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.
Graham Smith - Deus Ex
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.
Craig Pearson - IL-2 Sturmovik: 1946
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.