When we look back at the last 10 years, we see continuing proof that the PC is the most diverse gaming platform ever created. Picking our top 25 best and most memorable experiences from that time was a huge challenge, but Tech’s panel of experts — including James Duggan, Chloi Rad, Miranda Sanchez, Tom Marks, and Dan Stapleton, and Brandin Tyrrel — have compiled a list that represents our collective thoughts on the decade’s highlights.
The primary question for this list was “What are the best PC games released from 2008 to 2018?” But our definition of “best” includes both games that are at the top of our list of recommendations today and games that were amazing in their heyday, even if those glory days are over. Again, this list considers only games from the past 10 years, so if you’re wondering why there’s no Half-Life 2, System Shock 2, Quake III: Arena, StarCraft, TIE Fighter, or X-COM: UFO Defense on here, that’s why. And naturally, there are dozens of games that almost made the list, but with only 25 slots, some painful sacrifices had to be made.
[Note: Games had to be released by October 15, 2018 and after October 15, 2008 in order to be eligible for this list.]
25. The Witness
The Witness is one of the best puzzle games ever designed. It uses the power of mystery and awe to compel you forward, then provides you with the tools you need to make meaningful progress through its challenges. Clever puzzle design often makes these challenges a joy to solve as well, building new layers of depth on top of a simple, yet versatile framework. The way The Witness encourages you to carve out your own path on its beautiful, open-world island also means it never looks down on you for your failures. It recognizes struggle as part of the learning process, allowing you to move on at any point. Stepping away from particularly frustrating problems is often the best way to solve them in the first place, and the calming isolation of The Witness only makes this easier to do so.
24. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive
There’s a reason Counter-Strike has been popular for as long as it has: it’s one of the most focused and technical first-person shooters out there, with a heavy reliance on team-based dynamics, game sense, and pure skill. Its challenge and depth don’t just make it one of the toughest competitive shooters to master, it also makes it the most rewarding. Global Offensive, the latest iteration, has done a lot to make the Counter-Strike formula appealing to serious players and newcomers alike. Competitive matchmaking and a ranking system adds a way to track skill and progress, while built-in casual modes offer a reliable place to practice. Integration with Steam Workshop also allows for quick installation of useful training maps. While Counter-Strike can be an intimidating game to pick up, those with the patience and dedication to learn the complexities of this team-based shooter are in for one heck of a ride.
23. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
It took more than a decade for a new Metal Gear game to make it to PC, but the series came back in incredible fashion. Metal Gear Solid 5 is an excellent stealth shooter with missions that you could beat a dozen different ways and still have more to try. Its open world acts as a military playground between ops, and who doesn’t love attaching balloons to unsuspecting soldiers?
22. Rocket League
All you have to do is say “Car Soccer” and people will understand what Rocket League is, but the skill behind boosting a ball through the air pushes it far past that simple idea. Rocket League has been around for years, adding modes and constant content updates to an already great game. It’s one you could play everyday and never get bored of, and many people do.
Undertale is a delightfully inventive exercise in subverting expectations. It knows you’re playing a roleplaying game and messes with you at every turn, remembering your saving habits, following your story decisions, and constantly adjusting itself in surprising ways to remind you that actions have unexpected consequences. An involving and emotionally charged story thematically supports Undertale’s underlying message: every choice you make matters, not just to you but to the people around you. It’s subversive, occasionally confounding, replayable, unapologetically melancholy, and a worthy member of the fraternity of all-time great PC games.
20. FTL: Faster Than Light
No game simulates the feeling of being in command of a starship flying by the seat of your pants like FTL: Faster Than Light. It’s a game you shouldn’t expect to survive – more likely, you’ll be blasted out of the sky by a vastly superior enemy ship or boarded by a death squad of giant killer insects who massacre your crew. Maybe your life-support system will be hacked and everyone will suffocate. But FTL’s not about winning – it’s a story generator, where you get to talk about the time you got a killer beam weapon combo that cuts enemy ships to ribbons while your ship remains cloaked, or vented a boarding party into space. Its tactical combat never gets old, tons of loot and random events keep every game feeling unpredictable, and unlockable ships force you to change up your strategies. And every so often, you might even win.
19. World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth
World of Warcraft’s sheer persistence and willingness to revamp systems both old and new create a world that millions of gamers are still happy to spend thousands of hours exploring. Recent updates and expansions get back to the heart of why World of Warcraft was fun to begin with by focusing on the world, the dungeons, and PVP.
18. Stardew Valley
Stardew Valley makes the mundane seem more wonderful. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but marvelously distills the best essence of Harvest Moon’s long’s genealogy into a simple, accessible, and incomparably addictive game. Tranquil and purposefully provincial, Stardew celebrates the simple joy of watching the fruits of your labor grow. A world of opportunities beckon from the first moments, and while there’s some guidance, you’re free to experiment, change your mind, and play as efficiently or loosely as you wish. Your choices carry the gravity of consequence, but learning what does and doesn’t work, fiddling with your clock management, and discovering ever-more efficient ways to play out your days is half the fun.
