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The 12 Best Games on PC

Illustration for article titled The 12 Best Games on PC
Illustration: Sam Woolley

PC gamers have got a pretty great thing going. Interesting, experimental indie games? Yup. Complex strategy simulations? Totally. The shiniest, prettiest versions of big-budget console games? They get a lot of those, too.

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Let’s say you’ve recently joined the ranks of the PC elite. Which games should you install? Start with the ones in this post.


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Screenshot: Paradox Interactive
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Crusader Kings III

It’s hard to find a universal opinion in gaming, but here’s one that’s about as close to unanimous as you can get: Crusader Kings III is better than Crusader Kings II in basically every way. It’s grander in scope but slighter in bloat and busywork. It’s easier to pick up (just ask any newcomer) and harder to put down (ask any longtime fan). It has a cleaner interface, sharper character models, and it’s also tremendously beautiful. Starting in the 9th century, you shepherd a dynastic line up and through the 15th century. To pinpoint Crusader Kings III as a strategy game wouldn’t be incorrect, but it’s also reductive: Yes, it’s a strategy game, but it’s also part management sim, part visual novel, and part role-player. Added all together, you get one whole awesome.

A Good Match For: History buffs. Fans of meaty strategy games with very few administrative tasks. Conquerors.

Not A Good Match For: Anyone looking for a breezy tutorial; though easier to pick up than its predecessor, Crusader Kings II is still more complex than most games.

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Read our review.

Study our tips for the game.

Purchase from: Steam | Paradox | Green Man Gaming


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Screenshot: Supergiant Games
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Hades

Supergiant’s Greek mythology-themed Hades was forged in the hellfire of roguelikes. That means, like many other genre standouts, you’ll die (a lot) as you repeatedly run through a tiered dungeon full of randomized enemies, slowly accruing level-ups and making incremental progress with each round. But Hades puts a spin on a time-tested formula by betting big on narrative. You play as Prince Zagreus, the son of the god of the dead. Your goal, ostensibly, is to escape the underworld—and your father’s cruel, iron-fisted reign. On your quest, in classic Homerian fashion, you’re assisted by the Olympian gods (Zeus, Athena, Dionysus, and the like). As you play you get to better know these deities and other members of the Greek mytheme. Every character has a believable, fleshed-out relationship with Zagreus, one that pushes forward with every run. In Hades, playing doesn’t just earn you more skill points or better weapons. You also earn a really, really great story.

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A Good Match For: Fans of roguelikes, action games, isometric RPGs, dating sims, Greek mythology, and any prior games in Supergiant’s oeuvre.

Not A Good Match For: The easily frustrated. Those who don’t like frenetic, fast-paced action games. Sisyphus.

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Read our review, and our piece about why everyone’s so freakin’ hot.

Study our tips for the game, and the post-game.

Purchase from: Epic Games Store | Steam


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Screenshot: Paradox Interactive
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Cities: Skylines

Cities: Skylines first launched in 2015 as a terrific if slightly wonky city-builder. Sure, the traffic mechanic might’ve been busted, but it captured the minutiae of urban planning—zoning districts, plotting plumbing, building bike lanes, fine-tuning tax policy—unlike anything else. In the years since, Skylines has become the best city-building game around. Patches ironed out many of the kinks. Expansions introduced winter weather, night-and-day transitions (complete with glorious sunsets), and enough public transit options to make any progressive urbanist weep in joy. But the real evolution came from the mod community. Enterprising modders built on and improved nearly every facet of Skylines. You can download graphical update mods, custom buildings, expanded maps, and tweaked and streamlined game systems. There’s even one that automatically bulldozes abandoned buildings, effectively removing the most tedious part of the game. The result is a city-building game that also gives you a taste of playing god.

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A Good Match For: NUMTOTS, urbanists, city planners, and fans of SimCity (not the 2013 debacle).

Not A Good Match For: Minimalists—this is one complex, intricate game.

Read our review, and our retrospective.

Watch it in action.

Study our list of essential mods.

Purchase from: Steam | The Humble Store | Green Man Gaming | Amazon


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Screenshot: EA
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The Sims 4

What more is there to say? It’s The Sims! The fourth installment of Maxis’s long-running life simulator came out in 2014 and, through a seemingly nonstop string of updates and patches, has only improved with every passing year. Last year’s collegiate expansion, in particular, captures how and why this entry continually resonates: This is life. It’s messy and unpredictable, and you have no idea how your Sims might react in various situations. But in that too-real approximation of life exists limitless potential. In all of video games, few character creators are more in-depth. You can direct your characters how you want (mostly), and shape their surrounding environment how you please (mostly). And in a marked improvement over previous entries—one that further captures the whims of real life—your Sims can both multitask and feel emotion.

