Hey, let's sit down and have a little chat. Maybe you're new to PC gaming, just finding your feet, and, hey, all these people are coming out of the woodwork to tell you what you ought to buy. Maybe you've already seen lists like Kotaku's or PC Gamer's list of top 100 games. But... chances are, you already know about Half-Life 2, Starcraft, Skyrim, or all the other games that consistently make it on these lists. That's why the kind folks over in TAY started putting together a list of PC games everyone should play... that are all too often overlooked or overshadowed by more popular titles.
There are so many more games I'd like to put on this list, honestly, but not all of them are available for purchase—like No One Lives Forever or the Homeworld games—while others are readily available (or even launched first) on other platforms. Plenty more, which undoubtedly deserve to be on the list, just... well, I might end up writing a Part II, so if you've got suggestions for currently available non-Blizzard, non-Valve PC games, post in the comments below, and maybe we'll turn this into a series.
Let's do this:
System Shock 2
I called it the greatest game of all time in my recommendation over on Steam. Battleborn called it "one of the best games I've ever played." Another friend messaged me on Steam, saying, "You were right, Doc. System Shock 2 really is a lot better than Bioshock." As much as I would love to spend several pages writing an ode to System Shock 2, I'll let its legacy speak for itself. System Shock 2 inspired, among other games, Portal, Dead Space, Bioshock, Doom 3, Fallout 3 and New Vegas... some are merely great. Others hit "best game of all time lists." They owe it all to System Shock 2.
Crusader Kings II
To quote PocoGRANDES, who did CKII more justice than I ever could:
I'll limit myself to one pick that I haven't seen mentioned yet: Crusader Kings II. Deep and incredibly satisfying historical strategy/role-playing hybrid, and my steam game with the most amount of hours in it. IMO it definitely deserves a spot on the "best PC games" list for being such an awesome and uniquely PC-type of game (though in some ways it reminds me of a really good board game too). It can be replayed endlessly with unique and fascinating outcomes, and it has an awesome amount of depth for players to really sink their teeth into. It may be downright unwelcoming at first, but once you're over the learning curve it really opens up to fascinating possibilities... Not to mention there's the serious wealth of expansions (Old Gods is practically a whole new game), and the awesome modding community (at least if you're a Game of Thrones fan).
The Witcher & The Witcher 2
It might seem surprising that two the best RPGs of the generation came from a small studio in Poland, but it's true. For those who have tried to get into the original gaming, the suggestion that The Witcher is so great might come across as confusing, and I can empathize: featuring a byzantine combat system, an initially confusing interface, and a really repetitive introduction, The Witcher isn't exactly the friendliest game to get into.
But... those who stick with it are rewarded. One gets the impression that CD Projekt built The Witcher as they went along, starting with the first act and progressing through to the end, getting better and more experienced as they went along. The game's first act involves making some choices that, seemingly small, eventually snowball into much larger consequences down the line. One act is about solving a murder mystery, while another is about love—not just in the story, but the side quests (the love of siblings, money, shiny things, self, and so on) and even the background of the monster types within the world.
What starts out as slow and confusing gradually becomes a piece of sheer brilliance, which is followed up by The Witcher 2, a game that solves many of the combat problems, streamlines the story and improves the pacing without dumbing anything down, and introduces a much stronger, more authentic, and distinctly unique art direction.
Not only that, but The Witcher 2 introduces one of the most profound moments of choice versus consequence in video game history: in one moment, players can end up making a decision that will take them on a journey with one of two main NPCs, leading to a completely different storyline, and the game is so good that playing through both storylines is an absolute treat.
If you want some actual role-play in your role-playing games, pick up The Witcher and The Witcher 2, have patience with the original until it starts picking up in Act III, and just... enjoy yourself, okay?
Ask anyone a specific example as to why they love Deus Ex, and they're likely to tell you a thousand different stories. Ask them why they love Deus Ex in general, and they're likely to tell you the same thing: "Deus Ex is one of the most truly free gaming experiences you will ever have." Playing Deus Ex, you're limited by very few things, because the game has been designed to empower you to be what you want to be. Even Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a great game in its own right, pales in comparison to its predecessor, which had more skills, more abilities, more scenarios, and more ways to do everything.
But, hey, don't take my word for it. Instead, take Kieron Gillen's. Or Old Man Murray's. Or check out this guide on how to play; the author is insane in all the best ways. Or go watch a playthrough of one of the game's greatest mods—Deus Ex has some of the best mods available on the PC, by the way.
