A Little Background
From MMOs to first-person shooters, the PC market commands the attention of millions of gamers around the world. If you're looking for the best PC games on shelves right now, these 30 titles deserve your consideration. Check our countdown to see where indie titles like Minecraft, Super Meat Boy, and Machinarium fit among heavy hitters like Rift, Call of Duty, and World of Warcraft.
Napoleon: Total War
A landmark RTS that follows the rise and fall of the great general in conflicts on both land and sea, from his earliest campaigns to his final showdown with the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo. A hit with RTS fans, history buffs, and people who just like to lead armies while telling people it's educational.
Football Manager 2011
There's a lot more to soccer than what happens on the field, and managing a team is every bit as challenging as calling plays. As with most installments of the series (or any sports series, honestly), 2011 offers only incremental improvements over last year's, but FM11 is one of the deepest, most engrossing simulation games out there, sports or otherwise.
Super Meat Boy
Super Meat Boy is all about unforgiving jumping, split-second timing, and an unrelenting cavalcade of infuriating death, but the frustration is perfectly balanced by the supreme sense of satisfaction you feel whenever you complete one of its three hundred or so stages. It's grimly amusing to be rewarded with a simultaneous replay of all the ghosts of your failed attempts flailing, falling, and getting ground into mush. Old-school hard and with too many nods to classic games to begin to count, Super Meat Boy is one of the most punishing games you'll ever love.
Gorgeous hand-drawn art, an intriguing mechanical world, and characters that are alive with personality despite their lack of dialogue make this far and away the best point-and-click adventure game in recent years. Machinarium is old-school, and it's hard, but don't let that discourage you. The beauty on display here and the satisfaction of figuring out tricky yet completely sensical puzzles are more than worth it.
Monkey Island 2 Special Edition: LeChuck's Revenge
It's been many long years since I first shared in the adventures of the ever hapless Guybrush Threepwood, but his pun-filled quest to defeat demon ghost pirate LeChuck is still laugh-out-loud funny. With new voice acting, a reworked script, and bonus features such as a developer commentary track, this is a great way to relive a classic or to experience it for the first time. Find a site with FAQs, though. This old-school adventure game stuff is hard.
Dragon Age II
Getting a Dragon Age sequel so soon after Origins may have been a surprise, but it turned out to be a pleasant one. Much of what we were used to from the earlier game has been streamlined in Dragon Age II, combat is more action-oriented, and character creation is a lot more limited--but a human-scale plot that focuses on what a smaller conflict does to the people involved makes the changes well worthwhile.
Left 4 Dead 2
There was some concern that a sequel released so close on the heels of the original L4D would amount to a glorified expansion pack; but with four new main characters, a longer campaign, a mess of new special Infected, loads of melee weapons, and fast pick-up-and-play game modes like Scavenge, Left 4 Dead 2 put all those worries to rest. A more-than-worthy successor to the original, it adds a lot without altering the formula too much, and it remains the go-to game for co-op zombie killing. Given how many games have cropped up in the genre over the past few years, that's saying a lot.
Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit
The NFS franchise has been in limbo for a while, but Hot Pursuit is a superb return to form. A lot of what Criterion learned while crafting all of those Burnout games has rubbed off on this one. Whether you take the wheel of a ridiculously expensive speed machine as a hellion out to tear up the road, or you assume the role of a cop trying to take the scofflaws down with roadblocks and helicopters, brace yourself for white-knuckled excitement.
It may look like a typical dungeon-crawler on its surface, but Magicka is less about loot or levels than about discovering how best to use the thousands of possible spell combinations you can cast right from the outset. Stringing together combinations of elemental powers can yield anything from beams of ice to force fields to landmines filled with lightning. Throw another three players into the mix and you'll end up with either a fine-tuned black-magic death squad or a bumbling mess of self-destructive thaumaturgic chaos. Either way, the results are likely to be hilarious.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat
Set in the ruins of Pripyat after a somewhat more bizarre version of the Chernobyl disaster, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. presents an open world that is stark, frightening, and deadly. Radiation and mutants are to be expected in this sort of thing, but their treatment here is realistic enough to be truly unsettling. Dimensional anomalies, periodic reactor blowouts, and strange artifacts that provide great power at the expense radiation exposure only add to the weirdness. If Fallout's take on a post-nuclear wasteland is a bit too whimsical for your taste, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. should be more than serious enough.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent
You'd think that with "horror" right in the name, more "survival horror" games would actually be scary. Amnesia isn't scary. It's terrifying. There's just something about being trapped and completely defenseless in a house full of monsters that you almost never catch more than a glimpse of. And if you ever do get a good look at them, it's because you didn't run fast enough and they just pulled your heart out through your throat.
