The PC is the oldest gaming platform. It was around at the dawn of gaming, and it continues to be home to the biggest blockbusters and the most intriguing indie games. Some gamers may scoff at the costs or the keyboard-and-mouse control setup, but PC gaming is more affordable than it’s ever been before (not to mention its games are cheaper at launch, and digital distribution retailers such as Steam often offer ridiculous sales with deep discounts), and the keyboard-and-mouse remains the best way to control first-person shooters, the genre that’s driving game development these days.
But the PC offers many other benefits. Right now, the best-looking games are on PC — video tech continues to grow while it remains stagnant on consoles, and the PC offers higher resolutions than consoles can (as they’re tied to HDTVs, not PC monitors). Many PC games also offer modding, which allows gamers to add their own content to many games, and dedicated servers, which gives you more control over multiplayer matches in many games.
We at GamePro love PC gaming, and here are what we feel are the 15 best PC games of the current generation, as selected in a poll conducted by the staff. This is more than a “Best of” list. We hope this feature encourages discussion about the games on the list, and what makes them best on the PC.
15 | Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3
The Red Alert series has evolved greatly from its gritty sci-fi RTS roots to a more cartoonish take on naval, air, and land combat. Set in a parallel universe where Hitler was killed by Einstein before he could take power (due to Einstein’s use of a time machine), the Red Alert series asks, “What if?”
What if, instead of Germany remilitarizing, the Soviets instead became the invasive force threatening Western Europe? In Red Alert 3, the Soviets are able to alter history themselves by taking out Einstein before he can invent any of the advanced weaponry that the Allies use. The results are unexpected, and three sides form — the Allied nations, the Soviets, and the Empire of the Rising Sun. Each side has its own unique set of units, including amusing inventions like attack bears, transforming helicopters, and camouflaged tanks.
14 | Borderlands
A blend of first-person shooter and loot-driven RPG, Borderlands is one of the most fun games available on PC. Your goal is simple: survive as you seek out “The Vault,” a place that contains fabulous alien treasure and technology. But the planet of Pandora is a dangerous place, full of nasty monsters and psycho convicts. The game gives you plenty of weapons–developer Gearbox Software boasts that they have more than 1 million firearms in the game–and each of the four characters have special skills suited to their roles, like sniper and tank.
Exploring the world of Pandora, either on foot or in weapon-baring buggies, is just fun; the gunplay is fast, and online co-op with up to four players is smooth (not to mention the best way to play the game). The game has four pieces of DLC—if you don’t purchase the Game of the Year Edition, which has all of the DLC, check out The Zombie Isle of Dr. Ned and The Secret Armory of General Knoxx.
13 | Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II
Blizzard may be the name most associated with real-time strategy, but Relic is the one that brought the genre into the modern era. Witness Dawn of War II, which is one part RTS, one part squad-based shooter, and one part RPG. It’s a unique mix, and one that’s perfectly suited to the Warhammer 40K universe.
Rather than building bases and commanding armies, Dawn of War II puts you in command of a small squadron of Space Marines. But despite their small numbers, they are more than capable of holding their own against everything from Orks to Tyranids. It’s a unique RTS that changes the rules in all the right ways.
12 | Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Amnesia is an indie game that may look like a first-person shooter, but you won’t find any weapons to protect you in this horror title. The only defense you have against the dark creatures of Amnesia is the ability to run away and hide. As you plumb the depths of the game’s dark corridors, slowly piecing together the story of how you got there in the first place, you’ll come across evil creatures that you’re completely powerless against. The light won’t protect you, it just makes you easier to spot — you’re only recourse is to take refuge out of sight in dark corners. But your Sanity meter slowly dwindles away the longer you’re out of the light, and when it dips too low, your character starts hallucinating. You’ll move more slowly, imaginary bugs crawl across the screen; it gets freaky.
If you’re looking for over-the-top gore, and a zombie-blasting good time, then Amnesia is not your game. But as a psychological thriller that’s just as much about figuring out what’s going on as it is about staying alive, Amnesia is the most effectively frightening game you’ll ever play.
11 | Mount & Blade
Over the years, the concept of medieval combat in video games has largely been relegated to clunky dungeon-crawlers and turn-based strategy titles. Very rarely do you feel like a true warrior of the dark ages, speeding towards a castle on your noble steed with fellow warriors by your side and a broadsword at the ready. Thankfully, Mount & Blade, a “medieval mounted combat” game from developer TaleWorlds Entertainment, is there to fill that gap with immersive quality gameplay.
This open-ended cavalry combat title sees you strapping into a saddle and regularly storming enemy strongholds, swinging your sharpened sword or firing deadly arrows from horseback. It’s an outstanding entry in an underfed genre, and its passionate community makes it an excellent place to meet like-minded warriors. Even if you’ve never been to a renaissance faire, Mount & Blade is worth a look.
