There was a period of time, through the 1990s and into the early 2000s, when many game critics and analysts speculated that PC gaming was on its last legs. They argued that the platform had become a creative backwater, and would soon be completely overtaken by modern consoles thanks to their burgeoning, easy-to-use online capabilities.
Those who kept the faith through those troubled times knew the truth of the matter. PCs have flexibility, moddability and power unavailable in consoles. As a result, PC gaming is able quickly pivot to serve its players.
In the past 15 years, digital distribution has made it easier for creators to sell games directly to players, no longer relying on publishing deals. More and better development tools have made the creative process more accessible than ever before. This combination has led to an era of abundance. In 2017 some 7,672 games were released on Steam alone. That’s roughly 21 games per day.
Now most of the biggest new games (Minecraft) and genres (battle royale) start their lives on PC, and that seems unlikely to change.
Unlike our other Essentials lists, this one covers a catalog that’s spread across multiple decades. And so this is a starting point. We’ll be adding new games and classics with each update.If you’re new to the space, consider this your guide to the best of the best, and a tutorial on how to uncover experiences that simply can’t be had on any other platform. And for the rest of us, share your thoughts on potential future entries.
Before there was such a thing as a first-person shooter, there was Doom. For years after its release in 1993, other FPS titles were simply referred to as “Doom clones.” It’s fitting, then, that one of the best first-person shooters of the last decade is the 2016 reboot of the franchise, called simply Doom.
The reboot was so good, in fact, that it was Polygon’s game of the year in 2016. From our GOTY story, written by editor-in-chief Chris Grant:
Doom is fast. When I first played it, I remember thinking that it actually seemed too fast; this is in part an illusion, since the game sets you free in a small chamber before introducing you to the game’s massive outdoor environments. But it’s also a statement: The game lets you know that things are going to be different. […]
Doom had the audacity to reject years of common wisdom, decades of increased expectations and generations of first-person brinksmanship to reach back to the beginning, to reintroduce the shooter that started it all.
Download and install it today, of course, and you’ll benefit from the increased computing power of modern GPUs, same as with The Witcher 3 above. But you’ll also be playing what many consider to be the quintessential modern FPS, and gearing up for the sequel, Doom Eternal, coming soon.
The FPS genre has grown to become much more than single-player experiences, and there’s no better example of a modern multiplayer shooter than Overwatch.
In Overwatch, players battle it out in small groups across multiple game modes from simple capture-the-flag to more seasonal favorites such as Lúcioball, a more intimate three-versus-three mode loosely based on soccer. The action is buoyed by consistent world-building from developer Blizzard Entertainment, which takes the form of everything from short animated films to comic books.
Not only is the title an excellent entree into the world of competitive esports, it’s also a game that fits just about any play style. Whether you’re looking for long-range sniping or nearly stationary point defense, there’s a character class for everyone.
Listen, when the original version of Fortnite launched, I hated it. I wasn’t alone. At the time, it was a $40 early access title, but also a soon-to-be-free-to-play cooperative multiplayer hybrid building … thing. There were zombies in it. You collected followers in the form of trading cards, and unlocked a skill tree. Played with a mouse and keyboard, I clicked buttons so much that my hand hurt.
That original mode, called Save the World, is still in the game. It also still costs about $40 and still has a small, devoted fan base. But their numbers are completely dwarfed by fans of the Battle Royale mode.
Fortnite is arguably the biggest game in the world thanks to Battle Royale. It’s more than just a fast-follow of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. It’s a dynamic world with elements of Minecraft’s elaborate building systems, but also little mysteries and massive seasonal content drops that have generally been reserved for MMOs.
If you aren’t playing it right now, then you’re only a stone’s throw away from someone who is. Best of all, the game is completely free-to-play.
Get it here: Epic
Mojang’s Minecraft is notable for a number of reasons. It’s the PC game that, in many ways, launched video games into the crowdfunding space. It practically invented the notion of an early access game, something that today is exceedingly common in the PC space. But before Minecraft was anything, it was a survival game.
