The 100 best PC games of all time
20. Half-Life 2: Episode 2
Release Date: 2007
Last year: New entry
Tom: I replayed the whole HL2 series recently, and Episode Two really is the standout of the entire thing. The open air, the Hunters, the ominous march of the Combine towards White Forest. All the Half-Life games are made up of distinct and memorable sections, but Episode Two is the only one where each bit is a joy to play through every time. Even the antlion tunnels - I love the steep shadows, squelchy grubs, and the violent fizz of the acid blobs the workers spit at you. "We must have misunderestimated them!"
Rich: My recollection of Episode 2 is overcast by a giant, gnomey shadow. I carried him for the entire game, jamming him into gaps in my car’s framework and screaming as he flew off into the distance. Clutching his ceramic form to my chest made me feel like a parent, more vulnerable than usual. It also drove home quite how far Gordon’s gone. Episode 2 feels like a journey in a way other games can’t reach - thanks to his silence, it’s your story and yours alone.
Tony: I went on a geocaching date with a scientist’s totally hot daughter. Show me another game that does this.
19. Planescape: Torment
Release Date: 1999
Last year: 8
Tony: The trouble with fantasy RPGs? They’re not fantastical. They’re set in muddy, medieval kingdoms with muddy, medieval stories about The Evil One. Planescape fixes this, taking us to a baroque alien world where streets can give birth, the locals in the bar are demons and succubi run brothels for the intellect.
John: To see this below Ultima VII is proof that we live in a broken world, controlled by demons. Or dumb writers whom I’ll fight. I’ve been replaying it recently, and it’s shocking to see how far the standards of game writing have fallen in the decade since. This is a text book for plotting and character design, and all developers should be studying it.
Release Date: 1999
Last year: New entry
Graham: In its early days, it was the vulnerability that I remember being compelling. The constant risk of death forced players to tread slowly, to crouch and peak around corners, and to be constantly aware of where their teammates were. You’d join a server and immediately fall into step with a bunch of strangers all playing the same way. That feeling faded as the game became faster and less punishing, and its community larger and less friendly, but what remained is still the most balanced and satisfying team-based shooter. I miss my clanmates.
Norm: It’s hard to imagine that before Counter-Strike, the concept of online tactical first-person shooters didn’t exist. CS not only created an entire genre of shooter, but was (and still is) one of the pillars of competitive gaming as sport. Its purity as a technical twitch-shooter aside, one of my favorite parts of the game were the in-game conversations between dead players waiting for round respawns. In the era of IRC and dial-up connections, this was were gaming communities were formed.
Rich: I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited as I was the night before the Galil, Famas, and riot shield were introduced to Counter-Strike. It was the first game I truly knew to its foundations, and I could picture how these minimal additions would shake up the whole scene. Of course, they turned out to be a bit rubbish, but I wasn’t to know that.
Craig: I preferred Counter Strike: Source, so meet me at number 61.
Release Date: 2009
Last year: New entry
Craig: Currently on the PC Gamer Minecraft server there’s a giant duck towering over an elephant. There’s a towering, blocky sheep on the horizon. Every night I log in, and every night there’s something new and wonderful to discover. Minecraft’s genius is in giving everyone the opportunity to make an impact on the land, to let them carve out a cave, build a house, a tower, a giant phallus, or wander the world taking it all in. Anyone want to go for a walk?
Rich: Not with you, I’ve seen your TNT stockpile.
Graham: The reasons I love Minecraft change as much as the game does. At first it was the collaborative building: limitless Lego on a multiplayer server with friends. Then it was the wonderful sense of discovery; going for walks and stumbling across natural caves filled with monsters and gold. Then it was the feeling of building a home; carving out blocks to call my own, and making a little garden out front. Now it’s looped back around and I’m building those homes and finding those monsters with friends again. I’ve no idea why I’lI love Minecraft tomorrow, but I will.
Rich: I shouldn’t love Minecraft. I like my fun structured and organised; Minecraft is freeform. I think it’s the egotist in me: I was never fussed when it was singleplayer focused, but as soon as we got a server and I could go “look, look, I made a giant diamond castle with a hot-tub and a pool table and a log flume!”, jumping up and down as I squeaked, I was suckered in.
16. Sid Meier's Civilization IV
Release Date: 2006
Last year: 12
Tim E: The magic of Civ happens somewhere between the discovery of the wheel, and the discovery of gunpowder. It’s there where you have to start figuring out your path to victory. Where are the AI. Where are the borders? What’s your preferred victory condition. How many continents are there? Do you have allies? Do you have cavalry? What resources do you have to hand. Can you trade for more? Can you fight for more? All these questions set off a cascade of decisions.
And then it’s 3am, and Ghandi’s being a twat over Uranium.
Rich: Fuck Gandhi.
Troy: This is not only the best strategy game ever made, but a beautiful fusion of system analysis and character creation. (Screw you, Montezuma.) I expect more hours have been lost to the Civ series than any other single player game, and the fourth version was near perfect on arrival. Major systems (corruption, governments) were thrown out in favor of something better (happiness, civics). It remains one of the few strategy sequels to still seem completely fresh and original, even all these years later.
Dan: If there’s a more addictive strategy game created, it could be an extinction-level event for all humankind.
15. Left 4 Dead
Release Date: 2008
Last year: 45
Craig: It’s clearly the most unfair game ever made: swarms of zombies, evil bosses, panicked team-mates all conspire to fuck your shit up. Quit fucking my shit up, people! Yet Valve’s secret sauce make it an experience that’ll keep you coming back. It’s hard to be terrified when you’re bursting a lung laughing, and Left 4 Dead’s balance towards last minute deaths, just inches from safety is... wait, did you hear something?
