Synopsis: Falcon 4.0 in many ways represents the end of an era. This incredibly ambitious flight sim represents the last effort by a major publisher to develop a huge budget, high fidelity, realistic combat flight simulator. While the game shipped with some teething issues, it has since matured into an incredibly sophisticated simulation, complete with a dynamic campaign and accurate avionics and flight modeling. The eventual release of the source code eventually let fans to modify and refine the game even further, delivering visual updates as well as whole new campaigns. It’s a difficult game to learn, let alone master, but if you do it’s safe to say that this is the closest that you’ll probably get to experiencing life as an F-16 pilot. It’s also safe to say that the odds that we’ll ever see its like again are slim to none.
Year Released: 1997
Synopsis: One of the first games to popularize the term “clickfest,” the original Diablo was nevertheless an instantly engaging and endlessly addictive game that set the standard for the action roleplaying games that followed in its wake. Players began as a simple hero in a town that’s being overrun by demons. To fight back the invasion, the player sets out on a quest through a series of randomly created dungeon levels. The enemies you confronted in this game ranged from run of the mill fantasy types to massive demon lords. Each monster you killed not only dropped loot and gold you could use to upgrade your character, but also gave you a bit of knowledge about itself, which gave the player a chance to learn more about the world while viciously clicking away. The addition of multiplayer and varied classes made it a game that was almost infinitely replayable.
Developer: id Software
Publisher: id Software
Year Released: 1993
Synopsis: There had been some fun first-person shooters before 1983 but nothing established the overall popularity or format of the genre as well as id Software’s Doom. Nearly all the things that we think about with regard to first-person shooters was present in this highly influential game — amazing graphics, loads of gore, insanely powered weapons, monstrous enemies, deathmatch multiplayer, tense exploration, and of course, loads and loads of alarmed parents and teachers. It’s amazing to look back on the game and see how much Doom got right that first time around. Other first-person shooters may have improved on the overall presentation of the genre, but they’re all still laboring under the lengthening shadow of this early classic.
Synopsis: Those of us who lived through the heady 1999 holiday season remember the escalating rivalry between the fans of Unreal Tournament and the fans of Quake III. Both games had their merits but in the end it was Unreal Tournament that edged slightly ahead in our opinion, garnering the highest review score we’d ever given at that time. Sure, Quake III may have had the advantage in terms of overall graphics, but the sheer number of options in Unreal Tournament, and its wide range of interesting weapons and challenging levels (many designed by Cliff Bleszinzki) made it one of the year’s most played games around the IGN offices. Looking back on the title ten years later, we’re still impressed with the tremendous flexibility of the game modes, nearly seamless presentation and rock solid performance.
Synopsis: Ion Storm’s first-person RPG gave the player power. Not just in the form of deadly weaponry, which was certainly present, but also over the game itself. In each expansive level multiple routes to the end were available. With hacking skills you could take control of security bots to wipe out enemy patrols, or if you concentrated more on raw firepower, you could blast your way to the end instead. With an intriguing science fiction storyline, vivid characters, plenty of ways to augment your character skills and armaments, and some really great level design, this game was as entertaining as it was thought-provoking. Ultimately, Deus Ex stands out for accommodating player desires for complex ways to control their gameplay experiences, instead of being forced along a linear path. An unforgettable experience.
Synopsis: It may be hard for the younger crowd to believe but there was a time when LucasArts was known as the industry’s best adventure game developer. With a roster of superlative titles, the company had already cemented its reputation in the annals of gaming. Then they went one step further with a game that many consider the greatest adventure game of all time. Grim Fandango succeeds on a number of levels. On the surface, there’s a tremendous concept for the world that involves a Dia de los Muertos aesthetic and a bureaucratic take on the afterlife. These are merely backdrops, however, for a compelling story full of memorable characters and a series of challenging puzzles that are so well integrated into the plot that you almost forget that you’re playing a game. Great music and genuinely funny humor round out the package nicely. Even if you don’t normally like adventure games, you’ll love this one.
Synopsis: Fallout really had it all: dynamic, believable characters, a quality of narrative and storytelling too rarely seen in games, and the opportunity for players to drastically affect how events proceeded. It was a game that above all else recognized and rewarded the player’s free will. Fallout’s fiction and game world were vivid, its character development system deep, and it possessed an often hilarious tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. Peering past the post-apocalyptic science fiction surface, deeper cultural themes become apparent, echoing notions of humanity’s absurd fallacies hit on in novels like Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. Though games like Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, Planescape: Torment and plenty of others are all worthy of the PC RPG crown, this 1997 release from Interplay is our choice for the top of the heap.
