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12/15/2020

Top 111 PC Games, #60-51

60. Horizon's Gate (Rad Codex, 2020)

A game that has been described by many as "Final Fantasy Tactics by way of Uncharted Waters", and upon playing it, I can certainly confirm that is indeed the case.  You build a character, take part in turn-based battles both on foot and by sea, unlock new classes as the game progresses, and can basically explore, trade or become a privateer at your leisure, taking part in ship battles or legitimate business to earn loot for later upgrades.  Inventory management and item manipulation is simple as can be too, using a keyboard-and-mouse interface that reminds me more than a bit of the classic Ultimas.  It's certainly not the deepest example of anything it attempts to be, but it is a lot of fun, and really, that's what I come to a game for anyway.  Sacrilege, I know.

59. Doom II (id Software, 1994)

Doom was an enormous game-changer and hugely successful when it was released in 1993, so of course sequels, engine licenses and countless copycats soon followed.  Doom II was released less than a year after the original game, and while it doesn't change up the formula too greatly, does it need to?  Not really.  Just add in a new weapon (the Super Shotgun - quite deadly at close range but considerably less so at a distance), a few new enemy types and 32 new stages, and you've got another top selling game.  There was also an official add-on called "Master Levels for Doom II" featuring several high quality user-created maps and a standalone expansion called "Final Doom" that added 64 new stages to overcome, so it clearly has a legacy despite not changing things up too much from the first game.

58. Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom (Origin Systems, 1996)


I've never been particularly good at the Wing Commander games, but I can certainly admit it's a fine space combat simulator series with a focus on player immersion.  Not just in between-level interactions, but succeeding or failing at missions has a tangible effect on how the story plays out in later chapters, and failing too many missions could still result in the war being lost even if you survive all the way to the end (though you could also make up for it in later missions, so not all is necessarily lost if you botch one or two).  The fourth game is certainly the most interesting one, with an enormous (for the time) $12 million budget and an intriguing story about a wave of mysterious and vicious combatants continually inciting violence and escalating battles for some unknown end.  Mark Hamill, Tom Wilson and Malcolm McDowell also reprise their roles from 3 and the game was re-released on a DVD with high-quality FMV sequences, lending it the feel of a Hollywood-produced  science fiction serial.  Great stuff.  Shame it was also the last game in the series before Chris Roberts left Origin and it's largely faded from public view since then.  IV has remained a fan favorite ever since its release, though - enough to have its source code released and to get a fan-made remaster (still in development as of this writing) in later years.

57. Half-Life (Valve, 1998)

First person shooters were the new hotness in the '90s, and it seemed like every one was upping the ante, trying to maintain a fun, fast-paced style but working in more story elements and realistic environments to play in.  Half-Life was certainly no exception, and for 1998 it was nothing short of mindblowing.  Set in a research laboratory overrun by hostile aliens (and later soldiers trying to cover up the incident that unleashed them), the environments you trekked through had a ton of personality and danger in themselves.  From tram tracks to vats of toxic waste to all sorts of hazardous industrial equipment, there was just as much of a puzzle element in safely navigating them as there was in defeating the enemies.


56. Symphony of War: The Nephilim Saga (Dancing Dragon Games, 2022)

Another example of a game clearly inspired by classics of the genre (Fire Emblem and Ogre Battle in particular), but which ends up being so well-made that it stands out and becomes a fantastic title in itself.  Case in point, you move across the map with your squads (consisting of up to nine units of varying classes), capturing towns, utilizing strongholds and terrain to give themselves an advantage in skirmishes, and exploring characters through mid-battle dialog scenes. Battles get surprisingly large in scale (sometimes overwhelmingly so), though you get powers to do things like grant units extra turns or deal damage over a large area to help speed things up or get yourself out of a jam.  A wonderful and engrossing strategy RPG.