17. Sid Meier’s Civilization V
Civilization VI has a lot of good ideas — especially around its expanded city building. But Civ V is still the king of the modern 4X strategy genre. Civilization V takes the depth that makes 4X strategy amazing and joins it with a simplicity that allows anyone, regardless of their familiarity with the intimidatingly complex genre, will get a lot out of it. Even if you’ve played all the previous games, Civ 5’s hex-based map and new, more tactical approach to warfare and unit management makes it all feel new again. Especially when juiced up with the Brave New World expansion’s major additions, this version of the history-rewriting strategy series is one of the greats. Games can easily last upwards of six hours, but the sheer amount of variation between nations and routes that could lead you to victory means we’ll merrily jump in again and again.
16. Fallout: New Vegas
Like Fallout 3 before it, Fallout: New Vegas throws us into a harsh, post-nuclear America. But it very quickly becomes something greater than just more of the same thanks to some amazing writing and touches by some of the minds behind the original Fallout and Fallout 2. It’s not limited to mechanical tweaks like improved real-time combat and crafting. Several factions with deep, shades-of-gray characters populate the wastes with interesting moral decisions, making the conflict between the New California Republic, Caesar’s Legion, and the mysterious Mr. House feel like anything but a black-and-white choice between good and evil. The fact that we get to decide the outcome makes it even better. And again some amazing modding work by the community make the PC version of New Vegas the definitive one.
15. XCOM 2
XCOM 2 builds on the brilliant, high-stakes tactical combat of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and its War of the Chosen expansion made it even better. It has the same tension of going from a technologically inferior underdog to powerful war machine, with the constant threat of the permanent death of your customized soldiers looming over every decision. However, it turns the formula of defending Earth from alien invaders on its head by boldly recasting XCOM as a guerrilla force attempting to liberate the planet from alien occupation, making the situation feel even more desperate than ever. This bigger, deeper sequel adds not just complexity in the form of new and more powerful soldier classes, equipment, and aliens, but also a huge focus on replayability. Procedurally generated maps keep you from falling into a repeatable pattern in tactical missions, frequent random events on the strategic map shake up your build and research orders, and of course mods galore.
Celeste’s 2D platforming levels are as challenging to figure out as they are satisfying to complete. Hidden throughout those levels are a wealth of secrets, some of which push the skills it teaches you to the absolute limit. But its greatest triumph is how it blends that platforming with a sincere story and an incredible soundtrack that make it a genuinely impactful game too.
Were Spelunky a direct product of the eight-bit age that informs its design, I have little doubt it would be widely acclaimed among the all-time classic platformers. Rarely has procedural level generation been so cleverly and expertly executed. Every stage is a nail-biting, hair-pulling timed race to the bottom demanding the player choose between new risks and rewards with only fractions of a second to decide. Crammed with traps, deadfalls, and secrets, Spelunky’s controls and goals are instantly comprehensible, but the skills required to master them demand months of obsessive dedication. Thankfully, the quick arcade-style expeditions are unique and delightful on every playthrough.
12. Mass Effect 2
Mass Effect 2 struck a perfect balance of all the things we love about the series, and it’s a peak the series has had trouble ever reaching again. No other team shined quite as brightly as the ragtag one you assemble on the second Normandy, each of whom have compelling stories to tell and problems to solve. It was a story that starts with the death of your lead character, but still manages to put real stakes on the line the whole way through – even putting the lives of each of your team members in jeopardy if you don’t make the right decisions along the way.
11. Dead Cells
Dead Cells offers flexibility in a way few games do. Each easily digestible run through its beautifully detailed and shifting levels goads you to push the limits of your ability, and crushes you when you get too comfortable. There are layers of strategy and tactics buried not only in the immediate choices you make, but in the grander metagame, making it one of the best action platformers around.
10. Divinity: Original Sin 2 – Definitive Edition
Divinity: Original Sin 2’s Definitive Edition has cemented it as one of the greatest RPGs of all time. It masterfully mixes pieces of classic cRPGs with more modern mechanics and designs, feeling old and new at the same time. The sequel has improved upon its predecessor’s already incredible combat by deepening its systems while simultaneously simplifying and smoothing out its clunkier bits – not to mention it introduced some brutally smart new AI. There’s also an overwhelming amount of game here to play. With six different origin characters, custom tags to make your own, and over 74,000 lines of fully voiced dialogue, this massive RPG has more than enough to keep you coming back to it.
With an amazing lineup of memorable characters and meticulously balanced abilities, Overwatch is a shooter that bobs and weaves almost perfectly between being the quick-fix adrenaline hit you might want after a long day of work, and the thoughtful, strategic multiplayer experience that becomes the center of evening-long binges with friends. It might not have the most exhaustive list of maps and modes, but the offerings grow with every new seasonal event, and what’s already there provides nearly endless opportunities for exhilarating, coordinated play. Blizzard’s trademark polish and commitment to community should keep Overwatch something that we’ll all revisit regularly for years to come.
