On this list you’ll find the best PC games we’re playing right now—recent singleplayer hits, thriving esports, and a few modern classics that would improve any library. We’ll continue to update this list as new games release, removing older favorites and replacing them with our latest obsessions. Rather than an ever-expanding list that reaches deep into the past, we’re shooting for a practical answer to the question: ‘What new PC game should I get?’
If you’re looking for a more comprehensive list which includes our favorite games from the past few decades, check out our yearly Top 100 list or our list of the most important PC games. For an up-to-date look at upcoming games, we’ve assembled the new games of 2020. For free options, check out the best free games on Steam and best free browser games.
Need a new system to play these games on? You can build an entry-level gaming PC for around $750, or our recommended mid-range PC for $1,000. If you want something that works out of the box, we also recommend some pre-built PCs.
The best games of 2020 so far
Six games have joined the exclusive 90%-and-up PC Gamer review score club so far this year. Here they are, the best of the best in 2020:
Crusader Kings 3 (94%)
“Crusader Kings 3 is incredible,” said Fraser in his review of the new medieval grand strategy game and family drama generator. “I can’t imagine being done with it.”
The factory-building game is finally out of Early Access, and it’s brilliant. A “stupendously intricate mechanical cake,” as we put it in our review.
Half-Life: Alyx (92%)
It isn’t Half-Life 3, and it’s VR only, but it’s one of the best VR games you can buy, so if you’ve got a headset it’s a must have.
Doom Eternal (94%)
High-tempo demon slaying that’ll make you sweat. It might take an hour or so to click, but when it does it’s better than the 2016 reboot.
It can’t be called original—it’s Counter-Strike, but different—but Riot’s free-to-play shooter is still the year’s best new competitive game.
Below are the games we’ve liked most so far this year, excluding the 90% and up games above. See our reviews section for even more recommendations.
Call of Duty has gone battle royale again with Warzone, but this time it’s free-to-play and one of the best new battle royale games of the year (along with Fall Guys). Apex Legends remains good, too, and Fortnite is obviously going strong as always. And, as mentioned above, if you’re tired of the battle royale scene, the excellent and free-to-play Valorant updates Counter-Strike’s 5v5 plant and defuse matches with modern frills like character abilities.
For singleplayer action and adventure try Mortal Shell (Dark Souls-ey) or former PS4 exclusive Horizon Zero Dawn. In the RPG department, we recommend befriending a cyborg chicken in Wasteland 3 or playing JRPG classic Persona 4 Golden, which came to PC earlier this year.
In the strategy department, Total War Saga: Troy is pretty good, and both Gears Tactics and XCOM: Chimera Squad are worth a play, with Gears surprisingly being the more interesting of them. WWI mech game Iron Harvest is also quite good.
Our favorite games of 2019
Above, you’ll find a list of some of our favorite games of 2019, not all of which received one of our GOTY Awards, but all of which we recommend (listed in no particular order). We think just about anyone can get something out of these games (except for maybe Final Fantasy 14: Shadowbringers, which is fantastic but also requires the commitment to play through a hell of a lot of Final Fantasy 14).
Below, you’ll find recommendations for other recent and older games we love.
Competitive online games
Apex Legends is the best battle royale game available now. The map is fantastic, the ‘ping’ communication system is something every FPS should have from here on, the guns and movement are great fun (no wallrunning, but sliding down hills feels great), and it’s free-to-play with nothing to pay for except cosmetics. It isn’t the game we expected from Respawn, but we’re glad it’s here. Check James’ review for more.
Valorant is Riot’s take on CS:GO, and it’s very similar. It’s played in a series of quick rounds which sees one team attempt to plant a bomb while the other tries to stop them or defuse it, and it’s all about communication, intel, mind games, and mechanically challenging shooting. But Valorant successfully adds character abilities to that design sheet, which introduces new possibilities for surprise tactics and delightful skill shots. It also adds a bunch of quality of life improvements. Newcomers to CS-style FPS will have a lot to learn, but Valorant is a ton of fun in a supportive group.
Counter-Strike’s sexier cousin. Siege might lack the sharp hit detection and purity of CS:GO, but it’s a more accessible and modern FPS that rewards clever timing and coordinated teamwork as much as aim. Siege’s learning curve is a result of all the stuff (characters, gadgets, elaborate maps, and guns) that’s been added since December 2015, but eventually you find yourself picking operators, map spots, and roles that you’re comfortable with. Ubisoft continues to support Siege, dropping four major updates per year along with regular fixes.
With Overwatch’s colorful characters and bright, inclusive world, Blizzard brought the world of team-based hero shooters to an entirely new market. Teams of six take the roles of tank, DPS, and healer to battle over objectives, not just who can get the most kills. It’s a game that rewards—if not requires—teamwork. And with a growing cast of now 27 heroes to choose from, there’s a character to fit just about any play style.
