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Update: So it seems that the report below was incorrect. I initially wrote that Valve was banning Linux users with Linux usernames that included the word 'catbot', but Valve has said those claims were a "tactic employed by cheaters to try and sow discord and distrust among anticheat systems".
It's a bit confusing because a Valve moderator on GitHub, as you'll see below, initially seemed to confirm the story by saying that the banning of users was "deliberate". But another Valve employee has since clarified the matter in a Reddit post.
"VAC will not ban you for simply having catbot in your user name (either your Steam profile or on one or more of your Linux accounts). The bug report—and I suspect many of the posts in this thread—are a tactic employed by cheaters to try and sow discord and distrust among anticheat systems.
"VAC has many different types of detections and we cannot discuss what they do publicly because doing so makes them less effective. However, one thing I can disclose is that all detections require that the detection occur while a user is actively cheating and connected to a VAC-secured server.
"Linux historically hasn't been a problem for cheating--the base rate of cheating is significantly lower on Linux than it is on Windows. Unfortunately, a 'healthy' community of cheaters grew up around catbot on linux and their impact on TF became large enough that they simply could no longer be ignored. Those banned users are very annoyed that VAC has dropped the hammer on them."
Catbots, if you're not familiar with the term, are player-created bots that flood TF2 servers, lining up headshots on everything in sight. They're all called things like 'catbot 1574', and they're a nuisance. But in an attempt to stamp them out, some players are claiming that Valve has crossed a line. Anybody with 'catbot' in their Linux username (yes, not their Steam username), will now find themselves with an automatic VAC ban, regardless of whether they've actually booted up TF2 or not.
Now, I don't know how many Linux users have 'catbot' in their username, but there is at least the potential for friendly fire here. On the GitHub thread where the issue was uncovered, one user said that their Steam account was VAC-banned despite claiming to never have cheated. Another said: "I installed Ubuntu on a virtual machine and named the computer catbot-918 and installed Steam, within an hour of not playing anything I received a VAC ban."
A GitHub moderator for Valve confirmed that the policy was in fact a deliberate attempt to combat bots, adding that it was "not open for discussion on Github" (which, on my reading, doesn't mean that the issue is not open for discussion at all, just not on GitHub).
Valve does have a responsibility, and a right, to stop cheaters playing its games. But as a lot of people on this Reddit thread discussing the issue have said, it does seem a bit ham-fisted to ban someone simply because of their choice of Linux username. And besides, it looks like catbot setups have already switched to a different username, which was inevitable. It's probably not the last we'll hear of it.
Normally it’s pretty hard to halt an inferno, but Team Fortress 2’s Jungle Inferno update, which was meant to launch yesterday, seems to have been more of a small blaze. Valve is rectifying this, fanning the flames and adding some finishing touches, and it should be out today.
“Typically we ship updates on a Thursday, so those of you expecting the Jungle Inferno Update to flip live today, you might want to sit down for this next part,” a post made yesterday reads. “If you're already in a comfortable sitting position, you might want to sit up straighter, because we're about to tell you we're delaying a day and we don't want you to twist your lumbar.”
It’s almost finished, but Valve’s doing some stress testing right now. It will launch early today, says the developer.
When it does arrive, you’ll be able to check out the new map, Mercenary Park, along with a bunch of community maps, taunts, war paint and Pyro items. Check out the full list of additions here.
Valve has just announced a new 'Jungle Inferno' update for Team Fortress 2, with the highlight being a brand new map. Dubbed 'Mercenary Park', it's a "new jungle-themed disease-ridden three-control point map" created by Valve.
The video below doesn't really show much of the map, it being a new animated short providing some narrative colour to the proceedings. But the map isn't all there is: there are a handful of community-created maps as well, all jungle-themed, and for modes including Attack / Defend and King of the Hill.
This is all just the "Day 1" content – expect more stuff to roll out or be announced over the coming days.
Valve's next TF2 update is going to be a biggie, overhauling some of the multiplayer shooter's most iconic weapons and fixing items that have been unbalanced for years. When Valve announced the changes in June it didn't say when the update was due. After a blog post from the developer yesterday we still don't have a precise date, but we do have a much better idea.
"We're putting the finishing touches on a mammoth new update, and it'll be shipping in the very near future, we promise. How near? Well, very. Imminent. Not this week imminent, but you know. Really soon."
Hmm. The language suggests that it could arrive later this month. I really hope so, because it's the first TF2 update for a while that I'm actually excited about. There's tweaks across the board but some classes, such as the Scout or Spy, are getting a lot of attention (the Scout's triple jump-enabling Atomizer bat is now much less viable, for example), while others like the Demoman are being left mostly alone.
You can read more about the changes in Valve's "sneak peak".
Every player will have a different view of the planned changes, but personally I'm looking forward to a nerf to the Spy's Dead Ringer, a cloaking device that players use to feign death that is really frustrating to play against. Ammo kits and dispensers will no longer fill the device's meter, so Spies won't be able to use it as often.
How do you think the changes will impact the game?
The Orange Box launched ten years ago. It was undoubtedly the greatest bundle of games ever, with the simultaneous launch of Portal, Team Fortress 2 and Half-Life 2: Episode Two, alongside the existing Half-Life 2 and Half-Life 2: Episode One. The former three were instantly significant in the landscape of PC gaming: Portal was an influential puzzle game that many cited as the surprise highlight of the set, while Team Fortress 2 arrived as a fully-formed multiplayer phenomenon that would constantly evolve across the next decade. Episode Two, of course, was the last time we experienced a new chapter of arguably the greatest singleplayer FPS series of all time.
It was a massive moment: imagine that many amazing games dropping at once now, from the same developer. It just wouldn't happen. Here, Valve's Robin Walker reflects on the factors that led to The Orange Box's release, and offers some behind-the-scenes insights on both Portal and Team Fortress 2.
PC Gamer: What did the release of The Orange Box mean for Valve at that time, and what does it represent as part of Steam's history?
Robin Walker: The Orange Box was a huge step for us internally because it was the first time we’d ever managed to complete more than a single product at a time. In some ways, the Orange Box was a company level 'hack' where we made three separate products that all consider themselves the same product for shipping purposes, which meant that people could rationally prioritize their work across all three of them. If you were on Portal, and everything was going well, but TF2 was struggling, it made sense for you to jump over and help TF2 out because all three games needed to ship together.
The Orange Box was also a great product to really highlight why the retail channel was reducing game developer’s options. We found with Episode One that retail really didn’t understand or like a premium quality $20 title—they stood to make less money per box, and they had a limited amount of shelf space in their stores. The Orange Box avoided this by combining multiple quality products into a single box that was worth that full amount, but in doing so it created other problems. Retail had never seen a new, high quality box containing more than one title. Historically, a box that contained multiple titles was a bundle of old or low quality titles.
So in terms of Steam’s history, to us the Orange Box represents the era in which distribution channels placed a huge amount of friction on what kinds of games were made, how big they should be, and how much they were sold for. These weren’t things that retailers should be blamed for, they were simply the side effects of operating in physical space. It’s great to be able to look around and see such an enormously wide spectrum of games being made today, many of which wouldn’t have had much of a chance to find their audience in that physical distribution world.
Were you surprised by the response to Portal, in that a lot of people considered it to be the highlight of The Orange Box at the time?
We didn’t really know what to hope for with Portal. We’d put it in front of enough play testers to be confident that players would have fun with it, but Portal didn’t fit any existing model of a successful game for us to know how it was going to really turn out. There wasn’t much of a history of first person puzzle games, let alone ones that combined a new gameplay mechanic with comedy. The Orange Box really solved Portal’s biggest challenge, which was to explain itself to players. By putting it in the Orange Box, we didn’t have to do the heavy lifting of explaining to people why they should buy this thing that was unlike anything they’d played before—instead, we could lure them in with Episode Two & TF2, and surprise them with the game they had the least expectations for.
Portal became incredibly influential to the indie games scene—its length, storytelling and environmental design are felt in a lot of today's games. Can you recall that process of the Narbacular Drop team joining Valve, and the key decisions that eventually made that game what it is?
By the time we saw Narbacular Drop at the Digipen student day, we’d already hired multiple groups of inexperienced developers who had built interesting things. When we hire those kinds of teams, we’re fundamentally more interested in the people than the thing they’ve built, and in our discussions with them, the Portal team seemed like a group of people with a huge amount of potential. We paired them up with some experienced developers at Valve, and let the team loose.
In any game's development, there are too many decisions to count, and many of them will ruin the game if made incorrectly. One decision that ended up being very important was the one behind GladOS. We had been working on Portal for about a year, and at that point we had 14 levels of the game in a state where they were being regularly playtested. There was no GladOS, the player just moved from puzzle to puzzle without any sense of progression or reward beyond the increasing complexity of the puzzles. The playtest response we kept seeing could be summed up as "This is really fun! When does the game start?". This was both great and terrifying. Players were having fun, but they seemed to consider everything they played as just training leading up to something else. Considering the entire game was really just a process of learning about the core gameplay mechanic, this scared us a lot, making us worry that we’d have to create a whole other section of the game afterwards.
But first, we asked ourselves what it was that was causing players to consider everything as training. After much discussion, we settled on the idea that it was the lack of threat or pressure. Nothing in the game pushed back on the player. There was no real failure, no cost to mistakes, nothing overall to fear, no larger goal to strive for, and hence no real reason to advance. We talked about various solutions, and in the end decided that introducing an antagonist made the most sense. The antagonist could start as a narrative tool for introduction & reward, and over time become the thing that pushed back on the player, eventually giving them the core goal of the game—"I want to learn all this because I need to be able to defeat X". We had little in the way of art production on the team, so it being a character that largely spoke to you via voice over was a straightforward production solution.
In the end, there are many important decisions after this that were critical to GladOS working as well as she did, such as her entire personality. But her genesis begins with a straightforward process of us trying to solve the core gameplay problem in Portal. Even today, it’s always fascinating to us that players seem to start Portal talking about the gameplay, but after they’re done, all they talk about is GladOS.
You've kept updating and transforming Team Fortress 2 over the years, and few competitive games have that kind of lifespan. What's been the philosophy behind that? How have you kept reinventing the game while still making it recognisably TF2?
The philosophy is pretty simple—listen to your players, pay attention to what they're doing, ship your work, and iterate as much as possible. But TF2's a strange thing. In some ways, it seems so different to how it launched in 2007, but at the same time, it still feels utterly familiar. There are still Snipers on the battlements in 2Fort having a fine old time paying no attention to what's going on with their flag in the basement. There's a much wider set of potential threats to deal with than they faced back in 2007, but they now have many more choices in exactly how they want to face them. And no matter what they decide, they can ensure they look different to all the other Snipers in the game.
So TF2's core gameplay seems to be fairly resilient in the face of all the horrible things we've done to it, and I think that's largely due to how we've approached our role in the process. We've always felt that our job was to support players in whatever they're trying to do. As a result, it's the players who've decided how TF2 should be played throughout the last decade. We've added all kinds of elements to the game, from both our and the community's minds, and the players have been the ones to digest and choose the way those elements ended up incorporated into the whole, even if it meant outright rejection in some cases.
You provided audio commentary for The Orange Box at the time, which was a really nice opportunity to let players get granular with the various games' creative processes, having previously tested it in Lost Coast. Can you recall the process of doing that? What was it like to examine your work through that lens as a developer?
We approached commentary as a tool to explain our craft. In our experiences listening to commentaries of other creative works, it was the nuts & bolts of how they actually did the work that interested us the most. Throughout our years of developing games, we constantly found that problems we thought were going to be straightforward to solve turned out to be nasty, thorny issues involving complex tradeoffs between design and technology. Often, that complexity was hidden entirely by the solution. So we thought it might be interesting to players if we could lift the rock and show them everything that’s going on underneath all that apparent simplicity. We’re game developers, so hopefully players will forgive us for thinking that game development is a fun thing to talk about.
Also, that commentary and accompanying analysis was all written before the product launched, which means we didn’t have the chance to examine our work through the context of how it was received, let alone how it would fit into the gaming landscape 10 years later. Would Portal be something people would like? Or would it be some weird puzzle game Valve made that no-one wanted any more of? Without that perspective, we found it hard to talk about anything other than what we were confident in—what we did, and why we did it.
Not long ago, every first-person shooter had to have a multiplayer mode. Part of multiplayer's job in the late '00s and early '10s was to extend the lifespan of your purchase—to keep Xbox and PlayStation owners' copies in their homes and off of GameStop's second-hand shelves after they finished a six or ten-hour campaign.
It was a dark time for FPS players. We got underwhelming and under-supported multiplayer for games like F.E.A.R, Crysis, Singularity, Prey, Homefront, Far Cry 3, Medal of Honor, Call of Juarez, Duke Nukem Forever, Rage, and Syndicate. In the worst cases, the multiplayer modes of these games contorted the themes and designs into competitive forms. Spec-Ops: The Line lead designer Cory Davis described the multiplayer component of his game years later as "a cancerous growth," saying that "the game mechanics were raped to make it happen, and it was a waste of money."
One surprise to come out of this era was BioShock 2, which fully embraced the awkwardness of turning the intricate story and setting of Rapture into a deathmatch. You played as one of 10 unique characters living in Rapture at the outset of the civil war. Each had their own backstory, melee weapon art, and loads of custom, situation-specific dialogue that you'd hear during matches (Mlle Blanche de Glace, a French actress, might say "So strange on this side of the camera," when using the Research Camera to earn a damage buff against an enemy). BioShock 2 characters' appearance was tied to their progression—as they leveled up, they'd look more and more like a mutated Splicer, a reflection of their abuse of ADAM. The multiplayer lobby itself was a Rapture apartment, and your character would receive new, unique messages on their answering machine.
The whole thing was framed as a prequel for the first BioShock, grounded in an idea that's only taken hold over the past few years: yes, you can and should put story into a multiplayer FPS.
Credit for killing the trend of tacked-on multiplayer should go to Team Fortress 2. In the 10 years since The Orange Box, Valve's spy-fi FPS has made plenty of contributions to the genre, to Steam, and to the PC. But most significantly, it helped teach the industry, and games like BioShock 2, how to tell stories in competitive multiplayer games.
We take it for granted now, but in 2007, TF2's addition of dozens—eventually hundreds—of situationally-triggered character voice lines was innovative. Without watching a cutscene or reading a dull menu blurb, players would be hit over the head with the idea that the Scout loves baseball ("I'm battin' a thousand!"; "Yo, I oughta' be on a baseball card!"), or that the Soldier is an over-the-top nationalist ("You are now a conscientious objector to being dead, hippie!" after dominating another, apparently lesser Soldier; or "Your white flag does not stop American bullets," to the Spy).
The Spy has his own set of lines that mock the Scout after a kill. I like "May I borrow your earpiece? [mimicking Scout] 'This is Scout! Rainbows make me cry! Over," but the best one has to be "Well, off to visit your mother!" a reference to the canon relationship between Spy and Scout's mom (this literally haunts the Scout's dreams) and a special reward for sticking a knife into the fastest character in the game. We'd see a similar system in Left 4 Dead just a year later.
The voice lines are more than gags: they're economical hits of characterization, taken passively in the breaths between TF2's combat, that lessen the repetition of playing 2fort for the two-thousandth time. One by one, they form a tapestry of connections between TF2's nine classes, reinforcing the hide-and-seek game that Spies and Pyros play, or the symbiotic relationship between the Heavy and Medic.
