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9/30/2015

Top 50 PC Games, #10-1

10. Diablo II (Blizzard Entertainment, 2000)

The followup to Blizzard's mega-hit Diablo, the second game in the franchise upped the ante in almost every way.  Featuring faster gameplay, a choice of five new classes (seven in the expansion) each with their own variety of skill sets and equipment choices, and of course a plethora of new quests, items, bosses and challenges to undertake.  It also featured multiplayer for up to eight simultaneous players, who could choose to tackle dungeons, gain levels or just duke it out in battles to the death.  Other new features, like "Rune words" and the ability to combine items and reroll equipment properties would also become staples of other games in the genre.  Once again, a major hit for Blizzard that continues to be fun even today.  There are even a few killer fan mods available for those tired of the stock game.

9. Half Life 2 (Valve Software, 2004)


Valve Software's followup to the massively successful and innovative Half-Life, and it managed to be quite a landmark in itself.  Not only for its advanced visuals and engine, but for its creative enemies, oppressive atmosphere and some very clever weapon types (including the famous Gravity Gun, which allows you to weaponize virtually anything in the environment).  Half-Life 2 is also a testament to excellent level design, requiring you to do everything from puzzle-solve to last through intense shootouts to numerous vehicle-based obstacle courses, and even face off with building-sized monsters on occasion.  Brilliantly designed in every moment of its gameplay, it's just a shame that more first person shooters didn't follow in its mold.

8. Duke Nukem 3D (3D Realms, 1996)


If Doom took first person shooters into a more realistic, yet still gameplay-centered experience, Duke Nukem 3D pushed that formula to perfection.  Yes, there are still plenty of key hunting and switch-flipping puzzles in the game, but the sheer genius of the level design also makes it a great experience.  Taking place in a dystopian America overrun by aliens, the game has you running through relatively realistic environments like a supermarket, a prison, a strip club, flooded skyscrapers and, in the expansions, even the White House, all rendered in a surprising amount of detail.  The game's artillery was also surprisingly innovative for its era, with creative weapons like detonator-activated pipe bombs, a "freezethrower" that freezes enemies (leaving them vulnerable to being shattered with a kick or bullet) and a plethora of useful gadgets to navigate levels, including portable medkits, night vision goggles and even a jetpack.  Of course, the game also attracted plenty of controversy for containing nudity, crass humor and over-the-top gore, but that all took a back seat to the sheer amount of fun it provided.

7. Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (Origin Systems, 1985)


Ultima IV is very possibly the most unique CRPG ever made, and that is saying a lot.  Rather than having you quest to defeat some big bad guy, this game instead proves to be a journey of self-improvement, having the player atone for some of their more... questionable actions in the previous Ultima titles by embodying the eight virtues, venturing into the stygian abyss and recovering the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom to push Britannia into a new age of prosperity and spiritual guidance.  And yes, this does entail actually being a good person in the game - righting wrongs, resisting the temptation to steal and kill, and showing compassion, valor and humility whenever needed.  Of course, there are still plenty of puzzles to solve along the way and quite a bit of combat to endure, but that takes a backseat to the overall theme of being a virtuous character.  A great concept with a fantastic execution.

6. Scorched Earth (Wendell Hicken, 1991)


At a glance, Scorched Earth isn't much to look at - a game with tiny sprites and simplistic VGA graphics where tanks shoot missiles and try to blow each other up.  But then you take a closer look and find that this game is steeped in clever mechanics and surprisingly deep tactics.  From MIRVs to Funky Bombs to Sandhogs, the game has a variety of interesting weapons to utilize, some of which can devastate everything on the screen (even their user) in short order.  Further adding to the fun are defensive items like shields and options like having shots wrap around to the other side of the screen, bounce off the ceiling or radically shifting winds making aiming shots more difficult.  In short, it's a game with a lot of options and endless replayability, especially in multi-player combat.  The only real crime is that it never got an online play option!

