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Of all the various forms of escapism and entertainment videogames offer the most immersive experience. They allow us to undertake all sorts of wondrous adventures in worlds that stretch as far as your imagination. The interactive nature sucks us in and delivers an experience which is impossible to get from a passive medium like film.
Games in all their forms offer unlimited fun, from handheld to console, but it is PC games which offer the greatest level of depth. They boast unparalleled complexity, diverse control systems and titles so absorbing they can eat weeks of our lives.
Now, choosing a top ten best PC games of all time is a daunting task but these are the titles that have greedily consumed my waking hours over the years. These are the games that have kept me up into the wee small hours, forsaking food, forgetting bodily functions and sometimes even ditching work.
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Considered by many people to be the greatest PC game of all time Half-Life 2 advanced the boundaries for first-person shooters. The original Half-Life was a terrific adventure but Half-Life 2 elevated the series even further. Incredible visuals with the Source engine, involved storytelling and characterization, and an intelligent approach to design which allows players the freedom to solve problems their own way. All wrapped up with aliens, zombies and plenty of combat. What’s not to love?
Having met the team (we used the Source Engine to make The Ship) it was abundantly clear why the game was so successful. Valve has the financial freedom to aim for perfection, none of the crunch nightmare or deadline stringency, not to mention publisher pressure that you’ll find at most developers. They have also hand picked a talented team who seem intent on one-upping each other with ever more impressive features and ideas.
First-person is by its very nature is an absorbing genre and the silent Gordon Freeman doesn’t project a character onto events that disconnects you from the action so you always feel center stage when playing the game. The design is simply superb and the level of detail is astounding, encouraging you to experiment as you play just to see what will happen if you do this or that. Subtle cues which enable you to choose the right path during a speedy chase dissolve the notion of linearity and leave you feeling as though you had a choice when in fact you’ve taken the only viable route through the map.
This is a game that deserves its reputation for breaking new ground and challenging all developers to do better. It’s also an exciting roller coaster ride full of thrills and surprises and the fact each new section changes gear on you keeps it from ever getting repetitive or dull. Definitely the best single player first-person shooter so far and easily one of the best PC games of all time.
If you need help finishing it check out our complete Half-Life 2 Walkthrough.
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Sid Meier has a knack for making horribly addictive games. The kinds of games that make you forget the real world. The kind of games you finally complete after a monstrous session before trudging back into the early dawn light of the real world, inevitably with a full bladder and a powerful hunger. The epic turn-based strategy game Civilization II is the granddaddy of them all (thought it was actually designed by Brian Reynolds, Douglas Caspian-Kaufman and Jeff Briggs as an improvement on the original). A game so satisfyingly deep and challenging that you’d think nothing of dumping it and starting again after three hours because if you don’t get the start you need you know the end game is doomed.
The scope of the Civilization series is astounding, challenging you to take a nation from ancient times through to the space age. The open ended nature, allowing for various approaches to victory and a limitless variety of random maps and exploration is endlessly entertaining. Racing to construct the great wonders of man, developing new technology and fighting other nations for control of precious resources quickly converts you into a ruthless dictator. This was perhaps encouraged by the parameters of the game because you simply can’t dominate the world of Civ without using force.
The series has been tweaked and updated over the years but none of the other releases had the same hook as Civilization II. It was grand strategy without the need for fancy visuals and it kept you coming back for more and more in search of that elusive perfect game. Finally crawling into bed at 5 am with settlers scurrying across your mind’s eye and the feeling that you must remember to reinforce somewhere or other before the end of the turn.
Civilization is still going strong and the next release will be Civilization 5.
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Politics don’t really mix well with games. There have been a few attempts to marry the two but the construction and management sim Tropico stands out as the best. Casting you as “El Presidente" the dictator of a Caribbean island, Tropico challenged you to build a thriving society with a Cold War backdrop. You could choose to cosy up to the US and the capitalists or the USSR and the socialists as you battled to build a decent economy and make your citizens happy.
The comedic style is what really made Tropico work and there was plenty of humour at work here. Your ultimate aim was to stay in power by any means necessary and the range of possible strategies was quite diverse. Keeping the various factions happy enough to avoid a coup could prove very tough.
A terrific Latin style soundtrack set the mood and the game was highly polished with a range of idyllic islands in the sun for you to whip into shape. The sequel spun off into pirate territory but the franchise returned to its roots recently with the release of Tropico 3. This was a highly original release and it offered many hours of single player fun.