Synopsis: Looking Glass and Irrational Games’ System Shock 2 excelled in many ways, but perhaps the strongest was the genuinely frightening atmosphere that pervaded throughout every polygon. Pitted against a seemingly ubiquitous Artificial Intelligence with a singularly haunting speaking voice, your character had to escape the clutches of monstrosities and altered crewmates aboard the space vessels Rickenbacker and Von Braun. The game, like many others on our list, emphasized player choice over strict, predetermined progress. A widely varied and upgradeable skill set, as well as a large range of weapons and tools were at the players’ disposal. It was a game that demanded precision as well, where player decisions had noticeable and lasting repercussions, since items degraded quickly with use, ammunition was difficult to come across, and there were multiple ways of tackling nearly every obstacle. System Shock 2 wove together compelling storytelling, oppressive atmosphere, a wide range of abilities, and addictive first-person RPG gameplay to create an experience impossible to forget, and still remains one of the most cohesive, affective games out there.
Synopsis: Crysis may be the newest game on this list, but it’s earned its position on this list. While Crysis is often noted for its bleeding-edge technology, it’s the way the designers used that technology to deliver better gameplay that’s more important. This isn’t just a prettier shooter; it’s an incredibly dynamic shooter that plays differently thanks to the decisions that you make in the heat of battle. There’s nothing quite like getting into a huge firefight with a North Korean squad and seeing the gunfire and explosions shatter the forest around you. Mastering the nanosuit lets you play as the ultimate predator, using stealth, speed, and strength to almost play with your opponents at times. And the game delivers an incredibly thrilling experience that keeps on escalating, whether it’s a gorgeous tank battle while the island is falling apart from you to an aerial sequence that has you dodging tornadoes in a dogfight.
Year Released: 1998
Synopsis: When you say the three letters RTS, there are a few games that immediately pop to mind. For millions of gamers, it’s StarCraft. It remains as one of the most popular real-time strategy games played on the Internet around the world. For those of us that only revisit on occasion, there’s still an immense amount to love. StarCraft managed to create three wildly different factions in nearly all forms. Motivation, technology, and biology provided an amazing platform for a brilliant story and universe. Even more amazing was the ability to create checks and balances when none of the races shared units or even particular functions. Even the builder units acted much differently to fit the background of each race. The superb balance translated into enticing and addictive gameplay. The galactic war between the Terrans, Protoss, and Zerg proved to be one of the most entertaining pieces of software ever created and the sequel is still one of the most asked about games of the future.
Synopsis: With over a dozen sequels on nearly as many platforms, the original Command & Conquer launched one of the most successful and popular real-time strategy franchises of all time. Players fought in a great war between the Global Defense Initiative and the Brotherhood of Nod over the coveted Tiberium. The two sides had very different strategic strengths, which made match-ups more than just a race to see who could build units the quickest. What really made the game shine though, was that you could play with up to four players online, which was almost unheard of and helped to cement the game in the emerging multiplayer environment. With all respect to Dune II and Herzog Zwei, this is the game that made today’s RTS games what they are.
Synopsis: If there’s a modern game that shows the potential for tactic heavy strategy titles, Relic’s Company of Heroes is it. This is about as complete an RTS game as we’ve seen in history and will probably be the benchmark to which other new RTS titles are compared. There’s very little wrong with the game at all. It provided a stunningly exciting and interesting campaign nearly the entire way through, offered a wealth of skirmish and multiplayer fun, and did so with two very unique sides where none of the units ever become obsolete on the battlefield. Add masterful production values, sound composition, and brilliant visual effects and you’ve got one hell of an entertainment piece. While a lot of the ideas in Company of Heroes have been taken from other games, they’ve all been polished so bright and shiny that most strategy gamers will keep wanting more.
Synopsis: There’s likely to be a few people that have a problem with The Sims being on this list. Those people don’t consider that The Sims franchise is the best selling franchise in the history of gaming and appeals to all ages, sexes, races, species, and sexual orientations. There’s a reason that countless expansions have been released along with a sequel and several spin-offs onto consoles. The Sims is a crazy phenomenon built on developer wackiness and player creativity. While there aren’t necessarily many goals to achieve in The Sims, Maxis offered up one of the most fulfilling sandboxes in the history of gaming and let the community run with it. It’s fun and incredibly important for bringing in a demographic normally reluctant to boot up a game on their PCs.