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A Good Match For: Wannabe gods.

Not A Good Match For: Impatient players: The Sims 4 is slow-moving, but once you get in the groove, it’s near-impossible to put down.

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Read our review.

Watch it in action.

Study our tips for the game.

Purchase from: EA | Amazon | Green Man Gaming | Best Buy


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Screenshot: CD Projekt Red
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The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

There’s no shortage of ambition in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Geralt of Rivia’s latest adventure is massive, a world you can get lost in for hours and still have plenty to do. There’s a ton for die-hard Witcher fans to enjoy, but you don’t need to have played a Witcher game to enjoy the heck out of this one. While many games these days have sprawling landscapes, The Witcher 3 is utterly dense. Every nook and cranny is filled with memorable characters, clever writing, and rewards for curious players. The main story is as thrilling as it is emotionally draining, and the side quests are actually worth doing. Since its release in 2015, The Witcher 3 has gotten a ton of free updates and improvements along with two terrific paid expansions, Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine. The full experience is now even bigger, richer, and better than ever.

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A Good Match For: Open-world fans, especially those who enjoyed Skyrim but were disappointed by the combat. In The Witcher 3, fighting is nearly as enjoyable as exploration.

Not a Good Match For: People who value their time and social life, anyone who wants a game they can finish in a handful of hours.

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Read our review.

Watch it in action.

Study our tips for the game, and catch up on The Witcher lore.

Purchase From: Steam | GOG | Amazon | Wal-Mart | Best Buy | Gamestop


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Screenshot: 2K Games
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Civilization VI

In the six years since Civilization V came out, we managed to review it not once but twice. That’s how much these games lend themselves to playing and replaying, and Civ VI is no different. The latest entry adds a lot of new ideas to the Firaxis’s tried-and-true formula, and while some new ideas work better than others, the whole is as usual more than the sum of its parts. The mechanical tweaks and refinements are wrapped up in a subtle, board-game-like aesthetic that is as pleasing on your twentieth hour as it was on your tenth. We’ll be playing this game for years.

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A Good Match For: Civ fans, people who have never played a Civ game, basically anyone who doesn’t actively hate Civ.

Not A Good Match For: Anyone who actively hates Civ.

Read our review.

Watch it in action.

Study our tips for the game.

Purchase From: Steam | Amazon | Wal-Mart | Best Buy | Gamestop


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Screenshot: Square Enix
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Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn

In 2010, Square Enix launched Final Fantasy XIV Online, and it was just the worst—buggy, over-complicated, unfinished; a mess. The developers spent three years rebuilding the game from the ground up, and the end result is one of the finest massively multiplayer online role-playing games ever made. It’s everything fans love about Final Fantasy—lush artwork, strong story, gorgeous music—only bigger, all wrapped around a traditional MMO framework. It’s that Square Enix polish that sets it apart from its competitors, earning it a spot in this list.

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A Good Match For: Fans of fantasy role-playing video games looking to take the massively multiplayer plunge. The original Final Fantasy XIV was a tangled mess of conflicting ideas, when all players wanted was a standard MMO game with the familiar features of a Final Fantasy game. That’s exactly what A Realm Reborn is.

Not a Good Match For: Folks afraid of monthly subscriptions. Despite the MMORPG genre as a whole moving towards free-to-play payment models, Final Fantasy XIV stands firm by its monthly subscription plan.

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Read our review.

Watch it in action.

Purchase From: Amazon | Steam


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Screenshot: IO Interactive
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Hitman 2

Hitman 2 takes everything that was great about 2016’s Hitman and improves and expands on all of it. Really, the new game functions like a second “season” for its episodic predecessor, just with all the missions delivered at once. All the things that worked so well about the 2016 game are here: the meticulous planning, the memorization and mastery, the pitch-perfect dark humor. Not only that, but if you own the earlier game, you can play through all of the levels without leaving the sequel. That makes Hitman 2 live up to its billing as “the ultimate Hitman experience,” as well as one of the smartest and most richly entertaining games you can play.

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A Good Match For: Fans of classic spy movies, people who like playing dress-up, anyone who liked 2016’s Hitman.

Not A Good Match For: People hoping for a straight-up action or stealth game, those who didn’t care for 2016’s Hitman.

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Read our review.

Watch it in action.