Some of this is owed to how integrated Valve's writers were into the development of TF2 during this part of the studio's history. "[W]e don’t have a strict wall between design and writing," Valve writer Erik Wolpaw said in 2011. "We’re all together in the same room, designers and writers." You can see the fruits of this integration of writers in TF2's biggest updates, which made new patches not simply 'content,' but richly-themed events led by their fiction, rather than their features.
The massive WAR! update in 2009 solidified the template we'd see for years to come. Even by today's standards, the patch was an avalanche of lore, weapons, new systems, and excitement that made the seven days it lasted a special experience for players. The highlights:
Framing the addition of a new item as a time-sensitive dramatic event in the TF2 timeline that players themselves had to participate in in order to resolve was a brilliant act of marketing, and we see this concept replicated in competitive games like Overwatch, Destiny 2, CS:GO, and Dota 2. "A secret, exclusive seventh weapon has also been developed by the TF2 team," wrote the TF2 Blog. "In other words, either the Soldier or the Demo (but NOT both) is walking out of this update with one more weapon than the other. If you want your class to have it, you're going to have to fight for it."
The Soldier and the Demo were natural rivals that, up until that point, hadn't had their yin-and-yangness formally expressed. They were both splash-damage classes with different styles: firing parabolically, or firing in a straight line. They could both use their weapons to propel themselves forward. An ordinary sticky bomb kill on cp_well, scored that week, had new meaning, adding to the overall body count.
All of this fun helped to soften the introduction of a new crafting system, laying the groundwork for TF2's item economy. Valve would use this technique again when it introduced paid items and loot crates a year later not as a storefront, but in the form of a fictional character entity: Mann Co. Although it wasn't without controversy and uproar, again, narrative framing and ample humor softened the landing microtransactions made on TF2, a much riskier and more novel concept in 2010 than it is today. You weren't buying items from Valve, you were buying them from a shirtless Australian.
It's true that plenty of Team Fortress 2's storytelling has been done outside of its .exe, in comics, short videos, blogs, and marketing imagery. But in widening where its story was being told, Team Fortress 2 broke an old way of thinking, that a singleplayer campaign was the beginning and end of a game's fiction. It's part of the reason we've stopped seeing multiplayer shoehorned into shooters like Prey, Wolfenstein, and Deus Ex.
That approach has produced some of the most well-rounded and memorable multiplayer characters ever, ones that rival protagonists and villains from conventional games. When Blizzard announced Overwatch in 2014, game director Jeff Kaplan “If people want to compare Overwatch to Team Fortress 2, we would take that as the world’s greatest compliment," said Kaplan. “We love that game; it’s probably one of my favourite games of all time. Those guys are geniuses," he said.
Not many FPSes are being played enthusiastically by a million-and-a-half people 10 years after release. But Quake, Unreal Tournament, Counter-Strike, Rainbow Six, and Battlefield don't have 15-minute short films about fighting giant loaves of mutant bread.
To celebrate 10 years of the Orange Box, we're publishing the original PC Gamer reviews from our archives. All three games were reviewed by Tom Francis in issue 180 of the magazine. The reviews capture our excitement at the release of a bundle containing three 90+ rated games. October 2007 was a great month for PC games.
Last night I had a really weird dream. I dreamt that instead of ending where it ended, Half-Life 2 just carried on after the explosion at the top of the Citadel. Vortigaunts rescued me, then Alyx hugged me, and I ended up catching a train out of town into a countryside full of tiny Striders. Then a Combine Advisor made me do my uni finals all over again, only this time I hadn’t revised and the papers were all in Chinese. And I was naked.
It’s surreal that Valve are still churning out more Half-Life 2, three years on. As beautifully crafted as Episode One was, it did tread on a lot of its parent’s toes. Episode Two certainly doesn’t do that. It turbos away from them at 90 miles an hour in a customised Dodge Charger, with Alyx riding shotgun.
I won’t spoil any details, but Ep2 is what happens after you and Alyx break free of City 17 once and for all. The setting for most of your previous adventures is nothing more than a smouldering scar on Episode Two’s skyline, and the Citadel looks like a longfinished game of girder-Jenga. Because of that, and because you spend a lot of time driving a car that could have swerved straight off the set of a postapocalyptic Dukes of Hazzard, Ep2 feels wild, dangerous and cool.
Your time—a little under five hours—is diced into refreshingly different sections. Valve still do pacing better than anyone. They break fights with puzzles, driving with combat, solitude with friendly faces and claustrophobic tunnelrunning with epic, sweeping vistas of naturalistic landscape.
These make Ep2 feel huge. It only took me an hour longer than Episode One, but every inch of it is gorgeous uncharted territory, and there are more inches than the running time suggests. Spending a third of the episode in a supercharged two-seater means covering a lot of ground, of course, but it’s more than that. There’s an openness to a lot of Episode Two’s chilly forested landscapes that’s new to Half-Life.
It’s all the more inviting because Episode Two is the most sumptuous chapter of the Half-Life saga, and by a country mile. It’s as if Valve’s tech and art teams are trying to outdo each other: the Source engine has had a striking technical overhaul that renders textures, materials and curves uncannily well, and the artists clearly relish having a fresh palette to work with.
Towering conifers bristle gently in the breeze, casting soft shadows across winding mountain paths. Each toothy vortigaunt’s big peering eye glints glassily, a perfect ruby sunk into finely wrinkled brown skin. Even the shotgun is newly beautiful, gleaming ominously in the sun with a convincingly weighty gunmetal sheen. We get to see the pine-covered rocky land of this nameless nation, and it conforms to no established gameenvironment stereotype. It resembles only the real world—some proud, cold country I feel sure I’ve been to—and it has that authentic real-world grubbiness that only Valve have figured out how to recreate.
The combat explodes across this soothing canvas with a brilliantly messy splat. Something clever involving particle physics has allowed Valve to make thick black blood, lurid yellow goo and something a lot like vomit spray repulsively from your victims with every cracking impact. The new poisonous Worker Antlions burst like bioluminescent bombs; injured Hunters drool a sticky slurry of their own innards from where their mouth should be; and when the vortigaunts fight... Jesus God. The trailers released last year showed nothing of this—some consolation for those of us who spoiled big chunks of the game for ourselves by watching them.
The three-legged Hunter creatures are the highlight of the fighting: velociraptors to the Strider’s T-rex. They’re the perfect size for Gordon-killing: compact enough to chase you indoors but hefty enough to take the shotgun blast that awaits them there. More importantly, they’re bright enough to do so when you least expect it. Valve have trained them to deduce where you’re heading and get there first by a different route, and the effect is alarming.
They’re another departure from what we’ve previously been shown of the game: they used to fire a tiresomely familiar pulserifle burst, now they fling a torrent of bulbous azure darts on swirling trails. These thud into whatever they hit, quiver pregnantly for a moment, then detonate in a flurry of fizzling plasma pops. Cover is no longer enough: wherever you hide, in a few seconds you’re going to have to throw yourself from the room before it explodes.
Once they’ve flushed you out with their flechettes, the Hunters use Episode Two’s wide open spaces to take a scampering runup and smack you into the stratosphere. The seemingly generic name is exactly apt: they take the initiative in combat, and nowhere is entirely safe. The Hunters continually provoke and surprise you in ways that Half-Life hasn’t since the first game’s marines.
The sense of threat is a prevailing and escalating theme As you can see, the pistol has been beefed up a little. Once, just once, itd be nice to have a windscreen. This is what Vorts do to Antlions. of Episode Two, and it extends to the plot. You and your friends are trapped, maimed and violated in ways that are distressing on a really visceral level, and it’s properly gruesome to watch. The blood-soaked tone gives the story a force that makes it the darkest and most exhilarating chapter yet. It’s Half-Life’s Empire Strikes Back—and it even has a less snowy analogue to the Battle of Hoth.
That fight needs to be mentioned—but mustn’t be described—because it’s the first truly satisfying climax to a Half- Life game. Half-Life’s Xen was disastrous, shunting energy balls at a bigger energy ball in HL2 was uninspired, and taking down a single Strider with the RPG at the end of Ep1 was almost comically banal. But at last Valve have crafted a finale worthy of the adventure that precedes it, and the result is the largest, most open-ended and complex battle of the series. It’s also one of my favourite Half-Life moments so far, and that’s saying a lot.
Episode Two is, needless to say, so polished that it hurts to look directly at it in sunlight—so my only criticisms are pretty feeble. The first is that it’s slightly too easy, right to the end. I wouldn’t mind if Hard mode only increased the damage you took. But it also reduces the damage you deal, and that renders almost all the game’s weapons meek and unsatisfying. Speaking of which, we still haven’t had a single new gun since the end of Half-Life 2. That game never went nine hours without introducing several new weapons, so where are our shiny new deathsticks? The armament is the only part of the Half-Life formula that’s starting to go stale.
Episode One seems dismally small and boring by comparison, however much I loved it at the time. But the one edge it does retain over the second is Alyx: she’s not quite as charming here. There are a few really wonderful character moments with her, and one superb performance from actress Merle Dandridge, but nothing quite as heart-meltingly cute as Episode One’s Zombine joke. To be fair, that’s only because the grim plot mostly keeps her in her less convincing :o and :( emotional states.
Still, I didn’t think it was possible for a mere episode to surprise, excite and energise me as much as it has. The simultaneous global unlocking of the next chapter of Half-Life is becoming one of the most geekily enjoyable events on the gaming calendar, even with the mortifying suspense of relying on Steam under heavy load. Not just the playing, but IMing inanities to friends while it unlocks with an agonising slowness, and retiring exhaustedly to the nearest forum afterwards to exchange breathless superlatives. “Oh, and the bit where—and then she—and the Advisors!”
Half-Life 2’s critics groan about its linearity, and its fans groan about how long it is between episodes. But the series shrugs off both complaints when you start seeing it for what it is: a series of playable movies. Better than anyone, Valve make cinema that you’re a part of—and they do it at about the same rate Warner Bros churn out new Harry Potter films.
In Half-Life’s day, it was a compliment to say a game felt like a Hollywood movie. In the intervening years Valve have become more professional and accomplished than any visual effects studio working in Tinseltown, and now it would be an insult to liken one of their beautifully crafted works to the messy dross the American film industry churns out.
I know some gamers love a sandbox—I’m one of them—but it always baffles me when that love seems to preclude the enjoyment of anything else. Do these people storm out of cinemas when they realise their popcorn munching isn’t controlling the actors? Are there really people who can’t enjoy a gorgeous, hurtling ride like this? That would be sad, because they’re getting seriously good. Bring on the third.
Verdict Fresh and thrillingly darkScore 93
Last night I had a really weird dream. I dreamt that Valve were finally going to bring out Team Fortress 2, only they’d made it look like some crazy Pixar cartoon, it was budget-priced, and all the classes talked as you played. And I was naked.
But here we are. This is the trouble with a dream job: you have to do it even when you’re asleep. I’m just going to review this ridiculous ‘Team Fortress 2’ fantasy until I finally wake up and discover that I am, after all, a chartered accountant.
Let’s not dwell too much on the original mod for Quake and Half-Life—that was ten years ago, not everyone played it, and TF2 is very obviously aimed at new players as much as old. Worth mentioning, quickly, is that it’s got the same nine classes but fewer weapons for each, grenades have been removed entirely (thank God) and, well... look at it. Look what they did to it.
The changes might sound like simplification, but like the art style it’s more about exaggeration. The Spy used to have a double-barrelled shotgun, for goodness’ sake. Taking stuff like that out hasn’t made it a simpler game, it’s made the choice to be a Spy a more meaningful one. Every class is so tightly focused on doing its thing that TF2 feels like nine different games fighting each other. That’s bewildering at first, but it’s a joy to watch characters this beautiful smash each other to pieces while you learn.
That Pixar comparison isn’t fair. TF2’s gurning murderers look better. Valve have remodelled their class-based multiplayer FPS after the work of turn-of-the-last-century illustrator JC Leyendecker. Google Image him and you’ll see the similarities in the angular, characterful silhouettes. They’re a world away from the lumpy sacks that were The Incredibles, and as it turns out, class-based multiplayer combat has long needed that distinctiveness.
It sounds like a small thing, to be able to tell what class someone is as surely and as clearly as you can see them at all. To have an immediate sense of the heft and power of a Heavy, rather than an abstract notion of his hitpoints. But stuff like this has an intensifying effect on your moment-to-moment experience: you feel, see and comprehend the game world in Technicolor. It makes all the relationships instantly clear and the importance of your actions explicit. In short, it makes everything you do 300% cooler.
That’s Team Fortress 2: multiplayer magnified. Cooperation means more, victory is sweeter, betrayal is more bitter, defeat more humiliating. But it’s what lies at the heart of multiplayer gaming that matters most, and that is, in the parlance of our times, the lols.
The image of a Scout circle-strafing a Heavy quickly enough to smack him into a stupor with a tiny baseball bat is inherently funny. But it only really gets a belly-laugh when the Scout is a scampering stickboy in knee-high socks, and his victim a meat-headed brickheap of a man. Character is a catalyst for comedy, and until now multiplayer games just haven’t had it. They were already funny, but TF2 just brings it out beautifully, every round.
All that stuff—gloating, humiliation, snuff slapstick—is best with friends. But another of TF2’s charms is that you form relationships with the people you’re playing with so quickly. They might not be friendships exactly, but they add an edge of human interest to every interaction. I don’t know Gabe Newell very well, but after he’d followed me around as my personal Medic for a while, I felt like I did. The same goes for Robin Walker after he and I—as Engineers—constructed an elaborate ecosystem of killing machines that reaped dozens of enemy lives.
That’s a quirk of the way friendly classes tessellate, but TF2 is more interested in playing up your relationship with players on the enemy team. Each time you die the game freeze-frames on your killer after a short delay, and that delay is calculated very cynically to catch him in the middle of an offensive taunt animation. Worse, the game then invites you to save this lewd image of your murderer for posterity. And the game looks so damnably good that you’re usually compelled to do it.
Valve know we like to mock the dead, dance on graves, hump corpses. So as well as making that mockery more crushing, they’ve also made a game of it: taunting now roots you to the spot, pulls you out into third-person view to watch yourself swagger, leaving you utterly helpless. You’ve actually got to make a strategic decision about whether you’ve got a few seconds to play air guitar on your victim’s carcass or not. I’ve seen chain-reactions of death where a Sniper waves to his unfortunate victim, is shot dead mid-mock by another, who then performs the same taunt—with the same fatal result.
The taunts, and the lines uttered alongside them, are part of the persona Valve have given each class. If you’ve seen the Meet The Heavy or Soldier trailers, you’ve had a taste of this. (See the disc for the most recent.) But the idea that your character is a character, with his own personality, is only as relevant as you make it. If you leave the taunt and chat commands alone, you’ll only really hear yourself if you’re a Heavy: the big guy can’t resist cackling deliriously if you’re getting a lot of kills, and an extraordinary spree will usually be punctuated with a bellowing “SO... MUCH... BLOOD!”
The other classes’ involuntary comments are too quiet and infrequent to hear often, but in a quiet moment I did hear the liquor-chugging Demoman mutter that “On the plus side, I already don’t remember this.” If, like me, you develop a particular fondness for one character, you can hammer the chat shortcuts and taunts to mutter battlecries at every opportunity. It was the gasmasked Pyro I fell in love with, and if you’re wondering what his voice is like, the answer is a punchline in itself: muffled.
His battle-cry is “Mmmph mm mumph umph!” and his call for a medic is “Mmphumph!” His dumpy teardrop physique, shrew-like tiny head, waddling gait and baggy, flame-retardant suit—they all evoke an endearingly downtrodden man. So I run everywhere garbling incomprehensible insults, rocking out on my fireaxe over my crispy fallen foes, and waving my bent petrol-pump flamethrower exultantly over my head after every match; win or lose. “Mmmph mm mumph umph!”
