Gaming PCs, especially powerful ones, may be more expensive than consoles, but PCs have flexibility, moddability, and power unavailable in the competition. As a result, PC gaming is able to quickly pivot both toward and away from trends to give its players unique and amazing experiences.
So, a warning in advance: This list covers a catalog that has been spread over several decades, and focuses on 22 platform games that we believe everyone should play if they want to get the most out of computer games.
But why exactly 22 games? We believe that this is the optimal number of titles covering multiple genres, with a choice for almost every age group.
We wanted to focus on the best of the best for this guide to the main release on PC.
SID MEIER’S CIVILIZATION 6
In the world of PC gaming, there are few series that cast as long a shadow as Civilization. First released in 1991, it’s a historical strategy game played across lengthy turns, scheming against the computer or other human players.
Players take on the role of a famous historical figure, leading a people from ancient times into the space race and beyond. Each entry in the series has felt distinct, yet all share the same gentle learning curve and impressively complex endgame.
The most recent expansion of Civilization 6, Rise and Fall, has also received rave reviews and helps elevate an already successful game into the ultimate civilization experience.
Critics and players have raved about Remedy Entertainment’s Control, a third-person action game unlike any other. Here at Polygon, we called it both an artistic and a technical achievement. While it’s available on modern consoles, the game looks and runs the best on a high-end PC, especially if you have an Nvidia RTX video card to enable ray tracing.
As Jesse Faden, players enter a violent skyscraper in new York city only to uncover a secret that will make the X-files writers blush. The shootout is great, combined with sound effects and animation, which earned six nominations and one trophy at the Game Awards in 2019. But what ties it all together is a great sense of humor and a relentlessly unnerving story that makes the game interesting and memorable. Entry threshold is quite high.
The game may seem a little intimidating at first, especially its skill trees and somewhat cumbersome map.
Old-school isometric role-playing games are having a bit of a renaissance of late, with winning franchises like Divinity, Pillars of Eternity, and Wasteland absolutely knocking it out of the park. Even the Baldur’s Gate franchise is back, with some excellent remakes or the originals and a third installment on the way.
But there’s simply nothing like Disco Elysium.
Disco Elysium tells the story of a grizzled detective who got so drunk he forgot who he was, and now has to solve a murder. He’s working in a town that’s mysteriously out of time: Disco music is all the rage, and there are record players everywhere ... but modern technology also sometimes crops up as if it’s no big deal.
It’s up to you to split your time between reassembling your sense of self, and working out why there’s a man hanging by his neck near the center of town. Everything seems to be working on dream logic, and the quicker you’re able to meet the game on that level, the better.
And what makes Disco Elysium so unique mechanically is its ludicrously detailed character creation and leveling system, and the amount of control it gives you over how you play your character while leaving plenty of room for surprises coming from the game itself.
Polygon’s game of the year 2016 was called Doom, a reboot of the 1993 franchise from id Software and Bethesda Softworks. Believe it or not, 2020’s Doom Eternal is even better.
Doom Eternal stands apart from its contemporaries, the big, gaudy, self-serious first-person shooters like Call of Duty and Battlefield that demand instant, microscopic movements to perform headshots in order to survive against preternaturally gifted teens. Competitive players of those franchises grapple with each patch’s meta, while memorizing maps, angles, and weapon advantages. It’s a popular approach to first-person shooter design, but for all the grand scope and spectacle, the “fun” of these shooters largely takes place down the sights of a gun. Only one weapon in Doom Eternal includes a traditional scope, and it’s an optional upgrade. Ammo can be found in the chest cavity of every enemy, so there’s no need to be precious about firing from the hip.
In Doom Eternal, the “fun” is in the movement. Because you must restore health and armor with close-range attacks, moving in and out of scrimmages becomes the foundation of winning strategies. A double jump, a double dash, and a hook that pulls you toward its living target all allow you to establish your distance, as do environments sprinkled with walls, hills, tunnels, platforms — all meant to be used for cover and escape, but also your own amusement.
Slaves to Armok: God of Blood Chapter 2: Dwarf Fortress, better known simply as Dwarf Fortress, is a remarkable game. The result of the decadeslong collaboration between two brothers, Zach Adam and Tarn Adams, it’s one of the most complex and esoteric simulations every conceived, and it’s rendered in ASCII.
In the game’s most well-known mode, players take control of a band of dwarves setting out to create a community from scratch in a hostile world. “Control” is the wrong word, really, since the dwarves in the game have their own thoughts and feelings. Players merely suggest that they dig into the mountain and plant a field of mushrooms, while the dwarves themselves decide if they’re up to it at that particular point in time.
Regardless of whether you elect to play the game, simply creating a world in Dwarf Fortress is an experience not to be missed if you own a gaming PC. In each new round’s opening seconds, the game uses ridiculously complex systems to generate a 16,000-square-mile chunk of real estate, 250 miles thick.
Keep in mind that, in addition to the colony simulation itself, there’s another mode in the game: a roguelike single-player adventure that allows players to explore the game’s procedurally generated history from ground level.
THE ELDER SCROLLS 3: MORROWIND AND THE ELDER SCROLLS 5: SKYRIM
The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim serves as an excellent introduction to game modding, thanks to its integration with the Steam Workshop. Simply purchase and download the game, and you’ll be able to select from more than 28,000 community-created mods that add everything from new skins, items, and quest lines to large-scale battles.
Of course, Skyrim is also available as a virtual reality title that’s fully compatible with Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, or PlayStation VR for console fans.
For those who want to dig a little deeper, The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind provides a much more hands-on modding experience. You’ll need to tinker with the actual game files themselves or download third-party tools to do the work, but the results can be extremely satisfying. One mod, now 17 years in the making, has even added an entire landmass with high-quality quests, additional voice-over work, and full integration with the game’s fast-travel system.
The sequel to the original Elite, a PC game that dates all the way back to 1984, Elite: Dangerous and its Horizons expansion are a borderline spiritual spacefaring experience.
At the core of this game is a realistic simulation of all 400 billion star systems in the Milky Way galaxy. No, that’s not a typo. The secret is the so-called Stellar Forge, a procedural system that developer Frontier Developments used to realistically simulate the formation of our galaxy. Using the best available astronomical data, the studio sort of threw all of creation into a digital rock tumbler and then continued to polish what fell out as an MMO.
Players begin as a nearly destitute mercenary, set adrift somewhere in the inhabited Bubble of human civilization circa 3300. While the storyline of the game, such as it is, is currently moving at an abysmally slow pace for some fans, it’s the community that makes this game such a joy to play.
Whether you want to risk life and limb rescuing your fellow players as a member of the Fuel Rats, engage in high-stakes player-versus-player combat during community-sponsored narrative battles, or simply take a weekslong joyride to the edge of the our unfashionable Western spiral arm, there’s something in here for everyone.
Even better, the game is fully compatible with the TrackIR head-tracking peripheral, as well as all manner of joysticks, pedals, and HOTAS sets. For an even more intense experience, I suggest playing in VR.
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