Purchase From: Steam


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Screenshot: Larian Studios
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Divinity: Original Sin 2

Divinity: Original Sin 2 is a supremely entertaining and consistently surprising role-playing game, one that expands and improves upon almost everything about its already fantastic predecessor. It may appear to be just another rote fantasy world at first blush, but the more you explore, the more interesting it becomes. Between the complex and rewarding turn-based combat and the branching, open-ended quests and side-stories, Original Sin 2 gives players an uncommon level of freedom to tell their own stories. And that’s not to mention the elaborate Game Master mode, which lets you write and build campaigns for your friends to work through together. Time and again you’ll find yourself trying outlandish things just to see if they’ll work. Most of the time, they will.

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A Good Match For: Anyone who liked the first game, fans of the Ultima series and other similar CRPGs from which Divinity draws inspiration.

Not A Good Match For: Anyone hoping for a more action-packed RPG, those who don’t like complicated or challenging games.

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Read our review.

Watch it in action.

Purchase From: Steam | GOG


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Screenshot: Cardboard Computer
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Kentucky Route Zero

Just a man and a dog, looking to make a delivery. That’s how it all begins, anyway. But Kentucky Route Zero quickly becomes a mystical adventure through a land left behind by time, an odyssey in magical realism that feels grand and mysterious in a way that very, very few modern video games can muster. What started episodically is now, as of earlier this year, officially complete. Unlike the tapestry of roads that connect our cities and coasts, Kentucky Route Zero doesn’t always tell you where it’s taking you. The narrative is really about the journey, not the destination. It’s not like anything you’ve ever played. For that alone, you should try it.

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A Good Match For: Anyone looking for something different. Those who still believe there’s magic hidden somewhere off the interstate.

Not A Good Match For: Those looking for a bunch of complex game mechanics—Kentucky Route Zero is a point-and-click adventure game, and a fairly simple one at that.

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Read our review.

Watch a video about why the game is great.

Purchase From: Amazon | Steam | Humble


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Screenshot: Toby Fox
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Undertale

Undertale might look like a retro-style JRPG, but it’s unusually forward-thinking. As a human stuck in a world of monsters, you decide whether you want to win encounters with wanton violence or clever context-based interactions (talking, joking, petting, etc). Undertale keeps track of everything you do; it’s paying very close attention, and will often express that attention in surprising ways. Every life you take ultimately has consequences. Despite those grim trappings, Undertale can be an incredibly warm, fuzzy, and funny game. Whether you slaughter or befriend everyone (or walk a middle path), the writing in this game is top-tier, the soundtrack is second-to-none, and the plot hides a treasure trove of secrets that players still haven’t fully uncovered.

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A Good Match For: Lovers of smart video game stories, fans of games that subvert expectations, people who’ve ever felt even a single pang of loneliness.

Not A Good Match For: People who hate shoot-’em-ups and tough boss battles (Undertale’s combat system has elements of both), those who aren’t fond of reading dialogue, haters of lo-fi pixel art.

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Read our review.

Watch it in action.

Purchase From: Steam | GOG | Developer’s Site


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Screenshot: Mobius Digital
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Outer Wilds

“Be curious on your journey!” proclaims one of the characters in Outer Wilds. No line could sum it up better. At the onset, your silent alien hero is given a rickety spaceship and sent off to explore the universe with a single goal: Go on an adventure. Roughly 20 minutes later, the universe explodes, and you wake up on your home planet as if nothing ever happened. Soon you’ll find yourself ticking off goals and jotting down questions: Why is the universe exploding? How did that ancient alien race go extinct? What’s up with that planet that keeps disappearing when you try to land on it? And is it possible to save the universe? Outer Wilds mixes the exploration of Metroid with the time loop of Majora’s Mask to brilliant effect, and it culminates in one of the most satisfying endings we’ve ever seen in a video game.

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A Good Match For: Curious gamers, anyone who loves the idea of getting into a space ship and exploring the cosmos.

Not a Good Match For: Impatient people, people who need combat in their games, people who hate finicky controls.

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Read our review.

Watch it in action.

Listen to our podcast discussing tips for starting the game.

Purchase From: Epic Store


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The games on this list are all great PC games. But of all the platforms in our collection of The Bests, the PC has been around the longest and therefore has the largest back catalogue. There are decades of fantastic PC games to choose from, and if you own a PC you’d be remiss if you didn’t go through the classics and play the best ones. Thankfully, we’ve got two lists to help you out. In 2013 our readers helped us make an exhaustive megalist of the best classic PC games of all time. Then in 2015, we made our own list of the 24 best classic PC games.


