The 20 best PC games of all time – For The Win

Science & Technology

Got your ticket there for the best PC games of all time? Ah, you do. Welcome – come inside. You can hang your jacket on one of those vectors jutting out from Elite  – one of the best space games ever made – over there, and we do ask that you leave all electronic devices inside this improbably large PC game box from 1997. Look out for all the mouse balls and serial cables underfoot. We’ve tried clearing them out, but they grow back at an alarming rate.
As custodians of this PC gaming corps d’elite, we must lay a few ground rules before allowing you into the great hall. The first pertains to timeliness: PC gaming history spans several decades and many of its most revered titles were released during the 1990s, whose incredible tech breakthrough saw leaps forward in both fidelity and ideation. But let’s be real: even if you did decide to go and play the original 1993 version Syndicate after seeing it on this list, which you wouldn’t, getting it to run properly on modern hardware would be quite an undertaking. Therefore, older games must be both playable and still genuinely enjoyable to make the cut, not simply ‘important’.
Secondly: franchises. The industry’s tendency to iterate on its most popular names and ideas means good games are often built on the foundations of great ones – so even though the real innovation might have happened nine years ago, we’re still inclined to put the best overall experience on a pedestal. Often, that means the most recent.
With our methodology explained, we just need you to sign this waiver that absolves us from responsibility for any injuries incurred by falling CD-ROMs and any attempt from John Romero to make you his – well, you know, and we can now let you into the great hall.

Football Manager, née Championship Manager, has been a staple of PC gaming for as long as there have been spreadsheets and numbers between 1-20. During its lifespan it’s plumbed ever-increasing depths of the sport, simulating interpersonal locker room relationships and team talks, modeling the tactics du jour and even introducing 3D graphics in the mid-noughties to complement the match engine’s tantalizing words. “He must score! Van Nistelrooy… Goal kick.”
In three decades though, despite some monumental changes, the core experience has felt like a reassuring constant. It’s a rags to riches story that you write with every transfer, contract renewal and formation change, told with such vivid detail that you can’t help but regale people with your exploits even though you can tell they don’t care in the slightest how far you took Fiorentina into the Champions League. And for that, FM earns its place in the PC pantheon among stiff management game competition. If you prefer more direct action, check our list of the best sports games

The newest entry in PC’s hall of fame, and perhaps a controversial addition. Racing has been a big part of the PC’s story, but it’s typically taken on a different aspect here than it has on consoles. The Geoff Crammond’s Grand Prix series typifies it: stern, forensic simulation that tickles the anorak glands at the expense of accessibility. Sim racing was born here, in an environment that knows a force feedback wheel when you plug one in. 
But it’s 2021’s Forza Horizon 5, that console-est of racers, that forces its way onto the list. Arguably still trading on the advances made in Horizon 3, the latest game nonetheless offers an unrivaled open-world racing experience where cars handle the way you want them to, not the way they necessarily would, and where an improbable motorsports festival is always preparing the next Hollywood spectacle for you to send it through. Its massive car collection, auction house economy and seasonal events give it serious longevity, too. It’s not just one of the greatest PC games ever, it’s one of the best racing games of all time. 
Minecraft has topped 1 trillion views on YouTubeMinecraft has topped 1 trillion views on YouTube
You can’t do everything in Minecraft, but you can get pretty close. There aren’t too many games in which we can say we built a slime farm, tamed a horse, slayed a dragon in an alternate dimension and rode a rollercoaster over the course of the same evening. That deceptively powerful toolbox, together with Minecraft’s artful blockiness, have enthralled us for well over a decade now and it still hasn’t satiated our appetite for madcap inventions, luxury homes, all-out server-wide wars, and co-op game experiences. 
Before it, survival in a video game meant strafing to avoid the rockets. Managing your character’s hunger felt like a fresh challenge in its early releases, and there’s something irresistibly cozy about keeping safe from mobs by nightfall by constructing a graceless mud shack. And then turning it into a graceless wooden shack. And, in time, a bona fide palace. Proving ground of many a YouTuber’s career, constant fascination, and testament to the PC’s capacity for seismic change through indie releases. If you’re after an adventure of your own, you can’t go wrong with our list of the best Minecraft seeds

For the longest time, MMOs were ruled by World of Warcraft. How many other games in this article have their own episode of South Park? Blizzard found the most enticing way to bring players together in a fantasy universe and keep them there for years, deeply invested in both the world and their own roster of characters. But in a plot twist that would be at home in the intro cutscene of any MMO, Final Fantasy XIV came along and claimed the entire kingdom for itself.
Not in one fell swoop, mind you – the initial launch back in 2010 was considered a disaster. Heads rolled at Square Enix, player numbers were at best modest, and Final Fantasy looked set to endure only as a series of single-player JPRGs. And then it did something miraculous: it returned in 2014 with the A Realm Reborn moniker and turned the whole story around. Its active players are now the envy of the genre, and its knack for dropping new regular content the community embraces and sticks around for is formidable. 

