This feature originally appeared in PC Gamer UK 230.
Most gamers have a secret shame. There's always one classic title everyone raves about that you never quite got around to playing at the time – either because nobody was raving about it back then, or because you played the first level and couldn't make head or tail of it.
It's a quirk of PC gaming: a lot of our true classics, particularly the old ones, are baffling or intimidating to play. It's their complexity that makes them so great, but it's also what makes them off-putting if you don't immediately grasp how they work. A game that gives us a great amount of freedom also gives us the freedom to miss what's good about it.
So we moan at each other, endlessly, to play the things we love. Graham, how have you still not played Deus Ex? Rich, why would you skip Morrowind? Craig, you like crosshairs! Play IL-2 Sturmovik!
It's time to find out what we've been missing all this time.
What is it? A first-person RPG set in a cool, trans-humanist future with nanotechnology, robot arms, vast government conspiracies and people who wear shades indoors.
How late? 11 years.
Excuse for lateness: I was obsessed with Half-Life and Counter-Strike at the time, and paid no heed to what seemed like another shooter.
Deus Ex has been at the summit of PC Gamer's annual Top 100 for the last two years, and in the top five for most of the time before that. I've also played the opening chapter of its second sequel, Human Revolution, twice. Yeah, it's kind of ridiculous that I haven't played the original.
The first thing I notice is the game can't run at 1920x1200. Tom recommends Deus Ex Launcher to fix that, so I download and install it. The second thing: all the characters sound like a Dalek with a heavy smoking habit using an electronic voice box. I turn off Direct Sound in the launcher and try again. It works! Enter JC Denton, super-agent.
I skip the opening cutscene – I've seen the edited version on YouTube, so I've already got the gist. Electronic old men, whatever. I also hop past my brother Paul on the docks of Liberty Island, leading him inland before starting our conversation. When we're done, I've got the crossbow and there are four terrorists waiting to kill us. Paul takes them all out while I hide and loot their bodies. I've now got a pistol, a knife, a baton and some cigarettes. I love this game already. And then I die, and die, and die and die.
The enemies are totally incomprehensible. Sometimes I'm directly next to them and they can't see me. Sometimes they psychically know I'm behind them when I'm sneaking. They're so stupid that I can't predict their behaviour.
Eventually, I reach some crates piled next to the base of the Statue of Liberty and start to climb up. It's an alternate route! Everything I've ever heard about Deus Ex is true!
I fall off near the top, but succeed on the second attempt. I shoot and stab my way to the terrorist leader. He surrenders, so I pepper spray him in the face. He runs back and forth across the room while a UNATCO soldier arrives and tells me they've killed all the terrorists; they were right behind me the whole time. Hey, doesn't that make my role totally irrelevant?
Back at UNATCO HQ – also on Liberty Island, making the whole terrorist thing pretty embarrassing – I meet Manderley, Gunther Hermann and Anna Navarre, the latter two of whom are instantly great. I hear the orange soda conversation. I access Gunther's emails and read about his idea for a skull-gun. I've never played this, but it all feels familiar, as if I'm visiting a famous PC gaming tourist destination. I spend another 30 minutes in UNATCO headquarters, stealing and chatting and being told off for going in the ladies' toilets.
When I'm done, Anna Navarre and I head to Manhattan. I remember hearing something about her being evil later in the game. Is there enough freedom that I can kill her now? A few moments later, when I'm dead, I discover the answer is no. I also find that there are no auto-saves, not even when you start a new mission, and not even when it says 'Saving' on the screen. Crap.
I'm back on Liberty Island, and this time I shoot the terrorist leader in the head before even starting a chat. Manderley tells me off for it, but Anna is impressed. I think this time I'll try not to kill her.
I'm hooked. All these years later, Deus Ex is clunky and in a lot of ways old-fashioned, but its style, sense of humour and impressive ability to make the player feel inventive mean it's still totally worth playing.
What is it? WW2 flight sim. Pilot mechanical marvels as they hurtle through the clouds battling for sky-based supremacy
How late? 5 years.
Excuse for lateness: I'm terrible at flight sims. Whenever I step into a sim's virtual cockpit, bad things happen.
When most people flick the virtual switches of their cockpits, they imagine getting the kill count of German World War II fighter pilot Erich “Bubi” Hartmann (352). Me? I just want to be PC Gamer's resident flight-sim expert Tim Stone (0, hopefully).
When IL-2's training chocks are, er, chucked it's clear I'm no Tim Stone. Even the menus are terrifying. Where he can gracefully ascend this rickety tube of metal into a sky full of Nazis and return with his cup of tea unspilled, my sorties suck.
The training seemed to go well. I'm methodically walked through the surprisingly simple series of switches to flick to get the gleaming Ilyusha into the skies: start the engine, fix the flaps, put the throttle up… I was up in the air before you could say Marmaduke Thomas St. John “Pat” Pattle (51+ kills).