Minecraft drops players on a procedurally generated map eight times larger than the surface of the Earth. They’ll have to forage, hunt down or grow enough food to survive, all while dodging the ever-present threat of explosive Creepers and deadly zombies on the way to an endgame battle against a powerful extra-dimensional dragon.
Of course, it’s Minecraft’s no-stakes creative mode that has garnered the game tens of millions of views on Twitch and YouTube, two cottage industries purpose-built for the new breed of gaming personalities that it helped to reveal to the world.
First released into alpha in 2009, the game is still in active development. Its most recent patch, called Update Aquatic, dropped in July 2018. It adds nine new ocean biomes and 3,000 procedurally generated tropical fauna. While you can play it on every single platform, from mobile phones to the Nintendo Switch, it still performs best on PC.
The tale of the creation of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, colloquially known as PUBG, is a cinderella story of rags to riches that could only play out on PC.
While recovering from a troubled relationship and living in Argentina, creator Brendan “PlayerUnknown” Greene fell in love with Arma 2. Specifically, with the DayZ mod, a game that — along with Minecraft — effectively gave birth to the survival and battle royale genres. But he was so enamored with the Arma series as a platform that he learned its scripting language and built his own mode, called simply Battle Royale.
Later, Greene would be hired on as a consultant to create the Battle Royale mode for H1Z1, which proved so successful that it was eventually spun off as its own game. Finally, the team at the Korean developer Bluehole reached out with the opportunity to make his own, stand-alone game.
Within weeks of launching into early access on Steam, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds was a bona fide hit. It would later go on to inspire Fortnite Battle Royale, a game that would change the face of the industry.
In PUBG, 100 players enter and only one player leaves. It is the ultimate expression of the competitive, tactical shooter — and of the promise of PC gaming itself as a platform.
World of Warcraft
First launched in 2004, World of Warcraft is the last of its kind. Thankfully, it’s also the best. A high-fantasy MMO standing on the shoulders of giants like Ultima and EverQuest, World of Warcraft has continually reinvented itself for nearly 15 years. Its latest expansion, Battle for Azeroth, was released just last month and is full of surprises. From our review:
After over 90 hours logged in Battle for Azeroth, spread over three max-level characters, the desire to keep pushing forward remains. But the World of Warcraft that I’ve been playing for the past week isn’t the same World of Warcraft that I’ll play later this year, or even in just a few weeks.
The game is constantly evolving, and where Blizzard chooses to take Battle for Azeroth in the next two years could have a drastic effect on its overall quality. But for now, Battle for Azeroth is doing almost everything right for a World of Warcraft expansion. We can only hope that it stays this good.
Best of all, WoW continues to have a thriving community. Whether you land in Azeroth solo or with a close group of friends, you should never need to adventure alone.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Years after its release, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt still stands as a towering achievement in modern video game design. While the game is available on current consoles, the PC platform provides the definitive experience.
Much has been written about the game’s lengthy main quest and how the series uses player decisions to make thoughtful changes to the game world over time. In that regard, it’s the gold standard for digital role-playing games. But where The Witcher 3 truly shines on PC is in providing a glorious spectacle for the eyes. From the game’s rich and moody skyboxes to the environmental and character art itself, The Witcher 3 looks best on PC with longer draw distances and higher resolutions than are possible anywhere else.
In that regard, the now 3-year-old title’s age is actually a benefit. You’ll spend far less on an appropriately high-end graphics card today than you would have when the game was first released.
The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind and The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim
Coming in a close second in our ranking of the best PC RPGs, it’s a tie between two classic games in the Elder Scrolls series.
One of the many benefits of PC gaming is the ability to get under the hood and tinker with the games that you already own. There’s no better series to satisfy the tinkerer’s itch than The Elder Scrolls. The franchise has embraced the modding community for nearly two decades, and the creative team behind it says that has much to do with the series’ longevity and popularity over the years.
The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim provides an excellent introduction to game modding thanks to integration with the Steam Workshop. Simply purchase and download the game, and you’ll be able to select from more than 28,000 community-created mods that add everything from new skins, items and quest lines to large-scale battles.
Of course, Skyrim is also available as a virtual reality title that’s fully compatible with Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.