What started as a sterile PUBG imitation has evolved into the Minecraft generation’s arena shooter. Fortnite’s building system rewards good aim and an eye for architecture equally, extending battle royale shootouts from green pastures to impromptu skyscrapers slapped together in a minute. With ridiculously frequent updates from Epic Games that introduce new weapons, traps, tools, and skins, Fortnite is easily worth the price of admission, and even then, worth the time it takes to master such an obtuse, irregular building system.
100 murderous hopefuls skydive onto an abandoned island, grab whatever weapons and ammo they can find, and fight to the death. Rinse and repeat. Though the concept wasn’t new (PlayerUnknown himself is responsible for multiple battle royale modes and mods), PUBG made the battle royale genre into the phenomenon that it is today. As a third- or first-person shooter, PUBG is more realistic and less arcadey than Fortnite. The joy of it is how it forces players to move and take risks as an ever-shrinking forcefield funnels surviving players toward each other until a winner climbs out of the wreckage. Every instant of every game is a flood of important decisions to make, and any one of them—even a minor one—could lead to your doom.
The best and only synthesis of hockey and soccer than you can play with rocket-powered battle cars. Where most esports rely on gunplay or clicky top-down wizardry, Rocket League is all physics and speed. Simply put, you’re trying to smash a giant soccer ball into a goal with a car. But the cars can jump, and flip, and fly into the air once you get the hang of it (which will take a while). Even after three years, Rocket League players are still inventing new moves and tricks—if there’s a skill ceiling, no one’s bumped it yet. It’s intimidating and your first matches will probably be rough as you learn to steer and backflip and ride the walls, but since there are so many other new players at any given time, as well as training modes and bot matches, you can still get up to speed even if you’re entering the arena late. Note that while you can play Rocket League with a mouse and keyboard, and some good players do, most prefer a controller.
Released: 2014 | Developer: Blizzard | Official site
Despite the departure of game director Ben Brode, he of the flannel shirt and megaton laughter, Hearthstone remains in relatively rude health. The game’s last two expansions—The Boomsday Project (August 2018) and Rastakhan’s Rumble (Devember 2018)—have rightly been criticised for failing to freshen the meta sufficiently, but nonethless it’s possible to build a deck with any class and pilot it successfully on the ladder. Those looking to try-hard on a budget should consider Spell Hunter, which is relatively cheap to build, whilst those looking to make instant enemies may prefer the ultra aggressive Odd Paladin, which remains obnoxious despite a recent nerf. For those of you with ladder anxiety, Hearthstone also now includes a rich suite of single-player content in the Solo Adventures section. There you’ll find Rumble Run, Puzzle Lab, Monster Hunt and Dungeon Run—plenty of fun, without the pressure of a turn timer.
League of Legends
Released: 2009 | Developer: Riot Games | Official site
MOBAs are hard, rewarding competitive games because they demand teamwork, quick reaction times, and knowledge of beginning, middle, and endgame phases that vary with the role you play. And if you’re going to play one, LoL is the best place to start. League of Legends has had remarkable staying power as one of the most popular games in esports for a couple simple reasons. One, it strikes just the right balance of depth and approachability for a MOBA. A gargantuan roster of heroes means you could spend years learning the ins-and-outs of the game, but mechanically it’s less demanding than Dota 2, and more involved than Heroes of the Storm. Two, Riot Games hasn’t been afraid to make significant changes to the map, characters, and other systems over the years, so there’s always something new to learn.
If you can, play with a team of friends—it’s far more fun (and effective) to coordinate on a headset than deal with randoms over text chat. If you bounce off of LoL, Dota 2 is of course extremely popular as well, and both are free-to-play, so give it a shot.
Battlefield 1 and Battlefield 5
Released: 2016/2018 | Developer: DICE
While Battlefield 1 diehards insist that it’s the superior game, we recommend both BF1 and BF5. On BF5’s side, EA has done away with paid seasons passes, and is releasing all new maps free, plus there’s a battle royale mode now.
Meanwhile, though, Battlefield 1 is included with Origin Access (both Basic and Premium) and is pretty cheap otherwise, so if the World War 1 setting appeals to you, it’s a low-cost entry into the series.
Singleplayer and co-op shooters
The original Doom—back in 1993—is the most influential shooter of all time. With a pedigree like that, 2016’s Doom reboot could have coasted by on the family name, had some fun, and called it a day. Instead, Doom surprised us all by being a spectacular shooter in its own right. More than that, Doom abandoned a lot of the storytelling conventions and cutscenes we’ve come to associate with modern games: about 30 seconds into the first level, the main character physically throws the plot across the room and shoots a demon in the face. Doom has a singular purpose, and if you’re not a gun or a demon’s face, it doesn’t care to know you.
Doom Eternal, meanwhile, goes hog wild with lore, but manages to remain amazing. It’s one of the most demanding shooters we’ve ever played—read our full review for more on why it’s even better than Doom, and a must-play.