It was a little too easy. Where was my usual veering awkwardly off the runway into neighbouring fields? Why wasn't I crying and on fire right now? That's how it's supposed to go with me, joysticks and complex flight models. Either reading Tim's words had somehow imbued me with the skills of Theodor Weissenberger (208 kills), or something was wrong.
Ah. Turns out I wasn't in control – IL-2's training missions aren't interactive. It was all in my head.
Outside of my mind, things are as they should be. I grasp the AV8R-01 stick sat in front of my keyboard and go through the pre-flight conditions that I wrote on a post-it note during the tutorial. Except I scribbled them.
Is that a 'B' or a 'D'? What am I pressing 'V' for again? I just want to move! I'd give my cockpit for WASD controls! Then, somehow, the engine's thrum moves from 'limping bee' to 'orgy of vacuum cleaners', and beneath me the plane rumbles into action, aching to meet the clouds. Soon, my pretty.
Even though I'm not moving the stick, my Ilyusha is careering down the runway and curving steeply off to the right. This is why I keep away from these things: even not doing something can lead to picking bits of plane spotter out of your hair. It turns out that single-engine planes simply do this during take-off. That seems like a cruel joke to me, and I blame Einstein. The only way out of this twisty physics puzzle is to compensate with the rudder. A twist of the joystick starts to right the plane, before sending it away to the left. I end up drunkenly snaking off down the runway as if I'm dodging invisible traffic cones. I believe this is known as 'over-compensating' in flight schools. I over-compensated the hell out of that take-off.
What would Jesus (Antonio Villamor) (4 kills) do? He'd probably yank back on the stick, thinking that being in the air is preferable to being on the ground, where people have left a lot of inconvenient buildings and fences. I yoink. I'm airborne! I'm up! I'm up! I'm UPSIDE DOWN! All of Hans-Joachim Marseille's (158 kills) life flashes before my eyes and I pile into the ground.
That was fun. Not the crashing bit; the taking off. It was hard, but it felt responsive. Each climb got easier, the subtleties of stick control became less cloudy. I learned to put distance between me and the ground before performing complex manoeuvres, such as daring to turn. But that first successful take-off had got me hooked. I'm already considering getting a better joystick and I've downloaded the sequel. Now, I just need to learn how to land the dambusting thi… KABOOM.
What is it? Openworld first-person fantasy RPG set on a weird dark elf island. A blight is mutating the locals, and you've got to stop it.
How late? 9 years
Excuse for lateness: I was between PCs when it was released, and the Elder Scrolls' ultra-traditional fantasy struck me as being a bit too twee.
I've been told so many stories of Morrowind's opening few hours that I catch myself expecting a consistent rain of falling mages and colourful giganto-bugs. I'm a little disappointed to find my first port of call – after waking up on a boat, as a prisoner – is a little muddy fishing village.
I'm invited into a house, where I'm given a pardon and pushed out into the wider world. Wait. There's no overarching threat here? Morrowind the continent seems to be ticking along nicely, so why thrust me into the middle of it to get all hero-ey?
For a while, I can't decide if this utter freedom is liberating or terrifying. As I pootle around the foothills surrounding the starting village of Seyda Neen, I get a secret third emotion: boredom. The world is expansive, but imagined by a person who counts 'beige' among their favourite colours. My character shuffles at a pace so gentle I develop a fear that he'll curl up and go to sleep. Morrowind's journal is horrible, the latest patches of info – however meaningless – taking the place of more pertinent stuff from a few hours ago. I begin writing things down on real paper. This is either the most engrossing RPG of all time, or just terrible design. Hint: it's the latter. After some successful perusal, it becomes clear the game sort of wouldn't mind if, maybe, I went to the town of Balmora. There's a giant flea monster that will take me there if I climb on its back, but it's a giant flea monster, so I don't want to climb on its back. Instead, I walk.
It's a slow and trudgy journey. The draw distance leaves me peering into soupy fog at medium range, and the only things to distract me are small doors set into hillsides. I wander through one and am met by a woman brandishing a dagger. “I'M GOING TO KILL YOU!” she screams. Help, I think she's trying to kill me. I spin on the spot and slam the door behind me. I open the game's menu – a series of windows that work with a pleasing simplicity – and arm myself with the best weapon I've got: a rusty dagger that I found next to some cheese.
I charge into the cavern and bring the tiny sword crashing down on her head. It passes straight through her. I try again. Another miss. I'm being perforated by a woman with a fervent desire to kill me for intruding on her cave-bound solitude, she's not moving – and I still can't hit her.
Quickly, I'm killed. Morrowind's save system is, I discover, unforgiving. I come to life back in Seyda Neen. This world is crueller and uglier than Oblivion's, the hard RPG under-skeleton showing through clearly. But it has the same kernel of directed freedom that drew me so deeply into that game, mixed with an implied weirdness that Oblivion lacked. Morrowind's too clunky and ugly to prefer over Cyrodiil, but having exhausted that world, I want to play more in this one. This time, I resolve to take the giant bug into town. But I've learnt now – better start small.
What is it? Free-to-play topdown competitive action RPG. You're a powerful champion, fighting other players amid a constant battle.