Rich: I am captivated by Left 4 Dead’s potential for dickery. Matches are tense half-sprints and death is never more than a warty tongue away, but come to the safehouse door and someone will always close it in your face. It’s the human urge to stare at danger and giggle straight back. Or maybe I’m just playing with bastards.
Dan: Playing with bastards is part of L4D’s charm. It makes the decision to leave them for dead that much easier--because you know they’d do the same to you.
Chris: This is why, as a general rule, I kill everyone on my own team if I'm doing poorly. Especially if Evan is on that team.
Craig: Shh. I definitely heard something.
Tom S: Before I played it I always mistook Left 4 Dead for a horror game. In fact it's pure comedy. Freak Tank charges, stealthy Boomers and freak friendly fire incidents are all punchlines in a riotous comedy of errors. Once the horror of the charging undead hordes wears off they're some of the best punchbags in gaming. Who knew the zombie apocalypse would be such a giggle?
Release Date: 1998
Last year: 4
Craig: It still blows my mind that a developer’s first game can be this good. It’s a dramatic, epic, even today, more than 12 year on, it manages to get me panicking and backtracking from headcrabs and cursing the Black Ops team and their prescient grenades.
Graham: Black Mesa is a ridiculous place, filled by long corridors with few doors, massive vats of poisonous acid, and riddled with human-sized pipes, but it was the first FPS I played where I was driven forward by the desire to see what was coming next. What lay around the corner of this strange research facility? What scientist would I meet next? Which weapon? I was never letdown by continuing to play, and when I was done, I kept on playing through the mods that extended the universe in a dozen directions.
Dan: It’s because Half-Life was the first shooter to understand that these games could be more than simple run-and-gun shooting galleries - and it did it better than most games today can manage. Watching the alien invasion tear apart Black Mesa and its inhabitants is one of the best game openings of all time, and it set the stage for one of the PC’s most captivating games.
13. Arma 2
Release Date: 2009
Last year: 21
Tim E: Ambition counts, occasionally more than polish. Arma’s ambition - to simulate everything possible on a modern battlefield - is staggering. Yes, occasionally, you might fall out of an open door of a Blackhawk because you couldn’t work the controls out. Yes, the animations for helping cauterising and healing a wounded buddy look like a demented mannequin is pouring salt directly through the chest of a falllen comrade. Yes, the AI soldiers sound like an army of robots pleased to discover they can spot a man at 100 yards. And yes, you’ll die harder, and more suddenly, that any other game.
But hey. It’s does everything a modern war does. That’s enough.
Evan: Every Saturday, my e-friends and I assemble to play backyard war.
Rich: I’ve devoured Evan’s tales of bravery and organisation, but I didn’t find an inroad into ArmA 2 until recently. Hopping onto a server with Tim and Owen, I expected frightening organisation. That expectation died when I jumped onto a rickety bike and started doing laps around the other guys as they sat in an attack chopper, ringing a little bell as I pedalled. ArmA 2 is an adventure playground as much as it is a war simulator.
Tim S: Arma 2 lets you mount a .50 cal tripod MG on the back of a cow then ride into battle. That's really all you need to know.
12. UFO: Enemy Unknown
Release Date: 1994
Last year: 11
Tim E: That a decade old turn based strategy is still producing hilarious/terrifying stories of alien invasion, assault and experiments should speak volumes. The latest drama: when I sent my elite troop of PC Gamer writers into an occupied farmhouse at the dead of night. Craig was shot dead. Graham panicked, dropping the grenade he had primed. It blew, and the farmhouse caught fire. Tom and Tim died as the entire floor collapsed. Stupid soldiers. Brilliant game.
Tom: I don't remember this.
Graham: I never panic.
Troy: Everyone named their soldiers after their friends, and they always died bravely. Or stupidly. Most games use death as a signal that you should reload, X-Com made the death of your soldiers a part of the game. There was no guarantee that things would go better next time around, so you took acceptable losses and moved on to the next battle against invading alien scum. The research and construction phases were perfectly integrated into a game whose individual elements have been copied many times but whose charm has never been duplicated.
Dan: X-COM’s turn-based tactical combat has more tension and atmosphere than any fast-paced action game could ever hope for. I only wish I could make myself forget I ever played it, so that I could then experience the terror of encountering a Chrysalid, the discovery of new technologies, or the power-mad joy of launching a Blaster Bomb into the control room of an alien battleship from across the map all over again. Or better yet, how about a real sequel?
11. Company of Heroes Online
Release Date: 2010
Last year: New entry
Tim E: There’s no question that Company of Heroes was the best deal in PC gaming when the single player game was available for free. It’s a fast paced real-time strategy game that somehow manages to incorporate real-feeling tactics: flanking, cover and pinning down, with hectic mission design and real gore. The impact of a V2 rocket on your favourite commandos, leaves you feeling wretched - staring at gibs and a molten hole.
Dan: CoH’s combat may have been smaller-scale than SupCom or StarCraft, but its tactical, environmentally aware combat makes it every bit as intense.
Tom S: The thing that really separated Company of Heroes Online from other competitive strategy games is the kernel of chance that lies at the heart of every encounter. Unlike StarCraft 2's rigid, mathematical 'X beats Y' framework, there's an opportunity for even the smallest units excel. With the experience and levelling system, Company of Heroes Online recognises something that was always true of the original. Those men under your command really can be heroes.