8. Fortnite Battle Royale
Fortnite’s Battle Royale quickly became a worldwide phenomenon, but its fast and frequent updates have shown it’s more than just a flash in the pan. Its free-to-play format and relatively simple shooting mechanics make it a significantly more accessible take on the battle royale shooter. But that’s coupled with unique building tools that push its skill cap sky high.
7. League of Legends
League of Legends is at the forefront of the esports explosion. Back when the only big MOBA was the original Defense of the Ancients, League took the formula and tweaked it, resulting in a more accessible game that still offers immense depth for those who want to dive in deep. Its 132 heroes are fun, varied, and tough to master, and can be customized even further by rune and mastery systems. Developer Riot Games is also pioneering new practices in competitive gaming, hiring teams to play seasons and earn spots in exciting playoff matches, just like you’d see in traditional sports. 20 years down the line, the documentary that looks back on the beginning of esports will credit League of Legends as the tipping point.
6. Dota 2
MOBAs have earned a reputation for being dense and difficult to learn, but immensely strategic for those who put in the time. Spend some quality time with Dota 2 and you’ll understand why. Though all matches take place on one map, and there’s only one objective, its 100+ characters and thousands of item combinations make each round feel unique. And because every second matters, matches are always exciting even when they seem slow. Are you farming gold? Are you scouting the enemy? Or crossing the map to help out a teammate? Or heading back to base to heal? Its complexity can scare players off, but those who stick through it will be rewarded with some of the most strategic gameplay around.
5. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Game designers are fond of illustrating the freedom granted by their games by telling us that if we can see a mountain in the distance, we can travel to it. In Skyrim’s case, that concept defines the design. It’s a truly massive world. More importantly, however, it’s a densely populated one; full of dank dungeons, sprawling cities, and treacherous mountain passes to discover, not to mention reams of lore, regional and ethnic politics to navigate, and so much more. A sense of freedom extends to almost every aspect of the design, and it’s particularly satisfying building out your character – levelling up abilities, choosing perks, activating shouts, and equipping gear. It’s also worth noting that Skyrim on PC has even greater longevity than on consoles thanks to the many incredible mods the community has come up with over the last three years. Also, dragons.
4. Grand Theft Auto V
Grand Theft Auto 5’s sprawling, yet meticulously detailed map is the high bar to which all other open-world games aspire. Not only is it huge, it’s incredibly dense with excellent content – not just the driving and shooting and three-protagonist story that make up its campaign, and not limited to the numerous side activities, but all the sights, sounds, and bustling activity you’d expect to find in a city teeming with humans, seedy underbelly included. With so much to do, explore, and play with, both in single-player and multiplayer, plus great creative tools and mods, it’s truly amazing on multiple levels.
Minecraft is the greatest video game about playing with blocks. It’s excellent for many reasons, but the most important is that it both encourages and enables a childlike sense of wonder. That mountain in the distance? You can burrow into it. You can make your home inside it and cover it with lava so it’s spooky and cool. And then you can dig deep into the ground to find treasure and fight monsters. Some dedicated players have even recreated famous spaceships and even built working virtual 3D printers within their worlds. Minecraft can be played as a do-what-you-want sandbox, but there are enough game systems and rules to structure your time into a “campaign,” if that’s what you’re after. Few games have set the world on fire like Minecraft, and it’s likely few ever will in the same way again.
2. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Deep, lengthy RPGs are a staple of PC gaming, and very few have put a larger chunk of sophisticated content forward than The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has. Its massive sandbox open-world areas impress, both in terms of scope and density; they’re generously dotted with great monsters to slay, tantalizing mysteries to solve, and personal stories to unfurl. It’s also one of the most impressive overall productions in gaming history, with reams of excellently written dialogue performed by a stellar voice cast, an incredible original soundtrack, and graphics that qualify as both a technical and artistic achievement.
1. Portal 2
Valve is a developer that, presumably because of the time it takes to make its incredible games, creates a feeling of timelessness in its design. Portal 2 – which iterated on and added to the brilliant puzzle design and world-building of its predecessor – feels just as clever and unique as it did in 2011. We expect Portal 2 will feel this way when it no longer qualifies for this list in 2022, and we reluctantly let it fall off to have its place taken by excellent games it inspired. Portal 2 claims the top spot of Tech’s Top 25 Modern PC Games because, in the past decade, nothing else has struck so many chords as well as Portal 2. No game accomplishes so much so well. Its impeccable level design, charming personality, and exceptional and varied puzzle systems make us feel smarter just for getting through it. Plus, its co-op campaign requires a different sort of smarts that remains one of the best multiplayer experiences with pals around.