For those who want to dig a little deeper, The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind provides a much more hands-on modding experience. You’ll need to tinker with the actual game files themselves or download third-party tools to do the work, but the results can be extremely satisfying. One mod, now 17 years in the making, has even added an entire landmass with high-quality quests, additional voice-over work and full integration with the game’s fast-travel system.
Divinity: Original Sin 2
Before there were first-person or even modern third-person RPGs, there were isometric RPGs. Also referred to as classic or computer RPGs (CRPGs), these games have their roots firmly in the tabletop space. Systems like Dungeons & Dragons and, later, Pathfinder emphasized methodical, tactical turn-based combat in addition to storytelling. Since the time of the original Fallout in 1997 and, only one year later, Baldur’s Gate, the CRPG genre has been a mainstay of PC gaming.
Today we’re experiencing a renaissance in CRPGs. Series like Wasteland, Shadowrun and Pillars of Eternity are excellent examples. But for my money, you can’t go wrong with Divinity: Original Sin 2.
Divinity 2 presents a world that will feel at once familiar and completely alien to fans of high fantasy. Its latest iteration is incredibly well-refined with top-notch voice acting, and the campaign itself has remarkable depth and replayability. You can even dodge the gameplay bit entirely and fire it up in story mode. While it’s now available on modern consoles, Divinity 2 is still a CRPG, and therefore best experienced with a mouse and keyboard.
Kentucky Route Zero
Kentucky Route Zero is one of the most fascinating narrative experiments in all of video games. The brainchild of the small team of artists at Cardboard Computer, it uses magical realism to tell a bizarre tale set in rural America.
From our 2013 interview:
It’s a kind of storytelling that seamlessly blends the fantastic with the mundane. Characters are themselves complicit in the sometimes hallucinatory tableaus this genre allows writers to create. The past and the present can be together in the same room, and the disorder that that creates is a personification of the helplessness characters feel. In a way, magic realism mirrors the kind of escapism some say gamers themselves indulge in with their hobby.
”It’s also part of why this game takes place in the South,” co-creator Jake Elliott said. “Magical realism is a really interesting way of doing this … politically directed sort of exploration of what people’s experiences are like when they’re marginalized. That’s, I guess, why we wanted to use that trope.”
The game, which began as a Kickstarter campaign, has been released episodically over the past five years. The final segment is expected sometime this year. Cardboard Computer has also released a series of experiences it calls interludes, which are freely available online.
Total War: Warhammer 2
The Total War series of games completely revised people’s view of the real-time strategy genre. Before developers at The Creative Assembly unleashed it on the world, RTS games were a click-fest where abstracted mobs of units ran around in a nearly manic cycle, either in scripted narrative missions or in frantic online play. Total War slowed things down, gave the genre a much-needed boost of tactical realism, and eventually added a robust strategy layer.
There’s no better example of state-of-the-art RTS design than Total War: Warhammer 2. Based on the eighth edition of Games Workshop’s venerable high-fantasy tabletop miniatures game world, it puts players in control of races such as the shimmering, martial High Elves and the nefarious, ratlike Skaven. Real-time battles can be slowed down and even stopped entirely in single-player mode, allowing players to get up close and personal with the game’s elaborate animations. It’s about as close as you’ll get to having your own version of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers’ battle at Helm’s Deep.
Since the game’s release in 2017, the Creative Assembly has continually supported it. The biggest content addition came with Total War: Warhammer 2 – Mortal Empires. This expansion, which is free to those who own the original Total War: Warhammer and Total War: Warhammer 2, contains a single massive campaign that spans both games’ world maps. All in all, that’s 117 starting factions and 35 playable characters, numbers that add up to a package that’s as absurdly large as it is stunningly beautiful in motion.
Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak
The spiritual successor to the cult classic Homeworld franchise of spacefaring RTS games, Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak is a prequel to those games that puts players on the ground fighting for control of the barren planet of Kharak. It presents players with a completely new style of warfare that relies on land-based supercarriers and a retinue of support vehicles.
