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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 simulate realistic combat, thus making tactics and caution more important than quick reflexes in other action games. Tactical shooters involving military combat are sometimes known as "soldier sims".
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 designed for realism. It is not unusual for players to be killed with a single bullet, and thus players must be more cautious than in other shooter games. The emphasis is on realistic modeling of weapons, and power-ups are often more limited than in other action games. This restrains the individual heroism seen in other shooter games, and thus tactics become more important.
Overall, the style of play is typically slower than other action games, due to the significantly more punishing gameplay. Jumping techniques are sometimes de-emphasized in order to promote realism, with some games going so far as to omit a jump button. In contrast to games that emphasize running and shooting, tactical shooters require more caution and patience (making use of cover and avoiding being caught in the open), plus tactical shooters are usually designed so that shooting becomes inaccurate while running which increasing accuracy for crouching or prone stances. Players often have the choice of shooting from the hip ("hippie") which is less accurate but gives a wider view of the area, or using the scope/iron sights for better zoom-in accuracy but at the penalty of restricted view. Some tactical shooters such as the InfiltrationMod for Unreal Tournament even lack the crosshair seen in other first-person shooters, in order to achieve a high degree of realism.
Many tactical shooters make use of group-based combat, where the player character is supported by other teammates. While early tactical shooters had simple computer-controlled teammates who offered support fire, the artificial intelligence in later games has evolved with more complex teammate responses such as cover-fire mechanics. In games with a sufficiently robust artificial intelligence, the player character is able to issue commands to other computer-controlled characters. Some games in the genre allow players to plan their team's movements before a mission, which the artificial intelligence then follows. Many games also offer a multiplayer online play, allowing human players to strategize and coordinate via a headset. Team-based tactics are emphasized more than other shooter games, and thus accurate aiming and quick reflexes are not always sufficient for victory.
The level design usually reflects the game's setting. For example, the player may play the role of SWAT police fighting terrorists or other criminals, or may engage in military combat in real world conflicts as either battlefield soldiers or special forces commandos. Some games take place in entirely fictional universes, and incorporate elements of science fiction. Each level will have different objectives. Although some levels may simply require that the player defeat their enemy, other levels may challenge the player with objectives such as escorting a VIP safely to a specific location or planting a demolition charge on a target. Levels are often designed with check points or alternate routes. As "run and gun" assaults are often met with heavy resistance, it becomes important to exploit a superior position and/or take the enemy by surprise and even evading them entirely.
Tactical shooters often feature a wide variety of weapons modeled upon actual firearms, being more realistic than run-and-gun shooters. For instance, the Brothers in Arms series is unique in that, since the game takes place in World War II, the development team Gearbox Software made sure to actually portray the weapon accurately by adding realistic recoil, motion blur and the feeling of being suppressed. They did this by actually testing the weapons themselves and hiring military consultants in the development.
However, simulating actual combat is often sacrificed in favor of balance as well as playability. There are often considerable modifications to in-game weapons and ballistics from their real-life counterparts in order to ensure balance in multiplayer. For instance Counter-Strike and other games 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" (including a pistol shot to the back of the head even if 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, so players have to carefully select weapons according to the situation and/or role in their team. Half-Life: Counter-Strike's system of allowing a primary weapon (assault rifle, submachine gun, sniper rifle, or light machine gun) and a secondary weapon (pistol, shotgun) has been followed by other shooters like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
Wielding or carrying heavier weapons such as sniper rifles and machine guns often incurs a movement penalty over lighter weapons like submachine guns and pistols. Players often find loopholes in this system, such as in Half-Life: Counter-Strike where they would switch their firearm to a knife in order to run faster.
