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9/30/2015

Top 101 PC Games, #10-1

10. Torchlight II (Runic Games, 2012)

There are quite a few Diablo-styled action dungeon crawlers on the PC, but the one that takes the genre to perfection in my book is Torchlight II.  Created by a team partly made up of former Blizzard North (Diablo I) staff, Torchlight 2 takes everything that made Diablo a hit and cranks it up to eleven.  Combat is fast and frantic, the four playable classes in the game can be customized in any way the player wishes, and online multiplayer (sorely missing from the first game) is now back in full force.  The game even has full support for player mods which can even be used in online games, though all players must have the same set of mods installed in order to play together.  Some other clever tweaks, like each player finding separate loot drops and being able to send your pet back to town with a haul of items to trade in for cash or potions, also make sure that the action remains constant throughout.  Torchlight II is pure fun.

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 V: Warriors of Destiny (Origin Systems, 1988)


The Ultima series surfaces again on this list, but that shouldn't surprise anybody by now as I absolutely adore the franchise; it was an incredible innovator for its era and continues to be a major influence on every game that followed it thanks to the merits of its innovative concepts and strong writing.  Ultima V is no different; taking place in Britannia after it has slowly been turned into a brutal dictatorship under the corrupted ruler Lord Blackthorn, the player must follow a trail of clues to reunite with their former allies, recover the crown jewels of Lord British, free him from his prison and restore him to power.  Of course, with a very ambitious development team also comes a very high demand on the player, and Ultima V doesn't pull any punches in terms of difficulty - getting started in the game is a very steep task since you're frequently outnumbered and have little in the way of decent equipment, and it only gets tougher once you venture into the dungeons and start meeting reapers, demons and dragons who can lay waste to your entire party in no time flat.  Ultima V is a harsh experience, but ultimately an extremely compelling and rewarding one once you're used to it.

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 not a big 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 mostly tried to fit in even more bureaucracy and things to keep track of, but as a result weren't nearly as 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.