Like Vermintide 1, Vermintide 2 takes on the format of Valve’s classic co-op shooter, Left 4 Dead. Each hero is generally capable but vulnerable on their own. Among the swarms of rats are elite enemies that specialize in ambushing individual players, leaving them helpless until a comrade rescues them. The mutual need for protection makes Vermintide unusually dependent on good teamwork, and sharp spatial awareness and generous instincts are better for survival than perfect aim.
There are five heroes to play, and each has three subclasses and a long list of possible weapons and specialty skills. Every successful mission rewards players with random weapons and loot, and a surprisingly deep crafting system helps players customize their heroes. Random matchmaking to find groups is fine, but Vermintide 2 is a real joy when played with friends, like a corporate team-building exercise with swords and axes.
If you have any nostalgia for DOS-era shooters like Doom and Quake, Dusk has got it all: finding color-coded keys and secret chambers, a metal soundtrack, and high-speed strafing with dual-wielded shotguns while blasting the faces off of demons. An ideal way to spend an afternoon. Check out our Dusk review for more.
A superb remake of the survival horror classic, with a mix of nostalgia and newness that Andy called “tense, challenging, and beautiful” in his review.
GTA 5 runs beautifully on PC, and its open world is still the best of any game, a gorgeous sprawl that replicates everything we associate with Los Angeles: the flat heat, the atmosphere, the fact that the city is so damn big. The campaign is the series’ best ever, punctuated by ambitious heist missions involving all three protagonists. It’s a lot of fun to spend time in this world.
If you want to take things further, GTA Online is waiting for you with an absolute ton of stuff to do. Not all of it is amazing, but with a few friends, it’s great fun to knock through the Online mode’s bespoke heists, and owning a business feels pretty cool too. There are plenty of ways to play this game forever, including all of these great mods.
Ubisoft nailed the latest in the Assassin’s Creed series, fully embracing the roleplaying genre and retooling its typical open world to-do list into an adventure full of quests worth doing—all set in its grandest world to date.
The best immersive sim around, with sprawling, complicated levels that are wonderful to unpack, as well as a couple of high-concept missions that you’ll never forget. It’s like Arkane made a sequel based on how much everyone loved Lady Boyle’s Last Party in Dishonored—most of the levels here are just as good. The option to play as two characters, with their own version of the story and sets of powers, offers even more replay value.
Crucially, too, Dishonored 2 offers more non-lethal ways to play if you’re not a perfect stealth player. Being able to block enemy sword attacks, get them into a chokehold, shove them over then boot them in the face, knocking them out, is the best fun. Likewise, using Emily’s domino ability to knock out multiple enemies at once feels incredibly empowering. And that’s just one of many ways you can play.
Agent 47 has been taking contracts and knocking off targets in games for almost 20 years, but the latest in the series is his best work yet. What’s extra great about Hitman 2 is that if you didn’t play the previous Hitman reboot (also great), you can purchase upgraded versions of all of its levels. And if you do own 2016’s Hitman, you can have those for free. For more on why we love Hitman’s latest incarnations, head to our 2018 award for Best Stealth Game.
Action and turn-based RPGs
This offbeat action RPG focuses on extremely stylish androids who’ve been sent to Earth to make it safe for humans again by wiping out the dangerous machines that dominate the landscape. But the story isn’t as straightforward as that—and not all of the machines you face are brainless automatons. Some of them have hopes, dreams and orgies (!). The story in Automata is surprisingly fantastic, with multiple endings that change your perspective on your characters, and well-written sidequests.
This is one of those games that overreaches slightly, but is better for having done so. As an action game, it’s not quite Platinum’s best—that mantle still belongs to Bayonetta—but it’s still satisfying to batter robots with a big sword in washed out open world environments. A deserved cult hit, even if the game still hasn’t been properly patched on PC (there’s a fan mod that smooths out a few performance issues).
The Witcher 3 follows Geralt, the world’s grumpiest monster-slaying bounty hunter, as he fights and magics his way across a medieval fantasy world. It tells a well-written, clever story, but more importantly, The Witcher 3 is the best open-world RPG you can explore right now (and quite possibly the best there’s ever been).
The Witcher 3 is great mostly because it’s so full of things to do. It’s a huge world chockablock with ghouls, vampires, and wraiths—and the people can be pretty nasty, too. The size and depth of the world gives every quest context, an anchor that feels like it stretches back into history. Investigating a haunted farmhouse, for example, turns up clues about the type of spectre involved. Choosing the right weapon and brewing up a special potion feel like steps in a centuries-old ceremony. The Witcher 3 is a triumph of worldbuilding.
Besides the world, Geralt himself is the star of the show. He’s frequently dour and funny and jaded, and he’s an appealing character to spend time with. Some of the storylines will mean more to long-time fans of the Witcher books and games, but even without playing the earlier games in the Witcher series, The Witcher 3 is worth several hundred hours of your time.