The four Xs. Explore, expand, exploit, exterminate – a simple formula, deceptively so for a game of life-swallowing depth and engaging complexity like Civ. Societies rise and fall over the course of a single game in Sid Meier’s venerable series, wars are waged over centuries, and Gandhi almost always ends up nuking you. You’ll have your own series highlight, and it’s usually somewhere between IV and VI, but the expanded cities really lent new value to the hex tiles in number six. It’s by no means the only 4x game out there – Amplitude’s titles all show an interesting spin on the genre – but it is dripping in historical detail, absurdly funny, and capable of arresting every single neuron in a bid for victory. 
Do you go after the science victory, capitalizing on the bonus science points you earn from some ancient era wonders and spam universities across your realm? Maybe this game feels like a diplomatic run, using your silver tongue to get to the top. Or – no. Let’s do it the old-fashioned way with a domination victory. Ready the Sumerian war carts, we’re marching on Gandhi’s Athens at daybreak. 

Not many games attempt to simulate life. That’s understandable. Life contains a lot of data, and it’s always updating itself. Stardew Valley’s take on life, though, is generous enough to lose yourself in while keeping a sense of simplicity. It’s a meditative experience, tending to your crops and renovating the old farmhouse. It speaks to that bit of caveman brain left deep inside us that wants to create order so we can scan for predators and plan our survival. Only here the landscape we’re scanning is comprised of pure wholesome. 
Curiosity rewards you with marriages, trips to the casino, a quest to capture a legendary fish, dinosaur parenthood and discovering secret islands. So should you ever get bored of farming efficiency techniques, don’t think you’ve taken all Stardew Valley has to give by a long chalk.  When you’re done with all that, play it with a friend and enjoy one of the most relaxing 2-player games around.

Like other legendary multiplayer games Counter-Strike and Dota, PUBG began as a mod and became a phenomenon. PC gaming is so often the breeding ground for that process, thanks to easy mod installation and a rich history in tinkering with the contents of game directories. 
It represents the summit of a lineage of games that goes right back to Operation Flashpoint in 2001. What began as an ultra-realistic modern military sim set in the dour Falklands forest became ArmA, a trilogy of similarly rigorous shooters. From there, the modding scene gave us punishingly realistic zombie survival game DayZ, and that in turn provided the bedrock for a new mod, bringing 100 players together in one multiplayer fight to the death. 
Previously victory in an online shooter was all about k:d, but suddenly here was a game where you could hide your way to the late game, and where one shot might earn you a chicken dinner. Victory’s about getting the right gear, being in the right place at the right time, and knowing when to take the shot and when to stay undetected. It’s proven quite a popular formula. 

We’ll probably never see The Orange Box’s like again, and not just because games rarely come in boxes anymore. Imagine it: a new episodic installment of a Half-Life game, the best class-based shooter ever made, and a unique first-person puzzler that also happened to be one of the funniest games ever written and performed. In one package
In that move, Valve showed the industry how it could take on experimental projects and still turn a profit. The episodic model, the sub-premium price point, a microtransaction-based economy (TF2 hats, looking at you) – these feel like the most normal business practices in the world now, but it was only through the rampant, bellowing brilliance of these three titles appearing as one that gaming as a whole recognized their viability. We all know at least ten quotes from Team Fortress 2, we’d all do anything to protect Portal’s weighted companion cube, and nearly two decades of Half-Life 3 memes show what the last one meant to us. 

Most strategy games set you the task of killing your way to the top. Crusader Kings III, an intellectual, gets you breeding your way into power. The depth of Paradox’s strategies is downright fearsome, but once you grasp it there’s nothing else competing for attention for weeks on end. Come hell, high water, or fabricated claims to your throne, you are going to take Carpathia. 
As random events crop up and force difficult decisions out of you, you find yourself embroiled in the kind of incestuous, backstabbing skullduggery that would fill a historical fiction bestseller. The strategic marriage to one’s enemies, the strategic sabotaging of one’s own children: these are the equivalent of a good old-fashioned RTS tank rush in Crusader Kings III.

When you think of the best RPGs, it’s hard not to immediately think of Skyrim. Not only are we all still playing Skyrim ten years after it came out, we don’t even feel like we’ve scratched the surface. There are side quests we picked up on the way to Whiterun to tell the Jarl about a dragon attack back in 2011, still waiting for us to attend to them. NPCs far and wide across its frosty landscape are still waiting to tell us the rumors they’ve heard. 
The game’s incredibly prolific modding scene hasn’t exactly hurt its longevity, not to mention Bethesda’s now-famous tendency to re-release it every three weeks. In Special Edition form, with ENB, reshade, and 4K textures up to the very literal hilt, it looks like it was released last week. We’re spoiled by the current crop of walk-in universes like Red Dead 2, The Witcher III and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, but we can’t judge them against Skyrim until we’ve been playing them for a solid decade.  

