrated "back to roots" philosophies, such as the removal of regenerative health and "3D spotting" in the latter.
VBS2 (and its successor VBS3) is a military tactical shooter simulation used for dismounted infantry training by the United States military and several NATO armies. Its Pointman user interface combines head tracking, a motion-sensitive gamepad and sliding foot pedals to increase the precision and level of control over one's avatar, enabling users to more realistically aim their weapon and practice muzzle discipline, to take measured steps when moving around obstacles or cover, and to continuously control their postural height to make better use of cover and concealment.