A classic-style isometric RPG that feels completely modern, with four-player co-op, great characters, and super-challenging turn-based combat that makes heavy use of physical interactions: cast a rain spell to put out fires, for instance, or splash oil around to spread them. With big open areas, interlocking quests that can be completed in any order, disguises, status effects, and the freedom to whack any NPC you feel like, it’s worth putting up with a little wonkiness (which has been improved with the Definitive Edition update) to experience such a creative, freeform campaign. The writing and roleplaying are also top-notch, giving you a real emotional investment for a campaign that can easily stretch to the 100 hour mark.
OS2 also includes built-in game master tools for running your own adventures, and separate, free mod tools that give you full access to the engine’s capabilities and all of the included assets.
One of the prettiest and most ambitious JRPGs on PC, Ni No Kuni 2 follows Evan Pettiwhisker Tildrum, a young half-cat king who sets out to build a peaceful new kingdom—and a new circle of friends—after his rightful crown is stolen from him. Ni No Kuni 2 channels Suikoden and Studio Ghibli, pairing an expansive open world with exciting realtime third-person combat, and grounding them in a satisfying kingdom building sim. Scout new citizens by visiting fantastical far-off kingdoms, earn better gear by tackling secret dungeons and minibosses, then bring everything back home to improve your own kingdom. The kingdom sim is enjoyable in its own right, and every other part of the game benefits from it, from exploration to combat. Ni No Kuni 2 is a cute fairytale wrapped in complex systems that connect in meaningful, interesting ways, and there’s not an ounce of fat on it.
What Dark Souls 3 lacks in originality—like the Souls games before it, it’s an action-RPG that takes you through a baroque, dying world filled with monsters and opaque storytelling—it makes up for in polish. It’s by far the smoothest of the series, gorgeous and stable on PC, and that translates to faster, more vicious enemies that will murder you without mercy. But you’re also a bit more nimble this time around, keeping the notorious Souls challenge intact but rarely feeling unfair. And like all the Souls games, there’s so much here if you plunge into the RPG depths: classes and magic systems, shortcuts and speedrun options, gear upgrading and NPC storylines to follow if you can make the right choices. Conquering Dark Souls 3 once will easily keep you busy for 50 hours, but if it gets its hooks in you, you could keep playing it for years.
Exploration, survival, and building games
The Harvest Moon farm-life sims used to be console-only. Then indie designer Eric Barone came along and made this tribute so we too can enjoy the pastoral fantasy of chicken ownership and mayonnaise profiteering. In Stardew Valley, you inherit a farm in the countryside and split your days between growing crops and befriending the locals, a colorful cast of eccentrics, some of whom can be romanced. You either get super serious about maximizing your income, creating the perfect grid of profitable crops for each season, or just potter about, taking the occasional fishing trip or delving into the monster mines as the mood takes you. An entire subgenre of farming/crafting sims with obligatory fishing minigames has sprung up in its wake, but Stardew Valley remains the best.
You build a spacecraft, and fly it into space. Simple, right? Usually it’s not. A lot of things can go wrong as you’re constructing a vessel from Kerbal Space Program’s vast library of parts, almost always explosively so. But as you trial-and-error your way to a stable orbit, you start to unlock the full breadth of what Kerbal offers. You can build many different types of ship, and use them to edge further and further out into the solar system, enjoying your achievement as you contemplate the vast solitude of space. Kerbal Space Program is equal parts slapstick comedy and majestic exploration—incredibly silly, but evocative where it counts.
Depending how you feel about diving, Subnautica can be either a wonderful opportunity to explore an alien aquarium or a straight-up horrorshow. Even with the survival stuff turned off so you don’t have to regularly grab fish and eat them as you swim past, its depths contain claustrophobic tunnels and beasts big enough to swallow you whole. The thing is, Subnautica works as both a tense survival game about making it day by day in a hostile alien ocean and a way to drift around meeting strange sea creatures (and eating them).
More building and survival games
Proteus takes nature and simplifies it into evocative shapes and sounds. Curved hills, solid tree trunks, frogs that burble and bounce. Wandering over its island of pastel plants and animals triggers a variety of pleasant noises, a symphony that builds as you chase birds or stand still among the fireflies. It’s what every chillout room aspires to be.
Try to save the human race from an alien invasion, five turns at a time, in the brilliant bite-sized roguelike strategy game from the makers of FTL. Into the Breach feels almost like a puzzle game, because it presents you with clear information on what the enemy is doing every turn, and it’s so well-balanced, there’s almost always a solution that will get you out of a mission alive. There are multiple teams of mechs to unlock and choose from, and their abilities play off one another incredibly well. In the Rusting Hulks squad, for example, the nimble Jet Mech can drop a bomb that deals damage and envelops enemies with a smoke cloud, while the passive ability on the Rocket Mech causes smoke clouds to deal damage to enemy units. Each squad has its own playstyle, and you can freely mix and match mechs to create your own team-ups. Ending a mission after preventing all damage to the fragile civilian buildings scattered around the map never stops feeling like a triumph.