We don’t see quite as many RTS games as we used to in PC gaming, but that’s probably because StarCcraft II scared all the others away with its ridiculous standard of polish and poise in 2011. Each new mission in its campaign throws in a different variable, something that demands you adjust your tactics around. It might mean going all in on static defense, or navigating lava veins, or racing against infinite Zerg swarms to steal an artifact. But it’s not just doing so to keep your attention.
Like a version of Mr Miyagi who only communicates in mouse clicks, StarCcraft II’s teaching you to plan and improvise in online matches so that when you do face a multiplayer opponent for the first time, you’ll at least have a fighting chance.

Insert your Lucasarts childhood favorite in here, of course. We’ve selected LeChuck’s Revenge, where the writing is at its most confidently absurdist, the puzzles long since having jettisoned a sense of logic and exist only to crack a grin. But adventure games are personal things. You spend a lot of downtime with them, sitting quietly and thinking while an inventory screen sits open.
There’s time and space to develop closeness to the plot and its players, and for the atmosphere of the game world to osmose under your skin. That’s just as true of Blade Runner, Kentucky Route Zero or Grim Fandango – it’s just that here the world is a town under trade embargo from a pirate named Largo, and where at any one time you may hold both gorilla and manilla envelopes in your inventory. In Special Edition form it’s somehow even cozier and more nostalgic than the original pixels.

For many of us, isometric RPGs are the peak of Mount PC Gaming. The reams of carefully wrought text building universes inside our imaginations (with a little help from pre-rendered 2D backgrounds). The pause and plan combat. Kobolds. It’s all very PC. The best of these games trust you to have an attention span, to understand complicated effect-stacking mechanics and to enjoy extended runs of dialogue. Which we do, of course. Especially when the dialogue in question is as erudite and self-aware as Disco Elysium’s. 
We’ve walked a thousand miles in the oversized boots of badasses, so it’s refreshing to occupy the vomit-crusted loafers of an alcoholic cop with a magical realism take on the world for a change. No, more than that – a cop whose character you bend and shape with your own input, not in a character creation screen full of sliders but when you’re already out there in the world, situations flying at you. It’s the same way that we decide who we are in the real world: we improvise. Baldur’s Gate II takes some toppling and still holds the traditional isometric RPG crown, but Disco Elysium is all the more impressive for not taking any cues from the Infinity Engine era and still proving as deep and involving.

Shooters were the vehicle designers used to show us what 3D game environments could do. Wolfenstein amazed us with its dimensions and scale, then Doom showed what art direction and level design could do for that experience. From there an arms race of innovation broke out, waged mainly between id software and itself, and that fertile ground gave us Half-Life and eventually Call of Duty, cinematic runs where life melts away and for six hours, you are an improbably well-armed physicist or a succession of grenade-averse soldiers. 
But in the race for the new, we left a few things behind that shouldn’t have been. Things like Quake’s absolutely peerless level design, which surprises, terrorizes and delights every time you round a new corner. And that bizarre, absolutely distinct marriage of influences – medieval knights, space marines and lightning-throwing yetis, all in one inexplicable and deeply atmospheric world. Its movement speed and weapon feedback make you feel heroic for jumping across a gap, let alone clearing a room of enemies, and that translates perfectly to multiplayer. Remastered by Nightdive, Quake now has co-op and an upcoming survival mode. 

Dishonored 2 doesn’t care how you play it. It doesn’t need to cast bright lights over the next doorway it needs you to go down or tell you to press the spacebar to view a cool scripted event its designers spent ages on. Instead of that it builds about ten levels within the space of one, hands you a vast array of tools, and lets you go about your mission with absolute freedom. 
That’s the mandate of the immersive sim, perfected by Ion Storm’s Deus Ex, Irrational’s System Shock 2 and updated for a new audience in Io Interactive’s Hitman 3. But what makes Dishonored 2 special even in this rarefied air is how well it’s able to layer multiple pathways and approaches within one space. You first notice it during The Clockwork Mansion, the home of an inventor whose layout keeps changing as pistons and gears manipulate its architecture. If you’re paying attention, you notice a chance to slip behind the panels and into the inner workings, and it’s there you realize not only that the space you thought you were in was just a tiny part of the whole, but that every level in the game works this way. And that’s way before you even get to the time travel level. It’s labor-intensive and inefficient to make games this way, whose content most players will see only a fraction of. But Dishonored 2 doesn’t care. 