Most maps kick off with the two teams separated by a metal mesh that lifts after a minute, giving Engineers time to build their defences and everyone else a chance to taunt each other. The result is two rows of people jeering, singing, laughing, braying, dancing and whooping at each other in a cacophony of clashing voices. It’s a long-needed outlet for our natural tendency to pre-game smack talk, and it makes the atmosphere of the calm before the storm electric.
TF2 comes with six maps; three are new, three are remakes. The roster doesn’t feel slim once you play them. Hydro, a control-point map split into six zones, restructures itself between rounds to put teams into one of 16 different configurations. The others are mostly a linear series of control points—all except Gravelpit, which gives attackers a choice of two to assault, and 2Fort, which remains stubbornly Capture The Flag. Capture The Intelligence, sorry.
All are heartbreakingly gorgeous. The soft lines, gentle shading, warm palettes and wonky edges set off the gaudy action magnificently. It’s tempting to pussyfoot around with weasel words such as ‘among’, ‘could be’ and ‘in years’, but screw it. Team Fortress 2 is the most beautiful game ever made. I say that as a man who’s seen Crysis running on maximum settings, and I’m not kidding or exaggerating or on any more than the usual amount of drugs. Sorry about that, every other videogame artist in the world. This was not your lifetime.
Granary and Well are a little straightforward flow-wise, but TF2 sometimes benefits from a simpler arena. A linear series of control points might not sound like a lot of fun, but the simplicity shifts the focus to tactics and clever use of classes. My team won a round when another player crept behind the enemy lines to camp their locked-off control point, capturing it the moment it came into play. This despite the fact that he—presumably inadvertently—announced his plan to the entire enemy team by using ‘say’ instead of ‘team say’. The post-game chat revealed that they didn’t take it well:
EricS: We’re actually going to have to erect flood barriers from all the QQing going on over here.
Finole: I need a raft.
Robin of Death: Driller’s quit FPSs.
Robin of Death: And the company.
Gravelpit is a more interesting equation: the defending team has to guess which of three tall towers the attacking team is going to gun for first. Dustbowl, meanwhile, is sure to be a cult favourite all over again: it retains the deafeningly chaotic opening, the succession of increasingly bloody chokepoints and the desperate last stand. 2Fort is faithful to the classic original in all but appearance, and makes a particularly rich playground for the more tightly focused classes.
Hydro’s more like a set of maps than a single arena, and feels a little arbitrary for it. Valve have made it this way to keep it fresh, but I’m not sure multiplayer maps need to be fresh. CS’s de_dust is great partly because we all know it so well—so is 2Fort, for that matter. Hydro’s hypermagical rejiggling just extends the period for which you’re not really sure where you’re going. We won’t know for months whether it was worth this to keep mixing things up, and I’m happy to bear with Valve’s experiment for now—some parts of Hydro are superb.
The initial confusion of Hydro does highlight a real shortcoming of TF2, though: no minimap. Only the most co-ordinated, voice-communicating hardcore clan has any useful notion of where their team-mates are. In a game where the nine different classes are so interdependent, it’s vital to know where your turrets are set up, whether there’s a Medic nearby, and if the Heavy cavalry is on its way. Valve’s logic in omitting it is that some players never use them. Fine for those guys, but there’s no substitute for the rest of us to knowing where our team is without having to ask everyone all the time.
Mind you, a minimap would make the Spy’s life harder. He was always Team Fortress’s most inventive class, but his new incarnation is even more extraordinary. He can disguise himself impeccably as any class of enemy, and now he can also render himself temporarily invisible to slip into their base. There’s no friendly fire in TF2, but shooting all your team-mates to uncover Spies wastes too much time and ammo to be practical.
As a Spy in disguise you still take damage from enemies, but you’re man enough not to show it—you don’t bleed. That gives rise to a hilarious mindgame: a good Spy will take a near-lethal shotgun blast to the face from a supposed friend without flinching, confront his attacker toe-to-toe as if to say “What?”, and continue his infiltration beyond suspicion.
The Spy’s disguise-o-meter, built into his cigarette case, will give him the name of an enemy who really is the class he’s pretending to be. That means that every now and then, you experience the alarming existential crisis of encountering someone with your own name. Realising they must be an enemy Spy, you declare to your team that “The Spy’s a Soldier!” Whereupon, of course, everyone empties their magazines into you.
If you can stay away from your namesake and take the Spy hunter’s check-shots unflinchingly, the challenge becomes to act like an enemy. I like to dress up as a Heavy, because his reassuringly enormous size makes it hard for anyone to believe he could be a slinky Spy in disguise. It also means you get healed by enemy Medics—a peculiar sensation—and that can lead to an utterly bizarre psychological dance.
The Spy, you see, needs to get behind his victim for a one-hitkill backstab. The Medic, meanwhile, should always stay behind a Heavy for protection while he heals. So the two of you run in circles trying to get behind each other, until the Medic realises—with an almost visible pang of horror—who you really are. He draws his bonesaw, you draw your butterfly knife, and the duel commences. It’s sublime. The knife-edge between the thrill of deception and the shame of discovery makes playing a Spy more tense and thrilling than any other multiplayer experience—even the original TF’s Spy.
The other class highlights are more obvious: shredding a dozen enemies as a Medic-boosted Heavy, bolting past a superior force as a Scout with the briefcase in 2Fort, and detonating enough pipe bombs as a Demoman to fill the room with blood—and the screen with kill reports. In fact, the only class that doesn’t excite is the Medic. His contribution is to heal the major players while they charge in, but he can’t do anything else while he heals so his whole life is just holding down fire. When he’s healed a thousand or so points, he can temporarily make himself and his mark invulnerable, at which point he has to... keep holding down fire. It’s so cruel that he doesn’t get to let rip after all that joyless service to his team.
I have to admit that this, and the minimap problem, bothered me less and less the more I played. Team Fortress 2’s friendly look hides what’s still a dauntingly intricate game, and when you’re still learning the ropes, and the maps, its few flaws seem exasperating. But the measure of a multiplayer game is how much you want to go back to it. Right now I’m quivering a little, and last night I dreamt about it, so yeah. Team Fortress 2 is a bit special.
Verdict Rich, gorgeous and endlessly fun.Score 94
Last night I had a really weird dream. I dreamt that the students who made Narbacular Drop, the space-bending indie game I played last year, had been hired by Valve to make a beautiful new version in the Half-Life universe. You played this wide-eyed girl with strange metal braces on her shins like Eli Vance’s prosthetic leg, and a droning robotic voice kept saying sinister things that I found incredibly funny. Also my Year Nine maths teacher was there. And I was naked.
But you’re probably here to read about Portal, Valve’s first-person puzzle game about opening rifts in space to cross uncrossable obstacle courses. It’s designed around one simple but mindexpanding idea: you can shoot a hole in any wall, and then another one somewhere else, and if you walk into one you’ll come out of the other. Fire them side by side and you’ll walk straight back into the room you just left. Fire them on floor and ceiling and you’ll fall through the same room at terminal velocity forever.
The Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device (let’s face it, the portal gun) is your only weapon, but its brazenly impossible uses are endlessly fascinating to perform. The internal logic is flawless, but you somehow never grasp it entirely however hungrily your brain gropes. It is, I’m just starting to realise, abstractly kinky. Portal, honey, how can your physics be wrong when they feel so right?
The game grips you by the wrist and leads you briskly past the befuddling basics of these rifts, straight to the good stuff. Within a few short levels you’re using orthogonal portals to translate your gravitational potential into lateral velocity and flinging yourself exhilaratingly over turrets and lethal slime. By nudging you gently through rooms that cleverly lead your eye to the correct—yet patently impossible—solution, it swiftly teaches you a dazzling roster of lunatic tricks.
Portal is a magnificent puzzle game. The titillating wrongness of every solution and the wonky thinking required to get there make you feel like a space-folding genius, and yet you’ll almost never get stuck. Soon you’ve learnt so many weird ways of perverting the forces and spaces in any room that you can throw yourself through them, like a futuristic Prince of Persia with abilities more improbable and wondrous by far.
The solutions eventually become more gymnastic—opening new portals mid-fling and plummeting back through those you’ve previously opened with pinpoint precision. But by then you’re ready, and performing deliciously counter-logical mental inversions at breakneck speed is something to be relished.
The atmosphere, meanwhile, grows thickly sinister. Your singsong robot guide GLaDOS (you’ll find out what it stands for) doesn’t seem unduly invested in keeping you alive. Soon her own delusions creep into her instructions to you. “The weighted companion cube,” she announces as you snatch up a box, “will not threaten to stab you and cannot, in fact, talk. If the weighted companion cube does talk, the Enrichment Centre urges you to disregard its advice.” But as her coldly voiced lines become more murderous and surreal, they also get funnier. The writing is effortlessly sharp throughout, and with its single inhuman character Portal taps a thick vein of black, absurdist humour that becomes the game’s propulsive force. You’ll play faster just to hear the next beautifully unhinged line.
The game escalates magnificently. The puzzles change nature, requiring your to beat the system with the tricks it taught you rather than jumping through hoops. And at the same time, the humour reaches fever pitch—GLaDOS becomes so brilliantly deranged that at times it’s hard to control yourself for laughing. The final flourish—the most inspired credits sequence I’ve ever seen—reduced me to a convulsively cackling wreck, insensible and almost in tears. This is the funniest game I’ve played since Psychonauts.
Sadly, Portal is as short as it is sweet. It took me—admittedly a Narbacular Drop veteran, international super-agent and one of the greatest minds of our time—a little under two and a half hours. That’s long enough for the story it tells, and it tells it well, but it’s so damnably good that the craving sets in as soon as the satisfaction fades.
Depending on gamer demand, Valve say they’ll opt next for a straight sequel, a closer tie-in to the Half-Life games or some form of multiplayer. I just want more GLaDOS. Her lilting, darkly comic words of lethally unhelpful advice deserve a place in the annals of scary robo-speak, right beside “I can’t do that, Dave” and “L-look at you, hacker.”
“If you begin to feel lightheaded from thirst,” GLaDOS chirps, “feel free to pass out.”
Verdict Brain-melting offbeat genius.Score 92
Loot boxes are everywhere. They're in shooters, RPGs, card games, action games and MOBAs. They also take the form of packs, chests and crates. They're filled with voice lines, weapon skins, new pants or materials to get you more loot boxes. They're in free games and paid ones, singleplayer and multiplayer. They can be free to open and paid for with real money. You may feel an almost violent antipathy to the very idea of them, but you've probably also opened a fair few.
The appeal isn't hard to grasp. Opening a loot box is a rush: a moment of anticipation followed by release. That colourful animated flurry is often accompanied by disappointment, but is sometimes with the joy of getting exactly the item that you wanted. And then you feel the gambler's pull to open another, pushing you back into the game to grind or digging into your wallet to earn or buy your next one.
"It's that moment of excitement that anything's possible," Ben Thompson, art director on Hearthstone, tells me. "In that moment I could be getting the cards I've been looking for for ten or 20 packs. That anticipation has always been a key point in games in general; successful games build on anticipation and release, whether a set of effects or in gameplay."
Loot boxes' ubiquity might be fairly new, but they've been around rather longer than you might think. Economic sociologist Vili Lehdonvirta has suggested that they appeared in their modern form first in the Chinese free-to-play MMO ZT Online in around 2006 or 2007. A Chinese newspaper described how for a yuan you would buy a key: "When the key is applied to the chest, the screen will display a glittering chest opening. All kinds of materials and equipment spin inside the chest like the drums on a slot machine as the wheel of light spins." Yep, sounds like a loot box.
But they've also been around far longer in the form of baseball cards and Magic: The Gathering packs, and, if you think about it, even in identifying magic items in D&D. In each case you experience the same notes of suspense and reveal, and also the way the reward is separated from the action you took to earn them. That's an important distinction. Loot boxes aren't quite the same as the shower of loot you get for killing an elite monster in Diablo. There's more of a build-up, and rather than being focused on moment-to-moment play, your view is being pulled out far wider, into the meta game, into the larger systems that give you reasons to keep swinging your sword.
Why do loot boxes provide such a dark compulsion? Psychologists call the principle by which they work on the human mind 'variable rate reinforcement.' "The player is basically working for reward by making a series of responses, but the rewards are delivered unpredictably," says Dr Luke Clark, director at the Center for Gambling Research at the University of British Columbia. "We know that the dopamine system, which is targeted by drugs of abuse, is also very interested in unpredictable rewards. Dopamine cells are most active when there is maximum uncertainty, and the dopamine system responds more to an uncertain reward than the same reward delivered on a predictable basis."
What's more, the effect of variable rate reinforcement is very persistent. Psychologist B.F. Skinner conducted trials during the early 1930s in which he conditioned animals to respond to certain stimuli in closed chambers that became known as Skinner Boxes, and showed that even when the rewards were removed, the subject would continue responding for sometimes hundreds of trials, trying to recreate the circumstances in which it got its reward before.
"Modern video games then amplify this idea by having many overlapping variable ratio schedules," says Clark. "You're trying to level up, advance your avatar, get rare add-ons, build up game currency, all at the same time. What this means is that there is a regular trickle of some kind of reinforcement." Whether you're watching your XP climb up to the next level in Overwatch, or you're collecting scraps in Battlefield 1 by breaking down skins, there's a constant sense of reward leading to reward.
The clever—or insidious—bit is how a loot box is wired into a game, and how it doles out its baubles, keeping a player on the knife-edge between feeling hungry and feeling rewarded. One such system is Battlefield 1’s Battlepacks. Standard Battlepacks are earned by playing multiplayer matches. They used to be randomly awarded, but they recently switched to an Overwatch-like progression bar system for more regular drops. Each one is a guaranteed weapon skin or one of a number of pieces of a unique weapon. So that would seem satisfying, if it wasn’t for the scrap system.
Here, you can turn your skins into scraps an in-game currency called Scraps, which will buy you more Battlepacks. And they’re the only way without spending real money that you can access Superior and Enhanced Battlepacks, two upper tiers which have rather better chances of dropping Distinguished or Legendary weapon skins. The result is a system which ekes out rewards and then asks you to question them and wonder: should you dispose of them in the interests of getting better stuff?
It’s a complex system with a lot to get your head around, and remember: Battlefield 1 is meant to primarily be an FPS, not a lottery game. In other games, loot systems sit more centrally, and few are more central as the card packs in Hearthstone. Since it’s a collectible card game, they’re perhaps so fundamental to the game that it's inaccurate to consider them loot boxes in the same vein as the controversial packs of skins and items added to recent big-budget games like Destiny 2 and Middle-earth: Shadow of War. Still, they're a great example of the loot box's principles.
You can buy packs in Hearthstone with an in-game currency called gold. There are several ways to earn it, but the key methods are that every third game you win awards you with 10 gold, and for each daily quest you complete, such as winning games with a certain class, you'll get at least 40 gold. A card pack costs 100, so you can expect to earn at least one every couple of days. This system is subtly integrated into play; most quests gently encourage you to try classes and playstyles you're not used to, while also rewarding you for simply playing the way you like. Or you can just buy card packs with real money. Classic card packs cost $3 for two, $10 for seven, and the scale goes up to $70 for 60. Despite the pride some take in being free-to-play, most will spend money at some point, while those who don't get the reward of telling themselves they're saving money by playing.