This brutal strategy game puts you in charge of a resistance force during an alien occupation. The XCOM format blends base building, squad construction and strategic command with tense turn-based tactical battles. As you pilot your enormous home base between territories, you gather materials and research the enemy to unlock cooler space lasers and rad-as-hell armour for your crew.
Vanila XCOM 2 was a tough, lean survival game that held you to account with a doomsday countdown. War of the Chosen gives you even more problems in the form of three minibosses who stalk you throughout your campaign. Fortunately, you can befriend three resistance factions—each with their own suite of gadgets for you to research—and use their leads to track down your nemeses. The result is a layered, engrossing tactical game with a lot of dramatic intrigue. We developed a strong love/hate relationship with the Chosen. Hate to see them messing up our plans; love to blow them up with massive space guns in revenge.
Warhammer is a dark fantasy setting shared by multiple games, popular because of its grim maximalism (it has two Mordors and about three Draculas). The Total War games are a venerable series of historical strategy games with unit-shuffling battles and large-scale nation management. The combination of Total War and Warhammer is a perfect match. Warhammer’s factions are strong mixes of trad fantasy archetypes and oddballs like the beloved ratmen called skaven, who are easily set against each other on a big map. Meanwhile, the abstract scale of Total War seems less odd when removed from recognizable historical events. It’s the best of both worlds. There’s a campaign where each faction races to control a magical vortex by conducting a string of rituals, each providing a significant boost when performed, but if you want to slow the pace you can spring for both this and the previous game, then combine their maps together into a gigantic life-consuming war for domination called Mortal Empires.
A brilliant singleplayer deck builder, Slay the Spire hooked the PC Gamer team back when it was in Early Access, and now it has even more to offer, including daily challenges and custom runs. The joy of it, as Evan explains in his review, is how much power you can accrue through smart deckbuilding. Because it’s a singleplayer card game, the monsters don’t have to have fun, and your deck doesn’t have to be balanced with any other—which means absurd combos are possible. But it’s also possible to create terrible decks as you ascend the spire, picking new cards along the way and finding relics that encourage certain builds. There’s so much strategy to learn that it can take tens of hours to reach the endgame, but starting a new run always feels exciting.
Lead a scrappy mercenary company across a half-scripted, half-procedurally generated singleplayer campaign as you complete escort, assassination, base capture, and other missions for cash, salvage, and faction reputation. In the style of XCOM, BattleTech is about sending roster of mechs (and to a lesser extent pilots) into planetary combat, then managing the monetary and mortal aftermath of that spent armor, broken mech legs, dead pilots, and plundered parts of your enemies in the comfort of your spaceship base.
Unlike XCOM, the turn-based combat is a wonderfully granular game of angles and details: mechs have 11 different armor segments, and weapons and ammo are housed in these individually destructible locations. The orientation, heat level, speed, and stability of your mechs matters, and fights between the durable walking tanks play out like heavyweight boxing matches.
On the next page: Puzzle games, great stories, simulations and city-builders…
Our favorite puzzle game of 2018, Return of the Obra Dinn is a detective game set upon a ship once lost at sea. You, an insurance investigator, must determine what happened to the crew. We’re sure you’ve never played anything quite like it (unless you’ve played it).
Portal 1 + 2
Released: 2007/2011 | Developer: Lucas Pope | Steam
Portal would be great if it only had inventive puzzles. It would be great if it only had clever writing. Somehow Valve managed to pack both into an unmissable, unforgettable experience that messes with your head in more ways than one. Its titular mechanic teaches you to think differently by letting you instantaneously create paths to almost everywhere, and its underlying story, at once grim and gut-bustingly funny, is constantly egging you on.
Portal 2, meanwhile, delivers more of everything that made Portal great, and a peerless co-op mode besides. Portal 2’s world is bigger and its puzzles are more complex, and it doesn’t sacrifice any of the series’ sinister, sassy humor to pull them off. But the sequel’s true triumph is that it invites you to play with a friend—not through some tacked-on bonus levels, but through a handcrafted co-op campaign so good it makes the stellar singleplayer feel like a prelude.
The challenge of Opus Magnum isn’t just to figure out how to solve each puzzle, but how to solve it the best way. With programmable robot arms you’ll build alchemy machines that are more or less efficient at the transmutation task put before you, and there’s an amazing number of ways to succeed—simple parts and simple instructions can produce some not-so-simple machines. If it grabs you, Opus Magnum doesn’t let you go easily.
The gorgeous, hand-drawn Gorogoa is one of our favorite recent puzzle games. The premise is simple: arrange illustrated tiles “in imaginative ways” to solve puzzles. The complexity, and the feat of its creation, is in how those tiles interlock with impeccable elegance. As Pip said in our review: “Chunks of interiors and exteriors match perfectly without seeming out of place in either of their respective scenes, an image in a thought bubble lines up with a balcony scene, a star in the sky is positioned perfectly so that it peeps through the gap in an overlaid tile and becomes the light from a lamp.” It’s best to see it in motion, so check out the trailer here.
