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The 22 best PC games
Gaming PCs, especially powerful ones, may be more expensive than consoles, but PCs have flexibility, moddability, and power unavailable in the competition. As a result, PC gaming is able to quickly pivot both toward and away from trends to give its players unique and amazing experiences.
So, a warning upfront: Unlike our other Essentials lists, this one covers a catalog that’s spread across multiple decades, and focuses on the 22 games on the platform we think everyone should play if they want to get the most out of PC gaming. That includes some of our personal favorites, but also older games that cast a long shadow.
Why 22 games, though? Any less makes it hard to narrow things down, and any more might be overwhelming. Twenty-two games is a solid number of titles, spread across multiple genres, with selections for just about every age group. And, when possible, we’ve included a link to our guide for each game, in case you need a little help to get started.
Also, this list is constantly evolving. We’ve included the games that have been cycled out at the bottom for a little additional inspiration.
Let’s dig in!
Polygon Essentials is a collection of persistently updated lists of the best of the best games for each platform — from the hardware’s launch to its end of production — as well as the best entertainment across virtually every medium. For folks new to a platform, think of this as a starter kit. For long-term fans, consider it a list of what to play or watch next. We’ll be updating these lists often, with entries listed in reverse chronological order. To see a collection of other titles we recommend that might not have made the Essentials lists, check out Polygon Recommends.
Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. For more information, see our ethics policy.
Critics and players have raved about Remedy Entertainment’s Control, a third-person action game unlike any other. Here at Polygon, we called it both an artistic and a technical achievement. While it’s available on modern consoles, the game looks and runs the best on a high-end PC, especially if you have an Nvidia RTX video card to enable real-time ray tracing.
As Jesse Faden, players enter a brutalist skyscraper in New York City only to uncover a mystery that would make the writers of The X-Files blush. The gunplay is exceptional, matched by sound design and animation flourishes that earned six nominations and one trophy at The Game Awards in 2019. But what ties it all together is a wild sense of humor and a relentlessly unnerving story that rewards exploration and mastery in equal measure.
The game can be a bit intimidating, especially its skill trees and somewhat cumbersome map. Check out our detailed guides section to get started. —Charlie Hall
Get it here: Epic Games Store | Steam
“Tactical stealth” isn’t exactly a booming genre, but developer Mimimi seems to have the format perfectly dialed in. After the success of Shadow Tactics in 2016, the team took those same design tenets — small squads of specialized units tackling armies of soldiers with precision and quick-saving — to the Wild West with Desperados 3.
Desperados 3 changes very little about what made Shadow Tactics great. It’s still an isometric stealth game filled with vision cones and seemingly-impossible odds. But small tweaks, like being able to cue up your entire squad’s next action to all play out at the same time, make it a much more satisfying experience than its predecessor.
The adventure is made up of stellar levels that look more like dioramas brought to life, each filled with charm and detail, from the rainy streets of New Orleans to the dusty byways of a sun-beaten desert town. Picking these levels apart, piece by piece, using each of your squad members’ specialized abilities, is tremendously satisfying, like a sudoku puzzle with more knife throwing. Fans of the classic Commandos series will feel right at home here. — Russ Frushtick
Get it here: Amazon | Steam | Fanatical | GOG | Green Man Gaming | Epic Games Store
Old-school isometric role-playing games are having a bit of a renaissance of late, with winning franchises like Divinity, Pillars of Eternity, and Wasteland absolutely knocking it out of the park. Even the Baldur’s Gate franchise is back, with some excellent remakes or the originals and a third installment on the way.
But there’s simply nothing like Disco Elysium.
The award-winning role-playing game puts you in the shoes of a middle-aged detective, but this is your nor regular gumshoe story. From our review:
Disco Elysium tells the story of a grizzled detective who got so drunk he forgot who he was, and now has to solve a murder. He’s working in a town that’s mysteriously out of time: Disco music is all the rage, and there are record players everywhere ... but modern technology also sometimes crops up as if it’s no big deal.