League of Legends
Defense of the Ancients was a mod good enough to inspire an entire genre, and of its offspring, the unfortunately acronymed LOL stands out for its accessibility, its comparatively friendly community (Heroes of Newearth is boss, but half of the people who play it will spit on you for not instantly and perfectly understanding its every nuance), and its price (free). Well, you can certainly drop a few bucks on benefits and unlockable characters, but there's no way to buy your way to victory. It’s an excellent introduction to its genre, and surprisingly deep once you get into it.
Torchlight would have been more than acceptable if it were a simple Diablo clone, but it goes well beyond the jolly formula of whacking monsters like piñatas packed with random loot. To add interest, it includes tweaks such as a combat pet that not only fights alongside you but returns to town on command to save you the trouble of pawning the less useful spoils you've picked up. Its lighter atmosphere and occasionally whimsical touches help to make much more than just a stopgap to tide us over while we wait for Diablo III.
Alien Swarm would be impressive enough if it were simply an excellent four-player, top-down co-op shooter with customizable loadouts and unlockable gear. The fact that it's a completely free game that you can grab off Steam is just icing on the awesome cake. If you have any interest in joining a few buddies to blow away teeming hordes of alien monsters, there's no reason not to play it.
Fallout: New Vegas
Fallout 3 brought us back to the wasteland for the first time in ages, but the DC setting didn't give us much chance to catch up with what had been going down back West. Fallout: New Vegas is new territory, but it puts us back in touch with factions, friends, and enemies we hadn't seen in years. Throw in a branching storyline that players actually have some control over and nice touches such as a hardcore mode for survivalists, and you have a must-play sequel.
Possibly the most visually impressive FPS of 2011--and an excellent way to show off a fancy 3D monitor (if you happen to have one)--Crysis 2 doesn't rest on its graphical laurels. Its single-player campaign is longer and more engrossing than the earlier installment in the series, but multiplayer is where the game shines. Players can equip a number of multiplayer perks ranging from proximity alarms to an air stomp, while also adapting their nanosuit on the fly. The depth of play matches the visual splendor on display.
Red Faction: Guerrilla
Taking down a totalitarian regime is fun, but sowing dissent by demolishing the edifices of oppression is even better. In Red Faction: Guerrilla, you can take out bad guys not just by firing guns but by bringing buildings down around their ears with explosives and a giant (and very symbolic) hammer. In addition to the already expansive original single-player campaign, the PC release includes a ton of DLC packed right in. The capability to completely wreck anything and everything you come across makes this one of the best open-world games to come along in years, and one that you might easily have missed in the wake of more-heavily hyped releases.
Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II
Breaking somewhat with RTS conventions, Dawn of War II turns its focus away from base building and toward building up and customizing units. Cover and suppressing fire replace the more traditional tactic of swarming an enemy with disposable units, and limiting forces to four squads means that tactics count for more than resource gathering. Highly recommended for anyone who likes RTS games but finds many of them a bit stale.
Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood
It's nice to get to step back into Ezio's shoes so soon after Assassin's Creed II; and Rome is probably the deepest and most visually rich setting in the series so far. Should you ever feel like taking a break from the main story, you'll find shops to fund, citizens to recruit, and Borgia strongholds to topple. There is also a novel multiplayer mode that pits players against each other in true assassin style. Rather than engaging in a big flashy deathmatch, each receives a contract on another player and must ferret their quarry out from the crowd while attempting to conceal their identity from whoever is stalking them.
Battlefield: Bad Company II
In a series renowned for its multiplayer efforts, Battlefield scores with a single-player campaign that serves as much more than a training exercise for when you eventually go head-to-head. Bad Company II goes beyond the usual FPS basics of running and gunning by including unique and varied situations and objectives, requiring players to contend with challenges like timing sniper shots to coincide with thunderclaps to mask detection, and using strategically placed explosions to collapse a building on enemy fighters.
