The 100 best PC games of all time
10. Ultima VII: The Black Gate
Release Date: 1992
Last year: 24
Ed: For the creatively sadistic roleplayer, look no further. Most people will think of the global Apocalypse spell or the many ways to kill Lord British, but I prefer the start of Ultima VII, where you find a man butchered, his blood everywhere. It’s possible to gather the blood and put it in a bucket safe keeping it for later, when you recruit this deceased man’s 14 year old son and can then have him haul his father’s blood around. Oh, it’s not over yet. The game also features baking for which you need a bucket of water and flour to make bread, but, the game doesn’t differentiate between liquids in buckets. So it’s then possible to bake bread with the bucket of blood and then feed it to the 14 year old. It’s the little evils that get you by, really.
Tony: It did provide a mad degree of freedom. In my first hour I wandered off in the woods and found a fantastic flying carpet that let me cross mountains and oceans. Weeks of unfettered, world-romping play later, I met an NPC who told me where to look for this magic carpet he’d lost.
Desslock: Revolutionary for its time and in some respects yet to be surpassed. It was as much about espousing heroic virtues as it was slaying dragons. Turning flour into dough that could be baked into bread and stuffed down the voracious mouths of your companions was as rewarding as thwarting the extra-dimensional threat of the bellowing Guardian. You didn't wander Britannia; you lived in it, and being neighbourly sometimes required moving a farmer’s pumpkins or moving a cannon into smiting position.
9. StarCraft 2
Release Date: 2010
Last year: New entry
Tim E: It’s one of the few games here that you can be a fan of without playing much of. My Starcraft II time isn’t usually spent playing the game, it’s watching the commented Korean tournament matches that reach us via GomTV. When I play, I dabble. When I watch, I am consumed.
Tom F: I'm the same, and it's turned me into the one thing I never thought I'd be: a sports fan. I shout at the telly (my browser). I have favourite players (FruitDealer, GuineaPig), and watch all their games. I laugh at the commentators' nerdy jokes ("Double Robo all the way... that's intense, man."). And I could, if you really wanted me to, put together a Fantasy StarCraft team. Don't ask me to.
Rich: I do the watching and the shouting too, but I’ve also played 547 games online. With the aid of my fingers, I did some quick maths. If we assume the average game lasts 20 minutes, that means I’ve played StarCraft II for 180-odd hours in six months. Course, that figure gets scarier when you consider I’ve also watched series two and three of the GSL in their entirety and oh God I can’t even count that high. StarCraft II is in my brain, killing my dudes.
Dan: I’m a dedicated Zerg player (and an Idra fan), even though for a lot of good reasons, I should prefer Terrans or Protoss. But I can’t quit them - I love the biological lifecycle of their units and buildings, starting from a larvae. I love their aggressive, fast-expansion tactics. I love how they swarm over an enemy base, tearing apart everything inside. I even love the squishy gurgly noises they make when they die. There aren’t many games that can make you make decisions that go against your natural strengths, but SC2 manages it.
Norm: The first time I was photon-cannon rushed, I nearly broke my keyboard out of frustration. A few hundred ladder games later, I’ve learned the intricacies of SC2 play (much of it from obsessively following the GSL) and go to sleep thinking of new strategies and ways to optimize my macro and micro-management abilities. My obsession is such that when I flush the urinal in a bathroom, I don’t see water swirling--I see a chrono-boosted Nexus.
Release Date: 2007
Last year: 17
Evan L: Gaming’s best vignette. The laser focus of an indie game with the production quality and cleverness that you’d expect from Valve.
Dan: It’s cleverness that I didn’t expect. Valve’s pre-Orange Box games had all been more or less played straight, with a few gags here and there. But Portal was mind-bending puzzles punctuated by increasingly disturbing and hilarious chatter from GLADOS.
Craig: The sequel is next year’s most exciting game for me, all because of three hours of wonderful, dark comedy and a new game mechanic. They make it seem so easy.