Released in 2016 and made by members of the original Homeworld team, its graphical presentation shows great technical skill but also incredible restraint. It’s a game with a unique look and feel that will stand the test of time. It’s also got one of the best CGI intros of all time.
The simulation category is a pretty big bucket and, if I’m being honest, it’s also a bit of a cheat. Inside you’ll find a bunch of different subgenres, including flight simulators and colony simulation games. Nevertheless, it’s a category that contains a whole raft of titles that are wholly unique to PC gaming.
Where the simulation genre excels is in using the PC platform to its fullest potential. Whether that means utilizing purpose-built peripherals and input devices like head tracking, hands-on throttle and stick (HOTAS), and virtual reality, or pushing high-end desktop processors to the very edge of their capabilities, games in the simulation category simply can’t be experienced anywhere else.
Arma 3 is a standout in the genre. It’s more than a video game; it’s a platform. Traditionally referred to as an infantry combat simulation, Arma 3 looks at first glance like your typical first-person shooter. In motion it’s anything but.
For starters, Arma 3 includes the traditional postures of standing, crouching and lying prone. But it also includes additional postures in between. If you’re trying to locate an enemy over a wall, you can stand your avatar up on its tiptoes to get good line of sight. Then, when the moment is right, you can lean to your right around cover, step out with your right foot, and fall prone on your right shoulder — all while firing at full auto — to present your target with the smallest possible silhouette to hit with return fire. Add a TrackIR device, and your avatar even has a working neck, allowing you as the player to look in one direction while firing in another. When it comes to situational awareness, Arma 3 is like fighting from inside a Cadillac.
Add on top of the nuanced FPS gameplay a full suite of armored vehicles, fixed-wing and rotor-wing aircraft — all of which include complex targeting systems and simulated fly-by-wire avionics — and you’ve got something truly exceptional.
Arma 3 includes a single-player campaign, but the real value comes from the game’s community. Among them are its many clans both large and small. One of the most well-known is Shack Tactical, which has been fighting together in Arma for more than 12 years.
The game is also notable for its modding community. Arma the platform gave birth to both DayZ and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, two of the most well-regarded titles in the survival multiplayer and battle royale genres, respectively. There are even live servers where fans are still playing and maintaining those original mods today.
Get it here: Bohemia | Steam
Combat Mission series
A personal favorite of mine, the Combat Mission series dates back to 2000 with Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord. The series is loosely based on the famously complex Advanced Squad Leader tabletop wargame, which breaks major WWII infantry engagements down into their constituent parts and takes hours, sometimes days to play.
Combat Mission, designed and built by the dedicated team at Battlefront.com, is a completely novel turn-based simulation. It uses what it calls the “WeGo” system, where each player issues orders to all of their units at one time. Then, 60 seconds of simulation runs fully outside of the player’s control. They’re forced to sit and watch, using only VCR-like controls and a free-floating camera to track the action.
The game can also be played in a real-time mode, which many fans enjoy. Modern Combat Mission titles are also notable as one of the few games that still allows for play-by-email, although fans usually use file-sharing programs like Dropbox these days.
While several other simulation titles, such as the Close Combat or the Graviteam Tactics series, have come close to creating the same kind of drama in a simulation, the team at Battlefront.com consistently delivers high-quality experiences. Their most recent entry into the WWII series, called Combat Mission: Final Blitzkrieg, contains three fully linked campaigns set during the Battle of the Bulge plus a bunch of one-off missions that are well worth your time. Meanwhile, they’re also working on a sequel to their modern-day variant, Combat Mission: Shock Force 2.
Get Combat Mission: Final Blitzkrieg here: Battlefront
Slaves to Armok: God of Blood Chapter 2: Dwarf Fortress, better known simply as Dwarf Fortress, is a remarkable game. The result of the decadeslong collaboration of two brothers, Zach Adam and Tarn Adams, it’s one of the most complex and esoteric simulations every conceived.
In the game’s most well-known mode, players take control of a band of dwarves setting out to create a community from scratch in a hostile world. “Control” is the wrong word, really, since the dwarves in the game have their own thoughts and feelings. Players merely suggest that they dig into the mountain and plant a field of mushrooms, while the dwarves themselves decide if they’re up to it at that particular point in time.