The five cards you get in each pack will be taken from across all the game's classes, at least one of which will be 'rare' quality. "We're just straightforward with it," says Thompson, but it has other benefits. "People are more inspired to try different and new things. So if I get a number of Shaman cards, maybe it's interesting for me to start to build a Shaman deck? Or I can craft them into cards I do want in the game. We allow player agency to dictate it, but we also avoid putting them in a position where they choose themselves out of experiences."
The loot box's place in Overwatch is quite different since they contain cosmetic items—skins, emotes, voice lines and victory poses—rather than the very thing you play with. But you acquire them in a similar way: play with any character and you earn XP, with various bonuses granted, for example, by playing with friends and for good performance. Level up, which is possible every hour or so, and you earn a loot box.
"We aimed for players earning a box or two in a gaming session, so that you wouldn't walk away from a session empty-handed," principal designer Michael Heiberg tells me. "An earlier version of the game's progression system had per-hero experience levels, with rewards at various hero levels. In testing, though, we saw players picking heroes based on these hero level rewards instead of picking based on what the team needed, or even what they felt like playing. It was a bust, and we knew we needed to disassociate your hero picks from the rewards. Based on that, we shifted to a system with randomized rewards that you could earn by playing as any hero."
Overwatch's loot box is a masterpiece of audio-visual design. "It's all about building the anticipation. When the box is there you're excited at the possibilities of what could be inside," says senior game designer Jeremy Craig. Click the ‘Open loot box’ button and the box bursts open, sending four disks into the sky. Their rarity is indicated by coloured streaks to further build the suspense. "Seeing purple or gold you start to think about what specific legendary or epic you've unlocked. This all happens so fast, but it was those discrete steps that we felt maximized excitement and anticipation."
Hearthstone's opening animation is likewise engineered to trigger anticipation, and also to make the cards desirable objects and to imbue them with a sense of value. From the start it was important that they'd evoke real collectible cards. As Thompson says: "Ripping that foil pack and feeling it give, that moment of excitement that anything's possible."
Rather than hitting a button and watching, as you do when opening most loot boxes, from Battlefield 1 to Overwatch, you have to drag a pack over to what Blizzard calls the altar. There's a brief moment as blue magical power builds, and then, in the case of the classic packs, the cards suddenly burst out in a shower of glitter and gold. With Journey to Un'goro packs, they emerge in a crackle of lightning (which echoes its evolve mechanic), and a shattering of ice in the Knights of the Frozen Throne packs.
The challenge was to design a sequence that would feel special to those opening a single pack while not wearying those opening 50 in a row. "If you buy that many you don't want to spend half your day opening them, you want to get them open and start building decks and experience the real focus of the game," says Thompson. "As much ceremony as we want to put into the pack opening, we need to keep it concise." The sweet spot, it turns out, is about two seconds.
As Overwatch does, Hearthstone indicates the rarity level of the cards you'll be getting before the cards are actually revealed. Mouse over their backs and you'll see a colored glow on rare, epic or legendaries. "We don't immediately flip them, we let player agency take a seat in the sense of controlling what order they flip them in, how they flip them, the time between each flip."
That hint of control is quietly important to the design of Hearthstone's card packs. "What we found in talking to people is that superstition sets in," says Thompson. "What you'll find in psychology is that if the outcome is of high import, you know like, 'Gosh I hope I get a legendary in this,' and if player agency is unclear in terms of your ability to manifest any kind of change in the outcome and there's a little bit of randomness involved, superstition takes hold. That agency and sense of involvement and choice is super important in terms of the experience and the enjoyment of it."
You've probably dabbled in something like it too, by performing some kind of personal rite before opening a loot box. Here's YouTuber Jordan 'Kootra' Mathewson mass-opening Team Fortress 2 crates his own way. This behaviour is actually common across many species: Skinner discovered in 1947 that even pigeons exhibit it. He observed that they’d practise little rituals in the hope that they’d cause food to appear, including turning around in their cages or nodding their heads, and yet the food was given to them at entirely regular intervals. The absence of any explanation of why the food appeared had conditioned them to believe their actions caused it. On a deep level, our own minds work the same way.
Overwatch and Hearthstone contrast with the common way loot boxes are presented. The Counter-Strike: Global Offensive model, in which the gun skins in the crate scroll by, slot machine-style, is a direct evolution of the old ZT Online design. Their distinct lack of visual pizazz is compensated for with the graphic way they show you what you could have won, and when the needle just misses the item you wanted, it's hard not to reach for another go, even though as far as CS:GO is concerned it's as black and white a result as rolling a die.
This design closely mirrors the near-misses in many forms of gambling, from horse racing to roulette. As psychologist Luke Clark has said, "A moderate frequency of near-misses encourages prolonged gambling, even in student volunteers who do not gamble on a regular basis. Problem gamblers often interpret near-misses as evidence that they are mastering the game and that a win is on the way."
In most countries, including the US and UK, loot boxes are not legally considered gambling because the winnings have no intrinsic value outside the game (in China, laws have actually forced developers like Blizzard and Valve to publish the drop rates of their loot boxes). But in being expensive to buy and based on the same psychological principles, we have to treat them with the same care.
Loot boxes also plug into another facet of psychology: collection. In 1991, Dr Ruth Formanek in the Journal of Social Behavior and Personality suggested five reasons we feel the compulsion to collect, including 'extending the self' by obtaining knowledge or having sole control over one's collection, the social benefits of collecting leading to meeting like-minded others, creating a sense of continuity in the world, financial investment, and addiction or compulsion. Alternatively, Freud suggested that it's rooted in a deep desire to reclaim the poo you excreted as a baby.
Whichever theory you go with, loot boxes are almost always filled with collectibles. Overwatch's boards of sprays and percentage counts for completion rates on characters remind you of what you've accrued, and Hearthstone is a collectible card game. Games as a whole highlight an interesting distinction between freeform and structured collection. Collecting, say, baseball caps is freeform collection because you can accrue them indefinitely. But games present a very structured form of collection, tapping into several powerful motivational principles. You're working towards a clear and achievable goal and you can see your progress towards it. During matches you get to show it off to others who are also immersed in collecting the same items, a chance to feel both kinship and bask in the status your collection confers.
And there are systems of scarcity, driving value towards certain items. But managing them is a delicate art. "We use rarity levels primarily to control the frequency of getting our most exciting content," says Overwatch principal designer Heiberg. "We don't want players getting frustrated because they're earning none of the best rewards. We also don't want players getting bored because they earned all of the best rewards at once. Rarity levels give us some control over the pace of these rewards."
Both Overwatch and Hearthstone's designers are careful not to dictate value. "We learned that the value of our cosmetic content varies widely from player to player, and that no distribution of rarities was likely to really jive with everyone," Heiberg continues.
"Some players are super excited about that rare card and the legendary doesn't mean so much, and similarly you'll have someone trying to build an all-Murloc deck and they're going to be more excited about a common Murloc as opposed to the legendary of a class they're not after. We let those moments be fun at every level and not focusing on legendary cards being awesome and how you should get all of them, but rather let the player get excited about any aspect of the opening."
It's easy to feel uncomfortable with loot boxes. They have a powerful capacity to manipulate your behaviour and extract considerable amount of time and money from you with systems that aren't the core game you actually want to play. The bad ones use these tricks to make you value in-game items that you might not choose to in the cold light of day. They can pull you to do things to acquire them that you’ll regret in the long term. But the well-designed ones give you space to find your own value in the trinkets they dole out. That's an indicator that they respect you, and a sign that they recognise—correctly—that collection should be a reward in itself.
"Pack opening is an area that took a fair bit of time to develop because it's a moment players will spend a lot of time with," says Thompson. "More importantly, they'll spend money there and any time our players are investing time and money we want to give them a very fair and honest return. We want people to walk away feeling they got value from it, and that value can come from not just a return on that time or money but also fun. We say we make decisions in Hearthstone based on how much fun players are having, and pack opening is no less of that."
Don't look now, but right now might be the best time ever for multiplayer FPSes. I'm old enough to have experienced the [to the tune of Bryan Adams] 'FPSummer of Ninety-Nine' that gave us, egad, Quake III, Unreal Tournament, Team Fortress Classic, and the beginning of Counter-Strike. I think 2017 surpasses that.
In terms of depth, frequency of support, and contrasting kinds of multiplayer FPSes I can dig into, I don't think there's been a better moment for the PC gamer. The appropriate way to make this argument is with bullet points:
I'm accepting counter-arguments in the comments.
Every year, the team compiles a list of the 100 best PC games you can play today. Our process is deliberately subjective: each participant picks their personal top 15 games, and then the team gathers to narrow that list. We only allow one entry per series, with a couple of notable exceptions. You’ll also find some of our personal picks thrown in—games that we individually love, but which didn't get enough votes to make the list.
For a celebration of those vital historical games that pushed PC gaming forward, read our list of the 50 most important PC games of all time.
RELEASED 2006 | LAST POSITION New entry
Wes Fenlon: In Dwarf Fortress I’ve seen the circle of death and rebirth. It’s less of a game, more of an ambitious simulation, representing the complexities of existence in ASCII. Eventually you’ll feel like Neo, seeing the truth behind the symbols. Just remember: losing is fun.
Shaun Prescott: You don’t even need to play Dwarf Fortress to marvel at its achievement. Hell, the patch notes are a marvel of their own.
RELEASED 2016 | LAST POSITION New entry
Fraser Brown: In Shadow Tactics, every infiltration of an enemy palace or compound is a puzzle overflowing with obstacles. Being sneaky is fun. Being murderous is better. Planning the demise of the game’s guards is a singular delight. I’m a fan of the ol’ tanuki distraction method—the little critter distracts a guard by being adorable while one of my ninjas pounces on him from a roof.
RELEASED 2015 | LAST POSITION New entry
Jody Macgregor: It’s funny that one of the few games to get cyberpunk right is also one with elves in it, but Shadowrun reduces fantasy and cyberpunk to their essentials while emphasising what’s best about both. Dragonfall is basically Baldur’s Gate 2 with turn-based combat set in near-future Berlin, where hackers and samurai raid corporations and watch a talk show hosted by a dragon. It’s as great as it sounds.
RELEASED 2005 | LAST POSITION New entry
Andy Chalk: Combat in FEAR is magnificent chaos. Glass shatters, dust billows, and sparks, paper, and body parts fly in loud, explosive gunfights against some of the finest, most believably ‘real’ AI ever created for an FPS. Enemies flank, they take cover, they chatter and they toss grenades with infuriatingly good timing and accuracy. But what I love most about it is the way it weaves a genuinely horrific tale through all that action, breaking up the manic combat with intensely disturbing stretches of creepiness and a few moments worthy of any pure horror game.
Andy Kelly: I reinstall FEAR at least once a year just to experience that amazing shotgun again. Every shooter has its own unique shotgun, but there’s something immensely satisfying about the one in FEAR. How it violently kicks back when you fire it, and the exaggerated way enemies tumble when you shoot them in slow motion. I’m not usually one for fetishising weapons, but I’ll make an exception here.
Steven Messner: Speaking of fetishising guns, how can we not talk about the 10mm HV Penetrator, the gun that fires giant steel stakes and crucifies enemies against walls? I get that FEAR’s shotgun deserves a lot of praise, but to me the Penetrator is one of the greatest guns of all time. It’s the perfect weapon to use against FEAR’s ragdoll enemies. I used the gun so damn much that I feel like whoever had to go through after me and clean up all the dead bodies probably suffered some pretty severe trauma from seeing hundreds of people nailed to cubicle walls.
RELEASED 2015 | LAST POSITION New entry
Tom Senior: Manny Calavera is one of the coolest heroes in PC gaming, and he happens to live in one of the coolest worlds in PC gaming. It’s a vibrant take on the afterlife, and a great place to set an epic noir love story. Even after all these years Grim Fandango is funny and is still worth everyone’s time. Play it and enjoy the jokes.
Andy K: I love it when you explore Rubacava in year two. Reading beat poetry at the Blue Casket, listening to Glottis play the piano in Manny’s casino. It’s like stepping into a classic film noir, albeit one populated by skeletons and giant bees.
RELEASED 2013 | LAST POSITION New entry
Shaun: It seems wrong to describe a FPS set in a decrepit metro network as ‘beautiful’, but Last Light manages it. Between the often-unforgiving combat and the light-but-rewarding survival elements, this sequel manages to tell an engrossing tale which isn’t at odds with the relentless violence involved.
Samuel Roberts: Probably my favourite apocalypse in games—it’s realistically dour, yet still gorgeous and unsettling.
RELEASED 1998 | LAST POSITION New entry
Jody: This is a free text adventure that begins as a story about a guileless tourist, then frames that as a cover invented by a spy under interrogation, then continues switching between the game you play and the interrogator interrupting to say, “That’s not what happened!” Each flashback gets closer to a truth you the player wants to learn, but you the protagonist want to hide. It’s clever, twisty, and explosive.
RELEASED 2015 | LAST POSITION 74
Wes: Perhaps the greatest use of Early Access as a model for development, Nuclear Throne is a punchy top-down roguelike shooter honed over nearly 100 weekly updates. Like the best games of its type, what seems like a simple setup – collect powerful guns, survive randomly generated levels as you progress to a final boss fight – belies hidden stages and characters and secrets to give you the upper hand. The roster of heroes gives you so many different ways to play. I’m partial to the samurai Chicken, who can briefly survive without his head, and the noob-friendly Crystal, who can reflect bullets. But the real reason to play this over other roguelikes is how great the action feels. It nails that rhythm of explosive action, bullets and enemies flying towards you, with brief moments of respite as you inch towards whatever’s around the corner. Action anxiety perfected.
RELEASED 2014 | LAST POSITION New entry
Tyler Wilde: The best sickly-looking fencing game there is, Nidhogg speeds up the mind games and finesse of Street Fighter, chaining tiny, rapid duels between stabby pixel people into hilarious, constantly tense tug-of-war sessions.
Joe Donnelly: Don’t let appearances fool you: beneath the modest veneer lies a deep and engaging versus mode masterpiece. Be it tactful fencing, aerial karate kicking, sword javelin tossing, or turning tail and running—there’s a strategy for everyone as you push your stick-figured foe back one screen at a time, spawning at either side as you die and regenerate, regenerate and die. Nidhogg also comes with a less enjoyable singleplayer mode that can be wrapped up inside half an hour. Often hilarious, but equally known to bring out the competitive streak in any payer who enters the fray. Be prepared to lose friends over this one.
RELEASED 2004 | LAST POSITION New entry
Fraser: Everything ‘Star Wars’ about it is subverted. The result is one of the most interesting yarns in the franchise, peeling back a lot of the fantastical elements of Star Wars and exploring them.
Samuel Roberts: As I watch the new films I feel like they’re not showing us anything we haven’t seen before. Perhaps that’s because I’ve been spoiled by KOTOR II, where there’s more nuance in the portrayal of the force and memorable characters.
Wes: The buggiest game I’ve ever completed, even with the essential fan patches. Still worth it for Kreia.
RELEASED 2007 | LAST POSITION 20
Evan Lahti: What began as a class-based FPS was transformed into a free-to-play platform for mapmaking, hats, and machinima with a horde mode, events, and a number of bird heads that you can unlock. Valve’s learnings from TF2 helped transform PC gaming at large.
Phil Savage: This is the lowest TF2 has placed on our list by some margin, but that a decade-old multiplayer FPS appears at all is downright heroic. TF2 is eternal.
RELEASED 2013 | LAST POSITION 82
Andy K: This makes it into our top 100 every year, with good reason. On paper it sounds boring, but there’s something hypnotic about hauling goods across its beautiful recreation of Europe.
