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 upfront: Unlike our other Essentials lists, this one covers a catalog that’s spread across multiple decades, and focuses on the 22 games on the platform we think everyone should play if they want to get the most out of PC gaming. That includes some of our personal favorites, but also older games that cast a long shadow.
Why 22 games, though? Any less makes it hard to narrow things down, and any more might be overwhelming. Twenty-two games is a solid number of titles, spread across multiple genres, with selections for just about every age group. And, when possible, we’ve included a link to our guide for each game, in case you need a little help to get started.
Also, this list is constantly evolving. We’ve included the games that have been cycled out at the bottom for a little additional inspiration.
Let’s dig in!
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 real-time ray tracing.
As Jesse Faden, players enter a brutalist skyscraper in New York City only to uncover a mystery that would make the writers of The X-Files blush. The gunplay is exceptional, matched by sound design and animation flourishes that earned six nominations and one trophy at The Game Awards in 2019. But what ties it all together is a wild sense of humor and a relentlessly unnerving story that rewards exploration and mastery in equal measure.
The game can be a bit intimidating, especially its skill trees and somewhat cumbersome map. Check out our detailed guides section to get started. —Charlie Hall
Get it here: Epic Games Store | Steam
“Tactical stealth” isn’t exactly a booming genre, but developer Mimimi seems to have the format perfectly dialed in. After the success of Shadow Tactics in 2016, the team took those same design tenets — small squads of specialized units tackling armies of soldiers with precision and quick-saving — to the Wild West with Desperados 3.
Desperados 3 changes very little about what made Shadow Tactics great. It’s still an isometric stealth game filled with vision cones and seemingly-impossible odds. But small tweaks, like being able to cue up your entire squad’s next action to all play out at the same time, make it a much more satisfying experience than its predecessor.
The adventure is made up of stellar levels that look more like dioramas brought to life, each filled with charm and detail, from the rainy streets of New Orleans to the dusty byways of a sun-beaten desert town. Picking these levels apart, piece by piece, using each of your squad members’ specialized abilities, is tremendously satisfying, like a sudoku puzzle with more knife throwing. Fans of the classic Commandos series will feel right at home here. — Russ Frushtick
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.
The award-winning role-playing game puts you in the shoes of a middle-aged detective, but this is your nor regular gumshoe story. From our review:
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.
Get it here: Steam
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 AAA 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, and monkey bars — 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.
Dwarf Fortress is completely free. Donations, naturally, are quite welcome. As a reward, you may be gifted with a handmade drawing. —CH
The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind and The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim
One of the many benefits of PC gaming is the ability to get under the hood and tinker with the games that you already own. There’s no better series to satisfy the tinkerer’s itch than The Elder Scrolls. The franchise has embraced the modding community for nearly two decades, and the creative team behind it says that decision has had much to do with the series’ longevity and popularity over the years.
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.
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 18 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. —CH
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.
It’s the community that makes this game such a joy to play. A recent effort to put new Fleet Carriers in every corner of the galaxy has contributed to a massive uptick in players, including all-time high player counts on Steam. Also, the developer is adding “space legs” — the ability to get out of your ship and walk around in first-person — some time in 2021.
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. —CH
Spelunky 2 isn’t a sequel — or, at least, I wouldn’t use that term. It’s something different, like so many modern games that blur the lines between remaster, reboot, remake, and reimagining. It warrants new words.
Spelunky 2’s early stages resemble the original Spelunky, just a little prettier. Imagine someone using tracing paper to re-create a favorite painting, adding their own flourishes and revisions. Once again, you begin in a cave full of spiders, skeletons, bats, and golden idols that egg you on to set to set off their lethal traps. Except now, things are ever so different.
Yellow lizards roll across the room like that big ball chasing Indy, and agitated moles cut through the ground like the graboids in Tremors. Step on a dirt surface containing a pack of moles, and the sharp-toothed critters pop up for a bite, turning the familiar terrain into something reminiscent of “the floor is lava,” with our hero leaping from one floating platform to another.
The opening stages (and, in time, the entire game) feel familiar but deadlier — like Yu redesigned Spelunky specifically to punish those of us who’d grown complacent after eight years of speedruns, accustomed to shredding through them like Bill Murray skipping through the back half of Groundhog Day. Your muscle memory is weaponized against you —Chris Plante
Get it here: Steam
Listen: When the original version of Fortnite launched, I hated it. And I wasn’t alone.