Akimbo (Dual wielding) of pistols and submachine guns , despite being ineffective and inaccurate in real life, is frequently featured in tactical shooters likely as a homage to films. The Desert Eagle, despite its heavy weight, recoil, and limited magazine capability making it unsuitable for actual military and special forces applications, is frequently found in many tactical shooters as a high-powered handgun option. Numerous fictional depictions of the Soviet/Russian armed forces such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare show them armed with 7.62x39mm AK variants (AK-47 or AKM) as their standard-issue assault rifles, a long-standing anachronism thanks to the AK-47's iconic status, despite the Soviets having actually replaced them with the 5.45x39mm AK-74 in the 1970s. Examples of these elements are in Counter-Strike and the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series.
Due to the problem of grenade spamming, the effect of explosions are often toned down and/or only 1–2 grenades are allowed to be carried. Cooking a grenade by releasing the lever to partially burn the fuse before throwing it, to make it harder for an opponent to catch it or run away, is discouraged in real-life since fuses are imprecise; nonetheless, this is an extremely common "Hollywood tactic" in video games or movies.
In first-person shooter video games of the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, such as Quake and Unreal Tournament, the "rocket launcher" which fires dumbfire/unguided missiles was one of the most prominent multiplayer weapons which largely overshadowed the other weapons available to the player. This was because the rocket launcher had a quick reload, the rocket traveled fast, the warhead had a devastating splash damage which could severely injure or kill when the missile detonated upon a wall/floor/ceiling near the target player, and the blast force could propel and disorient the target. Experienced gamers could take advantage of the blast (and risk some injury) by rocket jumping. The Rocket Arena mod was created, which focused upon the use of the rocket launcher as the primary weapon. The rocket launcher remained in the sequels but the attributes were toned down somewhat. Lastly, players could carry dozens of rockets which encourages their profligate use.
By contrast, shooters such as Call of Duty do not use the term "rocket launcher". While they have similar concept weapons, these are modeled after real-life equivalents such as the rocket-propelled grenade, Bazooka, and FIM-92 Stinger, several with specific applications against vehicles rather than personnel. These rocket weapons also have very scarce ammo and long reload times, reflecting the limited situations that they are utilized as well as discouraging reckless player usage.
Features now common to the tactical shooters genre appeared as early as 1987, with Airborne Ranger by Microprose. Computer Gaming World compared it to the earlier 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 in 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 and Ghost Recon, which are cred for defining and refining the genre. Another key title was Delta Force, which emphasized real-world weaponry and quick kills. Other influences on the genre included games such as the SOCOM series, as well as the SWAT series - a spin-off from the Police Quest series of adventure games.
Rainbow Six has been cred as a revolutionary game, which defined the conventions of the genre. The game was inspired by the Federal Bureau of Investigation Hostage Rescue Team, and was designed to replicate a team of specialists performing a skilled operation. 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 ("hippie") and scope/iron fire while lacking a crosshair, different movement stances (running, walking, crouching, and prone, leaning around corners), and a customizable loadout system that allows configuration of weapons (including attachments) with a weight penalty. Half-Life: Counter-Strike (2000), a mod of Half-Life (1998), was the most popular multiplayer game of its era despite the release of 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 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.
Since the late 2000s, contemporary shooters such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare have proven more popular than futuristic first-person shooters such as Quake and Unreal, although the field of true tactical shooters has been largely neglected by developers since the mid-to-late 2000s. Even traditionally tactical shooter series like Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon have seen their sequels drift away from tactical realism towards cinematic action centered themes, as can be witnessed by, e.g., contemporary Rainbow Six sequels which completely do away with the series' iconic pre-action planning stage (last encountered in Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield), or the overly futuristic settings of Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, which provides players with invisibility cloaks and shoulder-mounted anti-tank rockets while failing to adhere to simple tactical realism paradigms like one-shot-one-kill.
VBS2 (and its successor VBS3) is a military tactical shooter simulation used for dismounted infantry training by the USMC, the US Army, and a number of the NATO armed forces. Its new 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.
With the release of Arma 3 and later games like OWI's Squad, Tripwire's Rising Storm 2: Vietnam, and NWI's Insurgency: Sandstorm by the early to late 2010s, the genre continues to enjoy a fairly large following as more and more games are released with tactical elements, such as magazine dropping and one-shot-one-kill paradigms.