7. Diablo 2
Release Date: 2000
Last year: 43
Tom F: Turns out if you make an RPG with only the briefest glimpses of plot, zero dialogue options
and no character creation, it's ridiculously good fun. Click click click, smash smash smash, loot, level-up.
The reason Diablo 2 sticks with me, rather than the moodier first game, is the sheer scale and diversity of the thing. After a pretty standard first chapter in what looks like Wales, suddenly you're in the desert. Cat people frisking in the sand, maggots erupting from the dunes, pseudo-Egyptian relics unlocking tombs. And then: rainforest. Whoa.
One of my favourite gaming experiences of all time was four of us lugging our PCs to the same house, stocking up on snacks, and questing through all this together the week it came out. By the end of it I was a corpse-exploding Necromancer with a pet made out of blood and a curved dagger that made even demon's flee. And we all had poor personal hygiene.
Cooper: When I was in high-school you couldn’t pry me out of bed in the morning with a crowbar. I did wake up at 4:00am, though, so I could do about two hours of Mephisto runs before catching the bus. I don’t know what it was, exactly, that made the game so good. It could have been the visuals, the story, hell, it could have been that they simply perfected the drop ratios and experience curve. Whatever it is, it made the multiplayer an experience that has, as of yet, not been replicated.
Tom S: Diablo 2 wasn't a battle with demons, it was me and my friends versus the very Internet itself. My carefully constructed lag-mancer was finely tuned to summon as many minions as possible. Between them, the exploding poison novas and my friend's volcano spell Diablo's hordes didn't stand a chance. Neither did our our poor, sputtering 56k modems.
If there's one thing that sums up my obsession with Diablo 2, it's the Horadric Cube. It's a magic box. You put certain things in it and better things come out. I learned every recipe for every item weapon and rune. I ran and reran dungeons and obliterated the demon hordes on every difficulty to complete the best recipes, just so I could improve my warrior. It's fast and bloody on the surface, but Diablo 2 turned slow burn character building into an art form.
6. Rome: Total War
Release Date: 2004
Last year: 5
Tony: Rome was the magic point where Total War assumed epic scale, but had yet to sag under the weight of its own ambition. The cinematic wars of the Romans, familiar to us from a hundred Technicolor matinee movies, were perfect for its cast-of-thousands battle technology in a way no subsequent outing has been able to match. No other strategy game at all has kept me so gripped, so caught up in its drama.
Rich: Plus, turtles. Well, tortoises. Well, ‘Testudo’, that formation where a unit gets into a special kind of cuddle and is technically invincible to all arrow attacks. You can have all the neat battlefield pincer movements and lightning cavalry strikes you like - I’m just going to make a whole load of men wave their shields in the air like they just don’t care and waddle their way to victory. I like turtles!
Cooper: Rome: Total War was massive. It was the first RTS that let you actually play out the gigantic battles you read about in history class. Few things can top the feeling of a well-planned flank, with horsemen running through massive battalions of enemy forces. That, or you could play strategic, and never actually fight a battle. Rome: Total War let you do that, and it worked marvelously.
Ed: This was the game that let me see who would win in a three-way fight between elephants, burning pigs and dogs. Turns out it was the pigs, though their victory was bittersweet. And crispy.
5. Half-Life 2
Release Date: 2004
Last year: 2
Graham: It was the first videogame launch that felt like it mattered. Worldwide, at 8am in the UK, the game clicked on for everyone who’d bought it through Steam. I was there, alone in my bedroom, but it still felt like a party. And when it loaded, it felt like a homecoming. Barney! The crowbar! Kleiner! You have a name now - congrats. I don’t know who this Alyx is but she seems nice. Manhacks? Combine? D0g? Despite all the new additions, still it felt like home.