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Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
We’ve had the best single player first-person shooter now we come to the best multiplayer. This was really tough to choose because over the years my pent up aggression has burst into virtual destruction in various arenas and I like to think I’ve left thousands of frustrated players from around the world thumping their keyboards in anger (I’ve certainly done that often enough myself). From taking on terrorists in Counter Strike to jumping around space stations in Unreal Tournament, from the….well….the battlefields of Battlefield to the….uh….fortresses of Team Fortress 2? Anyway you get the idea.
The Call of Duty series was a breath of fresh air for multiplayer FPS and not so much because it offered anything revolutionary, because it didn’t, more because it got the basics right. They cherry picked all of the best mechanics from various games and tied them together with a solid weapon set, some great map design and impressive visuals.
With Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare they finally made the move away from the crumbling backdrop of World War II and dragged us kicking and screaming into the modern day. There’s a fantastically exciting and cinematic single player backed up by an intensely addictive multiplayer game with features seeping out of its many bullet wounds.
It looks fantastic, it plays beautifully and they’ve added an addictive hook to the multiplayer to encourage you to climb the ranks. Shooting that nippy guy in the head again was always enough to keep me coming back for round after round but there’s no doubt the rank system has been a big hit. There have been a lot of great multiplayer FPS games over the years but because the genre is so cannibalistic there’s little joy to be had by going back and playing the old ones. CoD 4 represents the current high tide mark.
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Rome: Total War
The Total War series started with Shogun: Total War and it has since covered medieval times, the age of Empire, the Napoleonic wars and a few more besides but the pinnacle was the excellent Rome: Total War. This blend of turn based and real-time strategy is superb and it offers a battlefield experience which allows you to unleash real tactics on your opponents and win battles against the odds by using your wits and the terrain to your advantage.
The Romans seem perfectly suited to a game of conquest with a strong focus on battlefield tactics and this release had real character. It marked the point where the series moved away from a kind of flimsy board game style for the turn based portion and introduced an attractive world map where you could construct a real empire. It also improved on the, already excellent, real-time battle portion to produce a deeply addictive and clever strategy experience.
This series was the perfect way to wean myself off Civ. It drops much of the complexity of the turn based side in favour of a versatile and hugely enjoyable battlefield system which allows you to command your troops directly in a 3D environment. I did a history degree at Uni and so the chance to relive great battles or change the course of history entirely was too good to pass up. In Medieval II this would mean making the Scots masters of the world which was a great challenge given that you started with Edinburgh and Inverness.
Developer, Creative Assembly, have created a series of games that captures the mood of each era and throws in enough real historical background to engross you without hampering enjoyable gameplay. There are flaws but the scope of the game is massive and they can be forgiven for those moments of triumph that bring a grin to your battle weary face.
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Whether this is even a game in the traditional sense is up for debate but you can’t argue with The Sims success. It does make me physically sick to watch them repeatedly pump out every last bit of remaining cash from the franchise with expansion packs that aren’t compatible with each other and endlessly unappealing additions. The cynical exploitation of the original idea along with an increasingly cutesy-poo style has completely turned me off but the original release had me hooked.
The simple premise is to create a family of characters and run their lives as part of a virtual neighbourhood. You can design the characters, build their houses, guide their careers and even control their friendships and love lives. Part of the reason The Sims was such a big hit with me was the ability to add in user created content. Before it degenerated into a money making machine you could find a huge range of Sims character skins, furniture and even houses to download for free.
My favourite neighbourhood was a fairly eclectic bunch. There was an Imperial base housing Darth Vader and his two gay Stormtrooper sidekicks. There was a ghost infested horror house shared by Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers and that Chatterteeth cenobite from Hellraiser. There was a castle where Sean Connery lived with a harem of young women. Then there was Jimi Hendrix’s party house where they’d all get together and dance the night away.
In the original game you could actually kill your Sims by walling them up or selling the pool ladder after they climbed in. When they died you got a gravestone to place and their ghosts would haunt the house on that plot. Freddy and Jason would invite round all the pre-manufactured families and murder them. When they removed the ability to add free skins and torture your Sims my interest waned. It finally gave way altogether when poor Sean was electrocuted changing a light bulb and passed on. The replacement Sean simply wasn’t the same.
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As much as Peter Molyneux is praised as a design genius I have to admit to some serious disappointment in his last few titles. The Black & White and Fable series didn’t work for me and the last game he was involved with (as Executive Designer which probably means he just okayed the game created by the actual designers) was The Movies. We have to go a fair bit further back for his real moments of genius – there was Populous, Theme Park, Magic Carpet and then there was Dungeon Keeper.