Phil: I slightly prefer American Truck Simulator’s vast, desolate atmosphere, but ETS2 remains the brighter star, thanks mostly to the size and variety of its continental recreation. This is a huge, relaxing world to travel through.
RELEASED 2017 | LAST POSITION New
Tim Clark: Few series live long enough to reinvent themselves successfully once, let alone a second time. But that’s exactly the dark miracle Resi has pulled off—first with Resi 4, which redefined its predecessors’ clunky third-person exploration into frantic crowd control, and now with this, which has breathed terrifying new life into the haunted house schtick. The switch to first-person, though obvious given the success of indie shockers like Outlast and Amnesia, still feels bold and thrilling. Much of that is down to the unhinged Baker family, each of whom must be faced in their own grand encounter, the best of which are frontloaded towards the start of the game. The generic baddies and a undercooked final act let things down, but the sense is still of a series which has, again, found its feet, even if it’s still waist deep in oily viscera.
RELEASED 2013 | LAST POSITION 100
Joe: The fact that Kentucky Route Zero has only launched four of its five chapters speaks volumes for its placing on this list. Here’s a game that’s yet to be finished, but rubs shoulders with the best PC gaming has to offer. Alongside its cast of idiosyncratic characters, it weaves themes of self-reflection, discovery and the supernatural into its world. Relatable vignettes and playful metaphors stand before a stylish art style. Whereas a sense of dread underpins Acts 1 through 3, KRZ’s penultimate entry eschews its wider picture to focus on the minutiae of each scenario—and its Twain-esque jaunt down the river hones in on the imperfections of your dysfunctional crew. The as-yet unannounced Act 5 will mark the end of the road for Kentucky Route Zero, yet what’s come before it is nothing short of wonderful.
RELEASED 2012 | LAST POSITION 45
Phil: Guild Wars 2 is what happens when you take over a decade’s worth of MMO wisdom and decide to do something better. What if instead of looking for quest givers who ask you to kill ten boars, you collaborated with an entire map to complete objectives that build towards a big boss monster and a chest full of loot? What if instead of being inconvenienced by low-level friends, you were rewarded for partnering up and having a good time? What if instead of paying a subscription, the base game was free? This is one of the most generous MMOs around, and ArenaNet’s experimentation continues, even now. From rebuilding its central city from scratch, to releasing new story chapters, Guild Wars 2 is always building towards something new and exciting.
Tom S: Its dazzling world hosts some of the best combat in the genre. Attacks are template-based and dodging matters. I’ve had a blast taking on enormous bosses with my necromancer and dozens of other warriors. Its events are huge pile-ons that create amazing spectacles and a sense of community.
RELEASED 2013 | LAST POSITION 79
Evan: It blends fragility and power better than any FPS of its kind. As a Japanese soldier on Iwo Jima, I like to smuggle a MG behind my opponents, get prone and drop as many unaware attackers as I can. Real war is unfair, and Rising Storm manages to make a fun game out of its asymmetries.
Tyler: Life in Rising Storm is 90% war movie extra and 10% leading role.
RELEASED 2011 | LAST POSITION 42
Tom Marks: Like the finest wine or the smelliest cheese, Terraria keeps on getting better with age. It’s staggering to look back at everything that’s been added since it launched—a stream of updates has introduced over 3,000 items, new biomes, bosses and countless other improvements. It’s dense with exciting things to do and discover, and there’s sure to be even more by this time next year.
RELEASED 2016 | LAST POSITION 53
Evan: As you lose men to madness, syphilis, heart attacks, vampiric blood thirst or other maladies, you’ll come to the realisation that you shouldn’t treat your adventurers as precious assets to be cared for, but as batteries in the shape of men. That gives the game a different emotional texture: you’re not a faithful commander, you’re a brutal middle-manager. I love its artistic cohesion and the genius use of a single, ominous narrator (Wayne June) throughout the game to set the mood and speak for the characters, enemies, and the dungeon-as-character.
RELEASED 2015 | LAST POSITION 89
Fraser: Why is building roads so compelling? There’s a lot going on in Cities: Skylines, Colossal Order’s city builder, but getting the teeming masses to their destinations scratches an itch like nothing else. I’m diversifying into blimps now. Seeing my citizens politely queueing up in their thousands to take to the skies makes me a happy mayor. Sure, I had to bulldoze a school to make room for one of the stations, but now all the children are being educated by floating billboards.
Phil: Fraser’s populace is doing a lot better than the occupants of my last town, many of whom died after a sewage disaster. But when I’m not battling a tide of brown water, I love the degree of fine-tuning that Cities: Skylines supports. The zoning system is inspired—enabling experimentation by letting you earmark a part of your town for farming, nightlife or legal pot use.
RELEASED 2016 | LAST POSITION New
Evan: Flick an RPG into a crowd of zeds and watch intestines, bile, and whole torsos vomit out the blast radius. It’s zombie bowling made by gun nerds, with gaming’s best slow-motion inviting you to savour every frame.
Hannah Dwan: Is there a game that makes tearing apart monstrosities as fun as Killing Floor 2? It’s the best and most surprisingly diverse horde mode anyone’s ever made.
RELEASED 2009 | LAST POSITION 20
Chris Livingston: The ultimate game for popping in for a few minutes and then looking around blearily when you realise a dozen hours have passed. Its world can be whatever you want it to be: a singleplayer crafting and exploration game, or a multiplayer sandbox experience. Throw in thousands of mods, custom games and speciality servers, and the near-infinite world of Minecraft gets even bigger.
RELEASED 2015 | LAST POSITION New
Matthew: This is more than Left 4 Dead with rat men—a characterful recreation of The Old World you’ll want to stop and explore (though the rats will devour you). Each character is a distillation of a Warhammer race, and watching them interact is a treat. The humour contrasts nicely with the hopelessness of it all.
Evan: It’s a Warhammer B-movie in the best way possible.
RELEASED 1987 | LAST POSITION New
Wes: Roguelike once literally meant ‘like the game Rogue’, the ASCII dungeon crawler made for ’80s mainframes. But most modern roguelikes owe more to its descendant NetHack, first released in 1987 (and still updated and actively played to this day). The simple graphics allow for a deep dungeon crawler compared to any other I’ve played. Why pick a lock when you can kick down a door? Why eat a pie when you can use it to blind an enemy? If you value mystery and discovery in games, nothing does them better than NetHack. Play online on nethack.alt.org to encounter the remains of other players who never made it out of the dungeon’s depths.
RELEASED 2016 | LAST POSITION New
Evan: The best same-screen co-op game on PC. This would be higher if it worked well as a singleplayer game.
Phil: Shamefully, I have watched a lot of Hell’s Kitchen USA. Overcooked is like if Ramsey’s competition was more cartoony and collaborative, with less swearing—most of the time. Success requires coordination of resources and time—which almost always results in glorious culinary chaos.
RELEASED 1994 | LAST POSITION 69
Chris L: Rather than trying to reinvent the original, Doom II just gave us a heavier dose of everything we wanted: more monsters and bigger levels. It’s still an utter blast to play.
Phil: Doom II boasts incredible mod support. You can warp the campaign with over-the-top effects, or you can enjoy the many total conversions, from the The Adventures of Square, to the incredible WolfenDoom.
RELEASED 2015 | LAST POSITION New
Fraser: In Sunless Sea, you get a vulnerable ship and a sinister ocean to explore. There’s action, trading and permadeath, but what really defines Failbetter’s nautical romp is the exceptional writing. It jumps between whimsy and menace. One moment you’re solving a dispute between rats and guinea pigs, the next your crew are eating each other. It’s a game about crafting weird, tragic stories. The captain-turned-spy who made one too many enemies in the east. The explorer who risked everything to climb out of the Unterzee and back to the surface. There are countless paths, all leading to strange places.
Andy K: The mystery of what lies on each island is what keeps me pushing through the many hardships. A gruelling game, but worth enduring for the wonderful stories you’re told whenever you dock somewhere.
RELEASED 2010 | LAST POSITION New
James Davenport: You flip gravity (by pressing the V key) to bounce up and down between the floor and ceiling avoiding spikes (they look like this: VVVVVV) while exploring a psychedelic 8-bit open world in pursuit of your friends, Violent, Vermillion, Victoria, Verdigris, and Vitellary. Developer Terry Cavanagh created VVVVVV as an experiment in level design – abilities never change, but how surfaces behave and the conditions of the world change constantly. In one stretch, thin lines throw you about like gravity-defying trampolines, and in another the level scrolls on its own, forcing you to think quickly. In one lonely corner of the map, a massive elephant cries. All you can do there is frown. But it’s hard to stay down with such a buoyant soundtrack. It’s one earworm after another, an assembly of upbeat, catchy chiptunes that still haunt me today.
RELEASED 2016 | LAST POSITION New
Hannah: When I say Ladykiller in a Bind is a NSFW visual novel about horny teenagers, there’s probably a certain image people generally imagine: crude, poorly written, and often embarrassing, the gaming equivalent of that time you found an adult magazine in the local park. Ladykiller In A Bind goes against that with smart writing, enjoyable characters, and lifelike depictions of intimacy (or, the chaos of it). It’s aware of the stereotype, and so does its best to dismantle it by portraying those teenage years with the maturity of a game designed for those a little older.
RELEASED 1998 | LAST POSITION New
Jody: The original Fallout nailed an atmosphere of black comedy, combining post-apocalyptic grit with goofy retrofuturism. It also nailed the RPG standard of having three solutions to a problem, but where other games went with ‘violent’, ‘sneaky’, and ‘magical’ solutions, Fallout replaced the third option with ‘diplomatic’. It’s as good a game about talking your way out of trouble as has ever been made.
RELEASED 2014 | LAST POSITION 49
Tom M: Even though it arrived on PC late, Valkyria Chronicles is still one the freshest takes on a strategy game I’ve seen. It’s a mix of turn-based strategy, third-person shooter and JRPG that, against all odds, comes together to form an cohesive whole. The art style and melodramatic story don’t scream ‘hardcore strategy’, but underneath all that is a one-of-a-kind tactics game that shouldn’t be overlooked.
RELEASED 2011 | LAST POSITION New
Jody: Bastion is an action RPG with trimmings so wonderful we sometimes overlook the strong combat at its centre. You carry two weapons, and each is balanced for multiple situations. Control schemes can be tweaked, and the challenge shrines are a neat way of tweaking difficulty. Those trimmings are wonderful, though: the city that rebuilds itself, the narrator who responds to your actions, the perfect soundtrack and the story that reaches a genuinely affecting conclusion.
Phil: The worldbuilding is exceptional—and not just in the immediate sense, as levels tend to literally build themselves around you. The songs the characters sing are pulled from the history of the world Supergiant has created, and imbued with a deeper meaning that feeds back into the more immediate story. It really helps sell the emotions behind the drama that unfolds.
RELEASED 2016 | LAST POSITION New
Shaun: Ah, the primal gaming pleasure of running and jumping to the end of a level. That’s essentially all you do in N++, but it’s incredible just how varied this platformer feels despite having over 1,500 levels and an artstyle as barebones as they come. The star attraction of the N series—which started off as a Flash game—has always been the floaty movement of its stick-figured ninja, who feels so good to direct that it barely matters how many thousands of times you’ll die. And while it’s true that ‘running’ and ‘jumping’ is basically all you do in N++, it’s the subtlety in the way these actions are executed that matters—momentum and timing is important, but crucially, luck never is. Add to all this a cooperative mode and a level editor, and it feels like N++ is just about the last twitch platformer we’ll ever need. Or, at least, it seems a tough task to top it.
RELEASED 1999 | LAST POSITION New
Andy C: This has everything: guns, hacking, frightening enemies, a tale of betrayal, a pumping soundtrack, ambiance and a villain who makes the greatest videogame entrance ever. Throw on one of the updated texture packs and you’ve got a game that’s as brilliant now as it was in 1999.
Tom S: The enemy models aren’t chilling now, but the sense of struggle is intact. The Von Braun is still an interesting place to master, and the splicing of shooter/RPG systems just works. Games like Dishonored have since taken the formula to new heights, but even that game can’t match the tension of this ingenious original.
Phil: Part of what makes that so effective is the soundtrack is one of the great ’90s videogame scores. Sparse and creepy, it’s instrumental in defining System Shock 2’s style.
RELEASED 2013 | LAST POSITION 55
Phil: A relaxing platformer that’s filled with fiendish secrets. On the surface, Fez is a charming game about rotating a 2D world to complete puzzles and create new routes. But scratch beneath its surface, and Fez reveals its heart. You’ll translate languages, decode runes and break through the fourth wall. It’s meticulously constructed, and all set to a soundtrack that builds a lasting, memorable sense of place.
RELEASED 2009 | LAST POSITION New
Chris L: Charming, challenging and endearing, defend your home from zombies with an army of deadly plants – like corn cannons, exploding cherries, and hypnotic mushrooms. It’s masterfully balanced, introducing new threats and defences at the perfect pace that brings what at times feels like a casual and colourful war to a nail-biting conclusion. PvZ is tower defence at its finest and funniest.
RELEASED 2009 | LAST POSITION 66
Hannah: Which Burnout game is the best is a tricky topic, but I’m adamant it’s Burnout Paradise. A great variety of streets to race down, loads of cars to unlock and, oh baby, the destruction when a car gets wrecked. Wheels bend into the wrong directions, metal shards ping off, all in glorious slow motion. The regular obliteration of cars is the icing on the cake to the most well designed arcade driving game ever.
RELEASED 2015 | LAST POSITION 59
Joe: With a wonderful story that’s bolstered by an intuitive battle system, Pillars of Eternity echoes roleplaying stalwarts such as Icewind Dale, Baldur’s Gate and Fallout. A classic.
Andy K: As someone who grew up with Infinity Engine RPGs, playing something that captures their distinctive magic, but with a modern sheen, was a delight. Deep, rich, and compelling, roleplaying on PC doesn’t get much better.
RELEASED 2003 | LAST POSITION New
Samuel: There’s not a single cover shooter around that’s more fun than Remedy’s bullet time sequel, in my opinion (there’s perhaps an argument for Vanquish). Diving into every enemy-filled room with two pistols blazing is like a puzzle to solve, and the sound design and feedback of the guns is terrific. Its noir styling is at once ironic and sincere, and I still love it. You can pop Gears of War in the bin, thanks.
RELEASED 2015 | LAST POSITION New
Katharine Byrne: The cute critters in Moon Studio’s platformer will make you go d’aww almost as often as the nails hard platforming makes you go arghhh. Its Studio Ghibli-esque animation and soaring soundtrack are both top of their class, and the ability to slingshot Ori off enemy attacks brings something genuinely new to the platforming table, making me very excited for its upcoming sequel.
RELEASED 2015 | LAST POSITION 92
Matthew: There’s something about Undertale’s subversive, retro take on the top-down RPG that sweeps you up and takes you back to a place that’s half nightmare, half adventure. It recalls the best and worst of fairy tales – a mix of excitement and understated menace – and it’s brought to life by a smart sense of humour that makes the whole thing strangely relatable. It’s particularly essential for anyone who’s skipped classic games for fear of standardised JRPG tropes – turn-based combat is tweaked with bullet hell minigames and you can bond with the monsters you face in battle instead of straight-up slaughtering them in cold blood. The sacred foundation stones of an entire genre are smashed and rebuilt into something genuinely unique, and the result is a game that anyone can engage with. It’s a strange, wonderful and curiously nostalgic experience: however old you are, playing Undertale will make you feel like a plucky youngster trying EarthBound for the first time.