Boasting 6.8 million average players per month, six years after launch, it’s still high noon for Blizzard’s hero shooter – one of the best FPS games of all time. Team Fortress 2 walked so Overwatch could wall-run. 
Whether you’re blocking bullets as Genji, popping heads as Hanzo, or tanking damage as Roadhogg, Overwatch is more finely tuned than an Omega wristwatch. Despite a roster of over 30 heroes, Blizzard somehow managed to keep the game balanced while layering on more strategic options for players over time. It’s a shooter with tight maps, but no two games ever feel the same thanks to team composition and a high skill ceiling. 
Even Apex Legends has Overwatch to thank for its take on the battle royale genre, mixing PUBG-style combat with Overwatch-style hero abilities. You can also see Blizzard’s influence in how the characters are fleshed out in comics and animated shorts for Respawn’s BR shooter. We’ll see if Blizzard can do it all over again when Overwatch 2 releases in the near future. 

Putting GTA V on this list would have been easy, but Red Dead Redemption 2 is Rockstar’s finest sixty hours. As a PC game, it’s a graphical powerhouse, too. More self-assured than many of the studio’s other titles, this cowboy game is grounded in humanity. 
The fact it strives so hard for realism turned some people off at launch – every action you take is painstakingly animated, from stowing your weapons to rifling through drawers. You have to bathe in and soak it up, taking your time to experience it at its own pace. When shootouts do happen, they’re violent and frantic. Bodies tumble from balconies, legs hang from stirrups, and buckshot sends people flying into horse dung. Rockstar’s physics engine makes every battle feel distinct and enemies react realistically to every pull of your trigger. The next moment, you’re slowly trotting downstream, watching rabbits hop along the grass. 
Mingling at the camp and getting to know the gang members, exploring the landscape as Arthur jots down his memories in a notebook – all these seemingly mundane tasks anchor you to the world and flesh out the characters so that when tragedy does strike, it hits you like a punch in the gut. 

From a game about humanity to one where you constantly lose yours, Dark Souls is considered by many to be one of the greatest video games of all time, whatever platform you play on. Brutal and unforgiving, the conversation around it often devolves into difficulty discourse. This is a grave injustice. 
While most games are about dashing from point A to point B, Dark Souls boxes you in and traps you in its claustrophobic world. Every journey you take is perilous, and every shortcut you find in its labyrinthine, interconnected ruins is like stumbling upon a hidden oasis in a desert. It’s about delving deep and pushing through adversity, always knowing that the deeper you go the harder it will be for you to return. 
Rather than telling you a story, you’re asked to piece it together from the layout of the world, the look of the enemies, the corpses littering the ground, and the descriptions on every item you find. Everything works in harmony, creating an oppressive atmosphere and conjuring the image of a place that feels unknowable. Fast-forward 20 hours and you’ll be its master. Dark Souls is so powerful that it created its own subgenre, dubbed the “soulslike”. 

There’s a battle in Metal Gear Solid V that you can win by dropping care packages onto the enemy sniper’s head. Mind you, you could just as easily drive a tank in and blow her up. Or perhaps you’ll crawl in close and use a tranquilizer gun. The amount of freedom on offer here is enough to make your head spin as if you just had 20 care packages dropped on it. It’s almost certainly the only stealth game you can play where you can infiltrate an enemy base while listening to Spandau Ballet. 
It’s clearly unfinished, but it’s hard to care when you’re playing one of the richest stealth games ever made. Every single tool has multiple uses and you’re constantly stumbling upon new ways to outsmart your enemies. Sure, you could sneak into that compound, but why not stow away in the back of a delivery truck instead? Hell, why not hijack the truck and simply drive in through the front gate? Metal Gear Solid V is a proper sandbox (and it’s definitely the only game where you can surf down sand dunes in a box. A cardboard box!)
Layered on top of this there’s Mother Base, an offshore oil platform that houses your own private army, which you grow by kidnapping enemy soldiers, vehicles, and, erm, sheep. It creates a captivating loop that encourages pacifist play – you don’t want to kill every guard because they might just be your next best recruit. Also, sheep are just handsome. You can see Metal Gear Solid V’s influence in the prone stealth of The Last of Us Part II

The Witcher 3 places you in the muddy boots of a monster slayer who’s searching for his adopted daughter. Along the way, he survives the way witchers do – by hunting monsters and accidentally getting caught up in political situations that will dictate the fate of the entire Continent. 
Despite it being 100 hours long, there’s barely an ounce of fat on The Witcher 3. Almost every side quest is tied to an emotional story, and there are always multiple ways these stories can play out. Some of them are darker than a FromSoftware dungeon. 
If not for the success of The Witcher 3, it’s likely we wouldn’t have a Witcher Netflix show. The books might have been big in Poland, but CD Projekt Red turned the universe into a global phenomenon and – most impressively of all – made long grey hair seem cool. 
Written by Phil Iwaniuk on behalf of GLHF.

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