Fallout: New Vegas
While Fallout 3 was successful, it was a different beast entirely from Interplay’s classics. Obsidian’s take on the franchise moves the action back to the West Coast, and reintroduces elements such as reputation and faction power struggles. Obsidian expands on nearly every aspect of Bethesda’s take, making the game less about good or evil, and more about who you should trust. It also adds much of the humor that we loved from the classic games: How can you not appreciate a game that gives you a nuclear grenade launcher?
New Vegas’ “Hardcore” mode makes survival in the wasteland more interesting, limiting the power of RadAway and Health Stims. It makes the game harder, but also more rewarding. If that’s not your thing, there are plenty of additional mods and tweaks available, including game director Josh Sawyer’s own balance-tweak mod. What we love the most about New Vegas is how it adds the Fallout feeling back into Bethesda's first-person RPG framework.
Dark Souls 3
Name any similar-looking RPG made in the past five years, and chances are good Dark Souls will be named as an inspiration for its design. Still, Dark Souls 3 proves that no one does it quite so well as From Software. The spark of originality that was so compelling in Dark Souls 1 isn't quite as apparent here, the second sequel in just five years, but what remains is an impeccably designed combat-heavy RPG. It's far more responsive than its predecessors, demanding faster action and reaction without sacrificing the deliberate play Dark Souls popularized. Button mashing will get you nowhere but dead.
Dark Souls 3 is the most approachable in the series thanks to frequent warp points, simplified online co-op and beautiful (and hideous) art that beckons you to explore every nook and corner. No game series manages to reward you so profoundly for scrutinizing its lore and unfurling its secrets, and Dark Souls 3's faster, tighter controls and animation make it the most fun Souls game to play.
The Witcher 2
The epic scale of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is remarkable, but it's the power of choice in an unrelentingly ugly world that makes it unforgettable. Moral ambiguity has never been so powerfully presented: the decisions you make actually matter, and the outcomes are often unforeseeable and rarely as good as you'd hope.
One of the most impressive things about The Witcher 2 is the way it blends two very distinct experiences. Early in the game, Geralt must make a choice that will take him down one of two separate paths, each offering a completely different perspective on the game's events. If you want to see it all, you'll have to play it twice—and there's more than enough to make it a worthwhile effort.
You might expect all your toil and trouble to eventually lead to a just and happy ending for all, but it won't. Geralt isn't a hero; he's really not much more than a bystander, trying to protect what little he has from the chaos that surrounds him. His quest is entirely personal, driven forward by a colorful, occasionally bizarre and surprisingly believable cast of characters that really brings the game alive. Geralt works alone, but he feels more like "one among many" than the savior-protagonists of other party-based RPGs.
It's a fantastic and well-told tale, layered over very solid mechanical underpinnings: A flexible character development system, glorious eye candy, intense combat and more than enough secondary content to camouflage its very linear nature. It's dark, it's dirty, it's sometimes flat-out depressing—and it's brilliant.
Dragon Age: Origins
Capturing that old Baldur’s Gate feel was goal number one for Dragon Age, and it comes pretty close. Ferelden evokes much of the Forgotten Realms without feeling like a rehash, and your relationship with your team has that old BioWare magic. The darkspawn feel like the kind of world-consuming threat that demands our attention, even if most of them are faceless hunks of evil for us to cut down. We love how Dragon Age treats magic in its world, in particular the quests that force us to choose how to best handle abominations, the result of a renegade mage succombing to demonic possession.
But it’s the combat that feels most familiar, and most fun: the satisfying tactical depth of pausing your combat, issuing orders, and reacting to the results works like a modern Infinity Engine game should. It’s sad that BioWare will never make an RPG like this again—Dragon Age 2 was too streamlined, and Inquisition’s more open world—so in many ways, this is the last hurrah for the old BioWare, and a fitting end for its classic design.
System Shock 2
Release date: 1999 | Developer: Irrational Games | GOG
Lonely. That’s the defining emotion of Irrational’s debut game. You’ll hear audio logs from fascinating characters, many of whom are struggling to survive in a battle against the bio-terror creatures called the Many. But you won’t meet those people, because they didn’t make it.
That loneliness is key because Shock 2 is all about taking things away from you. Ammo? Check: you’ll probably waste those on an assault droid when you should have saved them for later. Hypos? Yep. Think twice before you walk into that radiated room. But the biggest thing Irrational takes away, right at the halfway mark of the game, is hope. It’s the reveal of insane AI Shodan that turns your expectations on their head, and it’s one of our favorite moments in gaming.
Irrational made games where the environment is the central character, and here, that character is the Von Braun. It creaks and moans as you pad quietly down its corridors. Every door you open yelps. Its security systems attack you as if you hurt their feelings. Staying on the good side of this character is hard, but Shock 2’s leveling system of earning experience points through exploration balances the risks and rewards. Some play through with all guns blazing, but the psionics skills balance well with combat, and Tech skills open new areas later in the game. There’s a lot of balance to be found in what on the surface looks like a streamlined action RPG skill system.