Craig: Every year I find something else to admire about Half-Life 2. This year I’ve not even been playing it, instead I have the soundtrack on my MP3 player. Those tracks are as key to the game as Breen’s amazing speeches and glorious physics, they tie into the atmosphere action so beautifully that I get flashbacks whenever any of them pop up on a playlist.
Rich: I agree with you about the soundtrack, but it’s not the music I love - it’s the incidental noises. The Combine’s blurt of static on spotting you is one of gaming’s most alien sounds: tenuously human but totally unknowable behind that spooky gas mask. The whine after a nearby grenade detonation becomes a cue to get the fuck to cover, the rumble of a plasma ball carving through the air entices you to sit and watch its path of destruction. Best of all is the strider death rattle. It’s so mounful, it almost makes me feel bad for hiding in rubble and twatting the giant tripods with repeated rockets.
Cooper: How does Valve follow-up one of the greatest FPS of all time? With a game that has barely anything to do with the original. Seriously, they ditched the locations, most of the characters, all of the enemies, and even most of the gameplay elements. What remains? Somehow, still one of the best FPS of all time. Little hints of “The Seven Hour War”, rumblings of a plot hidden for those interested, the mysterious Ravenholm... it’s jam packed with awesome, and the episodes to come out since release give semi-yearly excuses to jump back in and play it again.
Norm: The fact that Half-Life 2 still holds up to this day is a testament to the believability of the game world that Valve created with its then-budding Source engine. Half-Life 2’s characters feel real and alive, a feat more impressive when you realize that they’re basically acting opposite a mute.
4. Team Fortress 2
Release Date: 2007
Last year: 3
Craig: Remember this time last year, when I suggested I should probably stop after 253 hours of game time? That took two years of TF2 to accumulate. I just checked, and I’m at 595 hours. Why? Valve keep adding new content to bring me back in. Good content, on top of all the hats and paint, there are fun maps and new weapons to play with nearly every other month. I actually want to stop now, as it’s taking up far too much of my time, but they keep bringing me back.
Tim E: Thanks to its classes, a good match of TF2 played within a good and well oiled team often feels like playing a bunch of different games. I’m a particular fan of TF2’s interpretation of Quake 2 - the Soldier class. The speed of the rockets, the feel of a crit landing, the height of the rocket jump, the pump of the shotgun feel near perfect to me.
Tom: The Soldier feels like a class tweaked to perfection: the healing rocket launcher makes him as strategic as I want him to be, and the Buff Banner gives him the long-term goal I've always wanted. The game keeps changing enough that I can never entirely quit it: when I've lost my appetite for being outmatched online, I can now play against bots and win games single-handedly. I call it Loner Fortress.
Graham: Team Fortress 2 lets you play it a dozen different ways with a dozen different classes, but all I ever do is go Sniper and click on heads. I click, they die. I click, they die. Click. Click. Click.
Norm: No game since StarCraft has evolved so much due to emergent gameplay strategies developed over millions of hours of collective gameplay. I don’t think any of us, Valve included, could have imagined the Team Fortress 2 of today when the game was released three years ago. If Valve’s M.O. is iteration until perfection, I like to think that we’re all part of TF2’s testing team.
Chris: And everyone has a different opinion on which class is the most overpowered (The Spy) and which class consistently gets boned after each update (The Heavy). Few other games have created such personal connections between player and character. If you insult The Heavy, it's like you're insulting me.
Tom S: Team Fortress 2 taught me that I could play an online shooter without being teabagged, or having a squeaky kid insult my mother. The sense of humour that runs through every virtual plank of TF2's levels has filtered down into the community. Games are still competitive, and we're still blasting each other into bloody chunks, but most of the time a sense of fun prevails. It's hard to stay mad when you're confronted by the Heavy's manic grin.
3. Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
Release Date: 2006
Last year: 6
Tom: Bruma keeps springing into my head, the snowy rooftops and cobbled streets and the web of lies about the vampire slayer. Leyawiin, planning Adamus Phillida's death. The southern forests, and a hitman by a lake I hunted down on a vendetta. A little waterfall tumbling into a mountain pool I stopped to splash in. A cold peak miles from anywhere.