Synopsis: You’d have to have been living in a cave on Mars for the last five years not to know about Blizzard’s World of Warcraft. The company, widely known as the creators of one of the industry’s leading RTS franchises, proved that it could crush the competition just as easily in the world of online RPGs. The subscription numbers (and server queues) alone are more than enough evidence of the title’s success, but if you need further proof, you only have to consider the inviting design, stylish graphics and richly storied, quest filled game world to see why its inclusion on our list of the best games ever is a foregone conclusion. While it doesn’t eliminate the grinding and downtime that are part and parcel of the MMO experience, World of Warcraft hides them better than most games and also offers up enough rewards to keep us questing long after we should have gone to bed.
Synopsis: Before Will Wright created SimCity he worked on a town-down helicopter action game called Raid on Bungeling Bay, and he said he was inspired by that game to study urban design. We know what he meant, because we played Raid on Bungeling Bay in those early days as well, and we remember flying over those cities that he designed and trying to make sense of them, too. We all take cities for granted, but we rarely ever consider what it takes to create one, let alone nurture and grow it. And this is the brilliance of SimCity; for the first time we can take something as complex as a city and approach it through a game. But it’s also difficult to describe SimCity’s impact. Here was a game that appealed to the mainstream market, and one that was viewed as educational as well as entertaining. In many ways, SimCity changed an industry.
Synopsis: World War 2 shooters had been done to death when Infinity Ward honed the genre to razor sharp perfection with Call of Duty. From the initial paratrooper drops in the hours before D-Day to the final struggle for Berlin, gamers were instantly transported to a world that was at once both thrillingly cinematic and eerily real. The game’s realistic AI and squad based combat makes you feel more like part of an actual unit rather than a one-man killing machine. Add in some of the best sound design we’ve seen and Call of Duty is one of the most convincing and exciting simulations of FPS warfare we’ve ever seen. Better still, the game offers up a wide range of multiplayer battles that are still our first choice when it comes to online action.
9) MechWarrior 2: 31st Century Combat
Year Released: 1995
Synopsis: Though the first MechWarrior was released in 1989 and differed in its gameplay structure, it was the more straightforward MechWarrior 2: 31st Century Combat that really brought the franchise to popular attention. Fans of the BattleTech table top game were undoubtedly salivating in anticipation at this game’s 1995 release, but the title garnered more widespread tittering with its visuals which, at the time, looked fantastic. But the game was much more than that. It was complex, requiring management of various mechanized subsystems, allowed for tons of customization, and featured an epic storyline as you smashed through challenges as a Wolf or Jade Falcon Clan member. MechWarrior 2 gave players a real sense of power, rewarded digit dexterity across the keyboard, stood as a towering example of what a PC game could be, and how a dense game can still be sophisticated enough to appeal to a wide audience.
Synopsis: Creative Assembly’s third entry in the Total War series represents some of the deepest, most polished, and addictive strategic gameplay out there. Fusing a 4X style overworld map with riveting real-time battles, there was a near overwhelming amount of expertly designed content to chew through. The A.I. always put up a challenging fight, making aggressive overworld map moves and employing effective tactics on the battlefield. Rome offered even more complex siege battles, cities whose appearance reflected the structures placed therein, a wide range of highly detailed units, and unprecedented sound design. This is one of those games that when you start playing, it’s near impossible to stop, and is certainly worthy of being considered one of the top PC games of all time.
Synopsis: It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years since we first played through Sid Meier’s Pirates!. Standing as one of the singularly most innovative and all-encompassing game experiences, the original Pirates! maintained it’s position as one of the most beloved games of all time. Fortunately, an exciting remake a few years ago introduced a whole new generation to the joys of virtual swashbuckling. Players choose whether to serve a European nation or whether to engage in a life of piracy and have to build their fortunes amid the turbulent waters of the Caribbean during the 17th and 18th centuries. Engaging in ship-to-ship combat and boarding actions, dueling with a whole cast of villains, trading goods and recruiting sailors at exotic ports, seeking out lost treasures and rescuing your kidnapped family members, romancing governors’ daughters; this game really has it all.
