10 The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
RELEASED 2011 | LAST POSITION 5
Tony: Scrolls games free you to RPG how you want, where you want, in a vast open world full of fantasy quests. I love Oblivion, but Skyrim did it all over again in a place that felt more original, lived-in and romantic.
Tim: I loved Skyrim so much that I spent an entire Christmas break grinding my enchanting, alchemy and smithing until I was able to craft a 350-damage Daedric War Axe with which to one-shot every single endgame monster, including the dragons. Still the very best of times.
Andy: I’ll never forget the first time I emerged from that dingy cave into the vast, snow-covered expanse of Skyrim. There are better RPGs on PC, but that feeling of going where you want, shaping your own destiny, is what sets The Elder Scrolls apart. I revisited the game recently to celebrate its fifth birthday, and that exhilarating feeling of freedom was just as powerful.
9 GTA 5
RELEASED 2015 | LAST POSITION 5
Andy: Los Santos is what happens when you pour all the money in the world into an open-world game. GTA V’s sun-soaked playground is one of the most amazing constructions on PC. A joyous, anarchic sandbox filled with fun things to do—and then you leave the city limits and find a vast expanse of countryside.
Tony: Wherever you go, a designer has been there first and left a vulgar garden gnome for you to discover or a convenient gap in the fence, a flashy car for you to steal or a backpacker to punch. It’s the richest, most vibrant world in gaming.
Phil: It’s one of my favourite games, and the reason is the online heists, which have led to some of my favourite moments in any action game. It’s a guaranteed great time, whether you’re rescuing your team from a police assault, or just cruising around in a convoy, trying to find trouble. It’s GTA ’s hilarious, chaotic action, but amplified because of friends.
Samuel: Agreed. GTA Online has deservedly taken on a life of its own.
8 Rocket League
RELEASED 2015 | LAST POSITION New entry
Samuel: A continued hit on PC, and deservedly so. The most immediately fun multiplayer game ever made, in my opinion. Within seconds you’re out of the menu and into a game. Rocket cars and football are a winning combination, and scoring a goal in Rocket League offers a high that no other game can provide.
James: Last year, it was car soccer and hockey. This year, car basketball. Psyonix made a game—no, a platform in which they practise the inevitable: a future in which all sports are played with cars.
RELEASED 2007 | LAST POSITION 9
Chris L: It could have had no story to it, no mystery, no humour, and it still would have been a fantastic first-person puzzle game. As we played, though, not only did we love the mind- and space-bending puzzles but we also discovered one of the most entertaining antagonists of all time, and a deeper history that was delightfully carried through to Portal 2.
Tom S: It had the courage to be short before games were allowed to be short. Games are still padded out and bloated with tertiary collecting systems, crafting systems and the odd duff mission. Portal is pure and refined. Every chamber has a purpose: to teach you something, or to give you the chance to play with the lessons you’ve learned. This dedication to perfection makes Portal a huge success. GLaDOS would be proud.
Angus: Portal is over before you know what’s hit you. And then, after that brief bombardment with the driest wit and blackest humour any game has to offer, the credits roll to That Song. They say good comedy lies in subverting expectations, and I’ll wager that nobody expected a musical finale on the tail end of a puzzle game about quantum physics.
James: The only thing that hasn’t lasted is the cake jokes.
6 Metal Gear Solid V
RELEASED 2015 | LAST POSITION New entry
Samuel: Whether you want to sneak through a level, or call in an airstrike as your dog, wearing goggles, is knifing bastards, while your attack chopper blares out Friday I’m In Love, this is a riot of your own making. The first proper Metal Gear to appear on PC in years, and a perfect match for an audience of players who have a history with Deus Ex and Far Cry.
Tim: It’s unfashionable to admit, but emergent shenanigans aside, what I liked most about MGS V was its dual function as a collection manager for really cool modular weapons, and a balloon-based mercenary abduction simulator. I am unwell. But happy. “Oooh, an S++”
Tony: It’s one of the most freeform games ever created, and yet every sortie I make in every mission plays like it was scripted down to the last incident by Hollywood screenwriters. I have so many choices of weapon, timing and approach, and yet whichever I pick it’s always the best, every time. How do they do that?
Phil: I like the dog. He’s a good boy.
RELEASED 2012 | LAST POSITION 6
Tim: By the time Dishonored 2 arrives, the gap between it and the original will have been four years. Significantly, the first game—with its Victorian punk art style and dizzying, murderous use of magic-juiced locomotion—has barely faded in the memory at all. Perhaps an Olympic wait is perfect between installments when it comes to the really special games.
Chris L: It took a few playthroughs to discover just how excellent the level design really was. To infiltrate the same locations repeatedly, each time with different powers and approaches, and still feel like each level was designed perfectly for how you’ve chosen to play. Amazing.
