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Top Ten PC RPGs of All Time

by: Haley Drucker ; edited by: Eric Stallsworth ; updated: 4/17/2012 • Leave a comment

The RPG has always been one of the strongest and most popular PC genres, and thrives on its complex and story-driven nature. Here the ten best PC RPGs of all time, chosen for their creativity, customizability, and sheer enjoyment factor.

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    The PC RPG

    Of all the PC game genres, the role-playing game is arguably the most sophisticated and certainly the most complex. These are story-driven games that pull you into their unique world, allowing you to create a character all your own and make choices that will affect the game’s progress. Often these games feature many optional sidequests in addition to the main storyline, and include interesting NPCs with their own personalities and backgrounds. And the well-designed RPG is inevitably more ambitious and thoughtful than any other type of game.

    But don’t just trust me on this one—test it out for yourself. Here are the top ten RPG games of all time, games sure to impress you with their scope and creativity. Each one is well worth your money, and most have strong re-play value because each time you play you can create a new type of character and experience.

    Note: The games on this list have been selected through a combination of research, general consensus, and (inevitably) the author’s own opinion. All have garnered excellent reviews, awards, and so on. But of course, as with any such list, every reader will have his or her opinion as to its validity. Take it for what it’s worth—a suggested top ten list for the purpose of educating the reader about some really cool PC RPGs.

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    Baldur’s Gate (1998)

    This is the oldest entry on the list, and modern gamers might at first be put off by the ancient graphics and gameplay. But like so many older games, Baldur’s Gate is still well worth your time. This is because without fancy graphics all the developers had to rely on was story and customization, and Baldur’s Gate does those things very well. The world is creative and detailed, and there are a lot of options when building and growing your character. The party system is also well done, especially considering the time period. There’s a really good balance here between story and freedom—you have plenty of choices to make, but everything is tied together into an overarching experience. This classic game has survived for a long time, and it continues to be one of the best PC RPGs.

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    Planescape: Torment (1999)

    torment   Like many older RPGs, Planescape is based heavily on a Dungeons & Dragons setting. Combat is less important here than in many newer games—instead the emphasis is entirely on story. As the main character you don’t even know who you really are, so there’s a good mystery element and plenty of suprises. The feel of the game is dark and immersive, with engaging NPCs and a lot of unusual elements. And, of course, there is a high level of customizability. This is not as well known a game as most on this list, and it can be hard at first to get past the ancient graphics. But the rewards far outweigh the frustrations, making this a treat for any RPG fan.

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    Diablo II (2000)

    The first Diablo was definitely a hit, and Diablo II improved on that game’s success. Its gameplay is smoother and the storyline is more creative, with more options to choose from. There are plenty of optional quests, and you also have the opportunity to hire an ally to assist you in your quest. Instead of the usual three core classes, this game offers five, including rather unusual entries like Barbarian and Amazon. Diablo II really shines in multiplayer, though—which is how it was intended to be played—and the feel of the game and of combat is different and more engaging when playing in a group. Overall, this is a solid game that plays well to the strengths of its genre.

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    Neverwinter Nights (2002)

    nn   This game is meant to be Dungeons & Dragons in computer game form, and is more heavily based on pencil-and-paper role-playing-games than most PC RPGs. All the game mechanics are based on D&D, although most of this is in the form of dice rolls that happen behind the scenes. Your character is very customizable, and the game is unusually long and has a wide variety of optional sidequests. The gameplay is a lot of fun, if a little more simple and straightforward than the likes of newer games such as Oblivion or Dragon Age. What really makes Neverwinter Nights stand out from the rest is the multiplayer option, and the toolset that comes with the game and allows you to create and play your own dungeons.

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    The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (2002)

    This is the predecessor to Oblivion, and the two games have so much in common it makes sense to compare them. Morrowind has just as rich and detailed a world as Oblivion, if not more so, and gives you even more freedom. Too much freedom, at times—if you’re not careful you can mess your game up permanently. The graphics, physics engine, and NPCs aren’t as well designed in Morrowind simply because it’s an older game, but it makes up for it with a much more interesting main storyline and a more realistic and immersive world. The detail of Morrowind is incredible, and the choices vast and open-ended. Every play-through is guaranteed to be very different, due to the sheer breadth of gameplay and sidequest options. In the end, Morrowind is still well worth playing even if you’ve played Oblivion, and is one of the best RPGs ever made.

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    Knights of the Old Republic (2003)

    kotor   Not only is this one of the most popular Star Wars games ever made, it’s one of the most well-known RPGs as well. And it certainly transcends its audience—you don’t have to be into Star Wars to enjoy this game, although it would certainly enhance the experience. Knights of the Old Republic (or KOTOR) is set thousands of years before the movies, so it has plenty of creative freedom. It uses that freedom well, too; the universe is both complex and detailed. Though this game is more linear than some, you do have the ability to play as light or dark side, and the NPCs keep things interesting with their own personalities, back-stories, and side quests. And of course there’s the enormous plot twist two-thirds of the way through the game…

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    The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (2006)

    Oblivion is what an RPG was meant to be. Complete freedom to explore every corner of a huge world and stumble into whatever areas/quests you want to. There are hundreds of sidequests and NPCs, and many quests can be completed in more than one way. You have an enormous amount of control over what kind of person your character becomes, including the ability to join one or all of several guilds. The world is incredibly detailed and highly interactive, with a good if sometimes bizarre physics engine. And there are so many things you can do—ride a horse, buy a house, fight in the arena, etc. The only downside is the main storyline, which is short and rather dull, but there are enough creative and sometimes truly unique sidequests to make up for it.

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    Mass Effect (2008)

    mass   This futuristic RPG is set in space in the year 2183, and focuses on action-oriented gameplay. You play as the head of a squad, and fights are in real-time with the ability to pause and consider tactics. At the same time, the emphasis on action doesn’t sacrifice the ability to customize. Each class of character has a very different style of play, and one unusual touch is the option to choose your character’s backstory. Morality is an important factor, and your choices can have a big effect on what happens throughout the rest of the game. Plus, it’s a very thoughtful game that touches on a lot of complex issues. In the end, Mass Effect is a well-rounded entry with something for every kind of gamer.

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    Fallout 3 (2008)

    A lot of game series gradually get worse, but Fallout is not one of them. Though Fallout itself was highly praised, and Fallout 2 generally well received, it is Fallout 3 that is usually considered the best. It’s a sophisticated game with excellent design, both visually and creatively. Set in an alternate future in the aftermath of a nuclear fallout, it’s a serious story with both action and mystery. At times it feels like a shooter or horror game, but the high level of character customizability and number of gameplay options makes it one of the most fun RPGs, and a unique and immersive experience.

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    Dragon Age: Origins (2009)

    dragonage   This game made its way to the top of the lists before it even came out—it was that highly anticipated. And it delivered on all its promises. Ambitious, dark, and compelling, Dragon Age: Origins offers a whole new kind of RPG. You get a high level of customizability, absorbing storylines, beautiful graphics and cinematics, and well-designed party-based strategy. It feels like Lord of the Rings but isn’t derivative at all, and manages to use stock fantasy elements like elves and dwarves in unusual ways. The number of choices and quests is impressive—this is one game you can play over and over again and get a different experience every time. Highly recommended, though a strong stomach is suggested due to a moderate level of gore.