At the time, it was a $40 early access title, an endlessly “soon-to-be-free-to-play” cooperative multiplayer hybrid building ... thing. There were zombies in it. You collected characters in the form of trading cards, and unlocked abilities from a skill tree. There was so much mindless clicking in the original version that my wrist would hurt after every each session.
That original mode, called Save the World, is still in the game. It even has a small, but devoted, ongoing fan base. But their numbers are completely dwarfed by fans of the Battle Royale mode, what is now most often simply called “Fortnite.”
Fortnite is arguably the biggest game in the world thanks to Battle Royale. It’s more than just a fast-follow of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. It’s a dynamic world with elements of Minecraft’s elaborate building systems, but Epic Games is also constantly adding little mysteries alongside the massive seasonal content drops that keep the fans guessing about what’s coming next. In the first half of 2020, it’s also become a meeting place just to hang out and watch some movies. —CH
Get it here: Epic Games Store
The original Half-Life tells the story of the MIT-educated theoretical physicist Gordon Freeman and a transdimensional rift that may someday kill us all. As far as PC shooters go, Half-Life represents an inflection point for the entire genre, threading a nearly uninterrupted narrative through a seamless and carefully paced action spectacle.
While the gameplay itself more than holds up, the look and feel of the original leaves something to be desired. Thankfully, the team at Crowbar Collective — themselves a bunch of modders — have created Black Mesa. It’s not simply a remaster of the original game, but also an effort to redesign Half-Life’s final, troubled levels featuring jumping puzzles on the alien planet Xen.
Whether you want to play the classic version or the updated Black Mesa is up to you, but every PC enthusiast should at least try one or the other at least once. —CH
Get Half-Life here: Steam
Get Black Mesa here: Steam
Half-Life: Alyx gave VR something it desperately needed: a brand-new entry into a huge series, long-awaited by fans, and designed specifically for VR. If you want to know what happens next in the story of Half-Life, you have to buy or borrow a VR headset and play through one of the most polished games ever released for virtual reality.
Nothing about VR is used as a gimmick here, as every interaction connects you to the world and grounds you in Valve’s new reality. You’ll learn how to take care of your guns, and how to inject yourself with life-giving medicine … or subject yourself to a horrific healing process that involves crushing little grubs that may be sentient. It’s equal parts captivating and horrifying.
Combine all that with an ending that’s an absolute stunner, and catches us up on the Half-Life story while also dramatically raising the stakes for the next adventure, and you have one of the best games in VR, as well as one of the best games of 2020, full stop. —Ben Kuchera
Get Half-Life: Alyx here: Steam
Kentucky Route Zero
Kentucky Route Zero is one of the most fascinating narrative experiments in all of video games. The brainchild of the small team of artists at Cardboard Computer, it uses magical realism to tell a bizarre tale set in rural America.
The game, which began as a Kickstarter campaign, has been released episodically over the past seven years. Cardboard Computer has also released a series of experiences it calls interludes, which are freely available online. —CH
Valheim feels like it has more in common with early era MMORPGs like RuneScape or even Lineage II in its openness than it does modern RPGs, though it borrows similar ideas. The game offers a less traditional leveling-up system, in which players need to use items to increase their affinity with a particular stat.
If you want to level up woodcutting, for example, you’ll need to take up an axe and get to work. If you want to increase your blocking stat, then you will have to block attacks, or even punches from friends, in order to increase the efficiency of your shield blocking. Players can also increase their health and stamina stats using food items or potions.
I mostly spent time cooking and foraging for food, not interested in engaging in combat unless absolutely necessary. If anything, Valheim managed to scratch the itch for me that titles like Harvest Moon or Stardew Valley could otherwise no longer reach. While my friends fought packs of wolves and found krakens swimming between vast expanses of ocean, I practiced animal husbandry and farming.
Valheim’s world is low-poly for the most part, but features enhanced lighting and water refraction effects that create a beautiful blend of the early 2000s and modern graphics. Oceans and rivers look lovely, while even the dreariest of environments somehow stand out. Particle effects bloom and blossom in snowy locales, with dense fog sometimes permeating endless meadows of yellowing grass. It made me stop and appreciate the environmental design and procedurally generated scenery. This approach also allows for those even with fairly low-end machines to run the game.