Samuel: Dishonored is a game you can play entirely in stealth, but if you choose not to, every interaction, from firing a gun to throwing a grenade at a tallboy, feels better than the combat in any other immersive sim. Lady Boyle’s Last Party is rightly considered the game’s triumph—the detail in that one level alone is extraordinary.
Chris T: It isn’t really steampunk (thankfully) but it is a beautiful piece of clockwork: each level a meticulously designed device there for you to break apart and put back together according to your own design. Normally, your design is to stab people. However, the brilliance of the game is the freedom it gives you to tell your own story, whether that means following one of the pre-planned nonlethal options or, I don’t know, feeding half a town full of people to plague rats.
4 Mass Effect 2
RELEASED 2010 | LAST POSITION 2
Samuel: ME2 brought more actionoriented combat to the series, which I preferred. Also, removing the Mako allowed them to focus on telling compelling stories in this sci-fi universe. It starts with the Normandy blowing up, before putting Shepard in league with a potential enemy. I found that way more exciting than the Chosen One scenario of the first game, although the whole trilogy is great. It’s the party and their respective loyalty quests that clinch it for me, particularly Thane’s, as well as the daunting notion that the lives of these characters you care so deeply about are in your hands.
Tim: The immediate build up to and execution of the climactic suicide mission is probably my single favourite piece of game design. I’ve never wanted to not fuck up quite so badly.
Andy: It’s the most I’ve ever been invested in a game story. After getting to know and love the crew of the Normandy, the suicide mission—in which any of them could die—became a genuine ordeal.
3 Half-Life 2
RELEASED 2004 | LAST POSITION 1
Chris L: We were given a new engine, a new setting, a new world, and yet it was still Half-Life. It’s a linear shooter that never felt like a hand was pushing you down a tunnel, a game that taught you how to play it without you even realising it, and a world full of detail and environmental storytelling to absorb.
Jarred: The gravity gun and physics changed the way we looked at gaming. HL2 combined a great story with excellent pacing, then sprinkled in a variety of environments, weapons, and enemies to keep things interesting. And who could forget Ravenholm?
Andy: Valve got so good at making FPSes, it’s devastating they haven’t developed one in almost a decade. HL2 remains one of the best, with tight level design, creative use of physics, and characters you care about.
Phil: There are standout moments, but Half-Life 2 ’s great success is its variety and balance. The pacing is masterful, mixing up the action with expertly judged downtime designed to build back the tension. Each chapter tries something new, and ideas that could underpin an entire game are dropped in favour of the next experiment. It’s that constant reinvention that makes Half-Life 2 so good even now, 12 years later.
Tom M: The linearity is a big reason it continues to stick out from the crowd, especially among today’s huge open-world games. Ultimately, you are being funnelled down a single path, pushed through a series of thoughtfully crafted scenarios. But you never feel like you’re on rails.
2 Dark Souls
RELEASED 2012 | LAST POSITION 57
Wes: Dark Souls redefined action-RPGs in a flash by proving that opaque storytelling and punishing difficulty can sell just as well as the rollercoaster set-pieces of so many other action games. More importantly, choosing to meet its challenge pulls you deeper and deeper into its masterful design: a labyrinthine 3D world, NPCs and bosses with fascinating stories only discovered with study and scrutiny, combat that rewards patience and experimentation. It has rough edges, but those just give you more ways to exploit the game.
Shaun: I’ve played, completed and forgotten hundreds of games, but finishing this one feels like a true milestone in my life. I can remember how I felt when I started it (sceptical, noncommittal), how I felt when I was playing it (hopelessly absorbed and addicted) and how I felt when I finished it (scared that I’d never want to play another videogame). It’s not often that game enthusiasts have new formative experiences during adulthood, but Dark Souls helped me feel wonder and fear again, arriving at a time when big budget videogames weren’t as appealing to me as they once were.
James: Dark Souls is the rare game made of clear rules without (too much) compromise, working in unison with an incredibly cohesive art direction that doesn’t reach beyond the limits of the hardware it was developed for. In 20 years, it will play as good as it always has, an artefact we’ll revere until the fire fades. The third game is a refinement of a lot of the first’s ideas, but I’m always surprised at how good the original still feels to play.
Angus: Set aside all debate about difficulty, mystery and environmental storytelling for a second. There’s a reason Dark Souls stands among the top PC games. We clamoured for a Windows version for ages before Bandai Namco acquiesced—and released a truly vile port. Modding that mess into a state that let its inherent brilliance shine is a tale of true PC gaming chutzpah.