Ultima VII: The Black Gate
Release date: 1992 | Developer: Origin Systems | GOG
The Guardian was one of the most terrifying things our young minds had ever encountered. His massive stone face emerging from the screen, with his actual, real-life voice taunting us, both tempting us to play more and horrifying us.
It was a technological marvel at the time, but Ultima 7 stands the test of time because of the interactivity of Britannia. Most anything could be picked up or talked to, and as we painted a portraits of ourselves in the game, we wondered if we’d ever finish the game’s plot. But Ultima’s story sucks you in, starting first with a double homicide to solve and expanding into a religious battle for Britannia’s soul. Black Gate’s dialogue design still hold up today, and inspired Divinity: Original Sin a great deal—particularly the way it handles new converts to the world’s competing religion. This is without a doubt the best installment of one of the most legendary RPG franchises ever.
Release date: 2000 | Developer: Ion Storm Austin | GOG
Do you want to run in the firefight, guns blazing, or do you want to sneak around and flank? Do you want to snipe? Or maybe you want to hack some terminals and get droid reinforcement? Or, what if you talked to that NPC guard over there and convince his team to take a lunch break? Deus Ex’s world is so freeform that the choices seem endless.
While it looks like a shooter, Deus Ex is all about role-playing elements. Fire a gun you’re not skilled in and your aim won’t matter—you’ll most likely miss. The leveling system rewards experimentation, and some of the later upgrades make your Denton feel like a superhero. Even the weapons you use can be modified and “leveled up,” turning a standard issue pistol into an unstoppable killing tool. The attention to detail here is perfect, and no one element of the game ever truly feels forced.
Deus Ex’s world is built to reward exploring every dark alley and ventilation system, because you never know where you’ll find a new clue. And there are a lot of clues—every note you find or sign you see seems to hint at some new conspiracy, and we love how the alliances in the game feel constantly in flux. The NPCs you meet are just believable enough to make this conspiracy-laden world feel lived-in. Human Revolution looks better, but this is the smarter, more open-ended game.
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
The release of Fallout 4 demonstrated that some cracks are starting to appear in Bethesda's usually reliable open world model, but that model seemed earthshaking back when Morrowind hit literal shelves way back in 2002. There was a magic in knowing you could tromp all over the island of Vvardenfell without even encountering a loading screen save upon entering buildings, and in seeing that the NPC population seemed to have lives beyond their interactions with you.
Plenty of other games have achieved similar effects in the years since, but the wonder of Morrowind is that it still holds up all these years later—even more so than its technically superior successor Oblivion. A lot of that appeal springs from the delicious surrealism of Vvardenfell itself, where racist elves hang out in twisty mushrooms like smurfs in an acid dream, and where the more traditional castles of occupying foreigners clash with the landscape like pueblos in Scandinavia. The AI might often seem primitive by today's standards, but the stories the tell often rival those in prettier contemporary RPGs.
It thrives still, thanks in part to its own strengths and a dedicated modding community that creates countless new adventures and keeps it looking more modern than it actually is (even going so far as to port the entirety of Morrowind into newer game engines).
Mass Effect 2
BioWare’s first Mass Effect felt like a KOTOR clone, and not in a good way. The universe was a place we wanted to live, but there were too many systems and menus to dig through to get there. Still, it terrified us to hear that BioWare had streamed back so much and put more emphasis on the shooting mechanics. Turns out, it was for the better: Mass Effect 2 trims just enough fat to let you focus on what matters: the optional Loyalty missions for your team.
Instead of an exercise in galactic exploration, Mass Effect 2 plays out like a sci-fi Ocean's Eleven or Dirty Dozen. Recruiting a team to take on the Collectors puts the focus on small, interesting stories. Each Loyalty mission gives you insight into your companions’ motivations, making every member of the Normandy's crew an unusually deep character. Once you've grown to know and love them, the endgame suicide run is one of the tensest final missions ever. It's rare for a game to spend more time on character arcs than its central driving narrative, but Mass Effect 2 pulls it off. This is some of the best writing in BioWare's history.
Dark Souls: Prepare To Die Edition
Yes, Dark Souls breaks a cardinal rule of RPGs: you can beat it without leveling. But only if you’re really good, and only if you understand its systems perfectly—that its crafting system matters, that certain items can be obtained only by fulfilling obfuscated quests. In a genre where systems are king, Dark Souls reigns because it’s all about systems. Just learning how each stat affects your character’s build is a process deeper than most D&D-themed RPGs, but it’s ultimately just as rewarding.
So is discovering the rich lore of Lordran, which is told through cryptic conversations and subtle environmental clues. The depth of Dark Souls' world carries over into exploration, too. Everything is connected brilliantly, and secrets and shortcuts—including massive hidden areas and features—await the most dedicated adventurers. Dark Souls' summoning system is also unlike anything else in RPGs, but you can unplug and beat the whole game solo, or learn to love being invaded and fighting off another player. Don’t let the rumored difficulty keep you away from one of our favorite RPGs.