Synopsis: It’s easy to think of the first-person shooter as divided by two eras that are bridged together by one game: Half-Life. Valve’s legendary shooter transformed the genre from an almost mindless, twitch-based experience into an incredibly rich and complex storytelling medium. The use of scripted events made it feel like you were the star of a $200 million Hollywood sci-fi/action/horror movie. The narrative never left your perspective, and the story unfolded in pieces. The designers brilliant use the environment as a storytelling device, and as you plunge deeper into the richly-realized Black Mesa facility you feel like you’re discovering a whole new world. And for those of us who played Half-Life upon its release, you couldn’t shake the feeling that you were playing something revolutionary and memorable.
Synopsis: If true addiction has ever had a name in the offices of IGN, its name was Battlefield 1942. No other game has inspired so many editors to give up their Friday nights in search of the perfect match in Stalingrad, Wake Island, or at the Battle of the Bulge. When you leave the office on Saturday morning and the sun is starting to come up, you know you have a good game on your hands. BF 1942 was that game. It was the perfect blend of action and strategy across large maps filled to the brim with different types of vehicles and weapons. There’s huge amounts of fun to be had whether you’re playing a serious match or just screwing around having jeep races between capture points. No, the game was not perfect, but it ushered in a new era of large team-based first-person shooters and showed how much fun the chaoticly comic nature of a video game battlefield could be.
Synopsis: Plenty of Dungeons and Dragons based PC RPGs have come out over the years, but Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn had the biggest impact. Riding the surge of praise after the release of Baldur’s Gate in 1998, the sequel delivered an even more fully featured pseudo-turn-based combat system, expansive environments, a seemingly endless number of side quests, and a compelling narrative. If there’s a single element that makes BGII stand out, it’s character. The game had a truly sinister, multi-faceted villain, as well as some hilarious NPC companions. Take Minsc, for example, a brash fighter who frequently consulted with Boo, his trusty hamster companion. If you never bothered with this when it first came out in 2000, you should pick up a copy this instant. It may not look so good anymore, but it’s still one of the best RPGs ever made.
Synopsis: One of the Civilization games was absolutely going to be in the top 5 in this list, it was just a matter of which one we chose to occupy the spot. For years, it was largely understood that Civilization II was the best in the series offering up complex strategy in a palatable and even graceful format. Some out there would probably still argue that it’s the best of the bunch, but we decided the latest went above and beyond that great title with more improvements than can be counted. From the revamped damage system to the diplomatic improvements and inclusion of religion, Civilization IV provides the most addictive 4X experience on the market. Even worse for those of us incapable of quitting to desktop is the inclusion of a very workable multiplayer solution. Turn-based strategy has never been easy this way, but Firaxis managed to make it easy, make saves work, and make it easily as much fun as the single player if not more so. Civilization IV is a brilliant game.
Synopsis: Fans of space combat games will always have a soft spot to games like Wing Commander or Elite, but no game before or since has captured the drama and action of the genre as well as TIE Fighter. Benefiting from the lessons learned from the X-Wing game that launched the franchise, TIE Fighter boasted some of the best flight mechanics and mission design ever seen in a space combat game. Long before Knights of the Old Republic gave us a chance to see what it’s like to serve the Empire, TIE Fighter presented the opportunity for the player to become the villain. The Collector’s Edition went one better by adding improved polygonal graphics and brilliant sound design. There have been a few imitators since this classic game was released, but none have come close to delivering the excitement and joy that we still find running secret missions for the Emperor.
Synopsis: It may be old as hell and you may have to actually disable DirectDraw to get it to run these days but there’s still no PC game that can compete with the mighty X-COM. Conceptually it’s one of the finest strategy games to ever appear on any system. Putting the player in charge of a worldwide defense against an alien invasion, the original X-COM combined elements of sophisticated base management, high-tech research, engaging roleplaying, thrilling tactical combat and a tense, terrifying story to create an experience that has yet to be duplicated by any other game. Leading your squads on missions to reclaim crashed UFOs or fighting house to house in an effort to repel alien terror attacks on major cities throughout the world were the highlights of the game but X-COM has plenty of other pleasures in store, from juggling personnel and equipment to keeping the nations of the world happy enough to sustain your budget. Simply put, there’s no excuse for strategy fans not to break this one out and play through it again.