The classic musical puzzle game, which was first released on the PSP, returns in top shape and is still great after 15 years. The new version is far superior to the original PC port, and the remastered music is fabulous. Lumines doesn’t translate perfectly to PC—it’s one of those games that feels like it was meant for handheld devices—but if you missed it the first time around, take any opportunity to play it.
A wonderful puzzle game in which you rearrange words to create new rules for the world. “It’s part logic puzzle, part existential quandary, part love letter to how much potential is contained in the tiny building blocks of language,” said Philippa in her Baba is You review.
Explore the curious home of a doomed family in this surprising and varied narrative game, which at first feels like a familiar walking simulator but then transforms into something else. Each member of the Finch family has a story to tell about what became of them, and each tale is presented in almost a minigame-like way—some of these chapters are thrilling, most of them are quietly devastating, and you should play this game without having a single one spoiled. You deserve to discover the secrets of this mysterious house for yourself if you haven’t already. More than deserving of our GOTY award for Best Story in 2017.
You could argue most videogame stories are Young Adult fiction, but Life is Strange is actually like the kind of story in the YA section of your local bookstore. It’s about teenagers, small towns with secrets, and coming to terms with adult responsibilities through the metaphor of being able to rewind time. It’s Twin Peaks for teens.
Life is Strange benefited from being released episodically, able to adapt to what players enjoyed about the early chapters and then focus on those elements later. That means you have to give it an episode and a half to get going, and the finale’s divisive too, but in the middle it’s as affecting an emotional rollercoaster as anything that’s about to be turned into a movie and make someone very rich.
Calling a game a ‘walking simulator’ was probably meant to be pejorative, but I can’t think of a better description of what games like Tacoma and Gone Home—and developer Fullbright—do better than any other game: build a world I want to walk around in, explore, and learn to love. In Tacoma, the player walks into an abandoned space station and a mystery. Exploring this detailed setting feels like spending time in a real place, and hours spent there make the departed crew intimately familiar. I saw dozens of tiny stories, comedies and dramas, unfold as I watched the crew through VR recordings and dug into their discarded belongings. If you want to see the future of storytelling, to experience characters and plot in a way that can’t be duplicated in a book or a movie, go for walk in Tacoma.
Simulations, sports games, and city builders
Unless you’re looking for a hardcore sim, Forza Horizon is still the best racing series around.
A lot of players have the same story about Euro Truck Simulator 2. Lured in by curiosity, we try this ridiculous-looking game about driving trucks back and forth across a low-budget Europe. Then, hours later, we’re flicking headlights up and down while driving through the night. It starts to rain somewhere outside Berlin, the sound adding percussion to whatever’s playing on the central European radio station. We’re hooked and don’t even know why. Even on a different continent in American Truck Simulator it can have the same effect, proving that ordinary inspirations modeled well enough can make for extraordinary games.
Space, to borrow a phrase, is big. Really, really big. In Elite: Dangerous, players can become deep-space explorers spanning the entire Milky Way galaxy, or they can be asteroid miners whose entire world consists of two space rocks and the vacuum between them. Both are equally worthy ways to use your flight time in Elite, an open-world (open-galaxy?) space flight sim that masterfully gives players total freedom. At the high end, you can spend your time being everything from a space trucker to a bounty hunter, but newbies shouldn’t overlook the simple joy of being a pilot, of the tactile way that flight skills grow and deepen over time. Anyone into sci-fi or flight sims owes it to themselves to spend time in an Elite cockpit—especially if they can do it in VR.
The best game yet in the best football management series.
Part city-builder, part survival game, Frostpunk is about making difficult choices and dealing with the consequences. Trying to keep a handful of citizens alive in a perpetually frozen world isn’t just about managing resources but managing hope, and to keep people working toward their future means convincing them there is one, often through brutal means.
Unlike most city-building games, Frostpunk isn’t an open-ended experience: it takes place over a 45 day period, with narrative events occurring periodically that can throw a wrench in the gears of your city and society. It’s a tense and grim experience where you can wind up regretting your finest moments or defending the harshest choices you made. What are you prepared to do to save lives, and what will the ultimate cost be?
With so few great sports games on PC, Super Mega Baseball 2 gets squished into our sims category for now—though with Madden finally coming back to PC this year, we may need to add a proper sports category. Super Mega Baseball 2 may look cartooney, but look beyond that, because as we said in our review, it’s the “best on-field baseball sim on PC.”