How has this list changed? Read back through our update history:

Update 10/5/2020: Crusader Kings II steps aside to make room for its smarter, younger sibling, Crusader Kings III, while Total War: Warhammer II forgoes its spot for Hades.

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Update 6/10/2020: We’ve given Overwatch and Return of the Obra Dinn the boot to make room for two modern classics: The Sims 4 and Cities: Skylines.

Update 12/2/2019: We’ve added Outer Wilds and removed XCOM 2.

Update 11/30/2018: We’ve added Return of the Obra Dinn and Hitman 2 in place of The Witness and Hitman.

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Update 11/10/2017: Another update to our trickiest list: we’ve added Divinity: Original Sin 2 and Total War: Warhammer II while removing Doom and Inside. 

Update 12/2/2016: Big changes come to the PC list! We’ve added DOOM, Inside, Hitman, and Civilization VI while removing MGSV, StarCraft 2, Divinity: Original Sin and Civilization V.

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Update 6/24/2016: Crusader Kings II and Overwatch make it onto the list, while Total War: Shogun 2 and Portal 2 exit. Rest easy, Wheatley. You had a good run.

Update 2/22/2016: We’ve added XCOM 2 and The Witness and removed Heroes of the Storm and XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

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Update 10/29/2015: The list gets another shake-up. We’ve added Metal Gear Solid V, Undertale, and Divinity: Original Sin: Enhanced Edition in the place of Counter-Strike GO, Minecraft, and Pillars of Eternity.

Update 7/22/2015: We’ve shaken the list up with three new entries: Pillars of Eternity, The Witcher 3 and Heroes of the Storm take the place of Dragon Age: Inquisition, The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim and DOTA 2.

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Update 11/25/2014: Fall 2014 brings with it a single swap: Dragon Age: Inquisition knocks off its predecessor Dragon Age: Origins. (Though you should still probably play Origins if you haven’t, because it’s really good.)

Update 8/6/2014: The list gets a shake-up: say goodbye to Half Life 2, Titanfall and Gone Home and hello to Dota 2, Counter-Strike: GO and Kentucky Route Zero. We’ve also reset the comments to allow for new debate and discussion.

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Update 4/10/14: We’ve called in an orbital drop and replaced Battlefield 3 with Titanfall.

Update 12/9/13: At the end of the year comes a sizable update to the PC bests list. Gone are FTL, The Witcher 2, Team Fortress 2 and Far Cry 3 and in their place are Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, Dragon Age: Origins, Gone Home and Portal 2.

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Update 07/24/13: It’s a long overdue update for the PC platform, with four games leaving and four coming onto the list. Skyrim—which was out when this list debuted—jumps onto the Bests because of the post-release addition of Steam Workshop, which lets you seamlessly access and install hundreds of the awesome mods available for the game. It’s joined by XCOM: Enemy Unknown, FTL and Far Cry 3. Wave good-bye to Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Dirt 2, Mass Effect 2 and Bejeweled 3.


Want more of the best games on each system? Check out our complete directory:

The Best PC GamesThe Best PS4 GamesThe 12 Best Games On PS NowThe Best Xbox One GamesThe 12 Best Games On Xbox Game PassThe Best Nintendo Switch GamesThe Best Wii U GamesThe Best 3DS GamesThe Best PS Vita GamesThe Best Xbox 360 GamesThe Best PS3 GamesThe Best Wii GamesThe Best iPhone GamesThe Best iPad GamesThe Best Android GamesThe Best PSP GamesThe Best Facebook GamesThe Best DS GamesThe Best Mac GamesThe Best Browser GamesThe Best PC Mods

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Note: While all of these games are available through some digital service or other, if you buy any of them through the retail links in this post, our parent company may get a small share of the sale through the retailers’ affiliates program.

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DISCUSSION

I can see the point of these lists when it comes to consoles with their limited lifespans..

For PC games this seems a little impossible, the breadth of content is much wider, the list of games goes back too far. It'd be like asking somone "the best nintendo games" spanning all their consoles, pitting SMB vs Galaxy, it just doesn't make sense to me..

There are PC old guard players who swear by their Theifs and their Stalkers (and so on) and they're right! But people who prefer the less oblique, newer stuff are also right..

And all the extra PC genres, like vehicle sims and god games.. If people like those over the very mainstream things picked here, it just can't work with a short list. :/

Some of these games I can totally see their place be quite permanent as they're timeless (minecraft, most recent starcraft, elder scrolls etc) - I have top 10 PC titles that are decades old.. Doom2! Where do you draw lines? I'd recommend the rereleases of Baldurs Gate over DA:O, for example.