Regardless of whether you elect to play the game, simply creating a world in Dwarf Fortress is an experience not to be missed if you own a gaming PC. In a new game’s opening seconds, the game uses unspeakably complex systems to generate a 16,000-square-mile chunk of real estate, 250 miles thick, until it gets the right one.
From my 2014 interview with Tarn Adams:
The first layer plots the annual rainfall of each map location. Then a separate fractal simulates the deposition of mineral elements throughout the underground strata, giving the land itself a kind of texture. A temperature fractal is generated and rough biomes emerge as contiguous tiles on the map that contain a subset of closely related flora and fauna.
The order here is important, because in the next step — drainage — Dwarf Fortress begins to simulate the complex forces of erosion. Only after the biomes have been created can the rivers run, slashing deep valleys as they flow toward unnamed oceans. When they finally meet the sea a salinity algorithm kicks in to define the areas for swampy river deltas, alluvial islands and mangrove swamps [while another calculates] rain shadows.
Making the experience even more bizarre, Dwarf Fortress is rendered entirely in ASCII.
Also bear in mind that, in addition to the colony simulation itself, there’s an entire other mode in the game: a roguelike single-player adventure that allows players to explore the game’s procedurally generated history from ground level.
Like War Thunder, Dwarf Fortress is completely free. Donations, naturally, are quite welcome. As a reward, you may be gifted with a handmade drawing.
Get it here: Bay 12 Games
Back before PC buyers worried if their rigs could run Crysis, flight simulators were the most sophisticated and graphically demanding games available. Following the death of the venerable Microsoft Flight Simulator series in the early 2010s, fans of flight sims now have access to commercial-grade software in the form of the X-Plane series and military-grade software in the form of the Digital Combat Simulator series from Eagle Dynamics.
But, if we’re being honest, neither X-Plane 11 or DCS A-10C Warthog are even playable without some serious study. That’s where War Thunder comes in.
War Thunder, the free-to-play title from Gaijin Entertainment, is a flight simulator for everyone. It’s played by thousands of would-be pilots around the world every day, and includes different difficulty settings from hardcore historical simulation to arcade mode. It also includes tanks and capital warships along with flyable helicopters, making it one of the most comprehensive vehicle warfare simulations of its kind. But where the game truly excels, in my opinion, is in modeling the flight characteristics of WWII-era fixed-wing aircraft.
Spend enough time with War Thunder, and you’ll soon learn the difference between an energy-fighter and a turn-fighter through epic aerial engagements that span the globe. It’s easily played with a mouse and keyboard, but also works exceptionally well with modern HOTAS sets from Thrustmaster and Saitek. It’s also fully compatible with VR systems including the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive, meaning you can sit in the cockpit of historic warbirds and fight in the battles of Britain, Midway and Stalingrad for precisely zero dollars right now.
Get it here: Gaijin
The sequel to the original Elite, a PC game that dates all the way back to 1984, Elite: Dangerous and its Horizons expansion are a borderline spiritual spacefaring experience.
At the core of this game is a realistic simulation of all 400 billion star systems in the Milky Way galaxy. No, that’s not a typo. The secret is the so-called Stellar Forge, a procedural system that developer Frontier Developments used to realistically simulate the formation of our galaxy. Using the best available astronomical information available, the studio sort of threw all of creation into a digital rock tumbler and then published what fell out as an MMO.
Players begin as a nearly destitute mercenary, set adrift somewhere in the inhabited Bubble of human civilization circa 3300. While the storyline of the game, such as it is, is currently moving at an abysmally slow pace for some fans, it’s the community that makes this game such a joy to play.
Whether you want to risk life and limb rescuing your fellow players as a member of the Fuel Rats, engaging in high-stakes player-versus-player combat during community-sponsored narrative battles, or simply take a weekslong joyride to the edge of the our unfashionable Western spiral arm, there’s something in here for everyone.