55. Sun Haven (Pixel Sprout Studios, 2023)

A 2023 game built around farming and character interactions.  One might be tempted to write it off as a Stardew Valley clone, and while the overall setup is similar, the gameplay is considerably more complex and refined.  For one, you don't have to contend with a stamina meter (definitely a bonus in my book) and can adjust how quickly time passes, with each day lasting between 10 and 40 minutes.  It also blends in a lot more RPG elements - completing various tasks in the course of your day, as well as optional quests, earns experience points, and once you hit a certain plateau in one of your five fields of expertise (exploration, farming, mining, combat and fishing) you gain a level and earn a skill point, which can be spent on various upgrades to make you more efficient in numerous ways. From granting more materials per resource farmed to earning more money for selling to damage buffs to a dash that lets you move faster.  Food also grants permanent stat boosts, but only to a point for each type, so mixing it up is essential.  Even the multiplayer element is more pronounced, giving each playable race a unique bonus that also benefits anyone else in the current game.  Basically, there's a lot more RPG here than there was in Stardew, which is probably why it appeals more to me.

54. Simcity 3000 Unlimited (Maxis, 1999/2000)

Simcity 3000 had a lot to live up to after the groundbreaking original and the fantastic 2000, and I was a little worried since it was the first game in the series that Will Wright didn't work on.  However, 3000 did the name justice.  The game is pretty much what you'd expect, taking the groundwork of 2000 and adding in a few more features like having to manage your city's garbage and sound alerts when disasters strike. One can also make business deals with other cities to address power/water/garbage storage issues, or take on other cities' problems for some extra cash at the cost of an increased burden to their own resources (and often a hit to land value).  Unlimited added some new content of its own, letting you place numerous real-life landmarks like the Empire State Building, the CN Tower and Notre Dame's cathedral.  Better still, an easy-to-use editor lets you customize the appearance of your buildings or even craft custom ones, letting you build some truly massive and beautiful-looking cities.  The only real downside is the UI is a bit weird and takes some getting used to, especially if you played as much of the original and 2000 as I have.

53. Shadowrun: Dragonfall/Hong Kong (Harebrained Schemes, 2014/2015)

The second and third games in the rebooted Shadowrun franchise, and easily my favorite ones so far, expanding on everything the original brought to the table while losing nothing that made it great.  The story is nothing short of brilliant, bringing together a cast of diverse and complex characters to solve the mystery of their friend's death and the underlying conspiracy behind it.  Throughout the game, every choice you make seems to be the wrong one, making you new enemies and seemingly digging you deeper into a pit you can't escape from, while the combat only gets more intense with enemies bringing out bigger guns, setting up nastier traps and summoning bigger monsters to get in your way.  Stellar stuff all around, and a perfect example of how to do a grim, atmospheric game experience right.

52. Ultima VII Part 2: the Serpent Isle (Origin Systems, 1993)

The direct followup to Ultima VII (and the spinoff game Ultima Underworld II), Serpent Isle was also a callback to the franchise's earliest days, returning to worlds not seen since Ultima 1 and showing a world very different and considerably more troubled than the Britannia we've come to know.  The stakes were higher too; not just with the looming threat of the Guardian and his underlings, but a cosmic imbalance is causing reality itself to slowly unravel, adding considerably to your woes.  Unfortunately the game was also the first to really suffer from the EA buyout, as the world feels much more barren and the latter half in particular very rushed and definitely not up to the series' high standards in design.  Nevertheless, the story is captivating and the solid engine of 7 is tuned up in quite a few ways, making it another very worthwhile Ultima adventure.

51. Serious Sam (Croteam, 2001)

In the late '90s tiny Croation studio Croteam decided that shooters had gotten too brown, gritty and slow in recent years, and set out to rectify that with their debut game, Serious Sam.  Not only did it look fantastic for the time, with enormous environments that were bright, colorful and intricately detailed, but it never lost a beat despite its action being downright manic.  Even with the huge open areas, impressive visual effects and the fact that literally hundreds of enemies can be rushing you all at once, there's virtually no slowdown or framerate stutters.  There's tons of hidden secrets in every level a la Doom or Wolfenstein, and the gameplay is reminiscent of classic arcade shooters like Smash TV; smooth-controlling, fast paced and uncomplicated, but certainly not easy.  Learning enemy patterns, rationing pickups, using the right weapon in the right situation, prioritizing threats and of course circle-strafing constantly quickly become key to survival.  A game where you somehow feel totally overwhelmed and completely in control at the same time, Serious Sam is a rush.