Outside of the world actively fighting back against your intrusion and destruction, you can see the environment begin to change due to your work. Entire fields of grass are destroyed as you mine for valuable metals to make stronger armor, and forests shrink as you chop down trees to make sturdier walls to defend your home that otherwise shouldn’t exist.
This is in itself a depiction of colonialism and environmental degradation as you pillage a continent unknown to you for valuable materials to move elsewhere and do the exact same thing over and over again, until there is nothing left. —Kazuma Hashimoto
Get it here: Steam
Before Minecraft was the cultural force it is today, it was a survival game.
Minecraft drops players on a procedurally generated map eight times larger than the surface of the Earth. They’ll have to forage for, hunt down, or grow enough food to survive, all while dodging the ever-present threat of explosive Creepers and deadly zombies, on the way to an endgame battle against a powerful extradimensional dragon.
Of course, it’s Minecraft’s no-stakes Creative mode that has garnered the game tens of millions of views on Twitch and YouTube, two entire industries seemingly purpose-built for the new breed of gaming personalities that it helped to reveal to the world. —CH
Outer Wilds, Polygon’s game of the year for 2019, began as a student project before embarking on a successful crowdfunding campaign on the Fig platform.
Outer Wilds is about exploring the unknown, but there’s a catch. The game’s pocket-sized solar system runs on a tight 22-minute loop. Each cycle ends with the player waking up, with everything seemingly reset, except for the knowledge they’ve gained by exploring space and the planets in it. Why this is happening, and what the player must do to set things right, make up one of the most intriguing mysteries in all of gaming. —CH
Get it here: Epic Games Store
Return of the Obra Dinn
Just like an old-fashioned murder story, Return of the Obra Dinn poses a complex mystery, layered with personalities, motives, secrets, and lies. But it supercharges whodunit conventions by infusing misdirection into every nook and cranny of its intricate, gorgeous murder scenes.
The story is set aboard an early-19th-century merchant ship that shows up in port five years after it was reported missing, presumed lost at sea. The ship is bereft of human life. My job is to board the ship and figure out what happened. I’m soon confronted with evidence of a voyage gone awry. Skeletons, exploded cannons, and destroyed rigging all add up to ... what?
Obra Dinn features a monochromatic art style inspired by early Macintosh games, but it’s also fully three-dimensional in movement and visuals. As the player, you inhabit an insurance adjuster from the Age of Sail who gains limited control over time and space. The game demands attention to detail and cleverness on the part of the player to get to the bottom of what happened to each character, while delighting them at every turn with a story and design that gradually reveals itself with surprising bursts of sound and violence.
In his glowing review, our Colin Campbell concluded that Obra Dinn “isn’t merely a great game, it’s the work of an intense and creative intelligence.” —CH
Supergiant Games expects the player to fail during most runs of Hades. What’s important is that you learn how to do better, make your character slightly more powerful, and then repeat your attempt to fight out of the underworld.
It’s a style of progression that’s relatively common in modern gaming, but Hades elevates these ideas by also wrapping the game’s narrative and characters into its structure, so that each failed attempt to escape the titular Hades is remarked upon, often down to the enemy who finally sent you back to the beginning and the weapons you were using. While it’s common for games to force you to get further along if you want to see the story unfold, Hades moves in the opposite direction by turning failure into the primary method through which you learn more about who these gods are, who is helping you and who is working against you, and why.
It’s a simple idea that has been precisely executed, from the game’s impressive variety of weapons and abilities that completely change how you must approach certain enemies and bosses, to the accessibility options that can help players see the rest of the story without losing what makes the structure so special. The pitch-perfect writing and voice acting for each character works so well with character art that’s thirstier than most Instagram accounts. It’s no wonder this was our game of the year for 2020.
Get it here: Steam | Epic Games Store
This science fiction fantasy shooter blends third-person action and Vanquish-style acrobatics with tried-and-true MMO systems to create a vibrant community of players. It’s also more approachable than it’s ever been before.