On the next page: MMOs, local multiplayer games, and platformers…
MMOs and online RPGs
World of Warcraft might have a few grey hairs here and there, but it’s still the undisputed king of MMOs. Set in the high-fantasy setting of the famous Warcraft real-time strategy games, World of Warcraft is the story of you, a hero who rises from lowly pawn to god-slaying badass as you strive to save your world from all manner of fiendish enemies. With 12 classes and 13 races to play as (and an ever-growing list of subraces), who and what your character will become is entirely up to you. And whether you want to play for two hours a month or two hours a night, there are a nearly unlimited number of places to explore, quests to complete, raids and dungeons to conquer, and items to craft. It’s less of a videogame and more of a part-time hobby.
World of Warcraft’s latest expansion, Battle for Azeroth, is a bit of a low-point for the series according to its most hardcore fans. That doesn’t mean it’s bad—the austere mountains of Kul Tiras and lush jungles of Zandalar are evocative and fun to explore—but it is disappointing because World of Warcraft’s usually stellar endgame of dungeons and raids are hamstrung somewhat by its wonky gear system. There’s exciting news on that front, though: the next update is going to be huge.
World of Warcraft is the jack-of-all-trades MMO that can satisfy nearly any kind of player. Whether you want competitive PvP battles, white-knuckle raids, or just a fun, colorful story to follow along with while you collect mounts, World of Warcraft delivers.
Set in a bizarre science-fiction universe full of esoteric secrets, Warframe sells itself on one amazing concept: You are a space ninja. And yes, it’s as fun as it sounds. This free-to-play third-person shooter gleefully taps into the fantasy of being a gun-toting, sword-wielding killing machine through its versatile movement system. You’ll air dash, wall run, and slide through levels with up to three teammates as you eviscerate hordes of android enemies in exchange for oodles of crafting resources.
But Warframe’s true strength is just how complex it is. Each Warframe (a kind of suit of armor that you wear) plays like its own character class, complete with unique abilities that define its combat style. You might charge into packs headfirst as Rhino or silently assassinate your targets as Ivara. Hell, there’s even a Warframe that lets you compose your own music using an in-game sequencer to inflict debuffs on enemies. Learning how to craft and equip these Warframes is a daunting task for new players, but those who endure will find a rich action RPG that can easily devour thousands of hours. What’s more, Digital Extremes is constantly taking Warframe in bold new directions, like adding open world zones to explore with friends. It might not be an MMO in the traditional sense, but Warframe is every bit as massive.
A free-to-play spiritual successor to the beloved Diablo 2, Path of Exile is a dauntingly complex action RPG that will make even the most zealous theorycrafter weep tears of joy. Behind that familiar loop of dungeon diving and looting are several dozen features that each feel like the Marianas trench of progression systems—they’re that deep. Skill gems can be chained together to create practically limitless spell combos, while the passive skill tree has hundreds of nodes to choose from that each shape your character in their own small way. And then, of course, comes the gear, which is a whole separate school of learning that can take months to fully understand. Path of Exile is certainly daunting and it won’t appeal to everyone.
It’s good news then that it’s also fun as hell. There’s 10 acts to explore, each one touring you through desecrated temples or corrupted jungles full of the walking dead. It’s a grim place to be, but the kinetic combat and enticing rewards make the journey worth it. Every few months, Grinding Gear Games rolls out a new temporary challenge league that introduces entirely new progression systems, cosmetics, and enemies but requires starting a new character. Normally that’d sound like a chore, but Path of Exile is so robust that starting fresh is just a chance to learn something new.
Brutal, uncompromising, and intimidating—there’s a good chance that EVE Online’s reputation precedes it. While its players will say that it’s mostly hyperbole, there’s no denying that EVE Online isn’t an MMO for the faint of heart. But in return for a considerable investment of your time and energy, EVE Online achieves something remarkable: It feels alive.
The galaxy of New Eden is an ever-evolving virtual world full of merchants and pirates, mercenaries and warlords, and, yeah, the occasional spy. It’s a thriving ecosystem grounded by a player-driven economy where players are encouraged to group together to achieve long term objectives like conquering territory or just becoming filthy, stinking rich. To participate, you’ll need to contend with a hopelessly unintuitive user interface and familiarize yourself with a daunting number of systems. But it’s worth it. The focus on player-driven experiences creates stories that just don’t happen in any other kind of game, and being apart of those narratives is thrilling. It’s an experience that is so absorbing, there’s a good reason why EVE players joke that quitting for good is “winning at EVE Online.”
Final Fantasy 14 is a dream come true for Final Fantasy fans who don’t mind the rigamarole that comes standard with MMOs. Set in the high fantasy world of Eorzea, you play as one of the series’ iconic classes, like a black mage, and set out to help the locals defend themselves from constant invasions by the evil Garlean Empire. It’s as generic a Final Fantasy story as they come, but FF14 lives up to the series legacy by populating the world with an endearing ensemble of characters that grow significantly over the course of its two expansions. If you like story-driven MMOs, Final Fantasy 14’s sweeping epic is undoubtedly the best.
