Late 1998 was a really bad time to release a good shooter. Consider Shogo, the hybrid anime FPS/stompy-mech game from the creators of Blood, FEAR and No One Lives Forever. It was a brave idea (always a bad omen), it looked different (risky) and it was brilliant (commercial suicide). It was also released at the same time as Half-Life, so the gaming public barely glanced up.
Picture Mechwarrior grafted onto FEAR, and rendered in a chunky anime style. You're a soldier and pilot with a giant bipedal mech, the game split 70-30 between on-foot and in-mech sections. Both use the same engine and models, so as a mech you can trample on the tiny men who would kill you in seconds on foot. The fact that the two scales could be mixed sometimes bit back: in one of your many encounters with your sub-nemesis Samantha Sternberg (the only character with no 'k' in her name - true fact), she's in her mecha and you're on foot. Ulp.
The on-foot combat is extraordinary, and would have made an unforgettable game on its own. The first time I died I thought I'd encountered a bug - it was within a second of entering the first room. But that's the way guns work: you get shot in the head, you die. You get shot a few times in the chest, you die. You walk into a room with more than one gunman in it, and unless you nail every one of them near-instantly, you die.
It's the closest a single-player game has come to the brutal volatility of Counter-Strike, capturing that electric tension between you and an enemy when you know that at least one of you is a split-second from death.
So Shogo quickly turns you into a merciless killing machine. You enter rooms firing, your crosshair flicks from one head to the next, and the only break in the pounding of one of the meatiest assault rifles gaming has ever known is the vocoder screams of the dying escaping through their heavy armour suits.
Because you're as weak as the enemy, when you take out 20 of them in a level you feel pretty heroic. The absurd number of bullets you can take in other games reduces the significance of what you achieve - sure, you were able to save the world, but that's because you were superhuman. In Shogo you're human, and you still manage it.
You actually get to choose how to end the story, and the game doesn't judge for you which decision is right. It would be more accurate to say that you can save a world. The story starts out as soap-opera - love triangles, fake deaths, grudges - and quickly escalates to space-opera - betrayals, super-weapons, living planets. Pretty much every level ends in an absurd revelation, because Shogo has enough twists to sprinkle them evenly throughout.
Half-Life forsook cutscenes entirely and merged levels into a near-seamless progression. That's nice, but it means the levels are largely a case of finding 'where to go next'. Shogo was the other extreme: every level is isolated, has a clear goal, starts with some background info on the loading screen and ends with a juicy chunk of cutscene exposition.
It might not be as artistically pure as Valve's philosophy, but it gets a hell of a lot more story across. It helps that your character, the likeably defiant Sanjuro, is excellently voiced. Few actors could deliver the line "Sir! Shut the hell up, sir!" with this much enthusiasm.
The in-mecha sections are starkly different, even though they both play like an FPS. You're trudging through cityscapes rather than corridors, and since you can also turn into a vehicle (because the game didn't have enough modes already), you're sometimes speeding across huge landscapes.