I loved Fallout 3, and I loved Morrowind, but Oblivion has actually stuck with me more than both. A tour of its most recognisable locations and the early quests would be pretty uninspiring, but if you live in that world for a while, it has an incredible sense of place. And it does feel like living. The total freedom of what to specialise in, what goals to pursue, how to achieve them - none of those things are unique individually, but put them together and you have something that's more of a world than a game. That will continue to excite me more than anything else in the genre until Skyrim comes along and does it all again.
Rich: I found City-Swimmer dead in Bravil after sixty hours of play. Her corpse was draped over the steps to a tavern, and the town’s inhabitants were stepping over her lifeless form. I rifled through her pockets, and found the reason for her murder: a pilfered loaf of bread. While I was off at the edge of the world in Bruma, or staring at the sea in Anvil, or holding back the forces of disorder in Kvatch, City-Swimmer was stealing food to get by and living her own life. That’s what Oblivion feels like: a collection of independent but intertwined lives - a society - that the player joins.
Tony: The makers of Oblivion know that there are no shortcuts to creating a world. You can create deep, shaggable characters, you can write enough lore to fill a lore-shed, but to create a world you have to get out there and build it. Towns. Dungeons. Secret passages and secret societies. The physics of alchemy. The pathology of vampirism. The social calendars of the nobility and the unexceptional contents of the second drawer of a wardrobe in room no one will ever visit. Oblivion isn’t a game: it’s somewhere you live.
2. World of Warcraft
Release Date: 2005
Last year: 14
Tim E: WoW leaves me in awe. I look at it’s landscapes, recently pockmarked by it’s latest Cataclysm, and smile. They spread and undulate for miles, always changing, always gorgeous. I look at it’s mechanics, newly revamped, and gasp at their depth. Classes that interlock so perfectly, tricks of each character counter-balanced by traits of another. I play it’s dungeons, and smile - think of the times I’ve shared with raidmates as we took on, and eventually bettered, some of the strangest, and silliest boss fights I could imagine. I tinker with it’s battlegrounds and arenas, fiercely competitive and grimace a little: they’re as stressful as any FPS deathmatch.
Most impressively, though, I look at it all. At the weird omni-game that Blizzard have created, which can hold players in so many different ways; through questing, through raiding, through battlegrounds and arenas, and through it’s lore. World of Warcraft is the best at what it does because it’s the best at everything it does.
Graham: I spent the first two months after release in love with World of Warcraft. I flew gryphons, I explored forests, I fought monsters, I saved towns, I chatted with friends. When I grew tired of the quests, I just started running. I sprinted across landscapes filled with monsters I had no hope of defeating. I swam oceans and found islands and fell down mountains. Then, when I grew tired of that, I cancelled my subscription and never went back. World of Warcraft grips some people for years, but you don’t have to commit that much time to find it a worthwhile experience. Don’t be daunted by your friends playtime, and jump in till it stops being fun. You’ll get your money’s worth.
Troy: It’s too bad that those landscapes are chock a block with pop culture references now. But then, WoW was never really meant to be taken as seriously as other MMOs, which could be the secret of its success. Moving away from realistic avatars to more stylized character art, Blizzard made Azeroth a fantasy theme park that immediately welcomed the masses. Light on innovation, maybe, but that's the Blizzard way - find something that everyone else is doing, but do it better.
Josh: But the true magic of WoW isn’t found in sunsets or pop culture references; it’s not even in the game’s content. Sure, Blizzard refined MMO design to perfection, and prepared the way for every MMO that’ll follow after it, but the real reason it’s been so damn hard to put WoW down over the past few years is that everyone you know’s playing it. Your friends, your family, that shy girl that sits behind you in science class--Azeroth is a massive world filled with people you already know--and so many more ready to meet you. A world where brothers can meet up and adventure together, despite living thousands of miles apart. Most players occasionally log in just to chat and catch up with friends. This is, without a doubt, the biggest phenomenon in online gaming of all time--if you’re not here, you’re missing out.