To create a game that casts you as the big bad, building your dungeon and populating it with all manner of creepy beasts to defend against those pesky invading heroes was quite simply a delicious idea and it made for an incredibly fun game. You had to carve your chambers out of the rock and create lairs for your skeletons, giant spiders, vampires and demon spawn. Your workforce of imps would do your bidding and you could pick them up and deposit them wherever you wanted, you could even give them a slap if you felt they weren’t working hard enough.
It was an odd real-time strategy game for sure and it was unusually dark but playing the villain is great fun. The sequel tried to introduce more comedy and it was a good game too but the original Dungeon Keeper was the best.
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Command & Conquer
Since the original Command & Conquer was released back in 1995 there have been 21 sequels of one sort or another. I recently had the misfortune to play Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight and it is truly sad to see how far the franchise has fallen and then been trampled into the mud.
The first game was absolutely superb and it had a lasting impact on the real-time strategy genre which can still be seen in numerous modern day releases. The GDI and Nod did battle on a series of maps where you had to construct bases, build an army and wipe your opponent from the area. Your ability to create a force and defend your base depended on harvesting the valuable resource, Tiberium.
A staggering 50 missions were spread across the two opposing campaigns and you could plot your own route to victory, which made for excellent replay value. Then there was the sandbox option and online multiplayer (the first RTS to feature this) as well. Command & Conquer offered countless hours of enjoyable gameplay in a highly polished package which included live action FMVs and a great soundtrack.
Tons of units and buildings and a beautifully balanced set of opposing forces made Command & Conquer a true classic and it has been copied ad infinitum. It certainly deserves a place on the top ten PC games of all time list.
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Growing up watching TV shows like Battlestar Galactica (the camp old one not the gritty new one), Buck Rogers, Blake’s 7, Star Trek and then films like Star Wars the whole idea of space ships and epic space battles has always been enticing. Homeworld was the first game to really capture that. A full 3D real-time strategy game set in the vast reaches of space it challenged you to construct an armada and take on a bitter enemy. Your aim was to protect the mothership at all costs on a voyage across the galaxy to find your homeworld.
You could choose from two races and the single player was a challenging series of missions. The game looked gorgeous and included some great touches, such as the fact you could take any surviving ships into the next level with you. There was a multiplayer option too and the finely balanced forces made for some excellent and truly epic space battles.
Homeworld offered a great array of ships and technology to master and it was a seriously addictive game. There was a decent sequel a few years later which continued the story.
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Football Manager 2010
This won’t be a popular choice with people who don’t like football but lovers of the beautiful game will know exactly why it makes an appearance. Born out of the Championship Manager series, after developer Sports Interactive split from Eidos, the Football Manager series of games has gone from strength to strength. Building on a few years of development know-how and an encyclopaedic knowledge of football leagues from around the world Football Manager 2010 is quite simply the best football management simulation around.
While it is essentially an interface applied over a huge number crunching database the game has a phenomenal addictive hook. The reason it works so well is because it draws on the player’s imagination. There is now a game engine which allows you to watch the action but most of the gameplay consists of pages of text. The real draw is the ability to build a team and apply your own tactics to lead them to glory.
Most football fans are quick to realise they don’t possess the skill to play professionally but they are just as quick to offer up tactical opinions and criticise real life managers for picking the wrong team or applying the wrong formation. Football Manager offers you the chance to put those opinions into practice.
It is a relaxing game to play and it can easily absorb days of your life as you scout for the best young prospects, decide on your formation and tactics, set up training regimes and even deal with the press. The satisfaction of winning big with your favourite club or guiding a minnow to promotion makes it supremely rewarding.
Every new release has a learning curve as you work out who the best young players are and get used to the tweaks the developer has made. At first abandoning all the knowledge you accumulated on the last version is a wrench but the newest version is always the most up to date which helps to keep you immersed. For that reason the latest game is always the best.
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Before we go there’s just time to mention a few games that came close to making the list. The awesome, open world, indie RPG Mount & Blade: Warband, the highly polished tycoon style game The Movies, the last great point and click adventure Grim Fandango, the zombie-fest Left 4 Dead, and the relaxing puzzle filled Myst. So we come to the end of our epic journey highlighting the top ten best PC games of all time. If you stuck with it all the way through then thanks for reading I hope your favourite made the list, but if not post a comment and let us know.