Steven: I absolutely adore Undertale’s combat system. It’s often overshadowed by the story and characters but as someone who knows the pain of sitting through yet another turn-based fight with the same enemies, Undertale’s combat never feels like a slog. It’s a system on par with Super Mario RPG for the SNES, where every attack and block can double its efficacy by carefully timed button presses. But in Undertale, you move a little heart around bullet hell minigames, transforming the combat from a passive experience into an active one. Turn-based combat systems are historically all about rolling dice and thinking one step ahead, but again Undertale subverts expectations while still feeling true to the source material.
Tyler: It’s about fandom and death of the author, self-interested themes that could’ve made for an indulgent misery. But love for games flows through Undertale, and it instantly endeared itself to me. Run from almost every game that parodies games except for this one.
RELEASED 1999 | LAST POSITION 34
Tyler: This should be higher. Maybe it will be, next year, after I launch a campaign to force everyone affiliated with PC Gamer to play the remastered version—which, thankfully, doesn’t tamper with a single line of dialogue. Torment is a witty, weird RPG that emphasises story and dialogue, and is filled with surprising events that feel like they could’ve been made up by a clever DM on the spot. I remember, early on, how you can let an embalmer who thinks you’re a zombie fill you with stitches—increasing your max HP. Every little thing matters, nothing is filler, no sidequest is boring.
RELEASED 2004 | LAST POSITION 68
Leif Johnson: WoW has some fantastic competition these days, but it remains the MMORPG in the mind of the public at large. And rightly so. Blizzard’s behemoth is a world not just in terms of space, but also in how successfully it’s evolved after weathering more than a decade of shifting tastes and audiences. Be it in dungeons, PVP, or thrashing Alliance in the Temple of Kotmogu, it’s still easy to find the fun.
RELEASED 2016 | LAST POSITION New
Evan: Through its Districts system, Civ VI made city planning matter. I like having to think long-term about each tile placement. Hopefully religion and espionage will get deeper.
Tyler: When Civ V came out, everyone, including me, said that Civ IV is better. The same is happening with Civ VI and Civ V, but with full mod support and the city planning Evan mentioned, which I love, Civ VI is the one to play now.
RELEASED 2002 | LAST POSITION 44
Leif: It may be a fantasy RPG, but it shoves bearded wizards and stodgy castles aside in favour of an alien wonderland resembling fever dream during a mind meld of Frank Herbert and Frank Frazetta. But looks alone don’t secure its legacy, as funky as its mushroom towers and racist elves may be. Its greatness lies in how thoroughly it wrapped us in its weird world, forcing us to remember details from tomes and chats to see the saga to its end.
Matthew: I’m still sad I can’t experience it all over again. For me, no other Elder Scrolls game has come close to delivering a story with the scale and nuance of Morrowind, and the setting is the most vivid. A dense, generous, deliriously compelling RPG (with the best giant mushrooms in gaming).
RELEASED 2006 | LAST POSITION 84
Tom S: A World War II RTS that distills the noise and fury of Saving Private Ryan into a clinical game of take and hold. The first Company of Heroes is still a design peak for Relic. The asymmetrical power curves of the Axis and Allied forces create an absorbing tug-of-war. In a long-fought game infantry armies give way to tank warfare, and the destructible maps are gradually levelled. There’s a sense of escalation to every fight, and the campaign features some of the best levels Relic has ever made. I keep coming back to it every year to see if it has faded yet, and it still hasn’t happened. It looks great for an 11-year-old game, and sounds incredible, too. The unit barks are baked into my mind, but the chatter still gives the battlefield a sense of life, and the ker-chunk discharge of a tank’s main weapon is as impactful today as ever.
RELEASED 2013 | LAST POSITION 43
Evan: When I think of Arma, I think of the photos of soldiers goofing off inside their FOB, posing and pranking one another. They do it, I’d guess, to alleviate the tension that comes with fighting. Arma is authentic because it recreates that need for silliness to balance its seriousness. Its need for tactics and fidelity demand some amount of military lingo, compasses, maps and an eye for spotting enemies far away. But, inevitably, someone will do something stupid: barrel rolling their Little Bird, firing a Javelin at a sedan, shooting a heli with a sidearm. Somewhere within that balance of sim and silly is the cloth from which breakouts like Battlegrounds are cut.
RELEASED 2013 | LAST POSITION 12
Chris Thursten: There are a lot of games that are superficially like Dota 2, but there’s only one game that actually is Dota 2. This is competitive Calvinball, macroeconomics with wizards, a game of high-stakes five-a-side with more rules than one person can ever know. What this complexity amounts to is a vibrant language shared by everybody who loves this mad game. Shame about all the angry internet men.
RELEASED 2014 | LAST POSITION New
Fraser: One of the rare spinoffs that’s better than its progenitor. It gives us a broader look at the anarchy of Pandora and its demented inhabitants, but more importantly it’s blessed with a trick that a lot of otherwise funny games don’t have: comedic timing.
Phil: By avoiding the more wacky elements, Tales from the Borderlands is both funny and heartfelt. I’d argue it’s Telltale’s best work.
RELEASED 2012 | LAST POSITION 31
Chris L: It’s unusual for a grand strategy game to be so personal. Rather than playing as a faceless leader, you’re an actual person with flaws and desires, and the people surrounding you are unique individuals with their own goals and needs. It makes for an engrossing blend of managing the big picture of world events, while dealing with the domestic soap opera of relationships and betrayals. There’s more character building and storytelling in Crusader Kings II than in most RPGs. Your character also has a realistic lifespan: even if you survive assassination attempts, battles, illnesses and other threats, you’re still going to die of old age, at which point you resume the game as an heir. The impermanence of your characters and the passing of the torch from generation to generation gives your dynasty a real history, and your choices and actions real meaning.
RELEASED 2009 | LAST POSITION 25
Tom S: Left 4 Dead 2 has supplied me with the best co-op experiences of my life. It’s a fascinating experiment in automatic pacing, but the AI director that controls the zombie army would be useless without the beautifully designed levels.
Evan: A guaranteed fun Friday night: download a bunch of dumb character and gun mods and play GoldenEye 4 Dead with your friends,—its a surprisingly inspired, zombie-filled recreation of the N64 classic shooter.
Wes: Left 4 Dead 2 is still the perfect co-op experience on PC. Moments of mindless zombie blasting give you time to chat, horde rushes and special infected send you yelping for help, and you can’t help but laugh at the chaos around you. Showdowns demand real teamwork if you want to make it out alive. And the Community maps can keep you going forever.
RELEASED 2015 | LAST POSITION New
Chris T: Klei’s inability to make a bad game allowed it to flit from Mark of the Ninja to this: XCOM with cyberpunk secret agents. Invisible, Inc’s genius lies in its transparency—you always understand what the outcome of your decisions will be, and are left with the gratifying challenge of unpicking each turn-based stealth challenge as you encounter it. It gives the sense of being both punishing and fair, something that XCOM has traditionally struggled with.
Katharine: Klei’s developers are clever. The way this mixes Don’t Starve’s survival themes with Mark of the Ninja’s acrobatics gives us the ultimate heist sim: a world where you’re a cool badass until a single turn of fate triggers a desperate, but thrilling, scramble for life.
RELEASED 2012 | LAST POSITION 38
Evan: CS:GO doesn’t get enough credit for its asymmetry. In the most popular competitive FPS in the world, one team carries a gun that can kill with one shot (the AK-47), and the other doesn’t.
Andy K: The tense rhythm of a match is thrilling, stressful and exhilarating. It’s a game that demands careful tactical play, where every stupid mistake can mean defeat, which gives you no choice but to work at being a better player.
RELEASED 2000 | LAST POSITION 41
Andy K: The feeling of adventure when you emerge from Irenicus’s grim dungeon to find the city of Athkatla sprawling out before you is hard to beat, and the sheer freedom you have to shape your character is exhilarating.
Phil: The first Baldur’s Gate offered a slow journey to its titular city, but this gives up the goods immediately. It imbues Baldur’s Gate II with a welcome sense of sprawling adventure.
RELEASED 2016 | LAST POSITION New
James: Both the most acrobatic modern FPS of the decade and the best big robot friend sim at once. Call of Duty meets Quake with mechs makes for a continually surprising campaign where every level is an experiment in something singular, whether it’s first-person parkour, mech combat, or time travel. Time travel? Time travel. Accompanied by a multiplayer suite growing fatter with regular free updates, Titanfall 2 is an easy recommendation.
Samuel: I enjoyed the campaign, but it’s no The New Order or Doom 2016, so it’s in the right place on this list.
RELEASED 2017 | LAST POSITION New
James: It’s time to put the dull term ‘Metroidvania’ to bed and start calling all 2D action exploration games ‘Hollow-likes’. Hollow Knight deserves the new useless crown. As a blank-faced bug armed with only a nail, you delve underground and tour a fallen kingdom while piecing together its story and your true purpose. Huge chunks of the map, entire levels with unique enemies and music, are hidden behind breakable walls and locked doors.
With something like 20 bosses, a significant number of which are optional, it’s possible to breeze by hours of exploration and combat without a clue. But chances are you’ll find most of it, because Hollow Knight inspires curiosity. Environments are brimming with mystery, depicting fallen cities, abyssal nightmares and stinky dung piles. Animated in an adorable hand-drawn style and accompanied by a lovely soundtrack, Hollow Knight is an adventure that will play as well as it does today, forever.
RELEASED 2014 | LAST POSITION 47
Tim: For all the memes about random cards generated by random cards and four-Mana 7/7s, the fact remains that Hearthstone is a helluva game. Whisper it, but right now Hearthstone is at its rudest health for a long time. A lot of that is down to the diversity ushered in by the brilliant Journey to Un’Goro expansion, but also the communication and leadership shown by Ben Brode, the game’s avuncular director.
RELEASED 2003 | LAST POSITION 14
Steven: As a sandbox where players can either vie for power by wielding the might of thousand-person armies or spend an evening drunk, shooting rocks for minerals, EVE Online is unparalleled in scope. At 14 years old you might think the stories of betrayals and epic battles would all have been told by now, but EVE always finds a new way to shock me—both via the ingenuity of its players and their relentless cruelty.
RELEASED 2000 | LAST POSITION New
Phil: The Command & Conquer series has never boasted the balance of, say, StarCraft: Brood War, but that’s not the point. Red Alert 2 is my favourite RTS because it combines a great campaign, varied units, and a silly sensibility, most evident during its amazing FMV cutscenes.
Samuel: It’s the peak of the series, I think—the unit types are daft but cool, and the campaign is probably the best one Westwood ever did. You can send Allied dolphins in to mess up Soviet squids. Which genius thought shutting Westwood was a good idea, again?
RELEASED 2004 | LAST POSITION 65
Andy C: This is a perfect recreation of undead life in the glittering, grimy streets of late-night LA. It’s smart, frightening and layered with memorable characters, all of it filtered through the unique perspectives of the game’s seven playable clans.
Phil: It’s the sidequests that I love. Can you kill a vampire hunter who’s working at a stripclub? Should you trick a reporter into returning to the den of a flesh-eating vampire? It’s a delightful mix of ancient vampire politics and petty LA powerplays.
RELEASED 2009 | LAST POSITION 35
Chris L: I’ve never experienced more tension and dread in a game than in Stalker. Each excursion into the Zone leaves me exhausted, jumpy, and shaken, and each return to one of Pripyat’s few safe zones is accompanied by a exhalation of breath and a slow unknotting of my neck and shoulder muscles. Bleak, grim and unrelenting, Call of Pripyat remains unmatched in atmosphere and horror.
RELEASED 2013 | LAST POSITION 54
Steven: This does something I’ve never experienced before in an MMO: it makes me care about the characters. Weaving MMO grinding with a story that rivals Final Fantasy’s best, XIV is one of the most vibrant and engrossing MMOs I’ve played. What’s better, the latest expansion, Stormblood, is the series’ best achievement. It tells a captivating story of war and rebellion that no Final Fantasy fan should miss.
RELEASED 2015 | LAST POSITION 11
Chris T: It marries the time-absorbing pull of construction with the challenge of a good puzzle while simulating just enough of real rocketry to make you feel like you’re learning something. Getting a rocket and its crew safely into orbit is a substantial challenge, something you’ll feel rightly proud of when you crack it—and the game only broadens from there, with each new goal stretching out organically ahead of you. If that doesn’t appeal to you, KSP is flexible: if you want to focus on building a giant rocket-powered robot, go for it.
Tyler: I shot a Kerbal into orbit and accidentally left him there. I’m afraid to reopen the game because he’s still floating there in orbit, and I feel like as long as KSP isn’t running he’s at least in stasis. I’d like to apologise to all of Kerbalkind for what I’ve done. Anyway, 10/10 for sure. Brilliant game.
RELEASED 2015 | LAST POSITION New
Steven: By stripping away so much of the complexity of MOBAs, Heroes of the Storm manages to be both accessible and still incredibly strategic. Similar to what Hearthstone did for Magic: The Gathering, Heroes of the Storm distills the drama of a MOBA into something that anyone can enjoy. It also has some of the zaniest hero designs I’ve ever seen. Two players each playing a separate head of a single ogre? Fantastic. If Heroes of the Storm has always been looked down upon as ‘baby’s first MOBA’ then to hell with it, being a kid is way more fun anyway.
Hannah: I’m confident in saying it’s the most well-designed game of its genre. Perhaps the most impressive feature is its diverse strategy—with each map being unique, every niche strategy is catered to in some way, no character or playstyle ends up dying at the feet of a metagame.
RELEASED 2015 | LAST POSITION 76
Andy K: A colourful alternate history elevated by exquisite writing, and it’s endlessly replayable thanks to the multitude of routes you can take across the globe and the many choices you can make in its unpredictable story. Moving, funny, intelligent and surprisingly challenging, 80 Days is, and I don’t say this lightly, a masterpiece of interactive fiction.
Samuel: Fantastic writing and scene-setting art bring this steampunky adventure to life.
Katharine: Phileas Fogg may be a bossy asshat, but balancing the ticking clock of his wager against soaking up every last diversion is tremendous fun.
RELEASED 2017 | LAST POSITION New
Katharine: Bundling together two of the best visual novels around, The Nonary Games drums up tension from the simple act of left-clicking text boxes. Both stories lock you in deadly games of trust, with story paths that shine new light on one another and allow for audacious twists. Add some fiendish ‘escape room’ puzzles to break up the (excellent) reams of text, and this feels like serious nourishment for the brain.
RELEASED 2016 | LAST POSITION New
Matthew: Everything you need to know is in the name, and Creative Assembly delivers brilliantly on the promise of vivid battles in the Warhammer world. If you’ve ever consumed army books or drybrushed a Beastman, there’s a joy in seeing it come to life in a game that rewrites the lore every time you play. Every race plays like a different game, but I’ll always be happy spending days rebuilding the Dwarf empire.
RELEASED 2016 | LAST POSITION New
James: Five minutes into the scarab’s journey down Thumper’s hell road, my hands lose color and a pool of sweat drips down into my lap. Tapping buttons and turning sharp corners to a beat with a bizarre time signature while lights strobe and impossible geometry blurs by isn’t easy. Thumper is, after all, a punishing rhythm game designed to make you feel uncomfortable. Through punishment and a drip feed of new rules, Thumper teaches as it tortures. Most will never master it, but that’s the point. The joy comes from stemming a hellish tide, from survival and syncopation with a daunting, dangerous force.
Phil: What if Audiosurf didn’t like you? That’s Thumper, a game that weaponises time signatures to create intense rhythm action.
Evan: Thumper is actually a documentary about the path you take to heaven or hell when you die.