Age of Empires II HD
The other day, Patricia Hernandez wrote about the problem with revisiting old games—fortunately for us, that's not true of the best games, and if Age of Empires II is anything, it's most certainly one of the best games on the planet. When I was twelve, a friend passed me a copy of he'd gotten—I couldn't stop playing after that. None of us could. For many of us, Age of Empires II just... nailed something about games and what they could be that, even now, is hard to explain. From the music to the new features to the wonderful random games to the challenging and enjoyable campaigns, Age of Empires II offers one of the most dense packages of any games on the planet. Age of Empires II HD, which combines the original Age of Kings with its expansion, The Conquerors, doesn't just improve some of the visuals and allow players to use modern resolutions: Steamworks has been implemented in the game, making multiplayer gaming so much better than it used to be.
It may seem crazy that a game from 2001 is $20, but considering the intense amount of fun to be had with Age of Empires II HD, I'd have been willing to pay more than twice that on release. Pick it up; it'll be some of the most fun you've ever had while gaming, and an experience truly unique to the PC.
Orcs Must Die! 2
Microsoft unfairly killed Ensemble after a mistaken belief that consoles were the future meant that an RTS-only studio deserved to die. Some of the developers went on to work on Facebook games. Others moved on to Robot Entertainment, where they created the astonishingly-fun Orcs Must Die! for the Xbox, and later the PC. Apparently, the reaction to OMD was so great, Robot Entertainment went ahead and made the series a PC exclusive, with more traps, levels, and weapons than ever before. While traditional tower defense games run the risk of becoming boring, Orcs Must Die puts you into the shoes of The War Mage or The Sorceress (or both, in the new co-op mode!), allowing you to shoot, slash, crush, burn, mind-control, fling, stab, or do any other number of things to the Orcs. Trying to figure out how to control the flow of the Orcs is a wonderful puzzle, and much of my enjoyment has come from realizing that I was simply thinking about my use of traps, barriers, and soldiers all wrong. It's a superb game, and the substantial DLC offerings make it even better.
Were you upset when SimCity launched completely broken, frustrating millions of fans worldwide? If you were, chances are, someone recommended that you just play Tropico as an alternative.
Well, Tropico 4 isn't anything like SimCity.
It's a hilarious game about being El Presidente, ruling your island nation from about 1950 through modern times. While Maxis was blowing smoke about how each sim would have its own life, Tropico was creating islands with hundreds and thousands of unique people, each with their own belief systems, happiness, jobs, skills, likes, dislikes, respect, wants, needs... and so much more.
Sure, you're starting construction projects, building roads, and so forth, but Tropico isn't so much a game about city planning as it is a game about juggling the wants and needs of an entire nation. How do you appease both the communists and the capitalists? What must be done to ensure that people don't starve? When should you choose to upset or befriend the United States, Russia, China, Europe, or the Middle East?
I may have a sizable collection of PC games, but Tropico 4 is one of those few games I return to frequently, picking up each and every piece of DLC I can. Reviews initially slammed it for being too close to its predecessor, but that could be further than the truth—Tropico 4 only looks like the original game. Massive improvements, new buildings, hilarious stories (like that time when you create a mirror out of shanties to prevent a mad scientist from destroying your island with his laser), and more make Tropico 4 an excellent PC game to try.
STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, Clear Sky, & Call of Pripyat
I tell people STALKER saved my life because it's true. It's a brutal, broken mess of a game, but at the right time in my life, when I was ready to just give up and stop fighting to stay alive, STALKER came along, looked me square in the eye, and told me to go fuck myself. What followed was a few hundred hours of life inside The Zone, a place where physics had broken down, reality had gone awry, and mutants were running amok. I must have died within my first twenty minutes, but there was something intoxicating about that. To play STALKER, I had to shift my mindset from being someone who was tired of struggling against a life-threatening illness into being a survivor. The person I had to become in order to survive GSC Game World's brutal, brilliant open-world survival-horror shooter ended up being a person who survived a pretty close brush with death.
...and that's not even getting into a discussion about how STALKER makes you think about shooting, about how it capitalizes on loneliness, about how the mods make it even harder, about how the game's secretly an RPG that trades in XP progression for logical equipment progression, or any of the other things that make STALKER one of the greatest video games ever made.
You owe it to yourself to be killed, repeatedly, by the STALKER series.
You'll love every second of it.
World in Conflict
Valve may claim that DOTA is an action RTS, but it's a bit hard to see where they're coming from when Massive's World in Conflict did the whole fusion of action gameplay and RTS behavior better—and earlier. Set in an alternate parallel reality where the Soviets invade the United States in 1989 instead of collapsing, World in Conflict weaves one of the most surprisingly compelling video game stories out there. Unlike a traditional RTS, the game utilizes a variant of traditional FPS controls to allow players to move the camera around, and instead of base-building, the player gets unit points by completing objectives, allowing them to call in reinforcements and bombing runs or artillery strikes. It's also one of the only games that's ever made me cry.