Square Enix doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel when it comes to being an MMO, though. Final Fantasy 14 is formulaic in its progression and the equipment system is pretty bland. It is by no means boring, however. The story reaches some surprising highs and Final Fantasy fans will be pleased to hear that FF14 has a nearly endless supply of memorable boss fights to work through. It might not be as expansive as other MMOs, but Final Fantasy 14 is beautiful and charming.
Local multiplayer games
Some say Nidhogg 2’s clay-monstrosity art style and added weapons marred the elegance of the first game, but they’re both great in their own ways. Whichever one you choose, the basic format is the same: two players duel across a single screen, attempting to push their opponent left or right into the next screen, all the way to the end of the map. That’s a big part of the brilliance of the series: get pushed all the way to your corner, and it’s still possible to make a comeback and finesse your opponent all the way back across the map for a clutch win. Pure thrill.
The fighting itself is great, too, like an ultra-lo-fi Bushido Blade. Kills come in one hit as you thrust and parry and throw your swords with simple controls that result in complex dances of stance and aggression. It’s exciting, hilarious, and tests the hell out of your reaction time and ability to predict your opponent’s moves. There’s nothing quite like either Nidhogg.
As cool as bows and arrows are in games like Tomb Raider, TowerFall does them best. Whether played by four people against each other, or two in co-op against waves of monsters, TowerFall makes leaping from a ledge and skewering somebody with a perfect shot easy to do. It also makes shooting at someone above you, missing, and then impaling yourself as the arrow falls back down easy to do. It’s as chaotic as it sounds, but the clean pixel art and expressive animation makes it simple to follow, and every triumph and screw-up is visible to all.
More local multiplayer games
We hate Overcooked. Wait, no: We hate anyone who gets in the way in Overcooked, or doesn’t bring us our damn tomatoes when we need them, pre-chopped. This four-player kitchen catastrophe simulator sets up some brilliantly simple basics—working together to prepare ingredients, cook basic dishes, and turn them in on a tight timetable—and then mercilessly complicates them with devious kitchen hazards. In one level, on the deck of a pirate ship, some of your counters slide back and forth, forcing you to switch up tasks on the fly. In another cramped kitchen, there isn’t enough space for two characters to squeeze past one another, forcing you to coordinate all your movements or get into shouting matches about which direction to go.
There’s a lot of shouting in Overcooked, but barking orders, properly divvying up jobs, and setting a new high score feels so good. The controls are intuitive enough that infrequent gamers can get onboard. Just beware of playing with anyone with a truly explosive temper. While both are great, if you haven’t played either we’d recommend Overcooked 2, which adds online play.
Spelunky deserves much of the credit (or blame) for the boom of roguelikes in the 2010s, but none have bettered the rich interactions of this game, which sees you adventuring through mines, the jungle, caverns, and even Hell in search of riches and escape. You’ll die many, many times along the way—sometimes suddenly, sometimes hilariously, and often because of your own stupidity. But that arms you with knowledge of what not to do and how to exploit the game. Can you trick two NPCs into fighting each other? Can you use a damsel you should be rescuing to instead safely set off a trap for you? What’s the deal with the Ankh, anyway?
These are all things you’ll discover as you play more Spelunky. Half the game is 2D platformer; the other half is a rich simulation packed with secrets and interlocking pieces that make the entire game feel like a living organism designed with the express purpose of killing you. That’s what makes pulling those pieces apart and using them to your advantage so endlessly satisfying.
In this age of quick saves and infinite lives, action-oriented platformers need to be difficult. And this difficulty almost always becomes the talking point, even for games that seem to hide something more profound beneath their mounds of countless dead (see: The End is Nigh). But no one talks about how hard Celeste is—or at least, that’s not why we talk about it. Even if you roll your eyes at the masochistic appeal of Super Meat Boy or N++, you might find yourself seeing Celeste through to the end. Sharing the vibrant, chunky pixel-art of Matt Makes Games Inc’s TowerFall, Celeste charts its protagonist Madeline’s efforts to scale a gigantic mountain. She’s not going up there to save the world, she’s going up there to save herself. It’s hardly a visual novel, but the light narrative dabs make progress more meaningful than “simply wanting to do it”, and its set-piece moments are really spectacular. It feels great too: Madeline can grab onto walls and quick-dash through the air, and there’s never a lack of new environmental challenges to ward off monotony.
More platformers and Metroidvanias
Hollow Knight is still slightly too new to be regarded as highly as Nintendo’s genre-defining Super Metroid, but it might actually be the better game (gasp!). It’s at least the best game to follow in Metroid’s footsteps in a decade (if you want more games in this vein, make sure to play Cave Story). You play as a small explorer venturing through the remnants of Hallownest, an underground bug civilization, with remarkably little hand-holding showing you where to go. Subtle environmental clues and smartly doled-out powerups will help you find your path through the world, and from the first moments the 2D essentials of jumping and attacking have a perfectly tuned weight and snappiness to them. That’s what will keep you playing Hollow Knight long enough to be pulled into its world, and then there’s no turning back.
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