Tom S: Dark Souls’ influence is still being felt throughout the games industry. Its pioneering multiplayer features are gradually being appropriated by games such as Watch Dogs, and the nuanced environmental storytelling techniques will be the envy of many designers. It’s a genuine design landmark, building on From’s previous games to deliver a sensational world. I love Dark Souls’ combat, but its enduring feature will surely be Lordran itself, a tall, twisting, interlocking labyrinth, masterfully designed. For players who have put hundreds of hours into mastering Dark Souls, Anor Londo, Darkroot and Firelink Shrine will never be forgotten.
1 The Witcher 3
RELEASED 2015 | LAST POSITION 41
Andy: It mixes familiar high fantasy with Eastern European folklore to brilliant effect. Confident writing, a beautiful setting that feels rich with history and culture, and some of the best quests ever written (particularly ‘Family Matters’) make it one of the finest RPGs on PC. And when you’re finished with the main game, the sublime Blood and Wine expansion is waiting for you. Roleplaying doesn’t get much better.
Phil: Many RPG towns feel like set dressing for the main character’s story. In The Witcher 3, they feel like places. Take the city of Novigrad. It has history, intrigue and politics, and Geralt is only a small part of its overall timeline. This is an old world, and it would exist without the White Wolf’s meddling, albeit in an even more harrowing, monster-ridden state. That’s great world design, especially as The Witcher 3 isn’t bogged down with lore. Sure, it can be confusing as you’re introduced to new characters, places and concepts. But it also puts the focus on something more interesting: people, and the emotions that drive them. It’s also got the best minigame of any open-world game. Gwent is for life.
Tom S: I’m not a fan of the combat and your trusty horse isn’t built to handle the complex creases of the terrain. Fortunately these problems can be avoided by shifting down to easier difficulties and running everywhere (Geralt can run really fast). Then you’re free to start enjoying a top-drawer piece of worldbuilding. The Witcher 3 is a class act. At a glance it looks like a staid swords ‘n’ sorcery ordeal, with knights and dragons and kings and the other expected trappings. With time the game’s wry sense of humour starts to appear, and you realise the characters in this world are much more interesting than your usual NPC monarchs and magicians. Then you realise some of the monsters you’re fighting are more interesting still. On top of all that, this is one of the best-looking open worlds we’ve ever explored. It’s simply a magnificent example of the genre.
Shaun: One of the game’s greatest achievements is Geralt. Look at the box art and you’ll see a generic videogame hero: tough, steely and blood hungry. His characterisation is subtle, though, and before too long the droll monster hunter is someone you genuinely look forward to spending time with. That’s why the game’s expansions have been so rewarding, because it’s a new opportunity to roll with the Butcher of Blaviken.
James: In the span of ten minutes, a quest goes from fighting a Djinn on the deck of a ship somehow marooned at the tip-top of a snowy mountain to a tender confession (or not, your choice) of Geralt’s love for another character. The events leading to the battle with the genie aren’t convoluted or boring—they’re part of an intriguing mystery that makes sense within the world. And the love story isn’t the typical male-empowered fantasy nonsense you might expect—it’s a tender, serious (possibly sad) moment built up over the course of three games.
Tony: Faux medieval Europe is so often a lazy choice of setting for a fantasy RPG, but fair play to The Witcher 3: at least it commits to the idea. The Northern Kingdoms aren’t your usual Bavaria-byway-of-California egalitarian fairytale. This place is a war-torn shithole. It’s a squalid, muddy world full of squalid, muddy peasants dressed in sacks. No wonder Geralt has to take all those baths.
Angus: It’s the most convincing place of any open-world videogame. Somehow, in among writing genre-defining quests, rigging faces and mo-capping swordplay, CD Projekt Red had the commitment to model its terrain as if real geological processes shaped the Northern Kingdoms. Overhanging riverbanks are evidence of erosion, roads follow the easiest route through terrain, not the straightest, and bogs are as bleak as the real thing. The Witcher’s world is muddy, bleak and utterly believable. A triumph.
Wes: Thoroughness. I don’t know if there’s a better word to describe CD Projekt’s approach. They studio seems to understand, better than most, how to make characters and places feel real. Sometimes that’s by giving you backstory for random townspeople, or adding twists to seemingly straightforward quests. Tracking down a runaway reveals the tragic story of a werewolf. Retrieving a frying pan reveals a spying operation. But just as often The Witcher 3 takes care not to tell you too much. It doesn’t introduce characters directly. Geralt interacts with old friends and old enemies. They tell stories about the old days, or grudges, or third parties. This happens time and time again as you travel the world, making Geralt feel like a real person with a real past. It’s easy to overlook how brilliant the adherence to “show, don’t tell” is, but when you finally start to pick up on the nuances of its motion captured acting, the different accents, the changes in environment and fauna... every little piece comes together to form the most convincing world in PC gaming, no exceptions.