Payday: The Heist
While Payday 2 may be the game everyone's talking about—it's still the second-best selling game on Steam, weeks after launch, despite stiff competition from huge releases like Saints Row 4—Payday: The Heist is the game I find myself returning to more often. Payday 2 is good, and Overkill's patch support is better than even Valve's, but Payday: The Heist features more complex missions, faster overall movement speed, the ability for anyone to sprint in any direction and take cops hostage, bigger levels, a better health system (you can't be downed in a mere half-second of enemy fire, for instance), challenges... and a bunch of other things that make it a fun game.
Payday can be difficult to enjoy: the difficulty curve is inverted, the friendly AI is abysmal, and they may encounter the occasional glitch... but when it comes down to it, few games nail that sense of absolute exhilaration that comes from having one friend recover you from a down while the others keep you covered. It's my favorite multiplayer experience of all time.
Thief & Thief 2
Think of the best stealth game you have ever played. Unless you're thinking of Thief, you're not thinking stealthy enough. System Shock 2 might be my favorite Looking Glass game, but the Thief games are probably their best. Featuring aurally-driven stealth, players are required to listen their way through maps, rather than cheat by looking around corners and such. Few games have provided me with as many moments I want to share with my friends as Thief.
There was this one time when I accidentally moved too quickly across a stone floor, so a servant came looking for me, peering into the blackness. I was directly in front of him, but cloaked in the shadows: he was surprised when I stabbed him, his death clumsy. Thief's first-person melee system is enjoyably complex, and the game's not about fighting your way out of situations.
Another time, I found the entire main floor of a level surrounded by zombies; even worse, if I attacked one, or it saw me, it'd begin moaning in earnest, summoning the others to its presence; even worse, they can't be killed by swords or regular arrows. Eventually, I realized that I could shoot water arrows, which had been modified with holy water. I found a balcony, shot my super arrows down into the room with one or two zombies, and in a few minutes, the entire room was swarming with them—which is how I learned that water arrows also feature (quite literal) splash damage. Throughout the rest of the game
Then there's the story about the guy who pursued me through a stream, eventually drowning while swinging his hammer, or the furry poison-belching T-rex that I failed to kill but taught to fear me. Or... well, you get the idea, right?
The Thief games are the best stealth games available.
It looks weird, all black and white and red. The premise sounds strange—it's set in the year 1604. It's an indie game next to no one's talking about. It's a horror game set during the daytime (as far as I've played). It's a first person shooter using flintlocks and bows and arrows.
Betrayer is also one of the best horror games I've ever played. Yes, it's an indie game, but it's an indie game being developed by the developers behind the wonderful No One Lives Forever and FEAR games.
Until Betrayer, I'd never felt unsettled while playing a horror game. Mostly amused or tense. System Shock 2 and Thief had previously the only horror games where I've felt genuinely fearful. But Betrayer? Betrayer manages to be both terrifying and unsettling. The bestial, transformed Spanish soldiers don't look horrifying, but their behaviors are frightening. The way the entire fields of grass suddenly wave as they're buffeted by a phantom gust of wind puts me on edge, making me stop whatever I'm doing and look around, listening intently for an approaching enemy.
Something else that I won't spoil scared the piss out of me.
Unlike other horror games, Betrayer lets you fight back—you can loot bows and guns, for instance. In doing so, Betrayer manages to be even more frightening. There's an element of chance involved in the experience—an arrow might bounce off the metal plate of a Spanish soldier's armor. You carry precious little armor, and it would seem as though guns alert more enemies to your presence. Choosing to use a weapon is a gamble, enhancing player tension and vulnerability.
And still there are more games!
There are so many classics I haven't covered. I've left out XCOM: Enemy Unknown. I could have mentioned all the crowdfunding and Alpha funding games out there. We could explore mods (actually, not a bad idea...) that completely change preexisting games. This is just a small handful of some of the greatest games available to PC gamers—most of which are exclusive to the platform.
Everyone's going to tell you about Amnesia or Blizzard or Valve games. Some may even try to sell you on them. But there are so many more experiences out there, so many more that people don't really talk about; hopefully, I've provided you with a great list of PC games you might not have considered playing that you'll find that you enjoy.
If you feel a game really needs to be cool, don't fret: I'm already starting to plan part two.