10 | The Witcher 2: Assassin’s of Kings
The Witcher 2 is a third-person action-RPG that focuses on the story of Geralt of Rivia, a Witcher (monster hunter) who becomes embroiled in a conspiracy to kill kings, a peasant rebellion, and a cabal bent on seizing power and ruling the region (along with rebuilding his shattered memory).
The game features a great deal of swordplay, but use caution: Your foes gang up on you, flanking you and using all of their abilities against you. Your magic comes in handy, though combat remains difficult. And CD Projekt Red, the game’s developer, has a 2.0 version in the works with better tutorials and also offers free DLC and no DRM (if you buy the Steam version, you have Steam’s DRM). And it’s coming to the Xbox 360 soon!
9 | League of Legends
Defense of the Ancients may have gotten its start as a humble WarCraft III mod, but League of Legends is where the peculiar mix of competitive roleplaying and tower defense arrived at maturity.
The appeal is in the huge array of selectable characters, all of which bring something different to the table. And being a “freemium” title with relatively spec requirements, it is open to pretty much anyone with a PC. Watch out though–League of Legends has a highly competitive community, and you will almost certainly be in for some hazing.
The best solution? Bring a friend and explore this highly popular game together.
8 | Plants vs. Zombies
You can now play Plants vs. Zombies on almost every gaming device, but it all started on PC. The desktop tower defense action tasks you with guarding your house from an encroaching zombie horde through the strategic use of adorable plants. PC games have access to the extra multiplayer modes that were introduced in the other versions, and the keyboard-and-mouse interface is still the best way to manage your foliage army (though the iPad version isn’t bad either).
Ultimately, PvZ stands out from other tower defense titles because of it’s charming style and catchy soundtrack. It’s easy for a company to throw together a game like this with the same gameplay; it’s hard for them to do it this skillfully.
7 | Rift
World of WarCraft has been the proverbial king of the hill for many years now, but that didn’t stop Trion from going out and creating their own vision of what an MMORPG should be. Their “Dynamic Fantasy MMORPG” brings the world to life with the eponymous rifts from which monsters of all shapes and sizes are constantly menacing players and towns.
It’s the first step toward creating a world that actually feels alive, rather than a simple series of quest hubs. Add in the ability to switch between multiple character builds with easy, and you have an MMORPG has quickly become a favorite among the genre’s hardcore fans.
6 | Civilization IV
Why are we including Civilization IV, a game from the last generation, instead of Civilization V on our list? As of publication, Civ IV remains the superior turn-based strategy game of world exploration and domination, even if we prefer some of the changes in Civ V (like hex spaces over squares, single units per hex vs. unit stacking, interesting social policy trees and city states). But Civ V still has some issues with diplomacy and A.I. combat tactics that recent patches haven’t addressed. And Civ IV has real expansions that add greatly to the gameplay, not DLC money-grabs that add one new civilization or a couple of scenarios to the game. Add that the modders for Civ IV have produced far more interesting content than those still learning Civ V a year after launch and a Grammy Award-winning soundtrack and you can see why Civ V isn’t yes=t ready for this list.
5 | Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty
The sequel to the iconic sci-fi strategy game pushes the genre forward once again. Set in the far future where three races battle for dominion among the stars, Starcraft 2 picks up several years after the events of Starcraft: Brood War. In the campaign, you play as Jim Raynor, the rebel captain fighting both the alien Zerg and the human Dominion. Over the several hour long campaign, you’ll employ a variety of units to take out targets, capture territory, and perform strikes against a corrupt human Emperor and an alien race that threatens to wipe out humanity.
Not only does Starcraft 2 feature three well-balanced, unique sides (each with their own strengths and weaknesses), but the campaign has a strong story that offers a surprising amount of choice to the player. From your ship, you can decide what units you want to upgrade, what missions to take, and what moral choices you make in your overarching quest.
Wings of Liberty is the first of three planned chapters — a hell of a way to continue a franchise.
4 | Left 4 Dead 2
The team-based survival horror multiplayer game was pretty much invented by Valve when they released Left 4 Dead. The premise of both games is simple: You and three of your friends must fight your way through hordes of zombies towards a safehouse or extraction point. But if you stray too far from your friends, you might be picked off by a “hunter” zombie or strangled by a “smoker” zombie. There are few games out there that make you rely as heavily on your teammates, or are as genuinely frightening.