‘Tenno’ is the noun used for the player character, who awakens from cryosleep only to be immediately thrust into conflict with the Grineer. Luckily, my Warframe gets me through the conflict, and I am aided by the benevolent Lotus. Confused at all the proper nouns? It takes a while to pick up the size and scope of Warframe’s plot, but that largely doesn’t matter. Most of it is pretty standard sci-fi stuff — an ancient empire crumbled, the factions of that empire are now at war, and I am a powerful card put into play. But there is a twist that you shouldn’t spoil for yourself if you’re going to play.
What that effectively means is that I unlock a host of missions with variable objectives and I get to jump around and be a ninja. Warframe’s combat is a genuine joy. Movement is fast, fluid, and beautifully lethal. Individual hits can have a huge impact — I take pleasure out of pulling back an arrow and firing it right through an enemy’s head, where he ricochets back and is pinned to a wall. Melee attacks are accompanied with a satisfying sound effect and bright flash, along with a snappy animation. —CM
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Years after its release, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt still stands as a towering achievement in modern video game design.
Much has been written about the game’s lengthy main quest and how the series uses player decisions to make thoughtful changes to the game’s world over time. In that regard, it’s the gold standard for digital role-playing games. But where The Witcher 3 truly shines on PC is in providing a glorious spectacle for the eyes. From the game’s rich and moody skyboxes to the environmental and character art itself, The Witcher 3 looks best on PC, with longer draw distances and higher resolutions than are possible anywhere else.
In that regard, the five-year-old title’s age is actually a benefit. You’ll spend far less on an appropriately high-end graphics card today than you would have when the game was first released. —CH
Among Us is as welcoming as it is ubiquitous. Friends can seamlessly cross-play between its $4.99 Steam version and its free, ad-supported mobile version, which is available on both Android and iOS. It starts simply: I’m crewing a spaceship with my friends, completing simple maintenance tasks while we try to sniff out the impostor — or impostors. Meanwhile, the impostors attempt to kill everyone else on the ship, without exposing their own identities.
Every task is simple to perform on a touchscreen or a computer. Whether it’s connecting colored wires that have been cut, pulling a lever, swiping a security card, or flipping a switch, everyone can do the game’s most basic tasks. Even killing someone as the impostor is as easy as tapping one button. If you happen to stumble upon the body of a fellow crew member, alerting the rest of the crew takes just one button as well. And that’s when the real fun starts.
Any time a dead body is discovered, the entire crew convenes for a meeting where they have the chance to vote out one player. That’s when your friend group’s normal social dynamics transform into a part of the game.
In one game, my friend group’s loudest and most outspoken member went three straight meetings without saying a word. When he finally did speak up, it was just to agree with someone who leveled accusations toward the player that was suspicious of him. It was all a dead giveaway to the fact that he was the impostor. In another round, someone who’s normally quick to make a joke was taking things very seriously, so I suggested we vote him out, because it seemed weird. And we did vote him out … too bad I was the impostor that round.
Get it here: Among Us
World of Warcraft
A high-fantasy massively multiplayer online game standing on the shoulders of giants like Ultima and EverQuest, World of Warcraft has continually reinvented itself for more than 15 years, and has recently even moved back to the past to try to rekindle the interest of players who may have left the game.
And WoW continues to have a thriving community, even if the total number of players sometimes goes up and down with the times. Whether you land in Azeroth solo or with a close group of friends, you should never need to adventure alone. —Charlie Hall
Microsoft Flight Simulator
Microsoft Flight Simulator is the latest entry in a series that began in 1982. This time around, rather than hand-crafting sections of the world piece by piece, the developers did something truly ambitious: They took 2 petabytes of satellite and photographic information from Bing Maps, used AI to create a three-dimensional map of the entire Earth, and let users pull down portions of that map, as needed, from the cloud.
What’s remarkable is that it actually works.
The terrain simulation is especially convincing at higher altitudes, where a tremendous lighting engine fills in the gaps. I’m even able to move a slider and actually push the sun itself across the sky in a gameplay mode called Active Pause, which leaves your plane perched in midair while you move the camera around.
The results are breathtaking and, in many cases, almost indistinguishable from real life. (Just how indistinguishable will depend partly on your gaming PC — while Flight Simulator will run fine at lower resolutions, you’ll need a cutting-edge rig to get the most out of it.) —Charlie Hall
Get it here: Microsoft
Other notable PC games:
Get it here: Riot Games
Get it here: Battle.net
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