RELEASED 2015 | LAST POSITION 23
Tom M: Playing an 80-plus-hour RPG entirely co-op was a strangely intimate experience. A flurry of quick saves for the first 20 hours gave way to a rhythm of wordless and efficient combat. But as the game reached those last 20 hours, Divinity ramped the difficulty back up and the dialogue restarted—we moved methodically through each fight, formed fine-tuned strategies to safely take on Death Knights, and at one point even built an obstacle course out of chairs and boxes to slow down a hasted demon. Divinity: Original Sin rewards you for creative thinking, and isn’t afraid to beat you down until you understand that. And working through those challenges with the right partner is an RPG experience I haven’t found anywhere else.
RELEASED 2017 | LAST POSITION New
Samuel: I’m so glad this glorious hack-and-slash game finally came to PC, and that it’s the best version. Unlocking the extra weapons and perfecting the combat system means you can play Bayonetta for about 100 hours if you want to.
Katharine: PlatinumGames is a studio that cut its teeth at the arcade and made its living on console, but on a technical level PC feels like a more natural home for its action delights. Chief among them is Bayonetta, a take-no-prisoners workout for the fingers that has you slipping through cracks in attacks to slow time and unleash combos built from your own hair. Which other hero delivers damage by the megaton, can materialise a guillotine for a finisher or simply give an angel a good spanking? This. Is. Videogames.
Chris T: It’s a treat to have Bayonetta on PC at long last. This exuberant, outlandishly camp brawler from the creators of Devil May Cry is imaginative and deeply, deeply silly. It’s gaming’s own hyperviolent Rocky Horror Picture Show starring a fourth-wall-disregarding, leather-clad nun-witch with guns strapped to her stilettos who kills angels by turning her hair, which is also her clothes, into dragons and bondage devices. Games are rarely this free, fun or surprising.
Phil: It’s fun and campy, but don’t let that fool you: Bayonetta boasts the best combat around. The rhythm feels great, as you chain kicks and punches before topping it all off with a hair-based finisher that acts as the exclamation mark to a combo. But Bayonetta goes deeper still, with slow-mo evades and dodge offsets. You can get by with the basics, but take the time to master its high-level combat systems and Bayonetta feels unlike anything else.
RELEASED 1998 | LAST POSITION New
Jody: ‘The first Thief game is the best’ is a hill I’ll die on. Thief has as much level variety as three other games, from wealthy mansions to tombs with zombies and deathtraps to straight-up horror. Where it’s arguably weak is the AI, but even that becomes a strength when guards go haywire and the story acknowledges it with running jokes about their drunkenness—notes of comedy to alleviate the tension.
RELEASED 2012 | LAST POSITION 32
Tom S: Help, I can’t stop playing this game. Every time I charge through a level in adventure mode with a new character, I like it even more. I just love blowing up hundreds of monsters with satisfying abilities. After years of updates, Diablo III is a beautifully fast and generous game that showers you with experience, legendary weapons and new ways to kill monsters. The best action RPG ever, for my money.
RELEASED 2016 | LAST POSITION New
Phil: A pitch-perfect sandbox that combines lighthearted race events with a fetishistic appreciation of cars. Horizon 3 is big, bombastic and beautiful—set in one of the most vibrant environments I’ve ever explored. The events are fun, but the real masterstroke is found in the skill system, which creates a thrilling tug-of-war between risk and reward. It makes time spent in its world a joy.
RELEASED 2010 | LAST POSITION 87
Joe: Contrary to popular opinion: the Mojave wasteland is the most interesting settings of all the Fallout games. Learning each survivor’s tale and how to play them against one another makes for some interesting morally grey decision making.
Samuel: I really like New Vegas’s reactivity to your decisions in the story, but it’s the least exciting of the 3D Fallout games for exploration, for me, and that's what the 3D Fallout games are best at.
RELEASED 2017 | LAST POSITION New entry
Andy K: Exploring the Finch residence and uncovering the lives of its residents is one of the most emotionally stirring experiences I’ve had in a videogame.
Evan: I was not expecting tentacles.
James: It has one bizarre scene after another made devastating by a bittersweet story about family and loss.
Phil: This is what you’d get if WarioWare was a cohesive tale about life, death and family.
RELEASED 2011 | LAST POSITION 10
Chris L: What it lacks in polish and looks it makes up for tenfold in the freedom it provides. Skyrim has a story, but more importantly it’s a place for players to create their own story, to build characters from the ground up and play the way they want. It’s also flexible, which has enabled modders to create hundreds of extra hours of content, meaning we’ll be playing Skyrim long after its sequel arrives.
RELEASED 2017 | LAST POSITION New
Evan: One: it compresses the time and space that survival games like DayZ give you, forcing you into contact with other players and out of your comfort zone. And two: it oscillates between serious and silly—you’re shouting compass bearings, then you’re backflipping a motorbike over your friends.
Andy K: And for the solo player, Battlegrounds is just as thrilling. Playing it as a stealth game, with humans instead of AI guards, and ducking between cover is wonderfully tense.
Steven: Solo is awesome, but co-op is where it really takes off. Having a buddy you can rely on really expands your strategic options. There’s rarely a decision made during a duo match that doesn’t feel meaningful.
Chris T: The magic of Battlegrounds is the way it makes every encounter feel meaningful. When only one can win and death comes quickly, every choice you make matters: getting the drop on an foe and stealing their stuff is great, but there’s catharsis to getting caught, too
RELEASED 2017 | LAST POSITION New
Leif: You could be forgiven for dismissing Nier: Automata as a generic Japanese RPG based on looks alone—in some ways it embraces those expectations in order to subvert them. But this is a science fiction masterwork; a richly imagined tale with a meaning that grows more bizarre with each playthrough as we see events through the eyes of different characters. Its also a blast to play, swapping between third-person action, shoot-’em-up and platformer genres effortlessly.
Phil: I prefer Bayonetta’s combat, but the world of Nier is a tragically beautiful space. Automata also offers what is sure to be 2017’s best soundtrack.
RELEASED 2000 | LAST POSITION 13
Andy K: The visuals have aged horribly, to the point where it’s almost offensive to modern eyes, but get over that hump and Deus Ex is still one of the best, richest, most expansive immersive sims on PC. Vast levels filled with NPCs, alternate paths, and optional missions, a twisting, conspiracy-laden plot and a bleak, dystopian atmosphere make it an essential PC game, despite being almost 20 years old.
RELEASED 2016 | LAST POSITION 97
Phil: A farming RPG created by one person. It’s a heartwarming success story and a legitimately great version of a genre that was underrepresented on PC. The valley is packed with activities, from fishing to dungeon crawling, in addition to the day-to-day task of growing crops, milking cows, baking and refining your raw produce into more desirable materials. Gentrification has never been so entertaining.
RELEASED 2012 | LAST POSITION 78
Samuel: At the last NYE party I went to, we played FTL as a group, and I found myself shouting tips for how to deal with slaver ships, mysterious signals and that crazy guy on the planet’s surface, who can either join your crew or do damage to your ship. I’d recommend it to sci-fi fans and strategy devotees equally—but it’s also a great introduction to strategy generally.
Matthew: Failure, panic, and the quiet acceptance of death: these are the hallmarks of FTL, a space exploration game with roguelike elements which is far more fun than I’ve made it sound. It’s like experiencing your most beloved sci-fi reveries with a dose of relentless realism. Things will burn. People will suffocate. You probably won’t survive that heroic rescue. But when you do, it honestly feels amazing. Just don’t rename your crewmates after your friends.
RELEASED 2016 | LAST POSITION New
Evan: Who expected Battlefield to find its stride in WWI? The technological constraints of the nineteenteens inspired the series’ most interesting infantry gunplay. The Madsen MG is powerful, but its vertical magazine blocks your vision. The absence of plentiful armoured transport makes the 70-ton Char 2C supertank feel like a baby Godzilla when it hits the map. Gorgeous art and sound design don’t hurt.
Andy K: The shift from high-precision modern weapons provided the shot in the arm Battlefield needed. It’s a delight to return to the mud and rust of an older war. And enough licence is taken with the history to ensure it doesn’t feel like a cartoon depiction of WWI. The St Quentin Scar map is a highlight: a stretch of farmland dotted with interesting architecture to capture. Every minute feels chaotic and urgent.
RELEASED 2015 | LAST POSITION 39
Samuel: I recently found myself in a position of recommending PC games to someone who normally plays on consoles, and the first thing I did was bring up Her Story. A fantastic, one-of-a-kind mystery game.
Tim: I think at some point in the future we’re going to look back on this game as the herald of non-shit FMV games, but few of the flood that have followed so far have borne any comparison to Her Story. And that’s because Sam Barlow’s elegant concept, strong writing, and the standout performance by Viva Seifert all feel like bottled lightning levels of brilliant. A rare treat.
Hannah: Her Story is the bar for detective games. With the uniqueness of searching through a poorly-sorted database to piece together a mystery, you put together the threads of its story yourself. The FMV nature only adds to how unsettling it can become.
RELEASED 2014 | LAST POSITION New
Tom S: It’s a simple formula: put some Nazis in a level, give a player some massive guns and you’ve got a decent FPS. The New Order goes above and beyond regular shooters with great characters and a sense of humour, and stealth that works. It’s an intelligent update of a classic series that reflects on the inherent silliness of its setup, even as it invites you to indulge, ideally with a machine gun in each hand.
RELEASED 2007 | LAST POSITION No change
Samuel: Still fantastic, and it’s aged beautifully. Before audiotapes were overdone as a narrative device, this perfected them—a brilliantly written and acted way to discover the story of this fallen city.
Andy K: I still get goosebumps when screen drops to reveal the majesty of Rapture, and it only gets better as you delve deeper into Andrew Ryan’s fucked up metropolis.
RELEASED 2015 | LAST POSITION 8
Steven: Other multiplayer games, like shooters, rarely stop to let both you and your opponents soak in a critical moment of the match, but Rocket League forces you to relive every one. After each goal, you sit down and watch that amazing pass and aerial shot, basking in the glory of it. Or maybe you sit in shame and stew the horror of choking and missing the game-winning save. Either way, the spectrum of emotions of a match in Rocket League, like any real sport, is engrossing.
Samuel: I didn’t vote for Rocket League this year, that’s why it’s dropped a bit down the list. I had to stop playing it for my sanity, after seeing rocket cars in my dreams.
Joe: I love football and hate racing but, despite there being cars, balls and goals here, Psyonix’s ball-cage-car-’em-up is a different beast. It’s bloody good too and, as Samuel suggests, is pretty moreish.
RELEASED 2015 | LAST POSITION 27
Shaun: This tense tactical shooter has delivered some of the most stressful and memorable moments I’ve ever had in games. The destructible maps, coupled with the unique abilities of each operator, makes every match feel minty fresh. Many hands were wrung when Ubisoft announced this would be multiplayer only, but it has since become the most enduring PVP game in my library, and Ubisoft is giving it the care it deserves.
Evan: Honestly, Shaun, I think it’s a miracle that Siege’s devs were able to convince one of the biggest game makers in the world to make a multiplayer-only FPS in 2015. It’s Ubisoft’s Counter-Strike.
Steven: I love the way it teaches through example. You get shot and die but can’t understand how until you watch the replay and realise it was through a tiny murder-hole punched into a destructible wall. It then becomes your go-to tactic.
RELEASED 2016 | LAST POSITION New
Andy K: After stumbling with Absolution, Io returned with its best Hitman yet. Every level is packed with fun, often-absurd ways to experiment with the game’s systems and kill your target. And the variety of gorgeously realised locations, from the streets of a sleepy Italian coastal town to an exclusive Japanese hospital in the mountains, keep things interesting.
Phil: Whatever the reason for the episodic release model, it worked. Over the course of its six episodes, IO displayed a mastery of level design, creating exceptional sandboxes full of fun and surprising ways to take out each target. Thematically, I don’t think it quite lives up to Blood Money, but in terms of entertaining sandbox play spaces, this is the biggest and best Hitman to date.
RELEASED 2016 | LAST POSITION 24
Phil: While Samuel will tell you that Overwatch is silly because it has a hyperintelligent gorilla, I will tell you that it’s good because his abilities, a) make sense for a hyperintelligent gorilla, and b) allow you to fill a necessary role. Hero shooters are insanely popular today, and Overwatch is the best of them. Its characters are fun, clever and cute as all hell, and its design supports a variety of playstyles.
RELEASED 2015 | LAST POSITION 9
Andy K: One of the finest playgrounds on PC. Production values don’t get higher, and the story is 30 hours of colourful fun, with few dips in quality. I’ve finished it three times now, and I rarely replay games all the way through.
Samuel: I wish I had the time to give GTA Online, but GTA V is still all about enjoying that world. It’s all I ever wanted: GTA IV’s detail with San Andreas’s scale.
RELEASED 2004 | LAST POSITION 3
Chris L: We waited for years for a game that could top 1998’s seminal FPS Half-Life, and it’s fitting that Valve would be the only ones who could deliver. Half-Life 2 shared the original’s creative level design and memorable scripted sequences that left us feeling like we were finding our own way through the world, despite it being a linear shooter. Gordon Freeman remains a beloved and enduring figure, despite never uttering a word or appearing as more than a pair of gloved hands, and his gravity gun is still the best tool/toy/weapon ever to grace a game.
RELEASED 2013 | LAST POSITION 15
Shaun: This is the roguelike every other roguelike aspires to topple. But they rarely achieve the intricacy of Spelunky, because even though most players know the secrets this game hides within, it still feels important to see them for yourself. I’ve never finished a hell run, but I’m still trying to do one. Every week.
Phil: My favourite moments in Spelunky are when I hear a distant explosion. It usually means I’ll be dead soon, but also that I get to reverse engineer the chaotic comedy of errors that is a Spelunky chain reaction.
RELEASED 2016 | LAST POSITION New
Samuel: Between this and Wolfenstein, Bethesda has brought us the best shooters in years. Doom has the edge for me because its guns, and their overpowering mods, are terrific fun. The knockback/melee counter element gives it a unique rhythm, which is a hard thing to find in a genre as overcrowded as the FPS.
Phil: Between the chunky gunfeel, the multistorey arenas and the one-two punch of gun blast and melee finisher, Doom’s combat feels unlike anything else. I love its pace, and the contrast between the frenetic gunplay, and the methodical exploration of its arenas.
Evan: The soundtrack is a miracle sent from hell. Mick Gordon managed to show complete reverence for Bobby Prince’s MIDI tracks while adding his own style of throbbing, swirling metal.
RELEASED 2014 | LAST POSITION 16
Samuel: The best horror game ever. I would even argue its best moment involves no alien at all, as an eerie showroom filled with androids comes to life. A masterpiece.
Tom S: Isolation’s commitment to the source material is inspiring and horribly convincing. It is also a fascinating AI experiment. For years I’ve wanted more interesting, dynamic enemies, and few are better than Isolation’s Xenomorph.
RELEASED 2010 | LAST POSITION 4
Samuel: This is still the king of BioWare’s sci-fi RPG series. The best companions, the most exciting scenario and a real sense of being a cool bunch of outsiders in this galaxy.
Andy K: I’ve never cared about a cast as much as the ragtag crew of the Normandy SR-2. As much as I enjoyed exploring an exciting, vividly realised galaxy, I just looked forward to returning to my ship and checking in with all my weird space pals.
Phil: Truly there has never been a better game about sexing up a badass lizard assassin. Mass Effect 2 cut a lot of its predecessor’s chaff. What remained was a competent shooter that underpinned a memorably characterful sci-fi adventure.