5. Planescape: Torment (Black Isle Studios, 1999)


Black Isle Studios was another big name in the late 90s, bringing us several beloved RPGs known as much for their deep gameplay as their intricate writing.  Planescape; Torment is probably the best example of the latter, being a game that contains over one million words of dialog for the player to experience.  That may sound like it makes for a boring game, but thanks to the fantastic writing, it's anything but - it's a journey of bizarre characters, settings and experiences from start to finish,  And you know what?  That's a lot more compelling and memorable than endless gore-spilling, gold gathering and equipment upgrading topped off with "LOL BOOBS because we're adults really honest".  If only more modern CRPGs took notes from this one!

4. Thief 2: The Metal Age (Looking Glass Studios, 2000)


Thief 2, as one might expect, is a brilliant followup to the original game, improving many elements of the gameplay and introducing some new items and elements.  That's all well and good, but the real draw to me was the atmosphere of the game, which is bizarre and downright eerie.  In contrast to the supernatural bent of the original game, Thief 2 is much more steeped in cyberpunk, with robotic security cameras, security robots and creepy cyborgs all playing a part in the story and lending themselves to the gameplay in some very clever ways.  Of course, the newfound setting also lends itself to some clever new gameplay elements like scouting orbs (allowing you to see around corners without endangering yourself) and "vine arrows" that can stick in metal grating as well as wooden planks, letting you climb to places you couldn't otherwise reach.  Thief 2 is a great experience all around.

3. Simcity 2000 (Maxis, 1994)

I'm generally not a fan of simulation games, but Simcity 2000 managed to win me over in a big way, in part due to its uncomplicated interface, intuitive gameplay and open-ended structure lending to all sorts of creativity.  You could create almost anything that you wanted, from a utopian metropolis to a small island city to something downright Orwellian, and it was all perfectly valid.  Hell, you could even unleash disasters like fire storms and UFO attacks on your town and rebuild it in a completely different way.  Simcity 2000 is just a blast to play, and a perfect example of a game with nothing to improve upon - its sequels all tried to fit in even more bureaucracy and things to keep track of, but ended up being far less fun...

There also exists a rare, network-enabled online edition of the game that allowed up to four players to act as 'city commissioners', operating on the same map and exchanging resources with one another to work toward their own goals.

2. System Shock 2 (Looking Glass Studios/Irrational Games, 1999)


Looking Glass made some incredible games in their heyday, but by far my favorite of the bunch has to be the last game they ever contributed to - System Shock 2.  A followup to the original innovative classic that managed to improve upon its predecessor in just about every way - a horrifying alien atmosphere, menacing enemies, fantastic characterizations and gameplay that expertly combined elements of first person shooting, survival horror and even a touch of an RPG as you had to upgrade your skills and statistics throughout.  All the while being menaced by mutated people, alien horrors and the ever-creepy AI SHODAN, whose hostile tone, yet calm and neutral voice is downright chilling.  System Shock 2 is my choice for one of the finest games ever made, and one of the few games I find legitimately unsettling even sixteen years after its original release.  Bioshock certainly tried, but it couldn't match up on even half the ideas System Shock 2 brought to the table...

1. Ultima VII: The Black Gate (Origin Systems, 1992)

Yep, here it is, my pick for the best PC game of all time.  And while many may disagree with me on where it's placed, there's no denying that Ultima VII is an incredible title, especially for its era.  An open-world game that gives the player an unprecedented amount of freedom and interactivity with the environment (from exploring dungeons to baking bread to spinning cloth), Ultima VII was utterly amazing for a 1992 release.  Top that with Origin's usual brilliant world-building and characterizations, as well as strong yet intuitive gameplay and an intriguing plot centered around a string of mysterious murders and the rise of a mysterious new brotherhood in Britannia, and you also have a thoroughly engrossing experience.  Of course, this all came at the cost of being exceptionally difficult to run on computers of the time (having very high hardware requirements, conflicting with Windows and not even having the courtesy to supply a mouse driver for a mouse-driven game being chief concerns), but it was all worth it because the game was so damned good.