How late? 2 years
Excuse for lateness: I was initially put off by the art style and learning curve. Over time, I've learnt to embrace bright colours and difficult things.
Exciting! League of Legends is patched and installed. Now, I sit in a queue of 'over 9,000' players with an estimated wait of 22 minutes.
After staring at the screen for eight minutes, I begin to overanalyse. The menu has the style of a sexed up World of Warcraft, which I don't find sexy. It doesn't help that the patch screen has already teased me with a bunch of Riot Points. I don't know what Riot Points are. No sale LoL. Lol.
Only 2 minutes, 50 seconds to go now and I'm 5,243rd in the queue. Coffee time. When I return, I'm going to kick a tutorial's ass. Finally, it's on. Colourful, responsive, fullscreen, native res in a free-to-play game, I didn't expect this level of polish. There's a gentle-voiced lady explaining what to do, too.
The devs have attempted to hide anything too confusing, but the greyed out features on the HUD make me suspicious that things are going to get very complex. I speed through the basics of movement and killing, while playing as an archer lady. I can heal, teleport back to my base and launch arrows. Eventually, I wade into battle behind a rabble of AI minions, push into my opponent's base and wail on a pink stone until it pops. 'Congrulations! Battle Training is available to guide you through Champion Selection and serve as an introduction to Summoner's Rift'.
Typo aside, lock and load Legends. I've got three champions to choose from this time. I go for Ryze, a snazzy-looking Mage, and select the noobest-sounding spells – Heal and Revive – before levelling them up with a tech tree. I click 'Lock In'.
Now this is proper. The other players are bots, but look real enough. I spend my starting gold and begin looking for stuff to blow up. How naive. The lady explains that before I kill other Legends or think about stones, I should explore the map for minions to kill to get extra XP. I beat up a few wolves and wraiths before downing a lizard monster. I've unlocked five skills, including Sithstyle electro bolts and a Half-Life 2-like balls of plasma. I catch glimpses of my fellow Legends taking a beating in the tug of war battle and decide now's the time… to shop.
I choose the recommended items – gem stones and new boots. I've killed bosses, levelled up, and restocked my inventory before it's even kicked off. I escort my minions down the central lane, blasting anything in my path. I'm a comparatively high level and I make a terrible mess of the enemy's base, Alt+Tab out and begin emailing friends the download link – if they get in the queue soon we'll be ganking noobs by midnight.
What is it? Sci-fi first-person shooter and RPG. Rogue AI SHODAN has taken over a space station, and you're the cyborg hacker trying to stop her.
How late? 17 years
Excuse for lateness: I played the demo a bit at the time, but the cursor-driven interface and awkward combat scared me off.
After a surprisingly decent intro cinematic, my mind is slightly blown by a feature I'd forgotten any game had. I don't have to choose a difficulty level: I can scale every element of the experience. Combat, Puzzles, Cyberspace and Mission each have four levels of challenge to choose from. I leave them all on normal, which is probably why no one has bothered with this system since.
In-game, I remember why I bounced off Shock 1 when it came out: it's ugly, complicated and fiddly to interact with. But now that I give it a proper chance, it's not hard to cut the interface clutter and enable the mouselook. Suddenly, it starts to feel like my kind of game. It's still weird; the interface has an extraordinary control panel thing that lets you position your body in any one of nine contorted leans and squats. It's awesome, and I'll never use it.
The early levels are about bashing mutants with a pipe until they split, then double clicking their corpses to drag drink cans and human skulls to your inventory. I'm fine with this.
48 sweet wrappers and beakers later, I find an actual gun. A dart gun! It has only five shots, so I'll never use it. Good find. That's when I meet my first real enemy: a cyborg assassin. I remember these guys from such games as the next one in this series! They're ninjas! They're horrible! It's killing me! I've changed my mind, I want to use the dart gun now! I have to bring up a 'General' menu to switch to it, and when I do, it still won't fire. Fire, dammit! I saved those five shots specifically for a situation like this!
I'm dead. There's a hilarious cutscene in which you're revived, your eyes roll back into your head, and you're dangled from a giant pair of robotic legs to serve the evil SHODAN AI – which frankly seems preferable. And that's when I remember it's right click to fire.
I'm a long way back when I load my last game, and every direction looks the same. I'm lost in the bewildering corridor spaghetti. That's when I find a Sparq gun. That's new. No ammo count? I will always use this. It has a whole control panel to configure its power level and monitor heat levels. I set it to maximum kill.
Suddenly, the game is easy. It's more about scouring the levels for ammo than combat skill: most guns fire as fast as you can click, which mows anything down in a second. The main challenge is that enemies frequently appear from confusing angles or hidden alcoves, which is weird for a game that makes looking up and down so awkward.
So I end up enjoying it, but it doesn't have the same magic that Shock 2 did for me. The best bit is the audio logs, which are the same as in the sequel. These garish, twisty corridors don't feel like a real place the way Shock 2's decks do, and I don't have the same sense of exciting possibilities to develop my character. It's a party I definitely should have showed up to at the time, but this late, after a better one, it's not essential.