With the sequel, you get a new set of locations in the Deep South, a new cast of characters, and the addition of melee weapons. Like all of Valve’s games, Left 4 Dead 2 is best played on the PC. The DLC packs are all free for PC users and help flush out more of the story and the overlap between the events of Left 4 Dead and the sequel.
3 | Minecraft
Minecraft is a continually evolving game that, technically, still hasn’t left beta. But that hasn’t stopped a hardcore community from springing up around this do-it-yourself world-creation tool. You can make your own dungeons, share your blocky with friends, or just mess around with the game’s tools to create music videos or unique mods.
There are enemies to fight and resource to harvest on a daily basis, which feeds into the addictive quality that makes MMOs and RPGs so popular. But the game’s constant growth is what ensures that it will keep garnering more and more fans. With every new patch, there’s more to do and more to explore in Minecraft.
2 | Portal 2
When Valve’s original first-person puzzler hit PCs back in 2007, it was one of the year’s unexpected successes. A wickedly incisive puzzle game with an outstanding sense of humor, it was the standout entry in the already excellent Orange Box, and one of the most talked-about games of the year for many, many reasons. Portal 2, released earlier this year, is everything that made the original Portal great, but amplified tenfold.
Portal 2 introduces some noteworthy new elements to the traditional Portal formula, and with the addition of a cooperative mode that sees two partners problem-solve together (with the integration of PC-to-PS3 cross-platform Steamworks, no less) and an extended cast of hilarious characters. All in all, it improves on everything that made its predecessor great. Plain and simple, Portal 2 is a must-own for any PC gamer.
1 | Team Fortress 2
First released in 2007 for the PC, Team Fortress 2 is actually a sequel to the 1999 Half-Life mod Team Fortress Classic. After nearly 10 years of development, the game went from being a gritty war simulator to an interactive Pixar movie that’s coming to kill you.
But don’t let Team Fortress 2’s unique cartoonish graphical style fool you: this is one intense game. Team Fortress 2 is a team-based first-person shooter pitting two groups of mercenaries against each other. Each map has different objectives like capturing the flag, or holding territory, or delivering a mine cart full of explosives towards an enemy’s base.
The free game has frequent updates, lots of player customization, and a fixation on hats. It’s one of the best (and most popular) PC games out there.
Honorable Mentions: Games that didn’t quite make the “Top 15,” but still rank as some of the absolute all-time best PC games for the current generation, beginning in 2005.
Batman: Arkham Asylum
No one expected Batman: Arkham Asylum to be this good. In fact, no one expected it to be one of the most impressive and thrilling action games of its year. Thankfully, Rocksteady Studios, Warner Bros., and DC Comics made the invaluable choice of enlisting help from the best talent possible, including big-ticket names like comic-book writer Paul Dini and voice actors Kevin Conroy (Batman), Arleen Sorkin (Harley Quinn), and of course, Mark Hamill as the Joker. It’s undoubtedly the best Batman game by a mile.
Battlefield: Bad Company 2
In the wake of Modern Warfare 2’s somewhat mixed reaction from first-person shooter fans, EA and DICE’s Bad Company 2 was able to swoop in, kick ass, and take plenty of names with its excellent single-player campaign and rewarding multiplayer. It’s a surprisingly deep shooter that regularly mixes its action up with surprising (and exciting) objectives in its single-player, in addition to deep, balanced blasting when played online.
Fallout: New Vegas
Say what you will about the Fallout franchise, but its “post-apocalyptia-by-way-of-Leave-it-to-Beaver” charm and tongue-in-cheek tone make it one of the most enjoyable, explorable dystopias out there. With the RPG vets at Obsidian Entertainment on development duties, New Vegas not only builds on everything established by 2008’s Fallout 3, it also manages to recapture and then expand on the sense of knowing fun that was so tangible in the series’ first two installments.
Full of beautiful environments, tons of baddies, and an immense amount of loot, Torchlight is an adventurer’s wet dream. The level of customization on your character (and eventually, your pet) gives players the feel that they’re having a unique adventure that was built for them. The random dungeon maps help ensure replayability, as does the ease with which you can transport to and from town. It’s easy to want to get lost in Torchlight’s depth, and despite an almost non-existent story, it’s an exceptionally immersive title.
World of Tanks
World of Tanks is a pure PvP game that pits teams of 15 tanks against one another in a variety of beautifully designed, World War II themed battlegrounds. What makes it so brilliant is that it’s very easy to pick up and play, it features short but balanced PvP matches, and it has a MMO-like progression that enables you to augment your starting stable of three tanks and add new ones as you win matches and gain points. The action is fast, but very different to most PvP games — because it so accurately simulates tank warfare. You have to think like a tank commander to win, and that creates a unique, but highly enjoyable and competitive experience that is one of the best-kept secrets in PC gaming.