RELEASED 2015 | LAST POSITION No change
Samuel: MGSV is pretty much a perfect systems-driven stealth-action game. Its upgrade tree constantly offers new and better ways to improve your tactics well after the game is finished. It took me about 90 hours to get the Fulton upgrade that can yank any object through a wormhole. Worth it.
Tom S: Are there any other open world sandbox stealth games like this? If not, why not? Because this one is brilliant. You have to forgive it for the batty plotting and terrible boss enemies because the rest of the game is so huge and rich with possibility. That’s thanks to its mad gadgets, like the one Sam described, but I love the companions too. Do you go with the knife-wielding dog, the photosynthetic sniper or the miniature mech suit? These are the choices I want to be making in games.
Andy K: This has ruined stealth games for me. The sheer variety of entertaining ways to tackle a mission in MGSV makes almost everything else feel disappointingly shallow and unambitious in comparison. And the more daft gadgets and weapons you unlock, the more fun it gets, whether it’s a rocket fist or a wormhole generator. As a longtime MGS fan, the story is disappointing, but the richness of the sandbox makes up for it.
Phil: I told a horse to poop in the road, and my target drove over it and crashed. Metal Gear Solid V is the best game.
RELEASED 2011 | LAST POSITION 28
Andy K: A game so good you wonder how Valve pulled it off. Everything in Portal 2 is pitch perfect, from the design of the puzzles, to the voice acting, to the journey through the various periods of Aperture Science’s history. Stephen Merchant is superb as twitchy robot Wheatley, but it’s JK Simmons as Aperture founder Cave Johnson who gets the biggest laughs. However, as funny as it is, there’s also a dark streak, particularly the sinister backstory of how GLaDOS came to be. Portal 2 excels as a puzzle game, a comedy, and a piece of evocative science fiction, and represents Valve at the absolute peak of its craft.
Tom S: Funny games are so novel now, and Portal 2’s sense of humour has not grown old. I enjoyed the magic paint puzzles and flying through the air in Portal 2’s large testing chambers, but the puzzles never felt as new and exciting as the original. Those moments instead appeared in Portal 2’s superb co-op mode. GLaDOS’ taunts you and your partner and plays you off against each other in a hilarious struggle of power and wit.
Phil: The main story isn’t as pure a puzzle game as the original Portal, but it makes up for it with its comedy craft. I can’t say for sure, but I’m convinced that the achievement notification for ‘The Part Where He Kills You’ was fine-tuned to pop at the funniest possible moment. But even away from Valve’s mastery, Portal 2 is significant for its community contributions, and the thousands of new puzzles and campaigns available through the Steam Workshop.
RELEASED 2016 | LAST POSITION 19
Tom S: Turn-based strategy games are rarely capable of generating the drama of an XCOM 2 campaign. In fact, few games of any genre are. XCOM 2 recasts the XCOM project as a plucky resistance outfit, raising the stakes and bringing even more tension to the campaign. When you’re securing funds and personnel it feels like a survival game. When you’re ambushing aliens and clearing buildings in one violent turn, it feels like a power trip. Excellent soldier customisation and exciting upgrade trees mesh nicely with XCOM’s slightly cartoon presentation, but it’s the war stories that stand out – that time an alien murdered your star sniper or that time a ranger chopped their way to the extraction zone. XCOM 2’s soldiers really matter. That means the lows can be harrowing, but the highs are sensational.
Joe: I’ve sunk more hours into XCOM 2 than I care to admit, but let me tell you a secret: I’m not that good at it. Which speaks volumes for the game itself, as one which whips my backside yet has me continually coming back for more.
RELEASED 2016 | LAST POSITION New
Andy K: I didn’t think Arkane could top the first game, but here we are. Dishonored 2 is one of the most beautifully designed stealth games on PC, with systems that allow for a huge amount of creative expression. Countless ways to combine your powers punctuate every moment of play with a feeling that you’re in control, making your own mark on the world, rather than playing how the developer wants you to. And Karnaca is a stunning setting, with an organic, hand-crafted feel that few games manage.
Joe: Mixing and matching melee skills, conventional weapons and supernatural abilities when offing enemies is where Dishonored 2 shines. Harder working players than me will tell you it’s best played in stealth mode, where you slide your way around its wonderful settings, but I prefer bloodshed. And little excites me more than having Emily match multiple foes with a four-link Domino blast, before taking her enemy troupe down simultaneously with one incendiary crossbolt bolt to the head. Nice.
Phil: As a sandbox of emergent systems, Dishonored 2 is without equal. That applies not just to the action, but also to how the world reacts in response to your choices within the story. Take, for instance, A Crack In The Slab. It’s a fantastic level with a clever time-skip gimmick, and it features a potential outcome that beautifully rewards your curiosity and initiative. Dishonored 2 is a frequent showcase of Arkane’s talent for anticipating a player’s actions.
RELEASED 2012 | LAST POSITION No change
Joe: What can be said about FromSoftware’s infamous action roleplayer Dark Souls that hasn’t already been discussed? Probably nothing, which means you can add me to its loyal horde of sun-praising worshipers who get turned on by its difficulty, swear by its intricate and not-at-all ambiguous lore, and bend the ear of anyone who’ll still listen to us harping on about its really rather fantastic level design. I’ve genuinely lost count of the number of times I’ve returned to Lordran, and have steadily upped my trip tally to Dark Souls II’s Drangleic, and the series’ third (and supposedly final) entry’s Lothric since it landed last year. It’s been five years since the first Dark Souls debuted on PC, and you can bet your humanity it’ll be on this list five years from now.
James: Dark Souls is easier to recommend on PC than ever thanks to the tireless efforts of modders throughout the years. With DSfix you can play it at just about any resolution with high-res textures (or just Shrek on everything). Dark Souls Mouse Fix makes mouse-and-keyboard play a legitimate control method. Item location randomisers make it an infinitely replayable roguelike. And mods such as the Shovel Knight armour or the fidget spinner weapon skin show the game’s got a near infinite extended life after launch. Dark Souls’ reputation began as a difficult, punishing game. On the PC, it’s evolved to become whatever you want it to be.
Tom S: In terms of combat, weapons, enemies, Dark Souls III is a more consistent game. Yet I would still recommend the original Dark Souls over its sequels because the stories you tease out of the stonework and item descriptions are more powerful by far. A lot of games tell you that you’re a hero in a cursed worlds, but with every death and rebirth, Dark Souls does a fantastic job in making you feel it.
For all its brilliance Dark Souls is a thoroughly inaccessible game that is actively hostile to new players. For a long time I read the praise for Dark Souls with a degree of cynicism, assuming that membership of the exclusive Dark Souls lovers club was the main appeal. Now I am one of those members. It’s a gruelling and memorable combat roleplaying game that is has kept its singular identity, even as more and more games start to copy the formula. I could go on (and on), but perhaps the best praise I could give is to say that, all these years after release, Dark Souls is still worth wanking on about.
RELEASED 2015 | LAST POSITION No change
Andy K: No game makes me feel like I’m on an adventure as much as The Witcher 3. It’s when I’m riding my horse through the wilderness with no specific goal in mind, seeing what quests I stumble into, that I love it the most. Geralt as a wandering samurai, rather than someone trying to save the world. And it helps that almost every quest you find has something interesting about it. I wouldn’t go so far as to say every sidequest is meaningful, but it comes damn close. There’s always some nice little twist in the story, or a weird new monster to fight, and the writing is consistently excellent. I’ll never forget the first time I landed on Skellige and rode through those snowy mountains. It’s a breathtaking place, with its own rich history, culture, and politics, which you can choose to get involved in. Or you can just get on your horse and see where the freezing winds take you.
Phil: In some ways, The Witcher 3 is similar to those Ubisoft-style open worlds in which you clear a map of its hundreds and hundreds of icons. But while many open world games trade on emergent systems that support rote (albeit entertaining) interactions, The Witcher 3’s best icons lead to stories of interesting characters trying to make their way in a dark, gruelling world. Every main quest, every sidestory, every monster contract, every treasure hunt – they all help build up the richness and texture of this vast, fascinating world. It helps that you view all of this through the lens of Geralt, one of the most likeable protagonists around. He knows his place in this world, and guides you through it with a gruff, world-weary affability. Elsewhere on this list you’ll find games with better combat, or more intricate RPG systems, or even a more consistently gripping story. But there’s a reason The Witcher 3 has been named our best game for two years running. It works to create an unforgettable, unforgiving atmosphere, and casts you as a singularly capable problem solver – not good, not evil, just the right man for the job.
Tom S: When I started playing Baldur’s Gate and other RPGs I dreamed of the game that would let me live in the fantasy books I loved. The Witcher 3 comes closer than any other to delivering the scale and spectacle of a quality dark fantasy novel. It’s gritty and dark in places, like the swamp of Crookback Bog, but wide and open in others. It was a rush to take a little boat away from the mainland and see the mountains of Skellige grow on the horizon. Every island there has a story – a rogue giant here, a tormented werewolf there. It’s derivative in many ways, but in this case production values really matter, and The Witcher 3 is way ahead. Great characters, great stories and cool monsters.
Steven: One of the best aspects of The Witcher 3 has always been landscape. Velen, for example, is little more than rolling grasslands, forests, and swamps, and lesser RPGs would combine those biomes to make something functional but forgettable. But The Witcher 3 has an incredible grasp on how to design environments – the way a road winds through a copse of trees swaying in an evening breeze that you can almost feel. Books are brilliant because their worlds leap to life in our minds as we read them, but I don’t think I could ever imagine a world as vivid as the Northern Kingdoms.
Shaun: As a games enthusiast who vehemently mashes the skip button on cutscenes, The Witcher 3 stands as one of only a few games in which I play for the story. Even on a second and third playthrough, I’ve got an eye out for tiny nuances in the world’s characters that I might have missed previously. The Witcher 3 is remarkable for this reason, at least as far as I’m concerned: it’s able to transfix both a fantasy and videogame story naysayer. And I can’t even watchan episode of Game of Thrones without idly scrolling through the PC Gamer Discord channel.
Andy K: And we haven’t even mentioned the expansions! I think I love Blood and Wine even more than the main game, which thrusts Geralt into a world of pageantry, chivalry, and knightly pompousness. Placing the grizzled, weary Witcher into a colourful fairytale land is a great concept, and seeing evil creep into this idyllic setting makes for a fascinating contrast. It’s 20 hours of fantastic quests, more great writing, and an absolutely stunning setting. Toussaint is all golden fields, sleepy villages, and vineyards, with a gleaming white castle at the centre of it all, and it feels completely different to anywhere in the Northern Kingdoms. And while not as dramatic a change in tone, the other expansion, Hearts of Stone, is a superb chunk of new story with a strong villain and some memorable quests. So with the main game plus the expansions, you’re looking at hundreds of hours of the finest roleplaying on PC. CD Projekt Red has set a new benchmark for RPG design that other developers will have to work extremely hard to beat.
These games didn't get enough votes to make the main list, but our writers love them nonetheless.
A funny and weird first-person game that I’ve recommended to people a lot over the years. It’s got loads in common with Naked Gun and Airplane, in replicating that rapid-fire, sketch-style humour, which is a hard thing to do successfully in a game. It’s a true original. I love it.
Wielding a rubber stamp, the lowly government drone is cruel or martyrish. Taking bureaucratic paperwork and making it tough, fun, and intensely meaningful is a big achievement. It’s as relevant and valuable as ever, in this time of border walls, visa restrictions, and immigration bans.
It has its issues, but of all the historical Total War games this is the one that captures the series’ aim: to deliver the ultimate grand strategy game. Whether you’re protecting trade routes or rushing cannons to your frontlines, the campaign has an unmatched sense of scale.
Part-sandbox and part-toybox, this is a goofy physics playground for building, destroying, inventing, and collaborating. There are a million things to do and, thanks to hundreds of thousands of custom creations from the community, you’ll never run out of entertainment.
I don’t play Klei’s Goth whimsy survive-’em-up nearly as much as I used to, but I’m not sure I’ll ever feel as attached to anything as I did to my 300-day-old dream camp. Before the Meat Effigy catastrophe ended it all. The expansions add plenty of value, too.
I gave up on the comic, don’t watch the show, and I’m fussy about adventure games. But I love The Walking Dead because it replaces puzzles with choices and lets me make altruistic, hopeful ones in contrast to most zombie fiction’s cynicism. Also, I cried at the end.
This is an MMO, so I should be in a cave murdering things, but instead I’m spending my days bossing my workers about, taking jaunts across the world with my loaded cart and selling booze. Murdering monsters and helping NPCs are only side jobs. It’s wonderful.
SteamWorld Heist is a true masterstroke. While its wily cast of robotic space pirates do much of the heavy lifting, the ability to aim and fire in real-time, pulling off trickshots, elevates this above the competition. Did we mention there were also collectible hats?
Zachtronics designs the most impressive puzzle games around – TIS-100 is its greatest success. Design algorithms using logic and computing to fit a solution: it’s smart in a way that can only work with plain logic puzzles. It also pushed me towards learning about actual computing!
One of the best sims of ‘movie hacking’ on PC. An elegant command line interface and imaginative mission design makes cracking into these systems a joy. One minute you’re stealing a recipe from a restaurant chain, the next you’re battling a rival hacker for control of your system.
This love letter to the likes of System Shock deserves praise for the way it lets you chart your own course through a believably simulated space station. Not all of its ideas come off—the Nightmare creature is a bit of a dud—but Prey is a victory for player-respecting design nonetheless.
A simple game of mutually-assured destruction. Build your airfields, silos, and naval fleets and then pointlessly defend your state by exchanging nukes with the world—kill more than the enemy, lose fewer than the enemy. It’s more challenging than it sounds, even though no one actually wins.
A beautiful time travel adventure that builds upon and surpasses Telltale’s template. Whatever you might think about the hella dated dialogue, Dontnod should be commended for crafting a memorable tale that makes you care about what happens to its two main characters.
You can play Warframe for 100 hours and only scratch its surface. It’s a game that’s perfected grind, making the simple act of moving through its procedural levels and smashing into enemies a high-flying joy. Few games feel as empowering, and next to none are updated as often.
Adventure games tend to bore me, but when they capture the emotions of being a cocksure teen trying to find their place in an adult world, it’s hard not to be engrossed. Night in the Woods is part-ghost story and part-coming of age story and it’s touching, evocative and hilarious.
It expands on its predecessor in every way, with multiple multilevel dungeons, outdoor environments, new monsters and secrets galore. The genre is too niche to ever allow for major mainstream success, but for fans of that old-school style (like me!), this is as good as it gets.
I’ve never been so deeply unnerved while running from left to right. A simple sidescroller with a disgusting aesthetic, filled with gruesome creatures that look like they’re moulded from pig grease. It’s short, but its images hit close to home and linger long after the credits roll.
The survival genre in its purest form. No zombies or rideable dinosaurs cross your path here; instead, it’s just you, your calories and some scattered junk against the cruel menace of the deep Canadian winter. Quiet, beautiful and contemplative, it reminds us there’s poetry in despair.
Right now, Friday the 13th is the only thing I want to play. I’ll admit that it’s hilariously shabby, but with the right group of people it’s impossible to stop playing. Every failed escape attempt keeps me coming back, and every game is different. It’s an enthralling and violent game of hide-and-seek.
I’ve played Football Manager on and off for close to 20 years now and I enjoy it more with each iteration. FM is the quintessential football simulator that’s as much about multilayered micromanagement as it is about winning trophies and signing your boy or girlhood heroes.
Originally published on the back page of the UK and US magazine, we thought you might enjoy this in case we missed any obvious classics.