Even better, the game is fully compatible with the TrackIR head-tracking peripheral, as well as all manner of joysticks, pedals and HOTAS sets. For awe-inspiring visuals, I recommend playing it in VR with the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive. It’s an excellent game to have on hand to show anyone who might doubt that you’re dithering away your free time playing games.
Get it here: Frontier | Steam
League of Legends
League of Legends is our pick for the best multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game. For the uninitiated, LoL can be extremely intimidating. It’s a hybrid of the RTS genre and action RPGs, where physical skill and high-level strategy mingle for intense online battles. With over 140 champions for players to learn about, there are many different ways to break in.
LoL is also fascinating solely as a spectator sport. Fans turn out in droves to watch multinational tournaments played all around the world. Many esports organizations hang their hats on the quality of the LoL teams they can field. Given that kind of popularity, it’s little wonder that this game is one of the most-watched titles on Twitch.
Get it here: Riot
XCOM 2: War of the Chosen
Turn-based tactical strategy games are another example of an entire genre that was born for the PC, and one that is still experienced best on that platform. I can think of no better example than War of the Chosen, the outstanding 2017 expansion for XCOM 2.
The original X-COM: UFO Defense, first released in 1994, effectively created the turn-based tactical genre. Whether it’s this classic bug hunt or the myriad other games (like the excellent Cold War thriller Phantom Doctrine) that have come out since, the gameplay is largely the same. Take a small group of heavily armed commandos and painstakingly move into and out of harm’s way to accomplish an objective.
Where War of the Chosen excels, however, is in its world-building and storytelling. Not only is it based on the exceptionally well-executed reboot by Firaxis Games, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, it also includes a lovable cast of characters. Making things even more fun, the voice-over artists all hail from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
In my review I called it “the definitive XCOM experience,” and it’s a statement that rings just as true today as it did last year.
Crusader Kings 2
The developers at Paradox Interactive are widely regarded as the kings and queens of the strategy genre. Their expertise is a niche within a niche known as the 4X game, an acronym that stands for eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate. Players take command of a nation or, in some cases, an entire species, and set out on a mission to become the most powerful group in the game world.
If you’ve heard of the 4X genre before, you’ve no doubt heard of the Civilization series and its most recent iteration, 2016’s excellent Civilization 6. While that’s a seminal work in its own right, the following it has pales in comparison to that of Crusader Kings 2. If you’re looking for an excellent game with many, many different points of entry, including Let’s Play video series and elaborate online tutorials, there’s simply no better option.
In Crusader Kings 2, players take on the role of an historical dynasty and lead it through an open-world conquest. The game begins with historical fact and wildly diverges from there to create just about any sort of alternate timeline that you can imagine. Not only will your leader age, but they will also marry and have children. When they pass on, it will be those children who will take up the crown — but only if they’re not murdered first. If you’re interested in palace intrigue and bizarre, procedurally generated stories of deceit and treachery that are on par with Game of Thrones, this is the game for you.
Most remarkable of all, however, is the fact that Paradox is still supporting a game that was released way back in 2012. The most recent expansion, Jade Dragon, was released in November 2017 and added more detail to China. The next expansion, Holy Fury, comes out soon.
Of course, I’d be drawn and quartered if I also didn’t mention Paradox’s other outstanding 4X titles, including the more Eurocentric Europa Universalis 4, the epic WWII title Hearts of Iron 4 and the pan-galactic Stellaris.
In the world of PC gaming, there are few series that cast as long a shadow as Civilization. First released in 1991, it’s a historical strategy game experienced through lengthy turns. Players take on the role of a famous historical figure, leading a people from ancient times into the space race and beyond. Each entry in the series has felt distinct, yet all share the same gentle learning curve and impressively complex endgame.
As a whole, the series has had its ups and downs over the years. Many consider Civilization 4 to be the pinnacle of the series. It was fully 3D, narrated by Leonard Nimoy, and featured “Baba Yetu,” the first piece of music from a video game to be nominated for and win a Grammy Award. But, for my money, you can’t go wrong with the latest in the series, Civilization 6. The most recent expansion, called Rise and Fall, has received rave reviews and helps to elevate an already successful game into the definitive Civilization experience.