It’s up to you to split your time between reassembling your sense of self, and working out why there’s a man hanging by his neck near the center of town. Everything seems to be working on dream logic, and the quicker you’re able to meet the game on that level, the better.
And what makes Disco Elysium so unique mechanically is its ludicrously detailed character creation and leveling system, and the amount of control it gives you over how you play your character while leaving plenty of room for surprises coming from the game itself.
Get it here: Steam
Polygon’s game of the year 2016 was called Doom, a reboot of the 1993 franchise from id Software and Bethesda Softworks. Believe it or not, 2020’s Doom Eternal is even better. From our review:
Doom Eternal stands apart from its contemporaries, the big, gaudy, self-serious first-person shooters like Call of Duty and Battlefield that demand instant, microscopic movements to perform headshots in order to survive against preternaturally gifted teens. Competitive players of those franchises grapple with each patch’s meta, while memorizing maps, angles, and weapon advantages. It’s a popular approach to AAA first-person shooter design, but for all the grand scope and spectacle, the “fun” of these shooters largely takes place down the sights of a gun. Only one weapon in Doom Eternal includes a traditional scope, and it’s an optional upgrade. Ammo can be found in the chest cavity of every enemy, so there’s no need to be precious about firing from the hip.
In Doom Eternal, the “fun” is in the movement. Because you must restore health and armor with close-range attacks, moving in and out of scrimmages becomes the foundation of winning strategies. A double jump, a double dash, and a hook that pulls you toward its living target all allow you to establish your distance, as do environments sprinkled with walls, hills, tunnels, platforms, and monkey bars — all meant to be used for cover and escape, but also your own amusement.
Get it here: Walmart | Steam | Amazon | Fanatical | Green Man Gaming
Slaves to Armok: God of Blood Chapter 2: Dwarf Fortress, better known simply asDwarf Fortress, is a remarkable game. The result of the decadeslong collaboration between two brothers, Zach Adam and Tarn Adams, it’s one of the most complex and esoteric simulations every conceived, and it’s rendered in ASCII.
In the game’s most well-known mode, players take control of a band of dwarves setting out to create a community from scratch in a hostile world. “Control” is the wrong word, really, since the dwarves in the game have their own thoughts and feelings. Players merely suggest that they dig into the mountain and plant a field of mushrooms, while the dwarves themselves decide if they’re up to it at that particular point in time.
Regardless of whether you elect to play the game, simply creating a world in Dwarf Fortress is an experience not to be missed if you own a gaming PC. In each new round’s opening seconds, the game uses ridiculously complex systems to generate a 16,000-square-mile chunk of real estate, 250 miles thick.
Keep in mind that, in addition to the colony simulation itself, there’s another mode in the game: a roguelike single-player adventure that allows players to explore the game’s procedurally generated history from ground level.
Dwarf Fortress is completely free. Donations, naturally, are quite welcome. As a reward, you may be gifted with a handmade drawing. —CH
Get it here: Bay 12 Games | Steam
The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind and The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim
One of the many benefits of PC gaming is the ability to get under the hood and tinker with the games that you already own. There’s no better series to satisfy the tinkerer’s itch than The Elder Scrolls. The franchise has embraced the modding community for nearly two decades, and the creative team behind it says that decision has had much to do with the series’ longevity and popularity over the years.
The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim serves as an excellent introduction to game modding, thanks to its integration with the Steam Workshop. Simply purchase and download the game, and you’ll be able to select from more than 28,000 community-created mods that add everything from new skins, items, and quest lines to large-scale battles.
Of course, Skyrim is also available as a virtual reality title that’s fully compatible with Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, or PlayStation VR for console fans.
For those who want to dig a little deeper, The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind provides a much more hands-on modding experience. You’ll need to tinker with the actual game files themselves or download third-party tools to do the work, but the results can be extremely satisfying. One mod, now 18 years in the making, has even added an entire landmass with high-quality quests, additional voice-over work, and full integration with the game’s fast-travel system. —CH
Get Morrowind here: Walmart | Steam | GOG | Amazon |