Batman: Arkham Asylum
Batman is awesome. Metroid is also awesome. Batman in a huge exploratory Metroid-style adventure game? Yeah, nobody should be surprised that this won so many awards. Tons of hidden unlockables and Easter eggs reward poking around in every nook and cranny, and running around Arkham's creepy maze while picking off the lunatics running the asylum never stops being fun. Oh, and fluid combat that incorporates a large repertoire of moves without requiring you to memorize a lot of Street Fighter-ish button combinations is pretty great, too. This is Batman, for crying out loud. He knows what to do when you point him at someone and press the "go" button.
A potty-mouthed, cartoonish exhibition of over-the-top ultraviolence, Bulletstorm adds a lot of crude levity to the increasingly serious shooter genre. Maybe it's childish, but few things in this world are more entertaining than whipping a guy through the air in slow motion before kicking him in the crotch and impaling him on a cactus.
It would be difficult to mess with the most successful puzzle game since Tetris without breaking something. Bejeweled 3 skirts that problem by sticking with the basic match-three-colors formula while offering tons of alternate game modes and options. You get eight different game modes here, including a quest mode that itself contains 11 minor variants. Not every one of them is a hit, but most add new goals and mechanics that are just as addictive as the ones in the original.
Minecraft is the ultimate sandbox game. Everything in its world is yours to build, destroy, or reshape to your liking. Whether that means building castles and statues, in-game electronic calculators, replicas of the starship Enterprise, or a simple sod house in which to survive a night of zombie attacks, this world makes killing hundreds of hours easy. Minecraft isn't even out of beta, but it has already made tens of millions of dollars in preorders, simply because it offers something that we've always wanted but never had: absolute freedom.
Multiplayer quests in public areas have been a trend in MMOs lately, but Rift takes them further. Its (admittedly somewhat generic) fantasy world is threatened by rifts leading to other planes of existence, and the frequent opening of these rifts requires players from rival factions to cooperate in resealing them. There are still plenty of "kill X of Y" quests lying around if you want something more traditional, but the frequent zone-wide events offer something that feels a lot more epic.
Mass Effect 2
The follow-up to the most immersive sci-fi RPG to come along in years, Mass Effect 2 vastly expands the first game's cast of characters and the scope of its story. It also streamlines the impenetrable equipment menus and gets rid of that stupid moon buggy while adding prettier graphics, tighter combat, and frequent real-time moral decisions. Veterans of the first game will see some of the consequences of the personal choices they made in the first title, but ME2 brings new players up to speed quickly, so you shouldn't be afraid of hopping in at this point. Really, the worst thing about the game is the wait to find out how everything ends.
Fast-paced shooters aren't hard to come by, but few incorporate RPG-style character progression and random loot drops. Borderlands salts its territory with millions of weapons and bits of equipment for the finding as you traipse across it perforating mutants and postapocalyptic gangs; and it incorporates just enough Diablo DNA to make that aspect of the game work without muddling the action.
Call of Duty: Black Ops
Beyond its satisfying single-player campaign, Call of Duty: Black Ops delivers what may be the ultimate refinement in COD multiplayer. Favorite modes like Domination, Team Deathmatch, and Headquarters return, joined by new entries like Gun Game and One in the Chamber. XP has been replaced by currency, which makes customizing gear a lot easier, and wager matches allow players to bet on their own performance.
World of Warcraft: Cataclysm
World of Warcraft has been so wildly popular that it is now almost synonymous with MMO; but rather than contentedly riding the wave of its success, Blizzard has introduced a series of radical improvements and additions over the years. Faster leveling, reworked introductory areas, and the elimination of tiresome weapon proficiencies have made it more accessible to new players. New races, classes, and a world that's more than doubled in size since launch have provided new challenges to veterans, and the game's distinctly stylized graphics have aged incredibly well. There's a reason this game has more subscribers than Greece has people.
One of the most anticipated sequels of all time--and one that could have failed in a million different ways--StarCraft 2 manages to modernize a classic that defined the real-time strategy genre for a decade, without alienating its hardcore player base. With a compelling single-player campaign, one of the largest and most competitive multiplayer scenes to be found anywhere, and ridiculously high production values, StarCraft 2 should be on anyone's must-play list.
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