1. Deus Ex
Release Date: 2000
Last year: 1
Tony: Just when I thought it was starting to get stale, the doors opened and I was in Hong Kong. Hong fucking /Kong/. Chinese lanterns. Night markets. Signs in neon kanji. Games didn’t do things like Hong Kong. This was a real place. And it wasn’t just a map, a level - it contained levels. The whole unforgettable VersaLife complex was just one of many areas embedded within its mini-world, along with canals, luxury skyscraper apartment blocks, nightclubs and restaurants. And you could just walk around it, and explore at your own pace. The Hong Kong section redefined what games were capable of, and it’s everything that’s great about Deus Ex.
Tom: Oh man, the hours I spent trying to break into the police station there. The backfiring tear gas, the scrambled deathbots, the screaming civilians, the unexpected LAMs gibbing everything.
Deus Ex has a lot of elements to it, but they're well-chosen. It's rare that it's just you versus some enemies: bot loyalties are flexible, civilians can be on either side, and every evil base seems to have at least one scientist or mechanic just waiting to defect.
Another Hong Kong memory: I decided to take out Maggie Chow. I didn't know there was an MJ12 base in her apartment. Her maid pulled a gun, the troops came flooding in, and I just smashed her penthouse flat window and hurled myself out.
Landed on a balcony, broke into the apartment there, and discovered it belonged to Jock "JC, a bomb!" Flanagan, my chopper pilot. Sorry Jock.
Rich: For me, Deus Ex is infused with crippling guilt. On one of my early playthroughs, I took a running leap from a set of steps and landed directly on the spine of a stray cat. It meowed briefly, and died. I was distraught - six foot of muscle and carbon fibre, and I’d just stomped a defenceless creature to save myself some time. I quit, and reloaded an old savegame, losing an hour’s progress, but regaining the ability to sleep at night. That guilt still pervades: if I stand on a rat, I reload. If I kill an NSF member before the reveal, I reload. Deus Ex’s world is so complete and perfect that I’m not killing algorithms and lines of code - I’m killing living things.
Craig: You utter shit.
Tom S: I’m used to saving the world in games, but I always loved that Deus Ex actually let me decide what would happen next. It's a game about choices, both small and large. One minute it's 'do you want to stun this guy or kill him?', the next it's 'do you want to throw humanity back into the dark ages, causing untold suffering but preserving free will?' Deus Ex was never afraid to ask the big questions.
Graham: Still haven’t played this. Are you sure it’s any good?
The PCG Top 100 panel of judges were:
Andy Mahood (Freelancer, PCG US)
Craig Pearson (News editor, PCG UK)
Dan Stapleton (Reviews editor, PCG US)
Ed Fenning (Freelancer, PCG UK)
Evan Lahti (Senior editor, PCG US)
Graham Smith (Deputy editor, PCG UK)
Jaz McDougall (Freelancer, PCG UK)
John Walker (Freelancer, PCG UK)
Jonathan Cooper (Freelancer, PCG US)
Josh Augustine (Associate editor, PCG US)
Logan Decker (Editor-in-chief, PCG US)
Owen Hill (Web editor, PCG UK)
Richard Cobbett (Freelancer, PCG UK)
Rich McCormick (Staff writer, PCG UK)
Robert Hathorne (Freelancer, PCG US)
Stefan ‘Desslock’ Janicki (Freelancer, PCG US)
Tim Edwards (Editor, PCG UK)
Tim Stone (Freelancer, PCG UK)
Tom Francis (Section editor, PCG UK)
Tom Senior (Freelancer, PCG UK)
Tony Ellis (Production editor, PCG UK)
Tyler Wilde (Freelancer, PCG US).